Much has been written about the Irish dominance at the Cheltenham Festival in the last few years.
Wealthy owners living in England and having their horses in Ireland has been put forward as one factor in this relatively recent phenomenon. Poor prize money in Britain in relation to Ireland is another variable which has been discussed.
In the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, nine of the 14 Grade 1 races (64 per cent) were won by Irish-trained horses. It was the same story in 2018 before this figure dropped to 7/14 (50 per cent) in 2019.
Once again, we witnessed 9/14 Irish trained winners in 2020 before reaching the heights of 12/14 (86 percent) in 2021.
During this period Irish trainers provided an average of 43 per cent of all runners in the Grade 1 contests whilst providing an average of 66 per cent of all winners.
The same old story
More of the same was to follow in 2022 and 2023, and so the simple conclusion to draw from the last seven Cheltenham Festivals would be to focus our attention more on the Irish-trained horses from 2024 onwards. As always, I suspect it is more complicated than this.
Almost a third of the 46 Irish-trained winners from 2017-2021 returned a double-figure starting price; furthermore, this sequence of 15 bigger price winners included two horses starting at 25/1, plus Minella Indo who won the 2019 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at odds of 50/1.
In fact, the Irish trainers were responsible for several perfectly plausible potential winners in many of those 46 races. Clearly, if we decided to focus on Irish-trained horses in recent times, we would still be left with many possible selections to choose from; in addition, around 34 per cent of Grade 1 races were won by trainers from outside of Ireland in this same time period.
Of the 46 Irish-trained winners, 22 returned starting prices of 6/1 or less, which equates to 48 per cent. In the same period 17 of the 24 British trained winners returned at 6/1 or less which equates to 71 per cent.
With such a small sample size to go on, this can only reflect the slightest hint in my mind that following British-trained runners presented fewer complex equations to work through.
The fact that Irish trainers were responsible for a high percentage of winners at the most recent Cheltenham Festivals would usually result in a stronger market bias towards their horses in 2024.
Consequently, the British-trained horses could easily be more forgotten about than usual, thus offering more value from a smaller selection of plausible contenders.
The Mares' Hurdle and the Champion Bumper
The Irish dominance over the last seven festivals has been particularly obvious when considering the Champion Bumper and the Mares' Hurdle. In this time Irish trainers have been responsible for the winner and the runner up in all seven Champion Bumpers and five from seven of the Mares' Hurdle contests.
The only two exceptions included the 2019 festival when the Dan Skelton-trained Roksana had the Mares' Hurdle gifted to her after the odds-on favourite Benie Des Dieux fell at the final hurdle when well clear of her rivals.
These two races are the two Grade 1 contests I do not cover for subscribers to my service on thecheltenhamtrail.com. The reason for this is partly due to them both being massively dominated by Irish trainers.
This would result in many hours of work rewatching British bumpers and mares' races throughout the season without many of them being remotely relevant when it comes to March.
In addition, there is clearly far less information to go on when considering National Hunt Flat horses. I prefer to spot patterns in performances which are clearly less relevant when it comes to Festival horses with so few previous runs to consider.
Whatever the level of Irish dominance in Grade 1 races at Cheltenham Festivals in the short term, I think it is fairly safe to assume that their strike rate is likely to remain high in the Champion Bumper and the Mares' Hurdle.
I am not proposing that this is an absolute given; however, I would suggest it is a pattern we are likely to see continue over the next few years.
Nothing lasts forever
The final point I would like to make on this issue is that the one thing certain about any cycle is that it will have a beginning and an end. It will then be replaced by another cycle, trend, or pattern and the next one will appear to be just as robust as the current one - before it drifts away to be replaced by the next one.
None of the above will be anything I will be 'hanging my hat on' in 2024 as clearly the sample sizes are too small to be sure of anything.
Clearly, the question of Irish dominance in Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival, and how to respond to it, is far from being as simple as it seems at first glance.