Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Talking to Yogi Breisner and the BBC

Seems this week it's all happening. So often being a writer can be a solitary existence from whence we only peep out occasionally in a binge week of excitement, usually around the release of a new novel. So only once a year, twice if we’re really lucky. Alas, on this occasion there is no new novel (it is in the works though), but this week has thrown up a couple of fireworks in my usually placid life.

For some time now I’ve been thinking about some of Aspen Valley’s equine characters and their problems and quirks that Jack is having to sort out in the new book. I have a fair idea of helping problematic horses from my own experience, but I am no racing trainer, so last week I woke up with the bright idea of asking Yogi Breisner for his advice. Now, for those of you who don’t know who Yogi is, he is the British Eventing team’s chef de quippe (the same team that won the team silver in the 2012 Olympics), also renowned in British jump racing for helping problematic jumpers (not the knitted reindeer sort you received from your doting aunt at Christmas) at all the biggest yards.

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So, before I had a chance to think twice about approaching such an esteemed figure in the equestrian world I pinged the British Eventing Federation a call and lo and behold, Yogi said yes! Once I’d got over the shock of this, I then had the task of detailing the Aspen Valley horses’ problems. And you can’t imagine how stupid I felt describing these fictional scenarios to Yogi Breisner, but he was awfully nice about the whole thing. I think Peace Offering and Ta’ Qali can rest assured they are in capable hands. He talked me through the problems I’d plucked out of my imagination, treating them with as much as seriousness as if they were real life, told me what the possible causes of said problems could be (both physical and psychological) then went through the various solutions. It was a wonderfully enlightening conversation, not just for me the writer, but for me the horsewoman, and I almost wished I’d invented more complications for Aspen Valley horses just to hear how this master of horses might solve them. He was wonderfully helpful and told me to call again if ever I needed more help (I shall remember that!).

But the fun wasn’t too end there. While still on a high and with all notes jotted down, I went for my daily exercise around Ely. On crossing at the traffic lights on one of Ely’s busier roads, I noticed someone had broken down right in the middle of the road and the poor girl was panicking. I was faced with a choice: Do I mind my own business and finish my walk before it gets dark? Or do I go over and help her?

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I chose the latter and with the help of two other passersby we pushed her car out of traffic and helped her ring her dad. Now, I don’t know about you, but I believe in karma, i.e. you get what you give, and when I returned home I found an email waiting for me from the BBC asking me to appear on a radio programme they had going out the following week (can one ‘appear’ on a non-visual medium?). Well! I’ve never seen karma work so quickly!
I’d done a small bit for radio back when I was doing my Adult Education course in Norwich. Back then I was asked to contribute a few encouraging words to listeners thinking about embarking on further education, but that was for a much more obscure radio station and wasn’t recorded live. In fact, they only used a couple of quotes from me recorded in a telephone interview.
This time was just a teensy bit different. For starters, this was the BBC. Not only that, it was live, I was to sit in a proper recording studio (I don’t do well in small enclosed spaces, especially when I’m nervous), and be on a panel that included Sue Moorcroft, who is one of my favourite romance authors (I still consult her book Writing Romantic or Erotic Fiction with every new novel I write to brush up on my skillset). So, nervous as hell, more than a little starstruck, somewhat overawed by the whole BBC set-up, I was ushered into my seat and had a microphone put in front of me and away we went!

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The show – an hour long – was an Arts and Culture programme in which Sue, another lovely author Cathy Sharp, and I got to chat with our host Jeremy Sallis about writing romance. In particular love in later life.
That last point is unfortunately where I came unstuck as you will hear in the following podcast. As I tried to extricate the knot from my tongue, I could feel my face burning up in embarrassment. It wasn’t my finest moment and didn’t help my fight against the panic attack that constantly threatened, but overall, doing the show was a great experience, even if a little nerve-wracking!
Here is the podcast, available for the next four weeks. The romance writers ‘slot’ is around the 2h10m mark.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

Keeping the Peace Playlist now available

It's long overdue but I've finally finished compiling Keeping the Peace's playlist. These twenty songs are either mentioned in the book or helped me to build atmosphere to scenes I was writing.

