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Johnny Ward: British jumps racing is in a sorry state as Irish rule the day at Cheltenham

After two days’ racing, half-time, Henry de Bromhead had won three of the Grade 1s. Of 14 races, Great Britain has won three.

Aidan Coleman celebrates the Champion Chase victory.
Aidan Coleman celebrates the Champion Chase victory.
Image: Dan Abraham/INPHO

“WE LOVED HAVING them here,” gushed ITV anchor Ed Chamberlin earnestly as the camera shot to the Irish connections isolating-by-nationality at a near-empty Cheltenham.

“They’re so important to the Festival.”

He was neither joking nor doing anything other than afford the warm welcome the British extend to the Irish every Cheltenham – including when it coincides with St Patrick’s Day during the greatest show on earth.

The Irish horses, who not so long ago struggled to muster one win, are now far more important than the British at their own Festival. Cheltenham 2021 without the Irish, which once seemed possible, would have been in danger of having two- or three-horse races and a lot of mediocrity.

After two days’ racing, half-time, Henry de Bromhead had won three of the Grade 1s. Of 14 races, Great Britain has won three. Rachael Blackmore, who was brilliant on Sir Gerhard in the bumper, has as many winners at the Festival as every British trainer put together.

And remember that a lot of the Irish didn’t bother coming over because of the year that was in it.

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-two-cheltenham-racecourse More success for Rachael Blackmore and Henry De Bromhead today. Source: PA

I say this neither to gloat nor regress into the Anglophobe many Irish become from time to time of turmoil. It is merely to state that British jumps racing is in a sorry state, and even Chacun Pour Soi’s inability to get up the hill was not enough for the hosts to take the race named in honour of the Queen Mother, even if Sceau Royal had about as much luck as patriotic punters across the Irish Sea this week.

Prize-money over there is a joke; training fees are getting no lower; those who run the sport are petrified about bad publicity; and struggling owners have essentially not been allowed to go racing for over a year.

Meanwhile, Henry de Bromhead did what he increasingly does. Bob Olinger was strikingly superior in the first, before Put The Kettle On continued to defy logic to take the Queen Mother.

Put The Kettle On must be a bit like Lisa in that episode of The Simpsons when she realises she’s incredibly good but there’s someone else in the same class (Honeysuckle, voiced by Lisa Kudrow) who is better than her. Put The Kettle On is making a better fist of it than Lisa Simpson.

“I don’t think anyone has (ridden a tougher mare than this),” said Aidan Coleman. “She gets some fantastic jumps. She was all wrong and threw herself at three out and made ground at it!”

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-two-cheltenham-racecourse Aidan Coleman celebrates after Put The Kettle On triumphs. Source: PA

Then there was Monkfish, whose performance was such that it moved Willie Mullins to publicly address a serious health scare that befell him last year, something about which racing folk embraced omerta out of deference to a gentleman and a genius.

Monkfish wasn’t much thinking of his trainer’s well-being, with Paul Townend admitting that there was a lot of pressure riding a favourite, even if he won easily in the end.

“I’ve got to thank my heart surgeon for the good job he did,” said Mullins, adding that he reckoned he’d never been as nervous during a race before.

He’ll have to do it all again in the Gold Cup in 12 months’ time. One wonders what his 91-year-old mother Maureen made of it all, though she was busy giving out about not being at Cheltenham, and appeared on a Zoom call on the ITV pictures.

“Can we count him as Irish,” wondered Chamberlin aloud, “Jonjo?”

The Cork native, O’Neill, had trained Sky Pirate to take the Grand Annual. This one went to the hosts.

How can I finish this piece but by bowing to Tiger Roll? Forget about the nonsense of him not running at Aintree, if you will, and recognise the achievement of a horse coming back to win the cross-country race again, a mere seven years after he took the Triumph Hurdle. Five Cheltenham Festival victories and two out of two in the Grand National from the Tiger.

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keith-donoghue-on-tiger-roll-celebrates-after-winning Keith Donoghue on Tiger Roll celebrates after winning. Source: Francesca Altoft/INPHO

In doing so, he went one better than Earthmover, who took the same race for Paul Nicholls earlier this century for the second time in six years. Back then, the British used to win the vast majority of the races at Cheltenham. That’s how it always was. It hardly needs to be said that it is how it should be.

Gordon Elliott, of course, officially no longer trains Tiger Roll. Here was a horse who to many observers, including this one, was gone at the game not long after he began senior hurdling. That was six years ago.

“Only for this horse I wouldn’t still be a jockey,” said Keith Donoghue, crying on live TV about a horse he loves.

Elliott must have been looking after Tiger Roll pretty well. This was the equivalent of a brilliant minor hurler going as strong as ever in his mid-to-late-30s.

There was another omerta now, as ITV’s team, two of them Irish, inexplicably made no reference whatsoever to Elliott after the win of Tiger Roll, a bizarre sort of woke censorship for horseracing. We’ve not forgotten you over here, Gordon.

And those who run British racing should take note of how happy a horse Tiger Roll is, considering how much they fretted over the image of his former trainer aboard a dead horse, and the reality that British jumps racing is in danger of being humiliated on a yearly basis at Cheltenham.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Johnny Ward

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