Talking Horses: BHA to act after Irish raiders dominate Cheltenham

Talking Horses: BHA to act after Irish raiders dominate Cheltenham

The British Horseracing Authority have said that “the health of British jump racing is always on our radar” and that “work is well under way across several areas” to improve the competitiveness of British-trained National Hunt horses at the highest level, following the four-day Cheltenham Festival meeting where Irish-trained horses won 23 of the 28 races.

Tuesday’s comment is the BHA’s first public acknowledgement of the unprecedented dominance of Irish stables at the sport’s showpiece event, despite the visitors fielding only 40% of the runners over the four days.

Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead saddled six winners apiece – one more than all British stables combined – while Denise Foster, the new licence holder at Gordon Elliott’s stable following his recent suspension, sent out three. Twelve of the Festival’s 14 Grade One contests went to Ireland, including all six of the non-novice Grade Ones over jumps, while 60% of places in the frame also went to Irish-trained runners.

Having congratulated “everyone who had a winner last week” and noted that this year’s Festival “had lifted the nation’s spirits with some spectacular racing after a hard winter of lockdown,” a BHA spokesperson said that the Authority is “aware that, like us at the BHA, many parts of the British racing industry will be reflecting on what happened last week and what can be done to improve the competitiveness of British racing at the top level.

“However, this is about more than just four days in March. The health of British jump racing is always on our radar and work is well under way across several areas. The Jump Pattern Committee, for example, decided last year that there were elements of the programme that needed looking at, including the need to produce some more competitive races across the season. There are also important pieces of work across areas such as handicapping and safety and welfare which all feed into the longer term objective of building a strong, competitive jump racing industry in Britain.”

The spokesperson also promised the BHA would “harness some of the strong views that currently prevail across the sport and engage further with our industry. These views will feed in to ongoing work and continue to help shape what steps the sport will take to support the future of British jump racing.”

Competition from valuable alternative targets at the Punchestown Festival at the end of April could well mean that Irish-trained runners do not travel in similar strength to the Grand National meeting earlier at Aintree earlier in the month.

The significant overall levels of prize money on offer in Ireland, though, could also be part of the problem – from a British perspective, at least – in the first place, as the incentive for British-based owners such as Rich Ricci, a mainstay of the Willie Mullins stable, and Cheveley Park Stud to send their most promising horses to race in Ireland is obvious.

British racing’s funding model, which involves a Levy on betting turnover on the sport, makes it difficult to compete on prize money with Ireland, where the government makes a direct contribution to the industry of around €70m (£60m) annually. A much less extensive programme – with fewer than 400 meetings as opposed to nearly 1,500 in Britain – also contributes to higher prizes per race.

Unless the BHA can find a way to lure many more of the brightest young jumping talents to spend their racing careers in Britain, an embarrassment in the West Country in March could soon be an almost annual event.