BHA must put aside differences and unite to stop Willie Mullins-led Irish domination

Willie Mullins (right) celebrates with jockey Paul Townend after winning the Gold Cup on Galopin Des Champs/Charlie Brooks: BHA must put aside differences and unite to stop Willie Mullins-led Irish domination
Willie Mullins (right) celebrates with jockey Paul Townend after winning the Gold Cup on Galopin Des Champs - Mike Egerton/PA
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The Cheltenham Festival always delivers. There were too many short-priced favourites, the price of Guinness was painful, the car parks resembled the Battle of the Somme, the training facilities for the visiting Irish horses weren’t up to scratch, and the price of hotel accommodation was brutal. But the horses delivered in spades.

The dominance of Willie Mullins is not healthy for the sport, but there’s no jealousy or spite because he’s such a charming, quirky, unpredictable man.

It is said by those that know him well that he often doesn’t know which country he’s going to fly to when he turns up at an airport. He simply looks at the departure board and goes with his gut instinct. And apparently that is very much the way he trains his horses. Instinct.

In spite of winning the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup, it’s two of his novice hurdlers that dominated the chat around the Cotswolds last week.

Ballyburn was so impressive destroying his opposition, the thoughts after the race were that he could drop back to two miles and win a Champion Hurdle before going over fences and winning the Gold Cup. And such hyperbole seemed to be totally justified.

Paul Townend with Ballyburn after their victory in the Gallagher Novices Hurdle/Charlie Brooks: BHA must put aside differences and unite to stop Willie Mullins-led Irish domination
Paul Townend with Ballyburn after their victory in the Gallagher Novices Hurdle, a performance that suggested even greater triumphs ahead for the Irish-trained horse - Michael Steele/Getty Images

His father Paddy achieved such a feat with Dawn Run and, given that Willie has done everything else, maybe such an outrageous plan is whirring around in his head now.

Majborough, who still looks unfurnished and weak, won a hurdle race on very soft ground at Auteuil in Paris four days before his third birthday last April.

The Triumph Hurdle was only the third race of his life. When he goes over fences, he’s going to be the most incredible talent.

Of course the Irish domination of our top jump races is not a new phenomenon. I can remember Gordon Brown asking me what could be done about it when he was Prime Minister. And that feels like a very long time ago.

But the British Horseracing Authority [BHA] will need to make some regulatory changes if the quantity of top-class chasers actually trained in this country is to recover. But that is unlikely to happen any time soon because the BHA board is a coalition of representatives of the various factions of the industry, held together by inertia.

Most major team sports have financial and numerical parameters that the teams have to work within to protect the competitiveness of that sport.

Ferrari are only allowed two cars on the grid in Formula 1 and Manchester City can’t buy unlimited players. But we still have the best football league in the world.

Racing may not be a team sport, but trainers’ yards are pretty well ‘a team’. And there is a precedent in Hong Kong, which is arguably the most successful racing set-up in the world, for regulating how many horses trainers and owners can race.

The biggest issue dragging jump racing down in this country is the number of races with less than eight runners, particularly on Saturdays.

That is caused by too many horses being in too few yards. And this situation could get a lot worse when premiums for public liability insurance start to force smaller trainers out of business.

Gordon Elliott is interviewed after sending out Teahupooto to win the Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle
Gordon Elliott had three winners and 10 others placed in the first three at Cheltenham. Along with Mullins, the trainer is running a huge number of horses in jumps races - David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

The BHA may not be able to do anything about the number of horses that Mullins and Gordon Elliot train, as they operate outside their jurisdiction. And there is nothing it can do about them mopping up the cream of the equine talent in Ireland and France. But it could limit the number of horses that all trainers and owners can run in any one race.

In doing so, it would encourage the uber-big owners to spread their horses around. Smaller owners might also be encouraged and enabled to run horses at the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National meetings if they weren’t being blown away every time by the vast stables.

What racing needs most in this country is more small owners involved in multiple ownership horses. But for that to happen they will need to feel better embraced and involved in the sport. And that is something the BHA can only stimulate if it can persuade the racecourses to get on board.

That is the trouble with being regulated by a coalition.

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