Check it out on the Trailers and Media page and stayed tuned for the playlists of Giving Chase, Share and Share Alike and Making the Running.

Happy listening!


Sunday, 7 June 2015

MAKING THE RUNNING REVIEW: "Spectacular in its simplicity"

Being With Horses reviews Making the Running:
"Reading my summary that doesn't sound too spectacular. But to me that is the strength of the book."
Read on to find out why.

Click image to access review

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Grand National Winners: Where Are They Now?

The Grand National will never be without controversy. It is a dangerous race in a dangerous sport where lives, both human and equine, are put at risk. But it is this risk that makes this race glorious. It is a celebration of courage and strength. In the aftermath of the Grand National, very often these admirable traits are overshadowed by the uproar of those opposed to the world's greatest steeplechase.

Any sensationalist reporting (regardless of its topic) should be taken with a pinch of salt. The number one rule in journalism is HAVE AN AGENDA, so facts and figures are skewed in favour of that agenda, and you, the reader, will only ever get half truths. The only way to get the full truth is to hear the other side of the story. This is it.

Trainer: Dr Richard Newland
Jockey: Leighton Aspell 
Owner: JA Provan
The 20/1 winner of the 2014 Grand National whose 5 length victory over Balthazar King rocketed his trainer, family GP Dr Richard Newland, into the spotlight, is still in training. Now a twelve-year-old, Pineau de Re competed in the 2015 Grand National in a bid to retain his crown and although finishing, he was well beaten by eventual winner Many Clouds.

Trainer: Sue Smith 
Jockey: Ryan Mania 
Owner: D Pryde, J Beaumont, DP van der Hoeven 
Now 13 years old, Auroras Encore was the surprise 66/1 winner of the 2013 Grand National. He stayed in training the following season but was retired in January 2014 when prepping for a second tilt at the National after sustaining a foreleg fracture in the running of the Betfair Chase in which he finished ninth. Successfully operated upon with screws inserted to support the bone, Auroras Encore made a full recovery and was retired to trainer Sue Smith and her husband, legendary ex show jumper Harvey’s Craiglands Farm just off the Yorkshire Dales. While not long out of spotlight, Auroras Encore made his public reappearance at the 2015 Grand National’s Parade of Champions. 

Trainer: Paul Nicholls 
Jockey: Daryl Jacob 
Owner: John Hales 
The grandest of servants, Neptune Collonges’s closely fought 2012 Grand National was to be his swansong. He was retired in the winners’ enclosure and is now ridden in dressage by Lisa Hales, daughter of owner, John Hales. Entered in his first dressage competition under his stable name ‘Nipper’ to avoid recognition, he won his class. Neptune Collonges makes regular public appearances for charity, including meeting the children of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, a tradition usually reserved for Grand National jockeys and taking part in the Parade of Champions.

Trainer: Donald McCain 
Jockey: Jason Maguire 
Owner: Trevor Hemmings 
Ballabriggs’s 2011 Grand National win was a second for owner Trevor Hemmings (2015 winner Many Clouds would make it 3 in 10 years) and the second fastest in the race’s 164-year history. Despite running in two subsequent Nationals, he failed to recapture the form he’d shown on that hot Saturday afternoon in April 2011. He finished 6th in Neptune Collonges’s National and bowed out of racing when pulling up before the second Canal Turn in the 2013 National, tiring after successfully navigating 23 jumps. Named after Hemmings’ home on the Isle of Man, it was only fitting that Ballabriggs should retire to this place, and where, as a 14 year old, he whiles away his time with fellow Grand National hero, Hedgehunter. 

2010 – DON’T PUSH IT 
Trainer: Jonjo O’Neill
Jockey: AP McCoy 
Owner: JP McManus 
Don’t Push It’s 2010 Grand National victory will go down in history as the only occasion legendary jockey AP McCoy would lift the trophy. Backed into favouritism, the gallant 10-year-old opposed the stats to score by 5 lengths from Black Apalachi. He lined up again in the 2011 Grand National and again ran well, placing third. He was kept in training the following season, but ran only once before being retired, after connections concluded he had “lost his sparkle”. Not wanting to force him to do what he no longer enjoyed, Don’t Push It was retired to owner JP McManus’s home in Ireland. Don’t Push It was apparently "a little hyper" at first, but has now settled down and whiles away his time in the paddock with his pal, Sweeps Hill. He returns to Aintree every year for the Parade of Champions. 

