How Many Irish Winners at the Cheltenham Festival?

Ireland's total of 18 winners at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival was somewhat of an anti-climax after the record of 23 winners in 2021. But to fully appreciate a feast, you need to have experienced a famine, and the past decade has unquestionably been a feast for Irish trainers at the biggest jump racing meeting in the world. 

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Eamon Doggett
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Most of today's leading Irish handlers will remember 1989, when the country didn't win a single race at the festival. Indeed, only Galmoy, winner of the 1987 and 1988 Stayers' Hurdles, had provided Irish successes the previous two years. Continuing into the 1990s, Irish winners were still a rarity. 1997 was a highlight with seven winners, including Imperial Call's triumph in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. 

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But it wasn't until 2005 that we bettered that total when nine winners represented a bonanza - what's more, we won the Champion Hurdle (Hardy Eustace), the Champion Chase (Moscow Flyer) and the Gold Cup (Kicking King). What looked like becoming a regular occurrence with ten winners in 2006 seemed to be wishful thinking when we enjoyed just five winners in 2007. This period was when English trainer Paul Nicholls dominated with brilliant chasers like Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded. Another equine superstar followed this in Nicky Henderson's Sprinter Sacre. 

The Irish revival 

But slowly and surely, it became clear that the tide was turning. Willie Mullins, who rode and trained Wither Or Which to his first Cheltenham success in the 2006 Champion Bumper, began to send over bigger and bigger squads to the Cotswolds. In 2009, Mullins saddled Quevega, Cooldine and Mikael D'Haguenet to victory, and a pattern began to emerge. 

Quevega, for one, would go on to win the Mares' Hurdle five more times while he began to have a near-monopoly on the Champion Bumper and many of the novice hurdles. A significant moment encapsulating the changing tide happened in 2013 when Ruby Walsh decided to part ways with champion English trainer Paul Nicholls to concentrate on riding for Willie Mullins in Ireland. That Walsh would leave such a prestigious job was a testament to the growing force of Closutton

Mullins had five winners at the Festival in 2014 but bettered that with six winners in 2015 to take the champion trainer trophy. Backed by mega-rich owners such as Rich Ricci and Michael O'Leary, Mullins was the envy of the national hunt scene. Any trainer would have begged to have a horse of the calibre of Hurricane Fly, Faugheen, Douvan, Vautour, or Annie Power, but Mullins had them all at once. 

Irish Revival at Cheltenham Festival

Around this time, Gordon Elliott also started making a big name for himself in the British Isles. The Meath man put himself on the map in some style when saddling Silver Birch to win the 2017 Aintree Grand National, and it was a matter of increasing his string every year after that. As likely to have a runner at Ayr as Cheltenham, Elliott gained the support of some of the richest owners in national hunt racing and soon added Grade 1 horses to his stable. 

Elliott trained Don Cossack to win the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup for Gigginstown House Stud, but his stable star at the Festival has undoubtedly been Tiger Roll. The Authorised gelding won two Aintree Grand Nationals, but his five wins arguably trumped that at the Cheltenham Festival. At the 2018 Festival, Elliott (eight) and Mullins (seven) had fifteen victories, and more than half of the races run. Recent years have also seen the remarkable rise of Henry de Bromhead

In 2021, he did something that may never be repeated when training the winners of the Champion Hurdle (Honeysuckle), the Champion Chase (Put The Kettle On) and the first two home in the Gold Cup (Minella Indo and A Plus Tard).  Ireland also started to win the races we weren't meant to win. For instance, Ireland had a terrible record in the Triumph Hurdle for many years, with just one victory between 1998 and 2012. But since 2013, Ireland has won seven of the last ten runnings of the race. 

Irish Winners Dominate at Cheltenham 

2021 was the year that had British racing scratching their heads and wondering how all of their big prizes were ending up across the Irish Sea. A 24-length-winning performance for the Mullins-trained Appreciate It in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was ominous for the home charge. However, they edged ahead when Shishkin won the Arkle and Vintage Clouds the Ultima Handicap Chase. 

Irish Winners Dominate Cheltenham Festival

But from then on, Irish-trained runners won 22 of the next 24 races. Perhaps more telling was that the home team accounted for only 40% of the runners in the races. In other words, not only was Ireland bagging more winners, but they were sending over more horses. 

The Prestbury Cup - a competition to see who can train the most winners over the four between the UK and Ireland - used to be a foregone conclusion for the home challenge. But the UK has not won the title since 2015. Twenty years ago, a handful of winners for Irish trainers was cause for celebration; now, 18 winners earlier this year were barely news. 

Prestbury Cup Recent Results

YearIrish vs UK Winners
202218
10
202123
5
202017
10
20191414
20181711
2017199
20161513
20151314
20141215

Why Do Irish-trained Horses Do So Well at Cheltenham?

