How Irish jump racing became a tale of contrasts among training ranks
Alan Sweetman on the gulf between the haves and have nots in the sport
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Perhaps it is overly dramatic to paraphrase the words of Charles Dickens from A Tale Of Two Cities to describe the current state of Irish jump racing, but there is a contrast at the heart of the narrative these days. At a time when the top Irish stables have managed to attain an impressive blend of quantity and quality, those further down the scale are suffering from a corresponding diminution on both fronts.
For many, this presents a serious threat to viability. The recent departure of Colm Murphy from the ranks is emblematic of the struggle facing many trainers of solid and long-standing repute. Charlie Swan was a high-profile casualty during the season before last. Others further down the pecking order have exited in significant numbers without fanfare, hidden stories of livelihoods lost.
Since 2007 the number of active licence holders has dropped 18 per cent to 373. In the six years to the end of 2015, the figure for restricted trainers collapsed by 29 per cent to 248. These statistics reflect the difficulties faced by stables in the grassroots of the sport. Many of those hit by reduced income and bad debts during the recession continue to fight a losing battle. For some senior members of the profession, age is now against them.
The perception of top trainers taking a bigger slice of the cake is a repeated generality of recent seasons. A trend has seen the five top trainers strengthen their collective grip. Their combined tally has risen from 305 wins (as opposed to 1,094 for the remainder) in 2011-12 to 433 (opposed to 951) in the 2015-16 season. The win-ratio between the quintet and the rest has gone from 22:78 to 32:68 in the same period. The prize-money ratio provides an even starker picture having shifted from 26:74 to 37:63.
The widening gulf has resulted from a combination of factors, including the proliferation of Graded races. Despite some trimming back, a programme book involving 34 Grade 1s, 30 Grade 2s, 38 Grade 3s and 19 Listed races provides a surfeit of opportunities for the handful of stables who have moved into an elite category with the support of a coterie of massively wealthy owners.
Two distinct but related factors have crucially changed the face of Irish jump racing. On the one hand, we have seen the emergence of two immense training operations. Willie Mullins, champion trainer in every season since dislodging Noel Meade from the top spot in the 2007-08 campaign, now has a feasible challenger in Gordon Elliott, whose career has progressed at a phenomenal gallop since he won the Grand National with Silver Birch as a virtual unknown in 2007.
Overlapping with this development, two owners with enormous means have expanded operations on an unprecedented scale. Between them, Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud and JP McManus won 278 of the 1,364 races run under jumps rules in Ireland in the 2015-16 season.
This factor alone is enough to provide an inherent imbalance. The gulf between an elite group of owners and the remainder is accentuated by the aggregate strength of the owners who filled the next four slots in the table last season, the Ricci, Wylie and Potts husband-and-wife partnerships and Barry Connell.
A radical change has occurred in the 25 years since businessman Michael Smurfit was crowned champion owner in the 1990-91 season with a total of 13 wins. He was the only owner to reach double figures that season. When McManus secured the championship with 45 wins in 2000-01, John Magnier (19) Seamus O'Farrell (13) and Paul Shanahan (10) achieved double-figures. By 2005-06 a new name was on the list. Gigginstown had 21 wins, coming a distant second to McManus (56). Des Sharkey (10) took third. Fast forward to 2015-16 when Gigginstown topped the table with 143 wins with McManus on 135. In addition, Ricci (38) Connell (32) Potts (21) and Wylie (18) all bettered Smurfit's winning total of 13 25 years earlier. A lot more racing these days certainly, but the figures are nonetheless striking.
Already this season there is a sense of things adopting a slightly different shape, first with the removal of the Potts horses from their principal Irish trainer, Henry de Bromhead, and more significantly the decision by Gigginstown to remove 60 horses from Willie Mullins. They have gone in several directions with Elliott the main beneficiary having delivered the operation a second Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack last March, ten years after the Mouse Morris-trained War Of Attrition gave the fledgling operation the breakthrough win that fired O'Leary's racing ambitions.