2009 – MON MOME
Trainer: Venetia Williams 
Jockey: Liam Treadwell 
Owner: Mrs Vida Bingham 
Mon Mome was the first horse since Foinavon in 1967 to win the Grand National at 100/1 and the first French bred to win in a century, in doing so wrecking runner-up Comply Or Die’s chance of back-to-back wins. His victory came at his second attempt over the big fences, having finished 10th the year before. He would run in a total of four Grand Nationals, falling in his third and pulling up in the 2012 renewal. He was retired at the age of 13 to trainer Venetia Williams’ Herefordshire yard, but not keen on the quiet life, he likes to be kept occupied. Mon Mome won the Novice Thoroughbred-in-hand class at his first show in Newmarket in 2013. To unwind he likes to hang out with his friend Sedrick the peacock. 

Trainer: David Pipe 
Jockey: Timmy Murphy 
Owner: David Johnson (The Johnson Family) 
A smart staying chaser, Comply or Die won the 2008 Grand National as the 7/1 joint favourite. He came close to being the first horse since Red Rum to win back-to-back Grand Nationals the following year, but had to settle for second behind surprise winner Mon Mome. He returned twice more to battle over the big Aintree fences, finishing 12th in Don’t Push It’s National and pulling up in Ballabriggs’ 2011 National. This was to be the 12 year-old’s final race and he was retired to be with his National winning partner, jockey Timmy Murphy at whose home he hangs out with his pals Well Chief and Vodka Bleu. Comply Or Die is happy in his well-earned retirement but still enjoys making public appearances at Aintree for the Parade of Champions. 

Trainer: Gordon Elliott 
Jockey: Robbie Power 
Owner: Brian Walsh (Co Kildare) 
After being hampered and falling in the 2006 Grand National, Silver Birch put the record straight the following year when winning one of the strongest Nationals in recent history. He returned the in 2008 to retain his title but fell again when 22 fences in. Aged 13, Silver Birch ran in his last race, again over the National fences, although on this occasion in the Topham Chase, in which he was unplaced. He was retired fit and healthy to trainer Gordon Elliott’s yard in Co. Antrim, N. Ireland, where he still resides. He is still occasionally ridden and has taken part at the Dublin Horse Show in the Racehorse To Riding Horse class.

Silver Birch - image supplied courtesy of Gordon Elliott Racing

Trainer: Martin Brassil 
Jockey: Niall P “Slippers” Madden 
Owner: OBP Carroll 
Named after owner Bernie Carroll’s holiday home in Portugal, Numbersixvalverde’s 2006 Grand National win scuppered runner-up Hedgehunter’s attempt at back-to-back wins. He returned to Aintree a year later to defend his title, but was beaten into 6th place. These two races would be the only occasions in a 36-race career that the Irish trained horse would set foot on an English racecourse. He sustained a leg injury in October 2007 and despite efforts to get him back to race fitness, connections were forced to call time in January 2009 and he was retired. He was retrained in other disciplines, taking well to dressage. At 19 years of age, Numbersixvalverde still lives at the yard at which he was trained in County Kildare, said to be a great character who enjoys showing off.

Trainer: Willie Mullins 
Jockey: Ruby Walsh 
Owner: Trevor Hemmings 
Hedgehunter was one of the Grand National’s most consistent competitors and some might say unluckiest. Falling at the last fence in the 2004 Grand National when trading blows with the leaders, he returned the following year to win, a worthy favourite. In 2006, he looked all set to follow up when headed by Numbersixvalverde at the last fence. He returned twice more to battle out the Grand National, finishing 9th in 2007 and his 13th finishing place in 2008 would prove his last race. Having picked up a slight injury in running, the 12-year-old was retired to his owner’s Ballaseyr Stud on the Isle of Man where he was later joined by the 2011 Grand National winner Ballabriggs. He is still ridden out on the beaches and makes public appearances at functions such as Aintree Racecourse’s media lunches.

