Betfred TV’s Matt Hulmes discusses the major takeaways from the 2021 Cheltenham Festival

Now the dust has settled on an incredible week at Cheltenham, the inquest can begin on just why the British were battered in their own backyard.

But first, after a turbulent twelve months for horse racing, let us focus on the positives from the biggest four days in the sport.

The obvious place to start is with the animals themselves. Blissfully unaware of the pandemic, Brexit complications and the European equine herpes outbreak that could have caused chaos at Cheltenham, they duly arrived and entertained us. 

From the effortless hurdling and turn of foot from Honeysuckle, to the tenaciousness up the hill from Put The Kettle On, the showing of seemingly endless stamina by Flooring Porter, to the all-round attributes required to win a Gold Cup shown by Minella Indo.

These are the true heroes of the sport, appreciated by millions who tuned in to see them in action.

The horses are closely followed by the brilliance of the incredible Rachael Blackmore, grabbing the headlines for her six winners that clinched the top jockey award.

After a steady flow of winners in the middle of the last decade, her career blossomed in 2018/19 when she finished second in the Irish Jump Jockeys Championship and landed her first two Cheltenham winners with A Plus Tard and Minella Indo.

That leads us onto last week, when that pair finished 1-2 in the Gold Cup – the only surprise being that Blackmore was on the runner-up behind another rising star of the saddle Jack Kennedy.

The ascent of Blackmore is of no surprise to those within this sport. Her talent was noticed by ‘Shark’ Hanlon and latterly Henry De Bromhead, who supplied her with the ammunition for last weeks’ successes.

No matter where she finds herself in a race, her tactical brain always seems to get the best from her partner. She made all on Sir Gerhard, Allaho and Quilixios, tracked the pace on Honeysuckle and Bob Olinger while holding up Tellmesomethingirl. Very different rides all ending in the same result.

Only Ruby Walsh has ridden more Cheltenham winners in a week than Blackmore in the last 40 years, and comparisons were obviously drawn about one of the masters of his profession on the biggest stage and Blackmore’s exploits in the shadow of Cleeve Hill.

Blackmore was back in action on Saturday as she and Paul Townend battle it out for the Irish Jump Jockeys Championship which ends in May. Victory in that would be as momentous as last week at Prestbury Park.

Although things were very different off the track, the racing was still as competitive on it – especially from the jockey’s viewpoint, as Nick Scholfield told me.

He said: “The actual racing part of it has been no different. It’s every bit as competitive as previous years. There is no inch given while the Irish are all here and the best horses are competing.

“Although it was surreal driving in with no traffic, no boxes, no owners to celebrate with, no cheering, every jockey that has ridden a winner will still tell you it’s a special feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many texts in all my life (after riding Sky Pirate to victory) as there is so many people watching.

“It’s great that racing is on the front foot and ITV are doing a great job and it promoted racing in such a great way. People sat at home are appreciating the horses instead of the in the Guinness village getting very drunk which is no bad thing and hopefully it brings the sport forward.”

Viewing figures for ITV rose from last year too, up 23% on average and with a high on Friday of 1.9m who watched the Gold Cup, the biggest number since Denman vs Kauto Star in 2008.

All of these, and there are plenty more, are positives to take from the week – but we must address the glaring problem facing British racing.

The Irish domination continued as they won the Prestbury Cup, the competition between the two countries for number of winners trained at the meeting, by a massive 23-5.

Even allowing for the argument that some owners and trainers are waiting for the possibility of a return for owners to the racetrack in time for Aintree, the numbers do not make pretty reading.

Britain only have a 14-14 draw to their name since 2015, when they were narrow 14-13 winners, and the gap has widened ever since. 

The stats from last week are also concerning. There were 402 runners at Cheltenham over the four days with just 37 (9%) of those British trained having an SP of less than 10/1, while their Irish counterparts had 65 (16%).

