Willie Mullins says prize flaw may help Irish steal a Cheltenham march

Chris Cook at Kempton
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins cannot hide their delight after Nichols Canyon had won the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: racingfotos/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins cannot hide their delight after Nichols Canyon had won the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Photograph: racingfotos/Rex/Shutterstock

The extraordinary Irish success at last week’s Cheltenham Festival may have been the result of a flaw in the programme of jump races in Britain, according to Willie Mullins, whose six wins contributed to an unprecedented total of 19 for the raiding party against nine for British runners. It is the first time that Irish horses were first past the post in more Festival races than their British rivals, although Ireland eventually came out on top by 15-13 a year ago after a British winner was disqualified.

“I just wonder, has it to do with the programming of your races through the season?” Mullins said on Saturday as he reflected on a typically hectic four days of action. “Are people favouring having a good horse in training in Ireland, where good horses are rewarded?

“In Britain, the best prize money is all for the handicaps. But no one sets out to buy a handicapper. We have the big handicaps in Ireland as well but our prize money is for our good novices and the Graded horses.”

Mullins did also allow the possibility that the ebb and flow of power between the two countries is a cyclical affair, which is the view taken by the British champion, Paul Nicholls. “The Irish had an amazing time but it just goes a bit like that sometimes,” he said. “These things tend to go in cycles.”

Alluding to the pre-Festival controversies about the amount of weight given to Irish horses, Nicholls added: “I’m not so sure about them being badly handicapped. You can see that from the results.” Irish horses won seven of the 10 handicaps staged at Cheltenham.

Responding to Mullins’s comments, a spokesman for the British Horseracing Authority pointed to a funding disparity between the two countries favouring Ireland. “Irish racing benefits from a system where all bets from Irish customers [whether on Irish racing or British racing, or indeed other sports] make a tax contribution which the Irish government returns fully to racing,” said Robin Mounsey. “This actually means that British racing is a major revenue generator for Irish racing. In Britain, only bets on British racing provide funding to the sport through the levy. The government increasingly recognises the importance of British racing and is acting to improve funding from betting by closing the significant offshore loophole, by reforming our levy system from April this year.

“Prize money continues to improve in Britain and the revised levy system will deliver further improvements, targeted at grass roots to help retain owners, provide reward for our stable teams and develop British racing’s bench strength.”

The extra £30m expected each year from the new levy system should indeed help to make many trainers’ businesses more sustainable. But it is expected to be targeted at mid- to low-class racing and is not therefore likely to make Britain more competitive at the Cheltenham Festival. However, the feeling at the BHA is that that would not be an appropriate business objective for the ruling body.

Nicholls, meanwhile, had a notable success at Kempton on Saturday with Brio Conti, who was supposed to take part in the Festival’s Martin Pipe but narrowly missed the cut. He beat 18 rivals impressively and may now run in a Grade One at Aintree. Nicholls trails Nicky Henderson by about £120,000 in the trainers’ title race but was also behind Mullins at the same stage last year and managed to turn that around in the season’s final month.

Nicholls said he was thrilled with the fifth place achieved in the Gold Cup by Saphir Du Rheu. Sent off at 33-1, the grey could not match the very best in the race but trailed the winner by just six lengths and beat fancied runners such as More Of That and Bristol De Mai.

“At least we know he can compete at that level now,” Nicholls said. “He’ll probably run in the Grand National.” Nicholls will also send his Foxhunters winner, Pacha Du Polder, to Aintree for the equivalent race over the National fences. Bryony Frost will keep the ride.

ITV’s coverage of the Cheltenham Festival finished strongly, the broadcaster reporting an average audience for Friday’s programme of 1.15 million, an increase of around 40% on Channel 4’s figure for the same day last year. That amounted to a 15% share compared to 10.7% a year ago. The peak audience was 1.8m, up from 1.55m last year.

An ITV spokesman said: “ITV’s coverage of the Cheltenham Festival has had a bigger audience than any of the previous four years it was on Channel 4. Across the week, it has averaged 870,000 with a 13% share.” He noted that the audience peaked at above one million each day and added that half a million men had tuned in for all four days.

However, sources connected with the old Channel 4 programme pointed out that an increased audience ought to have been taken for granted in the switch to ITV and claimed the programme had not fared well by comparison with the average audience for its slot on ITV. That view found some sympathy with Andrew Franklin, a long-serving producer of racing programmes until 2012.

“I think they can be pretty satisfied with what they’ve delivered in terms of the quality of the programmes,” Franklin said. “They’ve made a very promising start, helped by what seems to be a significant increase in the production budget.

“In terms of the audience, they haven’t delivered the transformational uplift that I guess most people have hoped for and using the low bar set by Channel 4 isn’t really appropriate. The figures are going the right way but racing is now on TV’s most popular commercial platform, so that was a given.

“People in racing can’t carry on blaming the messenger for audience figures that should be higher. The first thing that’s got to happen is for the sport to recognise that something needs to be done and, until that’s been generally acknowledged, there’s no point in discussing the detail. There are reforms that could happen but we could be talking all day about that.”

Today’s tips, by Chris Cook


2.15 Fattsota 2.45 The Dutchman (nap) 3.20 Magic Dancer 3.55 Mad Brian 4.25 Lord Ballim 5.00 Carlton Ryan

Ffos Las

2.00 Dites Rien 2.30 Monbeg Aquadude 3.00 Tara Mac 3.35 Aengus 4.10 Steel Native 4.45 Hennllan Harri (nb) 5.15 Flemenskill

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