Trainer: Ginger McCain 
Jockey: Graham Lee 
Owner: Halewood International Ltd 
In winning the 2004 Grand National, Amberleigh House achieved two remarkable things: first, he gave Ginger McCain his first National winner since the mighty Red Rum, but he also became the first horse to have placed in a National before going on to win it. At 12 years old, he was no spring chicken, but despite this he would contest two more Grand Nationals, finishing 10th in 2005 and being pulled up in 2006, bringing his Grand National total to 5 and races over the National fences to 11, never once falling. His 2006 run, however, proved to be his last race and he was retired. Now at 23 years old, he resides at the National Stud in Newmarket, where he is a star tourist attraction, accepting copious amounts of Polo mints from his fans. He spends his days in the paddock and at night in the stallion barn.

2003 – MONTY’S PASS 
Trainer: Jimmy Mangan 
Jockey: Barry Geraghty 
Owner: Dee Racing Syndicate 
Irish trained Monty’s Pass won the 2003 Grand National in decisive fashion by 12 lengths over Supreme Glory and giving trainer Jimmy Mangan a 100% strike rate in the race. He would return twice more, finishing 4th the following year and ending his racing career in the 2005 running in which he finished 16th. The 12-year-old was retired to his trainer's yard in County Cork, where, according to Mangan, he “lives the life of Riley”. At 16, Monty’s Pass was still being lightly ridden out in the summer.

2002 – BINDAREE 
Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies 
Jockey: Jim Culloty 
Owner: HR Mould 
Bindaree was the 20/1 winner of the 2002 Grand National, and hailed as the horse that kept training master Nigel Twiston-Davies in the sport. He went on to win the 2003 Welsh Grand National and competed in three more Nationals, finishing 6th in 2003, unseating jockey Carl Llewellyn in 2004 and 11th in 2005. He returned the following season as an 11-going-on-12-year old, but, with recurrent niggling leg injuries, was retired after just one more race, in the Becher Chase over the infamous Aintree fences. He was retired to his trainer’s home in Gloucestershire and in 2006 began a second career as a one-day-eventer. He still resides at Grange Hill Farm, sharing a paddock with fellow Aintree specialist Hello Bud and Shetland pony, Bandit. 

Trainer: Norman B Mason 
Jockey: Richard Guest 
Owner: NB Mason 
The 2001 Grand National was Red Marauder’s second tilt at the title having fallen in the previous year’s race. By contrast, he was one of only four to finish the race (two of which were remounted) in bog-like conditions, recording the slowest time for the race in 113 years. Fans would wait almost two years for his next racecourse appearance as leg injuries kept him absent but it was to be short-lived and Red Marauder was retired after finishing fourth in a handicap hurdle. He went to his Grand National partner, jockey (now trainer) Richard Guest and lives out in the paddock, his preferred residence over a stable and is kept company by the yard’s horses out of training over whom he is most definitely the boss. He leaves his paddock just once a year to return to the site of his greatest triumph to parade in front of crowds that he is convinced have come to see him alone. He is 25 years old and still going strong.
Red Marauder - image courtesy of Richard Guest Racing

2000 – PAPILLON 
Trainer: Ted Walsh 
Jockey: Ruby Walsh 
Owner: Mrs J Maxwell Moran 
Papillon’s millenium win in the Grand National marked a first for father-son team Ted and Ruby Walsh. He returned once more in 2001 to place fourth in the race (after being brought down at the 19th fence and remounted) but was ruled out of the 2002 running through a knee injury. Despite this he stayed in training for a further two seasons. He was retired, aged 12, to the Walshes’ farm in County Kildare, where he was later joined by Seabass, the 2012 Grand National third steered by Ruby’s sister, Katie.

1999 – BOBBYJO 
Trainer: Thomas Carberry 
Jockey: Paul Carberry 
Owner: Robert Burke 
Bobbyjo’s 1999 victory in the Grand National was but one – albeit a significant one – in a 47-strong race career. His final start came as an 11-year-old at Fairyhouse when preparing for another tilt at the Grand National. Although finishing in eighth position, an awkward landing over one of the jumps fractured his knee. He was operated upon and a screw inserted. However, a setback a month later which saw him aggravate the injury prompted connections to prevent further suffering and he was put down. He was buried in owner Bobby Burke’s hometown in Co. Galway, Ireland and his memory is celebrated every year with the running of the Grade 2 Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse.

Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies 
Jockey: Carl Llewellyn 
Owner: The Summit Partnership 
The 1998 Grand National was won by the favourite, 10-year-old Earth Summit, who made history by becoming the only horse to win all three English, Welsh and Scottish Grand Nationals. He went on the following season to win the Becher Chase over the same Grand National fences. He finished in 8th place in the 1999 Grand National and was retired early on the following season after sustaining a slight injury. He was given to his lass, Marcella Bayliss, and enjoyed a second career in the hunting field where he was always in demand because of his magnificent jumping skills. Sadly, just four years after retiring from racing, Earth Summit was diagnosed with cancer of the spleen and connections were forced to put him to sleep. He is buried on a Somerset hillside close to where he trained and his image adorns the sign at the Hollow Bottom pub where connections would celebrate his victories.

Trainer: Steve Brookshaw 
Jockey: Tony Dobbin 
Owner: Sir Stanley Clarke 
In a lightly raced career, New Zealand-bred Lord Gyllene ran away with the 1997 Grand National prize in his one and only attempt. However, his 25-length win was overshadowed by the bomb threats which accompanied that year’s event and that had forced the race to be run on the following Monday. Lord Gyllene raced twice more the following season but was pulled up on his final start. After battling recurrent injuries for two more years, he was officially retired in 2001 and is enjoying a happy life being thoroughly spoiled. Now aged 27, he still makes public appearances, most recently at the 2015 Grand National Parade of Champions.

Trainer: Terry Casey 
Jockey: Mick Fitzgerald 
Owner: Andrew TA Wates 
Of Rough Quest’s four appearances at Aintree (three over the National fences), he finished only once, having fallen twice and pulled up once. But the one time he finished, he won. Sent off the 7/1 favourite under Mick Fitzgerald, Rough Quest won the 1996 Grand National from Encore Un Peu. He remained in training for another three years, making his last appearance in the 1999 Foxhunters Chase in which he fell. The 13-year-old was retired, having been diagnosed with a muscle enzyme disorder which caused him to “tie up” or suffer cramping muscle spasms when exerted. Now 29 years old, he is still enjoying his retirement, making the occasional public appearance in Aintree’s Parade of Champions.

Trainer: Jenny Pitman 
Jockey: Jason Titley 
Owner: G & L Johnson 
Officially, Royal Athlete only ran in the Grand National once – in 1995 when he beat the 1992 winner Party Politics. But due to the infamous false start two years before, which resulted in the race being voided, the fall which he took ten fences in is not officially recorded. Neither is Esha Ness’s victory in that. Both horses were trained by Jenny Pitman, the first woman to train a Grand National winner. Royal Athlete raced just once more, pulling up in the Scottish Grand National two weeks after his Aintree victory. Having battled niggling injuries throughout his career, Royal Athlete was retired to a Gloucestershire farm, but returned to Aintree for another seven years for the Parade of Champions, before passing away aged 20.

Trainer: Martin Pipe 
Jockey: Richard Dunwoody 
Owner: Freddie Starr 
Miinnehoma, owned by the controversial comedian Freddie Starr, ran out the length-and-a-quarter winner of the 1994 Grand National over Just So under champion jockey Richard Dunwoody. He returned the following year to retain his crown but was pulled up after never travelling well. He remained competitive for one more season, but was pulled up on three of those four final appearances and finally retired, aged 13, to trainer Martin Pipe’s Pond House (now run by son, David). Miinnehoma enjoyed a happy retirement in the company of his close friend Cyfor Malta and was a regular in Aintree’s Parade of Champions until peacefully passing away in 2012 at the ripe old age of 29.

