Cheltenham: How the Irish came to rule the 'Olympics' of jump racing

The Cheltenham Festival is the jewel in the crown of European jump racing.

Story highlights

  • Cheltenham Festival held March 13-16 2018 in the Cotswolds, England
  • Jump racing's showpiece attracts thousands of Irish fans each year
  • Irish-trained horses won a record 19 of 28 races last year

(CNN)The sign at Dublin airport asked the last person out of Ireland to "please turn off the lights."

It was a humorous reference to the mass exodus in the middle of March, as thousands of Irish horse racing fans travel to the annual Cheltenham Festival in the heart of the English Cotswolds.
For most Irish racegoers, a win against the English at the March 13-16 Festival, the highlight of the jump season which culminates in the coveted Gold Cup, far outweighs most other sporting contests.
    "It is said the land level of Ireland rises a few feet every March because so many people have left for the National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham," writes former amateur rider Anne Holland in the new book "Festival fever. The Irish at Cheltenham."

    Irish success

    With 50 thoroughbred horses per 10,000 people -- 10 times more than Britain -- Ireland is a horse-mad country that punches well above its weight when it comes to winning the sport's biggest prizes.
    Although it only has a population of five million, it has produced some of the world's best jockeys, race horses and trainers. Perhaps the most famous of all Irish runners at Cheltenham was steeplechaser Arkle, who won the Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1966.
    Jockey Robbie Power rode Sizing John to victory in the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
    Anglo-Irish rivalry reached fever pitch last year, when Irish-trained horses won a record 19 out of 28 races at the Cheltenham Festival, topping the previous mark of 15 the year before.
    Sizing John's triumph in jump racing's blue riband race made Jessica Harrington only the third female trainer to win the Gold Cup, while fellow Irish trainers Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott had six winners each during the 2017 Festival.
    Cheltenham Festival 2018 by the numbers:

    Total prize money: £4.5 million ($6.2 million)

    Gold Cup prize money: £625,000

    Afternoon teas served: 45,000

    Extra Ryanair flights put on: 30

    Source: Cheltenham Racecourse

    Legendary Irish jockey Ruby Walsh rode four winners, making him the event's leading jockey for the 11th time.
    And there was also success for Irish owners, with Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary taking the 2017 leading owner award with four winning horses. Other illustrious Irish owners include millionaire John Magnier and his business associate JP McManus, who have owned many greats at Cheltenham, including Istabraq, a three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle.
    Michael Creed, Ireland's agriculture minister, summed up the results as "a celebration of, and an opportunity for us to showcase, all that is good about the industry."
    Cheltenham becomes an enclave of Ireland in March as thousands of racegoers make the trip.

    Struggles in the 1980s

    Still, Irish success at the pinnacle of jump racing wasn't always a given in the 116-year history of the Cheltenham Festival.
    During the 1980s, race organizers were so concerned about the lack of Irish runners, they went out of their way to bring them back, according to "Festival fever. The Irish at Cheltenham."
    Because Irish horses were used to jumping softer steeplechase fences at home, they struggled to clear the harder fences at Cheltenham. In the end, Cheltenham organizers managed to persuade Irish racecourses to adopt their fences.
    Race organizers also moved the final fence at Cheltenham closer to the finish line to overcome a difference in rules in the use of the whip between England and Ireland.
    Under new rules, English jockeys were only allowed to use their whip for a limited number of strikes. Irish jockeys didn't have such limits and by shortening the run from the last jump to the finish line, organizers made it less likely for Irish jockeys to violate the English rule.

    Reversal of fortune

    The changes worked.
    Having had no Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham in 1989, and just two in the two previous years, Irish winners reached double figures in 2006.
    Except for 2011, the past decade has seen at least 100 Irish-trained hores or more compete each year at Cheltenham, with a peak of 155 horses in 2015.
    After the record-breaking success of 2017, Irish media have been falling over themselves with superlatives to describe the annual Festival.
    "The sun is coming up on racing's biggest week," headlined the Irish News on Monday, offering its readers an eight-page Cheltenham supplement.

    Concerns

    But some race watchers are starting to worry about the Irish dominance.
    "What makes Cheltenham special is the clash between Ireland and England," Eamonn Sweeney wrote in The Irish Independent this week.
    He added: "Come on the English. I'm not joking. Cheltenham needs a big performance from English trainers this year for the good of the Festival. Because another year of Irish dominance like the one which saw us amass 19 winners to the home team's nine last time out and Cheltenham as we know it is in trouble."
    Still, William Hill, the UK's biggest bookmaker, is offering odds of 5-4 on 17 or more Irish trained winners at this year's Festival, meaning a $4 winning bet would yield $5 plus the original stake.