Can British Horses Bring an End to Irish Dominance at the Cheltenham Festival?

Irish and British FlagsWith humanity seemingly unraveling all around us, it’s perhaps fruitful to concentrate on the things that bring us joy in life.

After all, we can only keep ourselves safe during the pandemic, and as for the conflict in Ukraine all we can hope is that Vladimir Putin has some kind of epiphany to shake him out of his currently moronic state of mind.

Instead, let’s look forward to March 15 and the beginning of the 2022 Cheltenham Festival.

It would be distasteful to use the word ‘war’ in reference to what is a joyous extravaganza of racing, but there has been something of a battle going on between British trainers, owners and jockeys and their Irish counterparts.

Will 2022 be the year that Britain levels the playing field against their more successful foe?

2021: An Irish Odyssey

While the Irish have been dominating at Prestbury Park for a number of years now, it’s fair to say that 2021 was a halcyon year for them and an absolute nadir for the Brits in comparison.

Those from the Emerald Isle won a staggering 23 of the 28 races contested – smashing their previous best haul of 19 set in 2017.

As ever, the perennially-strong Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead’s yards contributed hugely to that success, and even the absence of Gordon Elliott – who was serving a suspension for that hideous dead horse photo – didn’t derail the Irish charge with Denise ‘Sneezy’ Foster filling the void.

Although Nicky Henderson led the fightback with two winners, it was an awful four days for British racing – and the culmination of a period of time in which they have slowly been falling behind the Irish to some tune.

Why Do the Irish Dominate the Cheltenham Festival?

You have to go back to 2015 to find the last time that British connections outperformed the Irish and won the Prestbury Cup – the annual title handed out to the winning team.

Since then, Ireland’s margin of victory has risen from ten winners in 2017 to 18 last year – and so bad appalling was the British effort in 2021 that it even sparked the Quality Jump Racing Review, an attempt by the BHA to work out why the Brits were falling behind.

One of the reasons that the Irish dominate so readily is the quality of horses at their disposal. Mullins, Elliott and De Bromhead in particular have a number of options at their disposal in each of racing’s various disciplines – and owners are only too keen to buy into their success by posting their horses across the Irish Sea.

Some might wrongly assume that the Irish dominance is due to them having more runners than Brits – and thus their win rate is naturally higher. But nothing could be further from the truth, with Ireland’s hit rate of 82% in 2021 coming despite the fact they only saddled 40% of the total Cheltenham Festival runners.

It’s definitely true that more money is flowing into Irish racing too, and that clearly impacts upon performance levels. Horses get better schooling and compete at a generally higher level in Ireland, and it’s noticeable that many Brits now eschew the Grand National meeting in April for a crack at the Punchestown Festival instead.

Numbers talk in racing, and the truth is that Ireland is currently producing better horses and jockeys from better-financed yards than the Brits, and while that holds true it’s impossible to see how the home charge can wrestle back dominance from Mullins and co.

Money Talks

Often in racing, the betting market is an excellent arbiter of what is to follow.

To that end, it’s noticeable that 20 of the ante-post favourites for the 28 races are from the Emerald Isle.

Not all favourites win of course – that’s a given, but it’s further evidence that the Irish raiders are on course to potentially equal or even beat their incredible record in 2021.</p

The bookmakers agree. Most firms make 20 or more Irish winners their favourite in the market at around 6/4, while 22-25 winners can be backed at 7/4 with others.

And according to Oddschecker, the very best price available on Ireland winning the Prestbury Cup is 1/9.

It will be interesting to see if handicapping changes make a difference. The BHA wants to rectify a perceive imbalance in how British horses are rated compared to their Irish rivals, and to that end we might expect to see a levelling of the playing field in weighted races – of course, we’ll have to wait and see what results that brings.

The general consensus is that Irish eyes will be smiling once more at the Cheltenham Festival in 2022.