Tuesday 18 June 2019

Comment: No fireworks as grand showdown fails to ignite

Champion trainer Willie Mullins yesterday
Champion trainer Willie Mullins yesterday
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

We expected a mighty battle. We got a massacre. The bookies thought half a million euros was a big enough lead for Gordon Elliott to hold on to during Punchestown. It turned out a million wouldn't have been sufficient.

By the start of the final day Mullins led Elliott by €541,148 and was already assured of his 12th trainer's title. The lead grew as the day wore on.

Mullins had wiped out the deficit by the end of day two when he saddled six of the seven winners. His dominance of the Grade Ones was extraordinary. He had the first four in the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, four of the first five in the Stayers Hurdle, three of the first four in the Champion Chase, a 1-2-3 in the Champion Bumper, a 1-2 in the Punchestown Gold Cup, a 1-2-4 in the Mares Champion Hurdle, a first and a third in the Ryanair Novices Chase, the winners of the big Novices Hurdles on Tuesday and Wednesday. A freakish mistake and a couple of untimely falls denied him even more victories. It made no difference.

After a couple of days it started to feel almost excessive. You'd almost feel sorry for Gordon Elliott. But what Mullins was doing to Elliott was what the pair of them have done to every other trainer all year long.

Mullins is one of the great figures in Irish sport. He has worked long and hard to develop the kind of operation which enabled him to produce this Punchestown tour de force.

Yet it was difficult to watch this festival without feeling a slight queasiness about the spectacle of one man turning Irish jump racing's biggest event into a kind of personal benefit. There were too many races where the question was not whether Mullins would win but which Mullins horse would win.

It's not begrudgery to wonder if this situation is entirely healthy. Excellence is one crucial component of top-class sport but competitiveness is another. Punchestown was the finale of a season where two trainers have dominated national hunt racing to an unprecedented extent.

Before Cheltenham I wondered if the crushing of the home challenge by Irish invaders was beginning to erode the festival's special quality. Most people were inclined to celebrate another year of Irish victory over England. But that victory was almost entirely won by Elliott and Mullins, who between them won more races at the festival than every other trainer put together.

On Thursday Dan Skelton, England's best young trainer, spoke of bringing a horse to Punchestown in the hope of picking up a few scraps behind more powerful opposition. That is the position most trainers find themselves in these days. By the close of play on Thursday the big two had won over €10.5m between them. The next 18 trainers had won around €8.5m.

On Wednesday alone Mullins won €492,875. This is almost €90,000 more than the country's seventh-ranked trainer, the excellent Charles Byrnes, has won all season. Over the five days of Punchestown alone Mullins won more money than every other trainer apart from Elliott won over the past year, Joseph O'Brien, Henry de Bromhead and Jessica Harrington included.

This competitive deficit has obvious implications for the mid-ranked Irish trainers who would once have hoped to pick up some of this money. This season those trainers have found themselves squeezed out in terms of quantity and quality. The total number of races won by Mullins and Elliott combined is also more than that of the next 18 trainers combined. The number of horses entered by both in big races is something Irish racing has never witnessed before.

There must surely be adverse consequences for trainers lower down on the ladder and it is unlikely that things will get any more competitive. Mullins praised Elliott for making him up his game, while the younger man will surely pull out the stops even more after his Punchestown spanking. Everyone else will suffer collateral damage.

Maybe the Mullins-Elliott cartel merely reflects the times we live in. This is an age of oligarchy, an age when the likes of Rich Ricci and Michael O'Leary, the two big-money owners behind the big two, have become rich to an extent which would have seemed vaguely obscene not long ago.

Sport reflects life. In Europe's big soccer leagues, Bayern Munich, Paris St Germain and Manchester City win titles by massive margins because they are able to crush their rivals by the sheer weight of money.

There were great horses and good races to be seen at Punchestown this week. Yet watching it I couldn't help think of my father's stories about the comet Kohoutek which the world's amateur astronomers waited excitedly for in 1973.

They expected to witness the greatest celestial light show in history. Instead they got something which resembled a man striking a match in a field across the road. "You can't imagine how disappointed we felt," he'd always say. After the showdown that never was, I have some idea.

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