1993 – NO RACE

Trainer: Nick A Gaselee 
Jockey: Carl Llewellyn 
Owner: Mrs David Thompson 
Party Politics won the National in 1992 and would line up in three more – in 1993 the race was voided because of a false start, in 1994 he finished runner-up to Royal Athlete, and fell early on in the 1995 running. This was to prove his final race and at 12 years of age, he was retired to his owners, David and Patricia Thompson’s Cheveley Park Stud in Newmarket. This isn’t to be confused with being “retired to stud” as Party Politics was minus a couple of very important instruments required for that particular career. Instead he lived out a happy and carefree life on the stud making the occasional public appearance and Grand National parade, until the age of 25 when connections were forced to put him to sleep due to infirmities of old age.

1991 – SEAGRAM 
Trainer: DH Barons 
Jockey: N Hawke 
Owner: Sir Eric Parker 
New Zealand-bred Seagram’s victory in the 1991 Grand National made the news for more than one reason. Not only did he share the same name as the world’s biggest steeplechase’s sponsor, but he had foiled trainer Jenny Pitman and her horse Garrison Savannah’s attempt to win the ultimate double in National Hunt: the Cheltenham Gold Cup-Grand National double. He returned the following year but was pulled up with three fences left to take. He failed to recapture his form and was retired midway through the following season, aged 13. Unusually, he was brought back into training the following year having not taken to the quiet life, this time in the care of trainer Josh Gifford, although this venture was short-lived when he was pulled up in 3 of his 4 comeback starts, having lost interest in the game. With a low boredom threshold, Seagram remained active in retirement, enjoying a second career in the hunting field and died at the age of 17.

1990 – MR FRISK 
Trainer: Kim Bailey 
Jockey: Mr Marcus Armitage 
Owner: Mrs Harry J Duffey 
Though his Grand National victory is just one of 175 others, Mr Frisk’s win stands out for being the fastest ever. He is the only horse to have run the 4 1/4 mile marathon under nine minutes and if that wasn’t enough of a test, he then went on three weeks later to win the Whitbread Gold Cup. He returned the following season and won three more times. Pulled up before the 22nd fence in Seagram’s 1991 Grand National, Mr Frisk returned for one last season but did not compete again in the Grand National. He was retired from racing and began a new career team chasing and eventing with trainer, Kim Bailey’s then wife, Tracey. An intelligent and exuberant jumper, Mr Frisk rose to intermediate standard in eventing and jockey Marcus Armitage is quoted as saying “Had he started the discipline earlier, I’m sure we would be talking about a Badminton winner instead of a National winner”. Mr Frisk was put down in 2000 aged 21 after slipping on a road out hacking and breaking a hindleg. His ashes were scattered at Aintree.

Enormous thanks go to the people who took the time to provide me with information and pictures of these great heroes of the turf.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Review: MAKING THE RUNNING stays on well to win

'After finishing the last chapter, I put down the book but the characters remained with me. As it is with novels that open up a fictional world which seem so real; I was left with the gnawing question “I wonder what these people are up to now?”' Pat Miran

It's comments like these that not only make my job worthwhile but also make me realise I am not alone!

Click on the image to read the rest of 2 Talk Horses' review of Making the Running.

Click image to read review

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Au Revoir Coneygree

British racing has much to thank Coneygree for. Or perhaps that should be the late Lord Oaksey, his breeder. Because, believe it or not, Coneygree is the first British-bred horse to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in TWENTY years. You have to sneeze through the archives all the way back to 1995 and Master Oats for the last homebred to have lifted the title. And, okay, so that’s not prehistoric, but in racing terms that’s four generations of horses. So, I wanted to find out, if British horses weren’t winning the big British races then who was?

Before we go any further, I must stress that when I refer to British horses, I’m talking about British bred horses, not British trained. Not all British bred horses are trained in GB, likewise Irish and French breds are scattered throughout the lands.

I trawled through Racing Post’s results data for the last twenty Cheltenham Festivals from 1995 to 2015 – I presume that if you are reading this, you are a racing fan, and if you are a racing fan then I don’t need to remind you that the 2001 Cheltenham Festival was cancelled because of foot-and-mouth disease – and some interesting trends, some surprising, some not so surprising, began to emerge.

