Updated: Mar 24
Harry Smith looks back at the ease in which the Irish dominated this years festival and asks what the British need to do in order to challenge more in the future.
As I write this, after the 3rd day of the Cheltenham Festival 2021 it has been an embarrassment for British runners. It's one thing to be outclassed by stables with better firepower but we haven't even put up a resistance. So when your horses aren't even competing in these races questions must be asked, not only between friends over a pint but to the trainers and mainly the authorities.
We've had some fantastic performances over the week so far in a time of need. The sublime Tiger Roll, who was wrote off by every man and their dog. Monkfish, who despite a few nervy jumps for favourite backers, won with ease. Appreciate It blew his rivals away from flag fall virtually, looking a winner a long way out. Finally there's Honeysuckle who genuinely looks like she could go her career unbeaten but she is assisted (will go into that later).
The way the British season is laid out gives trainers so much chance to miss a tough race and because these Cheltenham horses are missing these tough races they aren't used to the hustle and bustle of a Cheltenham race and are therefore lacking in experience which you need to win at the festival. The schedule has exploded to an unbearable amount of meetings, where the top class British horses are racing in very small fields against an okay rival and four other very poor rivals. They aren't getting into the battles they need to, they aren't running in strongly run races. They are being trained for the festival in polar opposite conditions to what you face in a Cheltenham race. Nicky Henderson has showed this week that running your horse, four times before Cheltenham doesn't matter. British trainers simply have to start sending their horses to the Dublin Racing Festival if things aren't going to change over here. The timing is perfect and they get a good challenge, the horses would learn so much about what is required if they were sent to the Dublin Racing Festival. Right now running your horse around Wincanton in a listed race is teaching them nothing. Our horses are uneducated, they aren't bad horses they are just totally uneducated for the target of Cheltenham. Yes the Irish firepower is hard to contain but you have to make steps to try and get back on level terms. One way this can be started is by upping the prize money in British racing which is shocking and unacceptable. The reason though why prize money is poor is because of how many races in a season they're having to share it between. In order for races to be worth trying to win you have to reduce the amount if races in a season. We could easily have more festivals during a season but with less meetings during the week. You can have some weeks where there is 3 meetings every day, which is just far too many. Owners aren't bothered about having horses in Britain due to prize money, so in order to get the good horses we need to get them back over here and to want to have horses with British trainers.
From the aspect of owners and trainers in Britain, we tend to buy a lot from France, now, French horses are good but they rely in the main so heavily on soft ground. So when it comes to these festivals which are in the spring, they aren't as affective. The Point to Point scene is where we must start looking. The Cheltenham festival was flooded with winners who started life in Irish Point to Points but horses from British Point to Point yards have also had one of their most successful seasons. We have to encourage trainers and owners to look away from France if we want to be successful in the spring festivals again. Paul Nicholls relies so heavily on French imports and they just don't cut the mustard. They win easily on debut in a class 5 then the handicapper acts like their Best Mate and puts them up 30lbs for beating nothing which then leads us to believe he has the next Denman. So the handicapping system must also change.
Finally don't place the blame at the owners or trainers solely as this is almost fully on the BHA for allowing the schedule to become to exploded. This has been coming for a while and they've let it happen due to the pressure from the bookmakers, who, now because of online gambling want as many races as possible so they make as much turnover as possible. Don't ever let a bookmaker tell you they put plenty into the sport because it's simply isn't relative to what they take out of the sport. So in order, what do the BHA need to do? Firstly reduce the amount of meetings in a season by doing this it frees up prize money which can then be invested back into the reduced schedule, ultimately making the better races more lucrative again and by doing this big owners will look at wanting horses in Britain again. Then once this is achieved the BHA then need to look at least one more big festival at the start of the year. This would create a very competitive few days of racing that would test and give British horses the education they are not getting at the moment whilst still allowing 2/3 months before Cheltenham. Bonuses for horses winning these races that were bought from the P2P scene would also be a huge help. British racing is in a bad mess and everyone from the BHA to trainers, to owners to the bookmakers has a part to play in order to make it great again.
written by Harry Smith