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‘Ireland has best horses in the world’

And so it begins – at around 1.30pm this afternoon a huge roar will sound in the Cotswolds as the Supreme Novices Hurdle gets underway – and the 2024 Cheltenham Festival will begin.

Four days with 28 races, including 14 Grade One contests, carrying well over €5m in prize money.

There was a time when Irish-trained horses travelled more in hope than expectation, when Irish victories were especially savoured for their rarity.

Indeed 1989 was an infamous year when Irish horses returned home a beaten docket, without any win at all.

Irish fortunes have certainly changed in recent times.

Visitors from this side of the Irish Sea took 18 of the 28 prizes on offer in 2022 and 2023, while the 2021 festival was the lowest point for British handlers, when all but five races were won by Irish trainers.

In fact, bar a tie in 2019, the Prestbury Cup – the bragging rights prize between Ireland and Britain – has gone the Irish way every year since 2016.

There is little evidence to suggest 2024 will be much different.

The Racing Post newspaper recently reported Irish entries outnumbered British ones for the first time ever this year, while the withdrawal of last year’s Champion Hurdle winner, Constitution Hill, from this afternoon’s feature is another blow to home hopes.

This year 2024 will see Irish-trained horses start as favourites in at least 12 of those 14 Grade One contests.

Undoubtedly then the British industry looks across the Irish sea with some envy.

It sees superior prize money in Ireland (set to total almost €70m in 2024), as well as massive annual foreign investment of around €550m.

Perhaps bringing further frustration is the fact that much of this investment comes from UK owners placing their horses with Irish trainers.

Undoubtedly too, public funding is a key contributor to Irish success (€76m in 2024) – although its money well spent insist Horse Racing Ireland.

HRI quotes 2022 research which, they say shows that for every €1 of government funding allocated, the industry contributed €35 to the Irish economy in core and secondary expenditure.

Horse trainer Gordon Elliott, left, and horse owner JP McManus will be looking for success at the Cheltenham Festival

Golden era in Irish racing

RTE racing analyst Jane Mangan sees a combination of all these factors contributing to a golden era in Irish racing at present.

“We have the best horse men and women in Ireland, and we have the investment here, and a lot of it is foreign investment,” Ms Mangan said.

“They’re investing it wisely and we’re seeing good results. It wasn’t always the case. But in the last 10 years we have the best horses in the world in our country.”

Not all British difficulties are of Irish making either.

Critics argue British field sizes are too small while there are simply far too many fixtures on the calendar, just shy of 1,500 this year, compared to around 360 in Ireland.

Ms Mangan agrees.

“The UK have more racing than their horse population merits,” she said.

“And somewhere along the line, the British regulator forgot that you need to have a certain number of horses in the country to a certain number of races.

“So, I would have to agree that there needs to be a pruning of their race programme.”

And Cheltenham is by no means a standalone racing fixture this week, there is also racing at Sedgefield today and at a host of other tracks across the four days.

Not even Gold Cup Day is sacred with National Hunt fixtures at two other venues on Friday afternoon.

It is something that irks former jockey AP McCoy too, who told ITV: “There shouldn’t be any other racing on the same day as the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Derby, or the Grand National.

“There is no other football on Champions League final night, is there?”

Irish trainer Willie Mullins at Cheltenham

Mullins leads the charge

No surprise that Willie Mullins will once again lead the Irish cavalry charge this year.

The Co Carlow handler saddled his first festival winner back in 1995 and he has been leading trainer on 10 occasions since, including in each of the past five years.

His overall record now stands at 94 winners at Cheltenham, so if he can match last year’s tally of six, he will make it a magnificent century in 2024.

The heaviest of favourites to take the leading trainer crown again, Mr Mullins saddles the favourites in well over half those Grade One contests.

The final word on current Irish dominance might be that it does not necessarily serve Irish interests’ long term – think Kerry football fans hoping for Cork improvement in the Munster Championship.

Racing TV journalist Donn McClean sees the fortunes of both countries intertwined.

“National hunt racing only exists in Ireland and Britain and a little bit in France, so it’s not a positive that one element of it is very weak compared to another,” he said.

Mr McClean does see it as cyclical, however.

“When you are in the middle of an era of dominance for any entity, it’s hard to envisage a situation where you can get out of that era,” he said.

“I am sure British trainers will raise their game and the quality of their horses will rise again. There are top horses in Britain, it’s just that for the moment there seems to be more of them in Ireland.”

Irish horse trainer Henry De Bromhead on the gallops at Cheltenham Racecourse yesterday

A century of Gold Cups

They has been racing in Cheltenham since 1815 and at Prestbury Park since 1831.

It is said 700 people cheered as the winning horse crossed the line 193 years ago, while slightly more will be expected this afternoon where capacity is now capped at 68,500 per day.

Not surprisingly the masses are worth a fair few bob to the local economy, an economic impact study from two years ago valued the average spend per person attending the festival at around €800, with the four days of racing worth around €320m to Cotswolds commerce.

Not that organizers will take anything for granted.

More than 280,000 punters packed Prestbury Park when the festival returned post pandemic in 2022, leading to the introduction of that attendance cap, but last year did see something of a fall off.

Gold Cup day was a sell-out, but attendances across the other three days were all down, the Racing Post reporting a fall off of 40,000 through the gates over the other three days last year.

This year marks a century of Gold Cups and Friday is once again a sell-out, but as of Monday, tickets were still available for all other days.

Cheltenham is by no means a cheap day out. Entry to Prestbury Park’s Best Mate enclosure is around €65, while you will pay around €130 to spend the day in the Club enclosure.

If it’s more high end you’re after there is plenty of that to be had too, Gold Cup day in the Cleeve Suite lists a champagne reception, a four course lunch and a complimentary bar among its many offerings, but at a price of just under €1,300 per person.

Still though the Irish will travel in their thousands, that economic study found a third of attendees arrive in Cheltenham at least a day before the festival and leave at least a day after, meaning we can estimate Irish numbers of between 20,000 to 30,000.

Count in the tens of thousand more who will watch the festival goings at home, from either the armchair of the high stool, and its little surprise Cheltenham is such a main stay of the Irish sporting calendar.

Jockey Rachael Blackmore with Slade Steel on the gallops ahead of the Cheltenham Festival

The likes of Mr Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry De Bromhead will each be hoping for success this week, but the big three could yet be joined by some less well-known travellers.

Those who love Cheltenham insist there is still a place for romance.

Think Shark Hanlon’s Hewick, the horse famously bought for €850 who has won over half a million since, and now takes his chances in the Gold Cup.

Nine different Irish trainers saddled a winner in 2023 – who’s to say where lady luck will choose to shine this time around.

We will leave the final word to Ms Mangan.

“I’m looking forward to getting over there with the Irish racing fans, revelling in our success,” she said.

“It’s not every year we’re going to do this. And just because we’ve done it the last couple of years doesn’t mean we should start taking it for granted.

“Imagine any other Irish team, we do it in the rugby, but we don’t do it in many sports, where we go to play an away game, and not only are we expected to win, but we’re disappointed if we don’t. That is incredible.”


Read more: Willie Mullins hoping hot favourite State Man can deliver in Champion Hurdle



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