Is romance dead as big spenders rule the roost at Cheltenham?
Martin Stevens on how money talks in the jump racing jamboree
Flat racing is often knocked for its lack of romance; its domination by oil-rich sheikhs and multinational corporations. There is no denying that money talks in the discipline, but it is becoming increasingly vocal in the jumps sphere too, and bordering on deafeningly loud in the leading owners' pursuit of Cheltenham contenders.
At last year's festival, just four deep-pocketed entities owned the winners of 15 of the 28 races. Susannah Ricci, wife of former Barclays banker Rich, had five - Annie Power, Douvan, Limini, Vautour and Vroum Vroum Mag. All bar Limini were purchased privately, presumably for large sums seeing as they had shown considerable promise for their previous connections. Limini was bought for €100,000 at the Arqana Arc Sale, a boutique auction of talented Flat horses, after winning three races in the French provinces.
JP McManus also owned five Cheltenham 2016 winners (including Josies Orders in the Cross Country Chase, promoted to first after the later disqualification of Any Currency). Josies Orders and Cause Of Causes were private acquisitions, while Minella Rocco was a £260,000 buy at the Cheltenham Festival Sale of 2014 and the regally bred Montjeu gelding Ivanovich Gorbatov was passed between Coolmore partners.
All that makes McManus's Foxhunter Chase winner On The Fringe look cheap as a €47,000 Tattersalls Ireland November foal, although that was still three times the colts' average at that year's sale.
McManus has also subsequently bought Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle winner Unowhatimeanharry, no doubt for a small fortune as befits the horse's exciting profile.
AUCTION PRICES PAID BY OWNERS OF 2016
CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL WINNERS
Un Temps Pour Tout £450,000, DBS Newbury Sale
Empire Of Dirt €325,000, Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale
Minella Rocco £260,000, Brightwells Cheltenham Sale
Limini €100,000. Arqana Arc Sale
Diamond King €95,000, Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale
Superb Story €80,000, Arqana Autumn Sale
Altior €60,000, Goffs Land Rover Sale
On The Fringe €47,000, Tattersalls Ireland November NH Sale
Thistlecrack €43,000, Tattersalls Ireland August Sale
Ballyalton £33,000, Brightwells Cheltenham Sale
Sage Group co-founder Graham Wylie and his wife Andrea had their silks carried to victory three times at last year's festival, by private purchases Black Hercules, Solar Impulse and Yorkhill, while Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud led his charges into the winner's enclosure twice - first Empire Of Dirt, at €325,000 the second most expensive store horse ever sold at Tattersalls Ireland, and then Don Cossack, a private signing from Walter Connors.
Elsewhere, Un Temps Pour Tout went some way to justifying his purchase by Caroline Tisdall and Bryan Drew for an eye-watering £450,000 at the DBS Newbury Sale by winning the Ultima Handicap Chase. Although, even with the prize-money for that race as well as three other wins and two Grade 1 placings, he is still some way off recouping the outlay.
It's all a far cry from Welsh farmer Sirrell Griffiths saddling Norton's Coin, bred by his neighbour from an unheralded stallion, to Gold Cup success in 1990. Casting around for a fairytale from last year's festival results you could perhaps claim Mall Dini, one of few horses trained by Patrick Kelly, owned by late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds' son Philip and once unsold as a foal for €5,500. Or maybe Ballyalton, who trainer Ian Williams somehow managed to snare for just £33,000 at a Cheltenham sale in 2011 even after the horse had won between the flags at Boulta in the weeks before the auction. Then there are Altior and Thistlecrack, not exactly rags-to-riches stories but certainly relative bargains, bought by their owners from store sales for €60,000 and €43,000 respectively.
Sprinter Sacre also represented a good piece of business, as he reportedly formed part of a job lot of 22 unbroken horses bought from France for £300,000.
Altior looks set to strike for the cheaper brigade at this month's festival, but with Thistlecrack out and Sprinter Sacre retired, it looks as though the trend for money buying success will continue. Besides last year's expensively sourced returning heroes, six-figure auction price-tags also belong to leading fancies Finian's Oscar (£250,000), Moon Racer (£225,000), Carter McKay (£160,000), Death Duty (€145,000) and Petit Mouchoir (€100,000), as well as the presumably costly private acquisitions Buveur D'Air, Let's Dance, Melon and Yanworth.
LEADING OWNERS OF 2016 CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL WINNERS
Susannah Ricci 5 (Annie Power, Douvan, Limini, Vautour, Vroum Vroum Mag)
JP McManus 5 (Cause Of Causes, Ivanovich Gorbatov, Josies Orders, Minella Rocco, On The Fringe)
Andrea and Graham Wylie 3 (Black Hercules, Solar Impulse, Yorkhill)
Gigginstown House Stud 2 (Don Cossack, Empire Of Dirt)
Demand for future festival runners is not slowing. Not only does the rumour mill frequently churn out stories of hair-raising prices paid to point-to-point trainers in private deals, but at the first three Cheltenham sales held this jumps season, 22 lots have changed hands for £100,000 or more, headed by a new record price for a pointer of £480,000, paid by Tom Malone and Joe Tizzard for Flemenshill on behalf of Alan and Ann Potts. There were 13 six-figure transactions at the same three fixtures in 2015/16.
It is, arguably, all an extension of the growth in popularity of jump racing in the second half of the last century, during which prize-money levels at the major festivals gradually approached parity with their Flat counterparts, sales prices rocketed and a better class of colt was retired to cover jumps mares.
The present fierce competition between the big jumps owners for the best prospects appears especially intense at present, though, with horses belonging to a handful of power brokers dominating the scoreboard at Cheltenham last year and ante-post betting lists for next week's renewal.
By way of comparison, at the 2006 festival the 24 winners were owned by 22 different owners, with only Sir Robert Ogden and JP McManus doubling up. Many of the scorers were signings from France and the Irish point-to-point field, but two of the championship races went the way of modestly priced horses owned by smaller owners in Brave Inca and Newmill. That was the year Michael O'Leary's first Grade 1 winner, War Of Attrition, landed the Gold Cup and fuelled the owner's thirst for more festival glory.
Does it matter that so much money swills around jump racing today? Is the romance of jumps racing, its accessibility to smaller owners with smaller budgets, dead?
That's debatable. But the magnates ruling the sport at the moment do at least provide their own entertainment. Ricci is often engaging and open on the subject of his string, and generous to fans with his time, while many participants in racing have experienced the largesse of McManus. You might even say O'Leary has done sterling service to journalists and their audiences with his various outbursts.
And when the next underdog operating on a shoestring budget does pull off a giant-killing feat at Cheltenham, our enjoyment of it will be all the sweeter.