Sunday 21 April 2019

'Cheltenham Festival a timely reminder of what unites our two countries, rather than what divides them'

Rachael Blackmore. Photo: Getty Images
Rachael Blackmore. Photo: Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

This year saw a more democratic Cheltenham Festival than has been the norm in recent years. Last year Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins won 15 races between them, improving on the dozen they'd jointly bagged in 2017.

It looked as though Cheltenham, like Irish racing, was on the road to ever-increasing domination by the big two as the sport moved inexorably in an oligarchical direction. But that's not how things turned out in 2019, with Mullins and Elliott's combined total a mere seven.

That gave a welcome retro feel to the proceedings. From 1997 to 2011 only once did a trainer win more than four races at the festival - Paul Nicholls, who took five in 2009. But since then we've seen Mullins and Elliott win eight and Mullins and Nicky Henderson win seven.

The rivalry between Mullins and Elliott over the last couple of years has been an enthralling battle but resulted in most other trainers suffering collateral damage. The greater spread of honours at this year's Festival is an encouraging development.

A similar picture obtained in the battle for leading Festival rider, which ended with victory for the unlikely figure of Nico de Boinville. The Englishman's winning total of three is the lowest since Ruby Walsh scored the same in 2014 and is also redolent of a more competitive era.

The eclipse of Walsh is remarkable. Between 2008 and 2017 he was leading jockey nine times out of 10, and even though Davy Russell surpassed him last year, Ruby looked likely to regain his crown this time. Instead he won just one race. You'd have gotten long odds on him having fewer victories than an amateur, Jamie Codd, and a woman, Rachael Blackmore.

It seemed in the last couple of years that we had entered an era of Irish dominance. Yet after winning just nine races in 2017 and 11 last year, an English renaissance saw them score 14 victories this time round to finish level with the invaders.

However, this year probably represented a better performance by Irish trainers than 2018, when all but two of the wins were provided by Elliott or Mullins. This time around seven different trainers got in on the act. Henry de Bromhead and Joseph O'Brien bagged a brace each but perhaps more impressive were Gavin Cromwell's Champion Hurdle win and City Island's Ballymore Hurdle victory for Martin Brassil.

Brassil famously won the 2006 Grand National with Numbersixvalverde but since then he's largely operated under the radar and this was his first Festival win after 25 years as a trainer. It may give hope to the smaller operators who've found themselves squeezed by the clash of the titans.

The English renaissance is also encouraging. It was sad to see Cheltenham, as had been the case in recent years, seem in danger of merely becoming a kind of Punchestown on tour with Willie and Gordon having their way. There's not much glory in beating a weakened opponent.

Weak is what English national hunt racing seemed to have become, which is why this year's rally is to be greatly welcomed. Nicholls' Grade One double in the Ryanair and RSA Chases indicates a new lease of life for the one-time king of the Festival. It also seems that age cannot wither or custom stale the infinite variety of Henderson who resembles PG Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth more each year. That's a compliment. I really like Lord Emsworth.

The England-Ireland rivalry is central to Cheltenham. Perhaps the most important thing about it is that while fierce, it has never been unfriendly. And at a time when relations between our countries have been rendered rocky by Brexit and its discontents, it's also worth remembering the role Irish-English partnership plays at the Festival and in racing generally.

Irish jockeys riding for English trainers, English owners buying Irish-bred horses and Irish spectators having the time of their lives on an English racecourse are a heartening reminder that relationships between Ireland and England need not be viewed solely through a partisan and paranoid prism.

Perhaps the emblematic figures in this sense are the husband and wife partnership who trained Paisley Park to win the Stayers' Hurdle. Emma Lavelle, the privately educated daughter of a leading English surgeon and Barry Fenton, a Tipperary farmer's son who left school at 14 and became a jockey might not seem to have much in common on the outside but they make a fantastic team.

In a week which has shown the tragic and inevitable consequences of inflammatory rhetoric, perhaps it's worth dwelling for a little while on what unites our countries rather than what divides them. The lessons of Cheltenham are not just racing ones.

The Last Word: No point in trying to placate the enemy

Ted Walsh's suggestion that those complaining about safety in horse racing should "go and watch Peppa Pig instead" was typically colourful but essentially correct. It followed Tony McCoy's attack on the British Horseracing Authority for suspending three jockeys after the National Hunt Chase, which the former champion saw as a sop to the sport's critics.

Safety is an important issue in racing and it's good to see that only three horses died at the Festival this year after the seven deaths in 2018. The target should be zero yet the truth is that the most vocal critics of these fatalities - PETA and such organisations - regard horse racing as a cruel sport which should be abolished as hare coursing and foxhunting have been in the past.

Given that this is the case, and PETA would hardly dispute that reading of their position, the BHA are attempting to placate an enemy which will not be happy until the sport it oversees no longer exists. In the circumstances it may be that any moves to mollify the critics will merely be seen as signs of weakness to be exploited down the line.

* * * * *

ITV will be delighted that their viewing figures for Thursday at Cheltenham are up around 40 per cent from last year. And their average viewer figure of 982,000 for the opening day is a huge advance on the 691,000 who watched Channel 4's Tuesday broadcast in 2016.

The good news is deserved for a station which has reinvigorated coverage of the sport over the past couple of years. Ed Chamberlin and Francesca Cumani were named Broadcasters of the Year at the recent British Sports Writing Award and it was a just reward for both.

Chamberlin is an intelligent, incisive and inclusive anchor man while Cumani, stepping it out alongside the horses and spieling 19 to the dozen like an Aaron Sorkin protagonist doing a bit of exposition, is a mighty force of nature.

ITV's coverage came to the Irish viewer courtesy of Virgin Media. Of RTé, as with the Six Nations and the Premier League, there was no sign at all. The national broadcaster.

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The virulent social media reaction to Ruby Walsh's final-fence fall on Benie Des Dieux seems to show that the old advice to treat triumph and disaster just the same doesn't hold sway in all quarters this weather.

It was hardly the most glorious moment in Walsh's career yet the sheer level of hatred, naked sectarianism and bigoted anti-Irish sentiment expressed by some of the pretend gangsters involved was pretty breath-taking. If you're going to react like this to losing a bet, the fun obviously stopped for you a long time ago.

You just know most of these gobshites wear one of those dinky little caps sported by the lad who clattered Jack Grealish last week.

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