Thursday 22 February 2018

Vintage jumps year in spite of trying times

Colin Motherway and his mount Theroadtocroker hit the deck after leading at the last in Saturday's opening race at Punchestown. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Colin Motherway and his mount Theroadtocroker hit the deck after leading at the last in Saturday's opening race at Punchestown. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

News that attendances at last week's Punchestown Festival were up nearly 2pc year-on-year was in keeping with the jumping game's unlikely triumph over adversity during the past 12 months.

Punchestown's betting figures, a more accurate and pertinent guide to racecourse activity, revealed a net increase of 5pc, with bookies' turnover down 2pc as the Tote generated 7pc more revenue than in 2010.

In the current economic climate, that's commendable, while soundings in recent weeks from government buildings suggest that, finally, there may be moves afoot in relation to stabilising racing's funding. However, the real success story has been how well jump racing and those within it have continued to deliver.

It was a desperately trying season in terms of weather, but both the racecourses involved and the powers-that-be at HRI went to considerable lengths to keep the show on the road. Which is just as well, because it has been some show.

The last time this country went through a bad recession in the 1980s, Buck House, Galmoy and Dawn Run helped to keep the ship afloat at Cheltenham, when there wasn't a whole lot else to shout about. In three years between 1987 and 1989, for example, just two Irish-trained horses won in the Cotswolds in March.

Compare that with this year's haul of 13, including two of the big three, the Champion Hurdle and Chase. An Irish horse also won the latter in 2010, meaning that 50pc of those three cherished championship races have come our way in two years.

When the recession first bit, between 2007 and 2009, only Sublimity managed success in any of the nine runnings of the same three races. There was a real fear the dark days of selling our best horses would resurface, but it hasn't happened.

Despite the ongoing struggle for race sponsorship, as well as the difficulties faced by many handlers and traders on the ground, there is still a deal of confidence in Irish jump racing.

Domestically, JP McManus and Michael O'Leary are obviously invaluable benefactors, but neither man owns Big Zeb, Sizing Europe, Quevega or Hurricane Fly. Right now, that's got to be a good thing.

Star of the season

Paul Townend. The 20-year-old made the most of every opportunity that came his way as a result of Ruby Walsh's injuries, and did just enough to land the title despite his own. A final haul of 80 is the lowest winning tally for a long time, but that won't bother Townend, the first Cork-born champion since Timmy Hyde before the Second World War.

Race of the season

The Cheltenham Gold Cup. No Irish horses were involved, but that didn't seem to matter. It could be a long time before we witness such a breathtaking spectacle again.

Most productive corner of the country

The Sunny Southeast. Henry de Bromhead managed a Cheltenham Festival double that included Sizing Europe's stunning Champion Chase victory, while Colm Murphy's campaigning of Big Zeb, Quito De La Roque and Voler Las Vedette was excellent. Paul Nolan, John Kiely and Eoin Doyle did well, and Colin Bowe made a huge impact in his first full term. One WP Mullins, based in Carlow, might also qualify.

Three to excel next term

Waheeb, Quito De La Roque and Solwhit. The latter will be the best two-mile hurdler to go chasing since Moscow Flyer, and he won't have to worry about Hurricane Fly.

Ride of the season

A toss-up between Davy Russell on Quito De La Roque at Aintree and Timmy Murphy on Poker De Sivola at Sandown. Two very different rides on two horses that probably shouldn't have won. Both made you gawp in awe.

Honourable mentions

Hurricane Fly and Gordon Elliott. One has been crowned champion, the other will be. It's just a matter of time.

Irish Independent

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