In a number of previous posts I shed light on horse racing in Ireland by examining the number of people employed in the sector relative to the distribution of public funds throughout the industry.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, horse racing in this country is run by Horse Racing Ireland (HRI). The industry is heavily dependent on state support. The Department of Agriculture annually invests more than €50 million into the industry, 80% of which goes to horse racing (greyhound racing gets the remaining 20%). Prior to the financial crisis, support for the sector fell under the remit of the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism and at the peak of the Celtic Tiger received in excess of €70 million.
Horse racing was sometimes seen as a symbol of the Celtic Tiger with the now infamous 'Galway Tent' a reminder of excesses of the past. The Galway Festival was regarded as a Schelling point for many in Irish society keen to ‘beat the market’.
The growth of racing festivals has continued despite the downturn with Galway and other tracks attempting to move on from the crash of 2009. None more so than Punchestown. The April/May festival at the Co. Kildare track is now seen as a rival to the four day Cheltenham Festival held each March in the Cotswolds.
Previously, I offered an explanation as to why Irish horse racing continues to thrive internationally and why English trained horses are arriving in larger numbers to run on these shores. The answer is simple – money. Irish tracks, on average, offer more to winners, largely thanks to support received from the Department of Agriculture. English trainer Nicky Henderson couldn’t have put it better this past January. When considering whether to run his mare Une Artiste in Thurles he said:
“She [Une Artiste] could have run at Newbury for £2,700, or go to Ireland and run for more than €30,000. [I've] never been to Thurles but Barry (Geraghty, jockey) knows his way round."
Sadly for Henderson and co. the horse could only finish second.
So should we expect more English horses to come to Ireland for the Punchestown Festival in future and less Irish to travel to England? The raw data would suggest no. Despite the fact Irish tracks pay more to winners on average, the Cheltenham Festival eclipses Punchestown when it comes to prize money. If we consider Grade 1 races only at both festivals we find there are 13 at Cheltenham and 12 at Punchestown. Eleven of these races are directly comparable and are presented in the table below.
Only one of the eleven races is worth more in Ireland than England; the Champion Bumper. This is not surprising as the race has failed to really capture the imagination of English trainers and yet has a certain mystique in Ireland. Irish horses have dominated the event since it commenced in 1992 with nine of the last eleven winners trained in Ireland.
So while it's great to see the Punchestown Festival growing, it has a long way to go to get on terms with the Cheltenham Festival.