Tony Mullins urges cap on runners for owners in major handicaps
Ireland may be basking in a magnificent Cheltenham Festival but trainer Tony Mullins has suggested a cap on the number of horses one owner can run in a major handicap hurdle or chase in a bid not to exclude the ‘small man.’
Reflecting a concern that the middle to lower tiers in Irish racing are struggling to make a living, Mullins – brother of jumping behemoth Willie – said: “I've done a lot of thinking about how the smaller trainer can still compete.
"I thought it could be an idea to put a cap on the number of horses representing one owner in a major handicap, rather than the major owners having upwards of 20 runners in a race like the Irish Grand National or a Galway Plate.
A golden period
“I have more or less been driven out of the game. Like Adrian [Maguire], I'm running my yard at a loss and have been for about six or seven years and I don’t know for how much longer I can sustain this.”
There’s little doubt Irish racing is enjoying a golden period, but more questions than answers have been raised over the prospects of survival for smaller trainers without the backing of a big owner.
Among the record 19 Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham last week was Presenting Percy, but his Galway-based trainer Pat Kelly also highlighted the struggle he faces on a daily basis immediately after recording back-to-back victories in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle.
Without racing’s rich men and women, Irish trainers have indeed struggled and, fresh from landing the opening novice hurdle at Limerick on Sunday for JP McManus with Fit To Be Tied, trainer Niall Madden also revealed how tough things have become at grassroots level.
However, Horse Racing Ireland CEO Brian Kavanagh, hailing the Irish success at Cheltenham as a marvellous achievement, believes Mullins' suggestion would be a step in the wrong direction.
He said: "My view would be that if a horse is qualified for a race you can’t turn around and tell an owner their horse cannot run. You set out the conditions for a race and if a horse is qualified it should be entitled to run no matter who owns it."
He said: “It’s worth focusing on the positives that surrounded our success at Cheltenham last week as it reflects the quality of horses, trainers and jockeys we have here in Ireland."
He added: “The government and the owners have put a significant investment into racing and we have specifically run a high-quality programme to cater for these animals. We are aware that makes things extremely competitive.”
Kavanagh points to the fact HRI have set up a new ownership department under Aidan McGarry and, in a bid to reach out to the trainers who don’t have big owners signing the cheques, raised the possibility of races being run over jumps for horses who cost below a certain figure.
“A series of auction races have been set up on the Flat for horses who cost €70,000 or less at the sales and that should help the smaller trainers on the Flat. Something similar could potentially work over jumps,” he said.