The split with Mullins confirms the fundamental strategic divergence between the two leading owners. O'Leary operates a ruthless, budget-driven regime and has started to narrow the field of favoured trainers. McManus spreads his horses far and wide, allowing an array of trainers the comfort that at least one monthly account will be settled promptly and in full. For McManus the game is about loyalty, reward for previous endeavour, often a gesture of support for those in need of a boost.
These twin strands of the current jumping scene have produced a fundamental dichotomy through the lower reaches of the industry and beyond into the public domain. At one level there is genuine admiration for those setting new standards. Below the surface simmers a sense of resentment at the increasingly narrow concentration of power.
Trainers maintain they are facing increased costs on every front, and yet are reluctant to put up fees for fear of being undercut. There is a younger, hungrier breed out there prepared to take risks in order to get established, but this cohort also face an uphill economic battle, especially if renting property, boxes or gallops.
The purchasing power of the main players has raised prices at the upper end of the market. Many who used to play in the bigger league have been forced down a level, serving to intensify competition for the right type of horse in the middle market. Owners are getting out of the game, some completely, others migrating to a lively point-to-point scene, perhaps hoping to get involved in a profitable trading environment for younger horses. There are signs syndicates are becoming a more common feature again, so many having been wiped out by the recession. Syndicates can be a mixed blessing though, often bringing pressure on trainers to deliver results in a hurry.
For the racing public the current standards represent an obvious plus when it comes to the annual joust at Cheltenham, and also applies to Punchestown which has carved its own niche as the culmination of the domestic season. However, the run-of-the mill midweek fixtures during the winter have basically become 'industry meetings'. Even many of the big weekend events have lost their allure with the Graded races typically involving small fields and only a handful of big-name operators. Irish jumping has indeed become a tale of two cities.
Snapshots of the season
The 2016 Galway Plate had 22 runners, 12 supplied by the Mullins, Elliott and de Bromhead stables. Lord Scoundrel won for Gigginstown and Elliott, who also had the fifth and sixth. Mullins supplied the second, third and fourth. The Plate's roll call of winning owners since 2010 now reads, McManus (3), Gigginstown (2), one each for Ricci and Potts.
The Kerry National had 18 runners, six for Gigginstown. In an incident-packed race the Plate winner Lord Scoundrel was staying on in third when falling at the second-last. By this stage two Gigginstown runners had already exited, and two others were struggling, but Wrath Of Titans came to the rescue, taking the first prize of €103,250 for Elliott, who trained him to win a point-to-point at Lingstown in 2013 and saddled him to finish second in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper. After that the horse went off to Dessie Hughes who trained him until his death, when his daughter Sandra took charge. He rejoined Elliott in the summer after Hughes, trainer of 2013 Irish Grand National winner Thunder And Roses in the maroon silks, was one of several trainers deemed surplus to requirements by Gigginstown. Rightville Boy ran his heart out to take second in the big Listowel handicap for Askeaton trainer Paddy Neville, who belongs to the grassroots brigade. He had a good mare a few years back called Macville, who won four races including a Grade 3 at Down Royal. He has trained 27 winners in the last ten seasons. Gigginstown have had 37 since the start of this season.
Weekend of October 1-2
With the season gathering momentum, Gowran staged a 2m4f Grade 2 chase won by Mullins with the Ricci-owned Ballycasey. On the following day Tipperary's mixed card included three Graded races over jumps. Mullins won all three, the Grade 2 hurdle with 2-5 chance Ivan Grozny, the Grade 3 novice hurdle with even-money shot Penhill, and a Grade 3 mares' chase with 2-1 second favourite Westerner Lady. The three races attracted 15 runners between them.
Tipperary, October 4
This was a typical midweek card which produced a treble for Elliott with SPs of 4-6, 4-7 and 8-11, two of them owned by Gigginstown. Elliott bought bumper winner Monbeg Notorious for £155,000 in May of last year, five days after he had won a maiden point-to-point at Tralee. There was also a double for De Bromhead, the first leg for Gigginstown with Lion In His Heart, who cost a relatively modest €30,000 and looks a good buy.
