British trainers' failure to embrace Dublin Racing Festival is inexcusable
In terms of where to pitch expectations for the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival, it makes sense to reflect on the 2014 Irish Champions Weekend.
Then, as now, the Flat version was a bold, fledgling concept, a leap into the unknown that promptly won the unanimous goodwill of the entire industry.
Events unfolded with tremendous fanfare, as an aggregate 24,168 people got behind the two-day initiative, notwithstanding that a percentage of that figure gratefully availed themselves of the freebies that HRI was throwing about like confetti.
Of course, the vibrancy of the activity on the track also helped. The lucrative spoils could hardly have been spread more evenly, and there was quality, drama and engaging plot twists at every turn.
Significantly, the British contingent were richly rewarded for their endeavour, plundering eight of the 14 races. The ground was fast and the weather balmy, so it was a perfect storm.
That is the prism through which we must now view Leopardstown's new festival. In terms of quality, competitiveness, variety, attendance and appeal to the floating sports fan and broader media, the 2014 Champions Weekend will be a hard act to follow – as itself has discovered.
Still, if 24,168 attended that two-day spectacular four years ago, it is reasonable for its jumping equivalent to aim for a considerably higher turnout.
At this stage, while it would be misguided to prejudge how the showpiece events might transpire, the one thing we can say already is that the lack of ambition by British-based trainers is objectionable.
At the 2014 Champions Weekend there were eight cross-channel winners – this time there are eight entries. You can dress it up any way you like, but that is a sad indictment of British trainers’ sense of solidarity or big-picture perspective. This is an immensely worthwhile and exciting venture that has the capacity to enhance the jumps season.
For a collective that spends a considerable amount of time bemoaning poor prize-money on home soil, that all bar eight have turned their noses up at even entering anything for a two-day programme boasting €1.5m in prize-money is inexcusable.
We have seen in recent weeks that many of Willie Mullins’ equine galacticos appear more vulnerable now than at any point in recent years, yet the heavyweight operators among our near neighbours have failed dismally to grasp the nettle.
The likes of Faugheen, Min and Yorkhill all have questions to answer after turning in below-par performances that suggest they are all mortal, and Nicky Richards capitalised on that vulnerability to devastating effect with Simply Ned over Christmas.
Richards had the gumption to have a go, and you can be almost certain that he will roll the dice with Simply Ned once more on February 3. Sadly, it looks like few will join him.
Nicky Henderson has put Buveur D’Air in the BHP Insurance Champion Hurdle, but it isn’t entirely implausible both he and Faugheen could miss the race, rendering the €200,000 Saturday feature inherently more winnable.
Last month, Nigel Twiston-Davies lamented that the International Hurdle, given its value of £130,000, wasn’t a Grade 1 after his stalwart was beaten by My Tent Or Yours when conceding a penalty.
It is knocking on a cumulative nine years since those two won a Grade 1, but if Faugheen and Buveur D’Air miss the Irish Champion Hurdle – and Faugheen could well bomb again even if he does run – would they ever have a better chance of winning another? Probably not. Mick Jazz, after all, is hardly a formidable opponent.
This is not to individualise any of this, merely to draw attention to a degree of inertia that undermines the racing festival concept. Similar observations could be readily made elsewhere on the programme, including for the climactic Unibet Gold Cup.
It is a wide-open €200,000 contest, and, while Jonjo O’Neill and Brian Ellison have pitched in Minella Rocco and Definitly Red, imagine the race we might have had if others like Native River, Bristol De Mai and Whisper were among the contenders.
As ever, the pool is shallow at the highest level, and those who have eschewed these opportunities have their reasons for doing so, the most common of which is a reluctance to travel horses with the great big shadow of the Cheltenham Festival looming large.
However, to make this enterprise work will require stakeholders to step outside their comfort zones and buy into the spirit of it.
You can’t simply create prestige or tradition out of nothing, and nobody is saying that the new festival will ever have anything on Cheltenham in March. But to make this a success British trainers must embrace the concept and consciously decide to explore previously uncharted waters, just as every single Irish handler has done for the Cotswold bonanza in March since Vincent O’Brien identified it for what it was back in the late 1940s.
They could maybe start by throwing a few more into the mix come the supplementary entry stage on January 30.
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