No glint of Gold but Irish-breds are still leading the chasing pack
You wouldn't have been filled with much optimism as an Irish racing fan when the Gold Cup entry was revealed this week. An all-too-familiar feeling in recent years. Five Irish-trained horses out of a 26-strong field, our shortest-priced contender at 16/1.
A cause for concern for many. It is important for Irish horses to be in the Gold Cup, the blue riband event at the National Hunt Olympics.
If you're an owner, trainer or jockey and you had the choice of a Festival winner, you'd pick the Gold Cup. For the racing purist, it's everything and more. Of course Ireland has had famous Gold Cup winners; Arkle, Dawn Run, L'Escargot. A who's who of jumps racing. However, just two winners from the previous 14 renewals doesn't read well.
It's a stat that goes against the grain with our record in the other top races at the Festival. We've won five of the last eight Champion Hurdles and five of the past nine Champion Chases. We have the current champions of both those races going back to defend their crowns.
Yet it's a different story in the main event. Last week's Hennessy probably shows best the lack of any real conviction in the Irish three-mile chase division. It's not overly harsh to suggest that the race, won by Quel Esprit, wouldn't have looked out of place at Thurles on a Thursday afternoon. Last month, Quel Esprit's stablemate Apt Approach won a Grade Two chase in Thurles, worth just under a third of the prize money for Hennessy. At 150, Quel Esprit held an identical rating to Apt Approach going into the Hennessy.
What's more, the horses that finished second and third in the Apt Approach race, Follow The Plan and Roberto Goldback, were a respective fourth and second behind Quel Esprit on Sunday. That the 132-rated Treacle was able to split the two of them, and finish within eight lengths of Quel Esprit, probably gives it away. The groans of disapproval rung out. Where is our Gold Cup horse?
But while it's vital to have Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham, it shouldn't be the centre-point on which the assessment of our industry pivots.
The number of Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham seems to get much more publicity than it's worth. Mostly because not a long time ago, if there was one Irish winner, it was a great result. Now getting into double figures is the standard. And because we don't have a Gold Cup horse it suddenly becomes a poor reflection. A more important statistic is how many Irish-bred horses win at the Festival. Last season, Irish-bred horses took 15 out of the 26 races. The statistic was the exact same in 2010. The year before that it was 14 out of 24, and the exact same as that in 2008.
It's particularly impressive when you take into account the new added presence of French-bred horses at the top level. Actually, allowing for the French rising, the general performance of Irish-bred horses has been phenomenal.
Of all the Grade Ones run in Britain and Ireland, a total of 65% were won by Irish-breds. This accounted for eight out of the 12 Grade One races at last season's Festival. This success is just as important, if not more important, than an Irish-trained winner.
The benefits of an Irish-bred winner go right back to the grassroots of the industry, namely the breeder who may have the dam or siblings to a Cheltenham winner and is now able to command a premium price at the sales. The stallion man who stands the sire of a Cheltenham winner can also look forward to increased mare coverings and possibly a higher covering fee. The spin-offs are far-reaching for an industry aiming to be self-sufficient.
It does mean that the firepower to our home trainers is lessened but, similar to our overall economy, the Irish racing industry relies heavily on exports. In recent years, Irish Thoroughbred Marketing values these exports at €156m.
It's vital that the value of our currency, our top-class horses, remains at a consistently high level. The Gold Cup horse of course, is the crown jewel. So while our entry for the big one seemed poor for Irish racing fans again, with a change of perspective you can see a more promising picture.
Out of the current 26-strong entry, 13 were reared in Ireland before moving on.
Out of that 13, we're not without a chance of an 'Irish' winner. Burton Port announced himself as a genuine contender at Newbury on Friday. Synchronised won the Lexus in taking style, and Captain Chris, last year's Arkle winner, hasn't turned into a bad horse overnight. A tough task awaits, but the trends are positive. Seven of the last 10 Gold Cup winners were born, broken and blooded in Ireland.
It's not all that bad.
Sunday Indo Sport