Limerick, October 10
Gigginstown had six intended runners for the Munster National. They ended up with five after topweight Clarcam was taken out because of the ground, but it was the owners’ former Triumph Hurdle winner, the Elliott-trained Tiger Roll, who capitalised on a handy weight to win at 20-1.
Cork trainer Liam Burke has been involved in racing for 40 years and was a leading figure in point-to-pointing in the southern region at a time when the area was the heartland of the sport. There were rousing celebrations when he won the Galway Plate with Sir Frederick in 2007. He admits to finding it a struggle these days but showed he had not lost his touch when My Murphy won the Thyestes Chase last January.
He says: "I was hit badly by the recession. A few of my owners just couldn't afford it any more. Unfortunately I got badly stung in one case. I used to have owners from England but that business dried up. As is the way, a couple of owners died. It's become a struggle, and a trainer like me has to be very lucky to get a horse that will be competitive at a high level.
"It can be soul-destroying. I lost a horse at Killarney during the summer. He wasn't a star but he was probably going to win a few races and was giving us a bit hope for the future. Winning the Thyestes was great, but in general the big handicaps are mainly for the big boys now."
Colin McBratney, one of the most respected figures in Northern Irish jump racing, achieved the biggest success of his career when Ballyholland won the Galway Plate in 2009. He sells on young horses and is involved in point-to-pointing. In recent seasons he has trained high-class hunter chasers Carsonstown Boy and Marito.
"We were living the dream when Ballyholland won the Plate. His owner bought him for €2,000 at Fairyhouse. It can be done, but it was rare then and very rare now. I've been lucky to have very loyal owners but it has become very difficult to find horses at a level they can afford. It's even more difficult getting new owners into the yard.
"There are too many of us trying to buy the same sort of horse. I've managed to put some syndicates together but then you have to have a certain type of horses, one nearly ready to run and then to do plenty of racing, so that the members have a bit of fun out of it.
"Point-to-pointing is very professional and very competitive now. In this part of the world we have two big operations, Wilson Dennison, who is a brilliant producer of young horses with Colin McKeever, and the Crawford brothers. Then you have all the big boys coming up from the south,
"I'm lucky, I have my own property, my own gallops, and I produce my own haylage. I have family members working with me. I don't know how you could make a living if you were renting a yard, or paying to use gallops. The costs have increased across the board, but we have had to keep fees down at the same time.
A stalwart of racing in the west of Ireland, Val O'Brien enjoyed a good season in 20015-16, sending out 13 winners. He has a rare skill in getting the best out of older chasers. One of his great favourites, Final Tub, recorded the last of his 12 wins as a 15-year-old in 1998.
Through his career, O'Brien was often able to draw on local support. "It has dried up now. There was a time when you would always have a few people in the locality, a farmer, or maybe a businessman or doctor who would be able to afford a horse and who liked having one in training, perhaps because there has been a tradition in the family. Those days are gone now.
"Things are going great for the trainers at the top, and there's a place for the small operation, someone with half a dozen horses who can run it as a part-time operation with sons or daughters about the place.
"A big difference is that the big handicaps have basically gone out of the reach of the average trainer. The major owners have so many horses for them. It's hard even to get a place in a race like the Galway Plate any more. You used to hope you would pick up good place money, and the owners could feel they were part of a big occasion. It gave the stable a bit of a boost to have a big-race runner."
Ross O'Sullivan is a former amateur jockey who started training in 2010-11 at a time when the effects of the economic recession had impacted sharply. Like many of the younger generation, his business model represents a mix of activity.
"I'm involved in breaking horses and pre-training as well as in the actual training, and that gives us the chance to make a living. As far as the training side is concerned I think a lot of younger trainers such as myself should really be charging higher fees, but can't do so in the current environment because there will always be someone to undercut you. When you add up all the costs the level of fees doesn't allow for anything but very tight margins.
"The standard is exceptionally high right now and we all aspire to be up there at the top. You can't begrudge success. It took a long time for Willie Mullins to reach his present level, and Gordon Elliott has come from nowhere in ten years. It's very tough and competitive, but that's the way of any sport."