Not only was it just the winners that dominated for Ireland, but also those that hit the frame. Of the 91 places up for grabs, Britain filled just 36 of them (39%) with the Irish taking up 54 (59%) from 40% representation, with Easysland (2nd) the sole representative from France.

Plenty of ideas have been thrown around as to why this was the case, including the money in the game in Ireland, with most of the big-spending owners based on the Emerald Isle.

Although JP McManus and the Donnelly’s did have success with Nicky Henderson last week, most of their string are in Ireland – as are the majority of Rich Ricci’s, the Moran’s and Brian Acheson’s Robcour.

The Irish point-to-point scene is such a fiercely competitive one that regularly sees horses sold for six figures, compared to the British point-to-point scene which for years has predominantly catered for those towards the ends of their careers.

Another idea that’s been floated in the past couple of days is that the best flat horses are now going abroad to continue their career, so the recruits from the level are not rated as high on average, but they still acquire similar jumps ratings due to the pattern system.

The pattern system is a series of Graded races, the holy grail for top performers, and horses who win these are, on average, still being rated in the same sphere as they were ten to fifteen years ago despite the landscape changing.

There are now more Graded jumps races in Britain than ever before, and a high number of them are extremely uncompetitive, especially when it comes to novice chasers.

Now I know Britain did take two of the three novice chase contests, one courtesy of a potential superstar in the making in Shishkin and the other maybe fortunate with the fall of another with high aspirations in Envoi Allen, but the races that they had taken part in to get there were extremely uncompetitive.

They were: –

  • Shishkin – faced nine rivals in three chases prior to Cheltenham.
  • Eldorado Allen – he faced the most in nineteen rivals across four races.
  • Chantry House – raced against nine rivals in three races en route to Marsh Chase success.
  • Fusil Raffles – just ten opponents in his three races before last week
  • Fiddlerontheroof – fifteen in five races
  • The Big Breakaway – thirteen in three races, including a grade 1 at Kempton on Boxing Day which had eight runners.

So, the best of Britain’s novice chasers faced a total of 75 rivals in 21 races, an average of 3.5 rivals per race, before last week. They are then expected to run at Championship pace against more battle-hardened rivals from Ireland who will trade blows against their best throughout the year, namely at Leopardstown both over Christmas and during the Dublin Racing Festival.

Is it a co-incidence that the Irish have increased the dominance over Britain since the introduction of those two fantastic days at Foxrock in February? Is there an argument for developing the Winter Festival at Newbury, or at Kempton over Christmas into top class meetings to attract the best vs the best?

Reducing these Graded contests and funnelling the better horses to meet each other throughout the season may have to happen to bring Britain back to its competitive best.

Even looking at the Champion Hurdle, Epatante faced just nine rivals in the only two Grade 1 two-mile hurdle races before Cheltenham – and with the greatest respect to the opposition, only Silver Streak, who was sent off at 25/1 on Tuesday, had any hope of genuine top-class success over timber.

They appear to be Grade 1s in name only, with arguably only the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day producing a field worthy of its name this season in Britain in terms of numbers and quality.

Throughout the year, Irish trainers target British prizes. The Shunter, for example, has won three races on these shores this season despite all the Covid complications and Brexit barriers. It’s a sure sign that if they do travel, they aim to take back the prize money.

Conversely, the British raiders to Ireland have dwindled year on year, be that trips to Leopardstown over Christmas, the DRF in February or even to Punchestown in May. Perhaps trainers perceive it a fruitless exercise against the better horses? But there seems no willingness to have a shot.

We have done away with top class handicaps, like the Clarence House Chase, and replaced them with generally uncompetitive Grade 1s, seemingly detrimental to the quality and development of the horses.

Maybe it is swings and roundabouts? In the late 90’s the Irish were happy with a single winner at Cheltenham, then we had the golden eras of Best Mate and Kauto Star vs Denman.

But without a doubt, the current stars of the sport represent the emerald, white and orange – and there are no signs of this changing anytime soon.

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