Firstly, the size of the Festival. In 1995, 339 horses lined up to take part (this data does NOT include non-runners). In 2015, that number had shot up to 468. Below is a graph detailing the rise, unsurprisingly it coincides with the year the Festival was extended to four days and four more races were added to the 20 race-strong meeting (since 2008 another 3 races have been added bringing it up to its current total of 27 races).

So, a healthy increase, of whom the main players are British, Irish and French horses, with a smattering of American, German and New Zealand, and even the odd Polish horse (one named Galileo, trained by Tom George, won the RSA Novices’ Hurdle in 2002).
Worrying though is the decline in British bred runners at Cheltenham, and equally concerning is the quality of those runners, which I suppose is a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other. Are fewer GB horses lining up because of the decline in quality, or is the decline in quality a result of fewer horses lining up? And when I say “decline in quality”, that is an overall, fairly loose expression I use having looked at the statistics of big Festival winners.

We can talk about declining quality and numbers all we want, but looking at this graph, GB horses don’t so much decline as avalanche. And we can’t even blame it on foot-and-mouth because the major damage is done pre 2001. The numbers actually plateau after the outbreak.

In 1995, 190 British horses lined up behind the tape, almost double the Irish contingent, a mere 101 (which is about what Willie Mullins alone brought to this year’s Festival), and dwarfing the measly 20 French bred horses. Hell, there were more US bred horses present at that Festival (23) than our garlic-loving neighbours. And that year, GB bred horses walked away with 3 of the 4 championship races, with the Irish bred Dorian’s Pride landing the Stayers’ Hurdle, latterly known as the World Hurdle.
But come 2002, a year after the foot-and-mouth outbreak, 94 British bred horses lined up alongside 83 French horses. That year, GB bred horses didn’t land a single championship race. In contrast, 205 Irish bred horses lined up, more than double what they’d been in 1995 and scoop both championship chases.

The stranglehold of Irish bred horses at the Festival continued to stengthen. In 2015, 250 Irish horses started in a Festival race, as opposed to 89 GBs and 116 Frenchies. Take a look at these pie charts and notice the diminishing red of the Brits, to the devouring green of the Irish, and even the French are making headway, making up 25% of starters at this year’s Festival.

Is the British jumper in danger of being wiped out? Do these alarming figures equate to winners? Well, here’s a table to suggest that yes, more runners does equate to more winners.

When GB bred horses made up 56% of the runners, they enjoyed 12 winners. It would never again be so good, with 2015’s 19% reaping just 5. On the other hand Irish bred horses are going from strength to strength it would appear. When they made up 30% of the runners in 1995, they had 6 winners. In 2005, that total had more than doubled to 13 winners from 49% of the runners. Interestingly, in 2015, while making up 53% of the runners (up 4% from ten years before), they again had 13 winners. So the Irish strike rate has declined slightly, but looking at their winners total from the past couple of years (20 in 2013 and 16 in 2014), I think we can forgive them for having a ‘blip’.

With the Irish swallowing my pie charts, I haven’t really discussed in any detail the rise of the French, and, if anything, theirs is more impressive than the Irish. To go from 6% of the runners in 1995 (20 horses) to 25% in 2015 (116 horses) over twenty Festivals is a huge increase. And they’re not going to the Festival to check out the scenery either. French horses have played a dominant role in the big races, especially the championship races. Vautour, Sprinter Sacre, Kauto Star, Master Minded, Big Buck’s, just to name a few. Between 1996 and 2014, the Irish dominated the Gold Cup winners’ enclosure. On only three occasions was it wrestled from them. On all three of those occasions, it was a French bred horse to do so. Granted, one of those horses counts for two occasions (Kauto Star), but Long Run was no pushover.

If that isn’t enough to impress you, cast your eye over this overall table for championship wins. French horses are consistently up there, giving the Irish a run for their money despite having just half the horsepower.

2009 was, without doubt, a year for the French. Kauto Star regained his Gold Cup crown, Big Buck’s bagged the first of his four World Hurdles, Master Minded powered up the hill to nab his second Queen Mother Champion Chase from German bred Well Chief. The French bred winners to runners ratio for that year stands at 7.9%. I don’t know about you, but when I saw that figure I thought well, that’s nothing special. But when you compare it to the 2.1% ratio GB horses had that same year, it starts to look appealing. And even though the French would win one less championship race the following year, their winners to runners ratio in fact increases to 8.5%, while again British horses make up the numbers with just 2.1% again.

