Wednesday 14 November 2018

If Cheltenham becomes merely a parade of Irish victories, it will start to look pointless

Trainer Gordon Elliott, left, with owner Michael O'Leary after winning the OLBG Mares' Hurdle with Apple's Jade during the Cheltenham Racing Festival
Trainer Gordon Elliott, left, with owner Michael O'Leary after winning the OLBG Mares' Hurdle with Apple's Jade during the Cheltenham Racing Festival
‘Any contest which gets too one-sided, be it the Scottish Premier League or the All-Ireland senior football championship, becomes boring’

Eamonn Sweeney

Come on the English. I'm not joking. Cheltenham needs a big performance from English trainers this year for the good of the Festival. Because another year of Irish dominance like the one which saw us amass 19 winners to the home team's nine last time out and Cheltenham as we know it is in trouble.

Irish winners in the Cotswolds were once celebrated on the basis that what's seldom is wonderful. Half a dozen victories was a great return and every winner went down in history. Around a decade ago the strength of the Irish challenge began to increase greatly until in 2013 the almost unthinkable happened and for the first time we won more races than they did.

That 14-13 win seemed something of an anomaly at the time. Yet the record was increased to 15 in 2016 and last year, caught in the crossfire of the epic battle between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, the English were utterly crushed. A repeat dose this year is not entirely inconceivable. It's certainly hard to see the old enemy getting more than a dozen winners. And with Joseph O'Brien certain to join Mullins and Elliott at the top of the tree before long, there seems to be an inevitable trend towards Irish dominance and English impotence.

Pity about them, I hear some of you say. Weren't they on top for long enough? Revenge for Skibbereen and all that. I don't agree.

While there have been literally thousands of generous articles written by English journalists paying tribute to the huge contribution the Irish make to Cheltenham, I don't think I've ever read one by an Irishman pointing out that the English may perhaps contribute something to the success of the Festival. That's odd when you think about it, it is their festival after all, it takes place in their country and they have provided the majority of winners historically. Yet we seem reluctant to give them their due.

This has something to do with a certain national smugness which holds that there is no event in the world incapable of being vastly improved by Irish participation. Hence the insistence at every World Cup and European Championship that everyone else is bowled over by the unbeatable friendliness, wit and enthusiasm of 'The Greatest Supporters In The World'. So at an event like Cheltenham, where we genuinely do contribute a lot, it's inevitable that we've come to see the whole shebang as being all about us.

It's not. Cheltenham has been not only the stomping ground of Cottage Rake, Arkle, Dawn Run and Istabraq but that of Night Nurse, Kauto Star, Sprinter Sacre and of Desert Orchid whose Gold Cup win in 1989 was as fervently celebrated in England as any of our famous victories have been over here. That also happened to be the year when there were no Irish winners at all.

In a way, last year's English performance seemed almost as disastrous for them as that year was for us. At times it seemed as though Nicky Henderson, enjoying a remarkable late-career renaissance, was carrying the home flag on his own.

But Henderson is 68 and it's hard to see who will continue the resistance when he goes. His old rival Paul Nicholls is rarely a contender at Cheltenham any more and while there have been predictions that young guns like Harry Fry, Dan Skelton and Charlie Longsdon can take up the mantle, up to now they have simply wilted under the Irish challenge at the biggest meeting of all. The English need to find their own Gordon Elliott. Or, more importantly perhaps, their own Michael O'Leary.

Why should we care? For one thing because any contest which gets too one-sided, be it the Scottish Premier League or the All-Ireland senior football championship, becomes boring. Celtic need Rangers and the Dubs need a rival who will take the look of inevitability off their victories. If Cheltenham becomes merely a parade of Irish victories, it will start to look pointless.

It's been said recently that the big Punchestown Festival and the new Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown will soon be challenging Cheltenham for pre-eminence. But no matter how good they become, neither Punchestown nor Leopardstown will ever cast the same spell as Cheltenham.

People take this week off work to follow the action, people who rarely watch or bet on racing suddenly become experts when the Festival rolls around and a travelling army decamps to the Cotswolds. It is a national sporting rite and I'm afraid a trip to Kildare or the suburbs of Dublin will never possess quite the same cachet.

What makes Cheltenham special is the clash between Ireland and England. What would Arkle's legend be without Mill House? If the English become so weak that Cheltenham really is just Punchestown on tour, it will merely lead to the kind of insularity and self-congratulation which is probably our least lovable national trait. In horse racing at least, we need them to bring out the best of us.

It may lack the cultural centrality that it does here, yet horse racing is still the UK's second biggest spectator sport behind soccer, having overtaken rugby last year, and the move from Channel 4 to ITV seems to have reinvigorated the television coverage. Yet I can't help feeling that there could be uncertain times ahead for the sport in the UK.

Brexit is predicted to cause a staffing shortage at stables while the likely election in the near future of a Labour government headed by people who've made little secret of their disdain for farmers as a class and their suspicion of the kind of country life associated with horse racing would pose other challenges.

When you have the head of the Angling Trust condemning the current government's Animal Welfare Bill as, "An attempt to try and gain some environmental brownie points . . . in danger of creating a botched and unworkable legal quagmire," it's easy to see problems down the road for horse racing, especially if an administration likely to be far more receptive to the concerns of animal rights' lobbyists comes to power.

Sometimes English racing can seem a sport out of time. Nicky Henderson is both a wonderful and a wonderfully anachronistic character. He has a direct link to possibly the last heroic age of English life, his father Johnny was Aide De Camp to Field Marshal Montgomery in World War II. The success of Darkest Hour and Dunkirk at the Oscars suggests that even now that version of Englishness still possesses a certain appeal.

Henderson also calls to mind an even older world, the roguish country squire milieu that Fielding and Trollope and Thackeray wrote about. But in an age when, as the historian Max Hastings wrote after the foxhunting ban, the "political establishment are committed to an urban and suburban monoculture," you wonder how racing, with its unavoidable associations with money and privilege, will fit in with an increasingly demotic zeitgeist. PC horse racing is, I'm afraid, a contradiction in terms. It's a non-runner. The public affection the sport can always depend on here may disappear in England.

We'd miss the old rivalry. Not least because it's been about the friendliest Ireland-England rivalry possible given the fraught history between the countries. There has been the odd spat, like last year's about handicapping, but overall the contest has been notably bereft of jingoism or bad feeling. The English coverage of Irish victories may occasionally be a bit condescending - are there really all those parish priests betting big at the Tote? - but it has never been begrudging. They appreciate what we bring to the table.

Maybe we can do the same for them in their hour of the need. After all, it's a deeply pleasurable experience for an Irish person to condescend to the English as plucky underdogs. Believe me.

That's why I'll be breaking the ingrained tribal habits of a lifetime and crying God for England, Harry Fry and Tom George in the odd race this week. Henderson has the favourites for the big three of Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup, looks unassailable in the first two of those races and should add at least a couple more. But he needs back-up from the likes of Amy Murphy's Kalashnikov in the Supreme Novices, Harry Whittington's Saint Calvados in the Arkle Chase, Jedd O'Keeffe's Sam Spinner in the Stayers' Hurdle and Alan King's Redicean in the Triumph Hurdle. Maybe they could shock us all, regain the non-existent Prestbury Cup, lessen Irish hubris and put a bit of edge back into the rivalry for next year.

I'll be wishing them well. May God and the dead generations forgive me.

Sunday Indo Sport

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