That is the burning question. The simple and unhelpful answer may be that Ireland has better horses. This seems undeniably true, but it also negates the training genius of the likes of Wille Mullins. What weight do you put on where and how a horse is trained? Moreover, better horses shouldn't necessarily mean Irish horses win the handicap races, as these, by definition, are designed to level the playing field. In reality, like most phenomena, it can be explained by several factors.

Prize Money

It is often said that you will never make money owning racehorses. For many owners, the prestige and stature of having your silks outweigh the likelihood of losing your investment. But if you are going to make any returns from buying a racecourse, the place to train your horses is where the prize money is richest, and that is Ireland. While there may be significantly more races run in the UK, the average prize money for national hunt races comes well short of comparative races run in Ireland

Trainer Willie Mullins arrives for the days racing at the January Jumps Weekend at Leopardstown Racecourse, Dublin, Ireland
Willie Mullins

This means that it is often more attractive for UK-based owners to send their horses to be trained in Ireland. Despite hailing from America and being based in England, owner Rich Ricci sent most of his horses to Willie Mullins. Tony Bloom, the owner of Brighton Football Club, also does the same, while the Newmarket-based Cheveley Park Stud have sent their sales-toppers to Irish jumps trainers like Mullins, De Bromhead and Elliott. While not always the case, the best horses often sell for the most money, and the people with the most money send their horses to Ireland. 

Handicap Ratings

What has caused the most head-scratching amongst the English racing community is the fact that Irish runners have also been dominant in most of the handicap races. This is mystifying in ways because it is the English handicapper who assigns a rating to Irish horses racing across the water. Surely they could put a stop to Irish dominance by assigning more weight to their horses? Well, this is what they have tried to do in recent years, and it showed signs of working this year when the UK won the majority of the handicap races. 

Balthazar King (IRE) before winning the Glenfarclas Handicap Chase Day 1 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Balthazar King (IRE) before winning the Glenfarclas Handicap Chase -  Day 1 Cheltenham Gold Cup

Again, it can be attributed to a huge number of races run in the UK. The theory goes that horses have a much greater chance of winning races in the UK because there are plenty more of them, and their quality dilutes as a result. By winning races, the handicap rating of UK horses keeps on increasing so that they carry big weights when it comes to the Cheltenham Festival.

In contrast, in Ireland, races are more scarce and consequently more packed with quality runners. Very broadly, this means that an Irish horse who, say, has finished third or fourth in a very competitive handicap may not rise in the handicap ratings before ending up at Cheltenham Racecourse, where they will face inferior opposition. In sum, Irish racing is said to be a lot more competitive; therefore, there is a discrepancy between the quality of horses racing off the same mark on either side of the Irish Sea. 

Best Jockeys

Whatever percentage you put on a jockey's contribution to a horse's chances, there is no doubt that Ireland continues to produce the sport's finest riders. A golden generation has passed after the retirements of Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and Paul Carberry.

Patrick Mullins poses with the trophy after winning The Guinness Galway Hurdle on Aramon during day four of the 2020 Galway Races Summer Festival at Galway Racecourse
Patrick Mullins

However, Ireland can still call on the likes of Paul Townend, Davy Russell, Mark Walsh, Patrick Mullins and Rachael Blackmore, the first woman to win the Gold Cup, to ride. While jockeys like Danny Mullins, Jack Kennedy, Jordan Gainford and Sam Ewing look set to promise that Ireland's best contenders at Cheltenham will continue to be steered by the best pilots

Do we care more? 

There is an argument that Irish trainers are more obsessed by the Cheltenham Festival than their English counterparts. From the start of the national hunt season, Irish trainers are often working backwards from the Cheltenham Festival to prime their horses for the Cotswolds. The Dublin Racing Festival, for instance, was set up in many ways to be the perfect preparation for Irish horses being targeted at Cheltenham. English trainer Paul Nicholls, in contrast, now often sidesteps Cheltenham with some of his best horses in order to target less competitive graded races at the Aintree Festival. 

A Future Start to Keep an Eye On

  • Gavin Cromwell

    A shy and modest type, Gavin Cromwell doesn't often miss when aiming horses at the pinnacle of the sport. The Meath-based trainer almost fell into training by accident, having been a farrier for many trainers. But he has quickly built a big stable of horses that have enjoyed great success on the flat and over obstacles. Espoir D'Allen was a shock winner of the 2018 Champion Hurdle before succumbing to injury. But in two-time Stayers' Hurdle winner Flooring Porter, Cromwell has shown a real ability to get horses ready for the big day. Whenever Cromwell brings a horse over to Cheltenham, you know he believes they have a chance of claiming glory. In years to come, he could become a dominant force in the game. 

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Eamon doggett

Eamon DoggettVerified

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Eamon has been covering horse racing for a national newspaper for over five years. Having interviewed and built up relationships with some of the sport's leading trainers and jockeys, he ...continue reading

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