Ireland showcases the cream of Jumps racing -- ahead of more dominance at Cheltenham Festival

Total Recall, who was one of seven winners for champion trainer Willie Mullins at the new Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown.
Total Recall, who was one of seven winners for champion trainer Willie Mullins at the new Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown.

The decision to switch TV coverage of Irish racing from At The Races to Racing UK from next January has caused consternation and triggered quite a kerfuffle.

But one of the reasons behind the moans -- that it will result in the action from the Emerald Isle being treated like a second-class citizen amid a congested schedule -- does not wash.

Irish racing is on a high, particularly over Jumps, and it would be folly amounting to business suicide for RUK not to give it the five-star treatment.

Last weekend’s inaugural Dublin Racing Festival from Leopardstown offered a timely reminder of the gulf in quality and competitiveness between Jumps racing in Ireland and its equivalent in the UK at present.

The sport in the UK is plagued by small fields, particularly in novice races, by uncompetitive Graded events, by a bloated fixture list and by connections obsessed with sitting on the sidelines to wait for the Cheltenham Festival. Not to mention a desire to pander to mediocrity, or what is referred to as grassroots racing, instead of providing an incentive to raise standards, thus rendering an imbalance that has created a striking shortage of star-quality at the top level. It is no exaggeration, in my opinion, that Jumps racing in the UK, outside of the spring spectaculars at Cheltenham and Aintree, is sleepwalking towards a crisis.

Most of the best horses, the best trainers and the biggest, richest owners are now based in Ireland. This was reflected at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, where Irish yards were responsible for 19 of the 28 winners and rode roughshod over their British counterparts in a display of unprecedented dominance. A repeat is on the cards in five weeks’ time, judging by the plethora of high-class performances that made such a success of the Leopardstown extravaganza.

Most of the 15 races were already in existence. They were simply re-packaged and brought under one large two-day umbrella to create an imaginative showpiece, headlined by seven Grade One races and 1.5 milliion euros in prize money. I witnessed it only from afar, on TV (indeed At The Races), but it was not hard to be sucked into the triumphalist consensus that this was the beginning of something special, likely to endure and improve for years to come. Quite deservedly, the festival attracted large, enthusiastic crowds and rave reviews from media observers.

Much was made of the absence of many British-trained raiders. And there’s no doubt that the absence was symptomatic of the kind of short-sightedness that pervades swathes of the UK Jumps training ranks and also manifests itself in the reaction to topics such as 48-hour declarations and wind operations. But it had no detrimental impact. In fact, I dread to think how depleted the cards of January/February meetings at the likes of Cheltenham, Ascot, Newbury and Sandown would have been had more of our better horses gone over.

Whether they will be able to resist in future years will be interesting to monitor. Similarly, the effect last weekend’s top-notch, no-holds-barred action has on Irish horses going to Cheltenham next month will also make for informative study. The trend in the UK is to tiptoe your way to Prestbury Park via prep races as soft and undemanding as can be found. But if you were an owner, would you rather send your horses to the Festival battle-hardened or wrapped in cotton wool?

Of course, the kingpins Nicky Henderson and, to a lesser extent, Paul Nicholls might yet be capable of spiking the Irish guns in March. But the worrying decline of operations run by the likes of David Pipe, Philip Hobbs, Alan King, Venetia Williams and Jonjo O’Neill, coupled with the disappointing season that has halted the rise of Colin Tizzard, has hardly helped the UK cause. And while the pick of the younger brigade, Dan Skelton, is racking up the winners left, right and centre, most are in that mediocre sphere we spoke about earlier. He houses very few animals capable of mixing it in the highest grades. How timely it would be if trainers such as Harry Fry, Ben Pauling, Harry Whittington, Anthony Honeyball and Neil Mulholland could step up to the plate next month.

Most ominous for the UK battalions was the return to peak form at Leopardstown by Ireland’s champion Willie Mullins. Like last season, Mullins has left himself with a lot of ground to make up in the duel for the trainers’ title with Gordon Elliott. But he saddled no fewer than seven winners over the weekend, and slashed the deficit from more than 600,000 euros to little over 250,000. And you could have almost halved that again had KILLULTAGH VIC not fallen at ther last with the Unibet Irish Gold Cup at his mercy.

The lightly-raced, injury-plagued 9yo’s win on his return to chasing would have been hailed as yet another feather in the genius’s cap. But ironically, his tumble only precipitated an even more remarkable comeback story, and probably the most remarkable racing has ever told.

EDWULF lay prone on the Cheltenham turf for around an hour after collapsing with oxygen deficiency at the end of a tremendous run in the 4m National Hunt Chase at the 2017 Festival. How he managed to survive and recover confounded the logic of many a veterinary expert. Yet here he was, less than a year later, landing one of the biggest races of the jumping calendar, having been nursed back to full health and somehow turned into a Grade One winner by his rookie handler Joseph O’Brien.

Joseph, son, of course, of the original genius, Aidan, has wasted no time in suggesting he will be a chip off the old block. Why, he even has a Melbourne Cup to his name already! It won’t take him long either to join that pantheon containing such great National Hunt names as Mullins, Elliott, JP, Ruby, Gigginstown and Ricci, and so add even more kudos to Ireland’s jumping prowess.

It’s a pantheon that holds a firm grip on Jumps racing at the moment, and will soon be landing on the runway at Cheltenham.

HORSE TO FOLLOW FROM THE DUBLIN RACING FESTIVAL -- MIN (Willie Mullins, obvious Champion Chase rival to the mighty Altior), ORDINARY WORLD (Henry de Bromhead, might be interesting in Aintree’s 2m chase), FOOTPAD (Willie Mullins, another step towards Arkle glory), TULLY EAST (Alan Fleming, primed for a major run in Cheltenham’s 2m5f handicap chase), SUPASUNDAE (Jessica Harrington, superbly outstayed Faugheen, who ran better than many claimed), BLACKBOW (Willie Mullins) and RHINESTONE (Joseph O’Brien, classy duo who dominated the Bumper and can do so again at Cheltenham), FARCLAS (Gordon Elliott, showed the kind of never-say-die resoluton that will suit in the Triumph), SAMCRO (Gordon Elliott, quite simply a monster, who justified the hype again), MONALEE (Henry De Bromhead, guts, stamina and jumping ability that are tailor-made for the RSA Chase), KILLULTAGH VIC (Willie Mullins, would have won the Irish Gold Cup on just his THIRD chasing start!), OUR DUKE (Jessica Harrington, encouraging return and not out of the Cheltenham Gold Cup reckoning), GETAWAY KATIE MAI (John Queally, exciting Bumper mare from a small yard).