From the moment that Cottage Rake won his first Gold Cup in 1948, the Irish have had a long-standing love affair with the Cheltenham Festival. Cottage Rake was the first Irish-trained horse to win the biggest prize at Prestbury Park and is seen by many as being the inspiration behind the so-called Irish invasion that takes place in Gloucestershire every March. Yet what is it that gives the Irish the edge over the British stables when Cheltenham rolls around?
Is it simply a matter of the better trainers being based in Ireland or is it more complex than that? Once Cottage Rake started the movement in the 1940s it was like a dam had broken and suddenly the Irish seemed to win every year, with British trainers trailing in their wake in more recent years. When you consider that the only other other major wins for Cottage Rake away from the Gold Cup were in the Irish Cesarewitch and the King George VI Chase, it’s understandable that people might ask about just why it is that the Irish love Cheltenham so much.
The country with the most trainer wins each year recieves the Prestbury Cup since 2014. You can read more about the Prestbury Cup and previous winners on our dedicated page.
Irish Winners Continue To Rise
The graph above looks at the number of Irish trained horses that have won at the Cheltenham Festival since 1975. As you can see before the mid-2000’s the Irish were lucky to bag 5 or more winners at the festival but since then they have gone on to dominate.
In 2021 Irish trained horses won a staggering 82% of races despite only fielding 40% of festival runners. Most of those horses were also bred in Ireland and of the five British winners that year three were bred in Ireland.
Is it an exaggeration to suggest that Irish trainers dominate at the Cheltenham Festival? A look at the top list of the top 20 trainers according to TimeForm would suggest that a few have dominated over the years, though in times of sheer numbers of trainers that have done well the British still hold the upper hand.
Here’s a look a the best trainers between the first ever Festival and 2018, including how many winners they’ve had during that time:
|Trainer||Years Looked At||Nationality||Wins|
Out of the 20 trainers looked at, then, just five of them are Irish and yet they’ve racked up 150 wins between them. The fifteen remaining British trainers, meanwhile, have trained 405 winners in total. That obviously seems massively favourable, but when you break it down it comes out as the British training 27 winners per trainer on the list compared the Irish who have trained 30 winners per trainer.
Obviously the stats are slightly swung by the presence of Willie Mullins representing Ireland and Nicky Henderson on behalf of the British winning 61 and 60 races respectively, but it’s still an impressive statistic that the Irish have amassed more winners per head than the British have managed during the same time period.
If you break it down further and only look at the trainers that were still active in 2018 then you’ll find that there are 24 trainers to talk about, of whom ten were Irish, thirteen British and one French. The Irish had amounted 157 winners between them, which compared favourably with the 239 winners for the British and French.
It amounted to 15.7 winners per trainer for the Irish and 17 winners per trainer for the British / French contingent, suggesting that the Irish trainers are able to give the British a run for their money regardless of whether you’re looking over the course of the Festival’s history or just in the modern era.
Whilst the trainers are obviously important, when you’re discussing the difference between the British and the Irish at the Cheltenham Festival then it’s also important to have a look at the owners and where their stables are based.
There are two owners that tend to dominate proceedings at Prestbury Park in the modern era, starting with Ryanair owner Michael O’Leary and his Gigginstown House Stud. The second is J. P. McManus, who is also based in Ireland and regularly gives O’Leary a run for his money in terms of finding winners at the Festival.
It’s less easy to find information on the horses that have emerged from Irish stables than for trainers, but it’s fair to say that McManus dominates proceedings. That’s based on the 54 wins he’d amassed prior to the 2019 Festival and the 26 winners that O’Leary had seen come out of his stables by the same point in time.
Another factor to take into account is the number of Irish-bred horses that have done well over the years. There is, of course, a difference between Irish-trained and Irish-bred, given that it’s more than possible that a horse could be born in Ireland but trained in the UK and vice-versa. In 2019, for example, there were 285 Irish-trained horses entered into the Festival’s 28 races but it was unclear how many of them were born in the country.
Yet what we do know is that there were zero British-bred winners that year, with the honours split between Irish and French-bred horses. In fact, only 60 of the horses that ran in races in 2019 were born and bred in the United Kingdom, which was around 25% of the number of Irish horses. In point of fact, there were 14 winners born and bred in Ireland and 14 winners from France, which could suggest that an article in the future might be looking at the French invasion.
Why Do The Irish Do So Well?
When you consider that son of Ireland Ruby Walsh is also the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, the obvious question worth asking is why, exactly those from the Emerald Isle seem to enjoy the racing at Prestbury Park quite as much as they do.
The answer might well lie in the way the Festival’s organisers treated the Irish during the 1980s. At the time it had been noted that the Irish were less keen to attend the Festival, with fewer runners than in previous decades. Part of the reason for the Irish reluctance to turn up at the Gloucestershire racecourse was that the fences used on racecourses in Ireland were much harder than those used at Cheltenham. Realising as much, the organisers began a series of plans to woo the Irish back to Prestbury Park.
Part of the plan involved convincing the Irish racecourses to use the same fences as were on offer at Cheltenham, which they did. The racecourse also saw to move the final fence closer to the finish line because of the difference in whip usage that was allowed in Ireland compared to England. There was no limit for whip usage for the Irish when there was for the British, meaning that the Irish were more likely to violate the rule if the finishing post was further from the final fence.
The changes made benefitted the Irish significantly more than perhaps even the Cheltenham Racecourse organisers realised they would, with the number of winners stretching to double-figures by 2006. By 2011, the Irish had begun to dominate to such an extent that they saw more winners than the British, winning 15 races, 8 of which were Grade 1 offerings – there were only 12 available at the time.
By 2017 the shift had been so significant that the British began to have serious concerns. The Irish won a record 19 races, which amounted to 68% of the races in total. Some change in circumstance from 1987 and 1988 in which only one Irish horse won the same race in both years, to say nothing of 1989 when none won whatsoever. The argument as to why that’s the case will rage on, of course, though one such thought is that Ireland’s lack of ability to compete was mostly down to money. It was difficult for people to afford to retain Irish horses, meaning that the English stables were full of horses from Ireland.
The biggest, reason, then, for the success of Irish-trained horses in recent years is almost completely down to the emergence of the likes of McManus and O’Leary, who have more disposable income to spend and a willingness to spend it on horses that their British counterparts just can’t match.