Ireland set to run out a worthy winner at the Cheltenham Festival again

Ireland, whose jump racing industry is roughly the half the size of Britain’s, has had more winners at the past six Festivals and boasts Willie Mullins as the most successful trainer

Irish fans ponder a bet during last year’s Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Ireland’s rugby union players are struggling to repeat last season’s Six Nations heroics, while the footballing boys in green are in a state of flux as Mick McCarthy prepares for his first game back in charge in a couple of weeks. When it comes to the country’s horsemen and women, however, what is rapidly becoming Ireland’s traditional dominance at the Cheltenham Festival is odds-on to be upheld this coming week.

At four of the past six Festivals, the last three included, there have been more winners trained in Ireland than in Britain, and there have been at least a dozen Irish-trained winners at seven of the last eight. As of last year, Willie Mullins, who started training in 1988, is the most successful trainer in Festival history with 61 winners, one more than Britain’s Nicky Henderson, who has been training for a decade longer. There are days, such as the third afternoon last year, when Irish stables string together six wins in a row – and no one seems unduly surprised.

It would have seemed impossible 30 years ago. Ireland registered only a single win at the Festival in 1987 and 1988, with the same horse – Galmoy – and in the same race, the Stayers’ Hurdle. Then, in 1989, they drew a blank: not one winner to cheer the thousands of fans who made the trip from Ireland all the same.

Ireland’s best jumping horses have, of course, been an essential part of the Festival’s fabric since its early days. Cottage Rake’s three wins in the Gold Cup under Aubrey Brabazon just after the second world war inspired a famous verse: “Aubrey’s up, the money’s down, the frightened bookies quake. Come on, me lads, and give a cheer. Begod, ’tis Cottage Rake.”

Arkle, the greatest chaser of all on either side of the water, was also a three-times Gold Cup winner in the 1960s, and so beloved of his fans that the story of a shouting match between two Irish racegoers near Arkle’s statue at the track many years later is not necessarily apocryphal. One, so the story goes, reckoned Arkle would have won five Gold Cups had his career not been cut short by injury. The other was equally insistent that he would have won six.

But Ireland’s ability to go toe-to-toe with the British at every level of the game is a thoroughly modern phenomenon and, by several measures, not one that it should be able to sustain. Ireland’s jump racing industry is roughly half the size of Britain’s, with about 16,000 runners in 1,400 races last year against 32,000 runners in 3,800 races in Britain. The relative sizes of the two horse populations are reflected in the fields at the Festival, where Ireland has averaged just over 140 runners at each of the past five meetings against an average of 330 from Britain.

Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history with 61 winners. Photograph: Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images

On the bare numbers, Ireland might expect to win about 10 or 11 races at most Festivals, perhaps a couple more in a good year. In fact, the Irish have averaged 15 winners over that period and there is no hint of fluke about it. Look at the starting prices of their winners and their horses are doing only what the market expects.

A country with a population of just under five million is giving a regular beating to one with about 65 million, and doing it, what’s more, away from home. Nor is there any reason to think the Festival has yet reached “peak Ireland”, as the country’s current success is the result of consistent and relentless progress over the past two decades.

Mullins has led the charge and sees a direct link between the rapid growth of Ireland’s economy and its increasing success at an event that has also expanded significantly in the same period. “I’ve been lucky enough just to be in the right place at the right time, with the Celtic Tiger [the boom from the mid-1990s], and it’s on the back of that that myself and maybe other trainers have been able to amass bigger yards,” Mullins said this past week. “Horse Racing Ireland has also taken over the finance of Irish racing and that has put a lot more money into it. I’ve been lucky enough to be a beneficiary and people like Gordon [Elliott], Henry [de Bromhead] and Noel [Meade] have as well.

“Those years [when Ireland struggled for winners at Cheltenham] were simply down to money. People didn’t have the money to retain Irish horses and if you had a good horse, there wasn’t the prize money worth keeping your horse at home for. In those days, the top English yards were all full of Irish horses.

After victory in the World Hurdle in 2013, Paul Carberry on Solwhit tucks an Irish flag under his bottom that was thrown from the crowd. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“The Celtic Tiger meant that people based in Ireland had more money to retain the horses and buy horses, that wasn’t there before. We’ve got very good prize money here too now and now we see people basing their stock in Ireland for the prize money.”

So it is money, plain and simple, that seems to lie behind Ireland’s triumphant times at Cheltenham, but if that explanation lacks romance, consider too that it had to find its way into the pockets of people willing to spend it on horses. In Britain, a sudden surplus is more likely to be invested in a sports car or a yacht. But not in Ireland, where connections to the land and countryside remain strong and the first thought of many when they suddenly came into money was to shift at least some of it into bloodstock.

Two owners in particular – first, JP McManus and more recently Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair – have led the way, investing huge sums in jumping horses and much of it at home in Ireland, where a cheaply bred horse that wins a point-to-point by 10 lengths can suddenly be worth a six-figure sum before it has jumped a single fence on a regulation track.

But they are also the inheritors of a jump-racing legacy that stretches back to 1752, when two farmers in Cork raced their horses over four miles of open land – to settle a bet, of course – and chose to start and finish at two village churches, thus giving steeplechasing its name.

Cheltenham is the centre of the National Hunt universe for four days every March but for the remainder of the year Ireland is jumping’s spiritual home. Even in the lean times 20 years ago, the flame still burned and though there may be some grinding of teeth among the tweedy set as one Irish winner after another crosses the line, it is no more than Ireland deserves.

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