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

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