Winners can put end to racing uncertainty
All is not lost for Irish racing, writes John O'Brien, and a successful Cheltenham Festival can be the starting point
L AST week, as he surveyed a difficult 18 months that had seen the industry shed an estimated 1,500 jobs, Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, reflected wistfully on the grim irony that things had rarely been better on the racetrack.
Embellished by the wonderful exploits of Sea The Stars, the Flat season had exceeded expectations. Three of the top four horses in the world were Irish-trained. The top three were Irish-bred.
At the lower end of the scale, the figures were much less inspiring. Racecourse attendances were down 13 per cent, on-course betting a critical 20 per cent. Prize money had been cut to 2002 levels while bloodstock sales had fallen by a third. Every week fresh stories float in about well-established trainers on their uppers or on the verge of calling it quits. Turf Club officials are threatening to strike, imperilling meetings and disrupting trainers' plans for the Cheltenham Festival.
In many ways, the Festival itself exists in a bubble, not untouched by the straitened times that apply everywhere else, but the reality of a sport feeling the pinch will seem far removed from the gorging masses who will descend there in the middle of next month. The porter will be on stream in the Irish village, the champagne will flow in the private boxes high in the stands and, for four days anyway, Cheltenham will seem a sanctuary from the sinister claws of recession.
And when it is all over, you suspect Kavanagh and those charged with managing Irish racing's finances will still be wondering at the disparity between fortunes on and off the track. It is the anticipation as much as the racing itself that makes the Festival unique and, right now, there is every reason to believe this will be a good year for Irish-trained horses. On a par with any year that has gone before at least.
There's nothing bold about such a claim. Of the 15 races that had been priced up by bookmakers at this time last year, Irish-trained horses featured at the top in only two of them. Hurricane Fly and Cousin Vinny vied for favouritism in the Supreme Novices Hurdle while Quel Esprit, the most fancied of Willie Mullins' entries, headed the list for the Festival Bumper. A lot of fancied Irish horses made the journey over, but not many you would have considered cast-iron banker material.
This year's prospects already seem brighter. Taking the same 15 races, an Irish-trained runner heads the ante-post betting list in seven of them and it is hard to remember a horse that has captured the imagination as much as Dunguib, a short-priced favourite to take the Supreme Novices Hurdle.
Before his bloodless victory at Leopardstown last Sunday, a newspaper posed a question as to whether the Philip Fenton-trained gelding was a value bet for Cheltenham at even money. But that price is long gone now and Dunguib will make or break many punters' Festival.
The opening day on March 16 simmers with potential. It has traditionally been a good day for the Irish. Since becoming a four-day Festival in 2005, Irish-trained runners have won 40 races and 16 of those have come on the first day. As well as Dunguib, the Arkle Chase, Champion Hurdle and Cross-Country race all look within the compass of Irish raiders. Mullins' Quevega will strike many as a sure thing in the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle.
You couldn't suggest with any certainty that the record haul of 10 Irish winners achieved during the height of the boom in 2006 is attainable but it isn't outside the realm of possibility either. Even with Willie Mullins having a quieter year than usual. Even with the forewarnings of doom that have been hovering over the racing industry for the past 18 months.
The interesting question is what that would say about Irish racing and where it currently stands. A glut of Cheltenham winners won't solve all of the industry's ills, of course, but it would at least suggest that it remains sufficiently vibrant to ride out the current storm. There's no comfort to be taken from the sound of stable doors being bolted or the news of jobs being lost, but if the recession has concentrated minds within the sport on how to face the challenge in an age when government funding won't be so forthcoming then it will have served some purpose.
And if things are bad those with long memories will cast their minds back and remember a time when it was much worse. Between 1987 and 1989 when good horses left the country by the truck-load, there was a total of two Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham. Now that is what you call a recession.