Really, O’Leary?

The only question to come out of last week concerning the extent of the Irish dominance was whether they enjoyed the Cheltenham Festival or the finale to the 6 Nations more. If I was a bookmaker tasked with pricing up that market I would be tempted to go 5-6 the pair. No doubt, mind you, that both sporting contests offer fervour bordering on hysteria on both sides of the Irish Sea, and both are richer for it.

Given that, how refreshing it is to see the arrest statistics from both events: Cheltenham Festival – nil, 6 Nations – nil. Again, that ‘bore draw’ would have been a strong favourite in any bookies list. Drink is taken, money is won and lost, passions run high and conditions are cramped – the perfect storm, you might think, for a brouhaha to develop out of the melee. Not a bit of it.

Regular readers will know that I have my concerns with the Festival, mostly concerning the last in the above list rather than the first three, but whilst I would be able to name some courses where I have sensed an intimidating or even menacing undercurrent to the atmosphere, Cheltenham has always remained raucous rather than ruffian, and rugby has always allowed supporters to mix and enjoy the brutality on the pitch rather than create their own off of it. On my rare visits to the Emerald Isle I have played poker in Dublin and gone racing in Galway and have always felt welcome as I’ve handed over cash to other players and bookmakers. Our rivalry is fierce but the reception is friendly.

The Festival provided its own unique form of brutality in the betting ring, though, with several odds-on favourites beaten and an average SP of winners over the four days of 11.4/1. With an extraordinary 488 runners, it remains an event that provides ample opportunity to (and here I use a technical term learnt from personal experience) ‘do your nuts’. Even the mighty Pricewise struggled with just four winners from 42 bets, although his unique approach to finding value meant he still made a profit.

Willie Mullins, narrowly touched off by Gordon Elliott in the race for top trainer last week, made an interesting point regarding the difference of approach – Ireland concentrates on graded racing whilst in England the bigger prizes are available for handicaps. His theory is that if an owner has a top class horse he is more likely to send it to Ireland. It’s certainly true that the upcoming Grand National has the biggest first prize of the calendar up for grabs, but it was noteworthy that the Irish dominance last week was across all disciplines.

Of the 28 races, ten were handicaps that resulted in seven Irish wins, a success rate slightly above the 12 out of 18 non-handicap winners for the Irish. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, never shy of voicing his opinion and vociferous in his upset over the ratings given to his horses by chief handicapper Phil Smith, was the winner of two of those handicaps and said after the first of them, when the harshly handicapped Road To Respect won the 24-runner contest by a comfortable six lengths, “I’ve got to send a Christmas card to Mr Smith apparently”. Generous, Micheal. And I had backed the runner-up, by the way.

The badly handicapped Road To Riches wins a tad cosily at the Festival

He wasn’t the only one to feel miffed about the treatment of Irish horses compared to their British counterparts. County Galway trainer Pat Kelly described himself as “a raging bull” on hearing of the mark given to his challenger for the Pertemps. “I’m disgusted with that. Whether Presenting Percy runs in the race won’t be decided until I discuss things with his owner.” Well, he did run and hosed up by four lengths in what was meant to be another competitive 24-runner affair. At least jockey Davy Russell had the decency to offer an apology to Phil Smith immediately after the race for the unwarranted abuse he had received.

My own punting redemption was scheduled for the Midlands Grand National the day after the Festival finale, but as usual the horses hadn’t read the script. Yes, you may well have correctly guessed that I am talking out of my pocket and had backed the runner-up Mysteree who ran a terrific race just three weeks after winning another marathon, the Eider at Newcastle. It is an ugly truth that punting skews perspective, and I have to admit that if I had backed Chase The Spud I may well be lauding a superb, never-say-die ride by Paddy Brennan.

But this is precisely why they don’t let stewards bet, and their actions after the race were, excuse the pun, a mysteree. Brennan was handed a two-day ban for using his whip without allowing his mount time to respond, a curious judgement on many levels. The winner was clearly responding to the whip for a long time, and the horse was hit at least 12 times in the footage I watched, a number which could have been higher as he was out of shot for most of the last half-mile. Surely a more appropriate call would have been a ban for excessive use of the whip which carries a higher penalty.

I must make it clear that I don’t think Brennan was trying to hurt the horse, and neither do I know that Chase The Spud was hurt. Nor do I want to deprive a jockey of making a living – their bravery earns every penny they get in my opinion. However, the rules are there for a reason and as soon as you start turning a blind eye to one or two incidents the boundaries become blurred – witness the many false starts at the Festival prompted, in my opinion, by a few situations early in the week when the starter shouldn’t have let them go.

So with the Festival gone for another year, and after a tricky negotiation with the bank manager, I look forward to the Grand National on Saturday 8 April. O’Leary has already thrown his toys out of the pram and half of his entries out of the race, but still has five engaged for the Aintree marathon. Rogue Angel is currently 33/1 and 41st in the list so looks sure to get a run and could be another dreadfully handicapped Gigginstown runner to produce a miracle. This previous winner of the Irish National, trained by the wily Mouse Morris who knows a thing or two about winning the big race, has been quietly campaigned and could spring a surprise.

I’m sure Mr O’Leary doesn’t need another half a million, but I could do with some of it and if you can’t beat the Irish you may as well join them.