Long held fears coming home to roost

Forgive me if the appearance of the following brings about tedium, but, the link between sport and farming has often been attested to before. Links could be mapped between sport and most businesses. Especially when it’s the case that what’s sport for so many is in fact business for so many more.

On the farming front, while an air of optimism has – to some degree at least – enveloped the dairy sector, beef and suckler producers have struggled to make a margin while pig farmers report their sector to be in crisis. Strange as it may seem, there have been a similar and very worrying contrast in fortunes emerging within horse racing.

Sadly a case of long held fears coming home to roost. As the biggest operators in the business get bigger, almost automatically to the detriment of those unable to compete on a similar scale. One of the biggest attractions to National Hunt racing – for me at least – has always been the opportunity for those who may not attain the prominence they often deserve to compete with the biggest players.

Think of people such as Mick Winters and Tom Foley and Adrian Maguire and Dermot McLoughlin and the Bowe family – all of whom have usurped star laden opponents in the not so distant past. Such occurrences are rare, mind you. Indeed, such is the dominance currently wielded by Willie Mullins that there are possibly only two or three other trainers who can realistically harbour ambitions of accumulating a sizable quantity of winners throughout a season.

However, matters reached a new level of gravity when news of Charlie Swan’s impending departure from the training ranks emerged. This is not only sad news for Irish racing, but also gravely concerning. For most of my lifetime, Charlie Swan – and indeed the family name – has been an institution within Irish racing.

Horses like Emmpat, Make A Track, One Cool Cookie, Ground Ball, Offshore Account, Rajik, Sorry Al and Getoutwhenyoucan gave the Tipperary native some of his biggest days as a trainer. Yet they all cede significance to Swan’s stellar achievements in the saddle. The majority of which occurred before this wordsmith had fully developed the passion for racing which is now life’s blood.

Only as time has gone by, mind you, has the realisation of the privilege it is to have been around for the Istabraq era fully dawned. Swan, of course, rode a multiplicity of other important winners – Ebony Jane is another which stands out – but none of them could ever reach the pedestal of achievement or profile garnered by Aidan O’Brien’s amazing hurdler. The print of the triple Champion Hurdle winner, signed by his jockey, in Brady’s of Dunboyne may yet be a very valuable piece of art!

Perhaps the most distressing thing about Swan’s decision to abdicate is that someone of the stature he justifiably acquired throughout a distinguished career could consider it imprudent to continue. It leads to the rather worrying question, who will be the next Charlie Swan to meet the sword of Damocles? Particularly given the inclination that there are establishments who may be struggling to stay afloat as it is.

To that end, what I can only term the crazy decision to deprive Navan and Naas of NH fixtures in the forthcoming September and October will do the circumstances of nobody within NH racing any good. The line will be peddled that trainers sought these changes. A percentage of them may have – undoubtedly the flat set. To my mind, they have the lion’s share of the best time of year and a decidedly greater amplitude of available prize money as it is without encroaching upon what is traditionally jump racing’s busiest and most exciting time as things begin to ratchet up.

Right, so additional meetings over obstacles have been dispatched to Tipperary and Wexford. And what are honestly paltry fields in what should be some of jumping’s best races do little to aid the cause. That’s not a uniquely Irish problem either. In fact, our nearest neighbours have in recent times been re-opening entries to contests and threatening their outright eradication due to the feeble manner in which some are being supported.

Einstein wouldn’t be required to decipher the cause of the uncompetitive malaise currently besetting the jumps scene here. That is not, mind you, the fault of those – and it’s a stretch to pluralise – who have been taking the majority of the top prizes for what now feels like a small eternity.

Essentially, there appear to be three plausible solutions. Either other trainers strive for the heights set by the big movers – and for many that may not be realistically possible – or penalise those who enter horses for top attractions but don’t declare or, finally, rather than decreasing the number of fixtures, stage more lower graded  fare akin to what takes up a high percentage of fare in the UK.

Either way, something will have to be done or it won’t be long until somebody else is heading for a similar nadir to Swan.

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