Tuesday 21 September 2021

Discussing the Merit in a Cheltenham Festival Warm-Up Event

In the world of sport, there are always those moments when it becomes apparent that something fundamental has gone wrong. In soccer, for example, England’s defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 was seen as a particular nadir for the 3 Lions, and it hinted at a deeper malaise within the structure of the England set-up. A period of reflection followed, and changes were made, and you can argue that the current England team is enjoying the fruits of those changes today. 

In horse racing, there was a much-talked-about low-point for British-trained horses this year at the Cheltenham Festival. A record 23 wins from 28 races went to Irish trainers at the 2021 Festival. Make no mistake about it – that was a trouncing. And while we can always have outlier years, the fact it was 19 wins for Irish trainers the year before suggests it’s more of a trend. 

As was expected, an inquiry was set up by British racing authorities to get to the root of the problem. And an advisory board has suggested that one solution might be to have a kind of warm-up festival before the main event at Cheltenham. Newbury, which already holds several Cheltenham trials, has been cited as a possible venue in early February each year. 

Dublin Festival has been a success 

Now, it is clear that the advisory panel has had a look at the Dublin Festival at Leopardstown, which is held in early February and always features Cheltenham runners, and surmised that this might be the key to the Irish trainers’ success. Plenty of racing journalists have poured cold water on the idea, claiming that there are more fundamental reasons for the pendulum swinging in favour of the Irish. They believe everything from prize money to structural differences in British and Irish racing plays a part, and that the issue will not be solved by a warm-up at Newbury or anywhere else. 

But might we argue that there is at least some merit in the idea? We know that big names such as Honeysuckle and Monkfish did a double shift by winning at Leopardstown and Cheltenham within the space of five weeks. We might also argue that Minella Indo, the eventual Gold Cup winner at Cheltenham, might have been well served by competing in the Irish Gold Cup at the Dublin Racing Festival, even if the horse could only manage a 5th place finish at Leopardstown. 

And yet, the counterargument is that a trainer will know the best time to give a horse a run. It’s not as if all Ireland’s 2021 Cheltenham winners were at the Dublin Festival the month beforehand. Many were held back and will not have run since December. Moreover, plenty of British runners had appeared just weeks before Cheltenham at Newbury and elsewhere. In short, there is no exact formula.

No discernible patterns in resting or running Cheltenham horses 

The advisory panel might believe that a warm-up festival offers a chance for British horses to test their mettle against quality opposition (you would imagine the plan is to have some Grade 1s, as they have at Leopardstown). But it’s not as if British trainers avoid throwing their horses into tough contests pre-Cheltenham. 

For example, the Irish Gold Cup was run on 7th February, with a field containing Minella Indo, Melon, Delta Work, The Storyteller and the eventual winner, Kemboy. The day before, Native River – the best-placed British-trained horse in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – was winning the Cotswold Chase at Sandown. Native River faced Bristol de Mai, Santini, Yala Enki, Saint Calvados and Lake View Lad.

You might argue that the field at Leopardstown was slightly stronger, but certainly not by much. Regardless, it would be a thin argument to say that Minella Indo had better preparation than Native River: The horses ran at a similar date against a similar field of runners (in terms of size and quality) before going to the Gold Cup five weeks later, so there is no discernible advantage. 

Perhaps the most intriguing take on all this came from the Guardian’s Greg Wood, who claimed that prize money made the difference. Of course, the horses don’t know how much is in the pot. But Wood believes the superior purses in Irish jumps racing has created a situation where the best national hunt horses are being kept across the Irish Sea. Wood even imagines a scenario where Irish trainers – he mentions Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead – send their “second-string” horses over to plunder the prize money from British races. 

It’s difficult not to agree with Woods’ assertion, nor others who believe there is a fundamental problem with British jumps racing. A festival before Cheltenham might work to focus some minds, and it would be a nice amuse-bouche before the main course at the Festival. But as for a cure-all to the woes of British trainers? It’s going to take something a lot more seismic.