So we know the Irish breeding scheme is going well, with most of the good ones going to Willie Mullins’ yard, and we can see the French overtaking the British and pressing the Irish for quality. What of the British?
Well, here’s the sad thing: it seems to me GB has just stopped breeding National Hunt horses. The British breds at Cheltenham Festival 2015 were a sorry lot overall. On Day One, the feature race, the Champion Hurdle, there wasn’t even ONE British bred horse talented enough to be entered. Irish, French, even German, but no GBs. In the Mares Hurdle, 5 of the 17 were GBs. Three of those were priced at 66/1 and 100/1, and you’re right, none of them won.
Roll on to Day Two and things were looking up a bit when Dodging Bullets won the Queen Mother Champion Chase. And we all know who bred him: Frankie Dettori... to be a Derby horse. Why is he racing over jumps? Because he was too slow over the flat. He wasn’t even specifically bred to be a jumper, which is kinda what the Irish and French are doing (and doing well). In the Champion Bumper (a flat race if you’re in doubt), a Brit came second. Hooray! But wait – this horse is also bred for the flat. Another cast-off.
Let’s move on to Day Three. And look – a couple of wins for GB horses! Oh, hang on. A Grade 3 and an amateur’s race, and none of the winners rated over 140*. In the Grade One Ryanair Chase, only one of the fourteen entries is British and he pulled up last. Wishfull Thinking indeed.
Day Four and Coneygree comes to the rescue. The highest rated of all British bred horses at the Festival at 166, he ran a terrific front-running race to win the Gold Cup (and he’s still officially a novice). What’s more he is bred to be a National Hunt horse. He’s not one of flat racing’s rejects. He is by a National Hunt stallion (Karinga Bay) out of a National Hunt mare (Plaid Maid) – bred to go the distance, bred to jump.

So you see, Britain, it is possible. You put on the greatest event in the jump racing world, you are the creators of jump racing – why are you happy to accept Irish and French domination? Where is the pride in that? Don’t you want to see more GBs in the winner’s enclosure?
Is it the money? I know it’s an expensive game, but you’re already in it. National Hunt stallions don’t stand for the whopping amounts that Flat stallions do, it’s surely cheaper to go that route than import some wonder juvenile from France?
Is it the risk then? At least, by importing a tried and tested horse, you know what you’re going to get. Hmm, maybe, yes, I guess I can see where you’re coming from. But that’s no excuse for not taking responsibility of your own. What happens if the French and Irish bloodstock goes down in quality? Where will you turn then? You can’t turn to your own, because you’ve let it waste away.
I want to see more Coneygrees. It is a travesty that he should be the first British bred horse in twenty years to win a race that, to all intents and purposes, is a British race.

Some interesting facts gleaned from analysing Festival nationalities 1995-2015:

  • Galileo is the only Polish horse to have won at the Festival, lifting the RSA Novices’ Hurdle in 2002. 
  •  The only New Zealand bred horse to win at the Festival was Our Armageddon in the 2004 Cathcart Challenge Cup Chase (G2). 
  • The only Japanese horse to triumph at the Festival was the appropriately named Made In Japan in the 2004 Tiumph Hurdle (G1).
  • The Sawyer is the only Belgium bred horse to have taken part, in both 2010 and 2011, he ran in Grade 3 Handicap Chase (8th) and the Grade 3 Festival Plate Chase (9th).
  • South African horses are not known for being jumpers, yet in the mid Noughties there was a smattering of contenders: Grande Jete – 4th in the 2005 Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle (G3) and 9th in the same race a year later. Tyson – 9th in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (G1) in 2007. Rippling Ring – 5th in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (G1) in 2008 and 23rd in the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle (G3) the following year. Thundering Star – 12th Coral Cup (G3) in 2009.
  • The only race to have a completely Irish (or otherwise) bred field is the 2004 RSA Chase (G1), won by the aptly named Rule Supreme, in which every single one of the ten runners was bred in Ireland.

*Racing Post Rating
**All data was gathered from the Racing Post