Tuesday 1 May 2018

Hats Off to the Mighty Mullins and the Punchestown Festival. Great Racing, But Are Duopolies Good For the Sport?

Well, yet another National Hunt season drew to a close last weekend. Personally I didn’t think it was one of the best we’ve experienced in the UK, marred as it was by terrible weather, the lack of the best horses running frequently against each other and in particular Messrs. Henderson and Nicholls’ domination of small field novice races, particularly the chases. The main reason though is that we’re now obviously in an era where the Irish completely dominate the sport.

The concentration of buying power in the hands of a small number of billionaire owners such as Michael O’Leary and J.P. McManus has led to the whole supply chain of top horses being routed into a small number of top yards. The virtuous circle of acquiring these horses and then harvesting the top races with them appears to have moved to an altogether new level in the last few years. There’s probably never been a period when the grass-roots owner has had less chance of acquiring a top horse. As readers of this blog know, it has forced a major rethink of how Owners for Owners purchases its NH horses, as we’ve deserted the ready-to-go but very expensive ex-point-to-pointer in favour of foals, yearlings and store horses. So far we’ve been very lucky with Acey Milan and Melekhov, but I suspect we’ll find that the prices of these youngsters will steadily climb as many owners and trainers do exactly the same as us. I’m expecting the 3yo store horse sales to be very competitive indeed this Spring / Summer.

You only have to look at the prize-money of the top Irish trainers to see what is happening. Mullins finished the season on c. €6 million of prize-money, Gordon Elliott c. €5 million, then a long way behind them Joseph O’Brien (€1.5m), Henry de Bromhead (€1.3m), Jessica Harrington (€1.3m), Noel Meade (€1.2m) then a huge gap to Charlie Byrnes in 7th place with only €400k. In effect the lesser trainers can no longer compete and it must be extremely dispiriting coming up against the Elliott and Mullins juggernauts day in, day out. It’s hardly surprising that there’s been a continuous decline in the Irish NH trainer ranks as so many throw in the towel and quit the sport. Indeed, as another graphic example, Willie Mullins started the Punchestown Festival on Tuesday €0.5m down on Gordon Elliott yet finished €800,000 ahead, which is quite extraordinary. In fact if he’d only started the season on Tuesday, with no previous winners, he’d have been 2nd in the trainer ranks five days later. This was Willie’s 11th successive season as top trainer.

Almost every day at Punchestown there were startling and head-scratching performances by Mullins. He won six of the seven races on the second day. In the Champion Novice Hurdle, all nine runners came from Mullins and Elliott (actually that’s a lie – one was from Margaret Mullins!) I was very interested in this race as it was won by Dortmund Park, who I bought two years ago but then didn’t go ahead with the purchase because he was failed by the vet. The Champion 4yo Hurdle was the third time in a season that a Gr.1 race was contested only by the two major yards. There were seven runners and the first three home were all Mullins’. Gordon Elliott had set a trainer’s record earlier in the year for the number of runners in one race when he saddled 13 in the Irish Grand National; Mullins then topped that with 15 runners in one of the races. Apparently this is a world record and in my book, a very discouraging one.

You just have to ask whether this duopoly domination is good for the sport. I think for many of the betting public it probably has no effect, as they often revel in a head-to-head in the training ranks and on the track. There was certainly a lot of media hype going into Punchestown, and the overall quality of racing at the meeting last week was superb. Wasn’t it magnificent to see the mighty machine, Faugheen, bounce back to his best? That certainly stands out as one of the season’s best performances for me. The others would be Native River in the Gold Cup; Tiger Roll in the Cross-Country and Grand National; Altior unbeaten; and the horse I most enjoy watching, Samcro, when he strolled home in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at the new Leopardstown Festival. I do hope they keep him hurdling and go for the Champion next year.

It’s impossible to see the dominance changing soon. In the world of business the academics argue that companies compete through their networks of suppliers and partners. In racing the key networks now are the small number of the very top trainers working with their agents and breeders to ensure that the very best bloodstock, regardless of price, ends up in their yard. While this has always been the case in Flat racing, it now unfortunately seems that the same applies to National Hunt. All sports need competition and diversity. While there is obviously going to be superb competition on the racetrack, as we saw at the Festivals that now dominate our sport – Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown – there is a risk that the lesser owners and trainers become discouraged and we end up with a two-tier sport. Not surprisingly, nothing would give me greater pleasure in the new season than our young horses Acey Milan, Lord Condi, Melekhov and the as yet unnamed 4yo Presenting managed to compete in the premier league. Everything crossed for the next year.

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