With uncertainty regarding Brexit, which is supposed to be completed barely a fortnight later, the last thing the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival need is any more bad vibes.
But those have come in droves over the New Year with Paul and Clare Rooney, the ownership team responsible for the likes of The Last Samuri, Willoughby Court and If The Cap Fits, declaring that they plan to boycott the March meeting due to safety concerns.
The pair, who currently sit third in the British jumps owners championship, have made the bold decision after having to put down one of their stellar charges, Starchitect, after a fall at the track in December 2017.
Their horse was seven lengths clear in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup before taking a tumble, and the impact of the fall meant the Rooneys had to make the devastating choice of having him put to sleep.
Now, they have instructed their trainers not to proceed with any entries into the Festival this year due to those concerns for their horses’ safety, and it will be interesting to see if any other owners or trainers follow suit in the coming weeks.
A Sad Day for Jumps Enthusiasts
The Rooneys have amassed a net worth of some £10 million in recent years thanks to their successes over the jumps, although it is believed their firm stance on horse welfare means they will focus more on flat racing in the future.
It’s a shame, because they have been one of the most prolific ownership teams in jumps racing in modern times, securing a quartet of consecutive top four finishes in the owners’ championship, and they’re well on their way to a fifth this season too.
Indeed, in the past five years only JP McManus has saddled more winners than the Rooneys.
They have been consistent across the UK and Ireland, with their finest day at Cheltenham coming during the 2017 Festival, when Willoughby Court dashed home to win the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle.
Sadly, it seems as though their famous blue-and-yellow silks are set to become a thing of the past at UK racing’s flagship event.
Nicholls Stands Up for the Cause
Whether more owners and trainers will take the bold step of not running at Cheltenham from now on remains to be seen, but one trainer who won’t be following suit is Paul Nicholls.
The ten-time champion trainer likened the Rooneys move to a ‘Premier League football saying he doesn’t want to play at Wembley because he doesn’t like the pitch’.
“They’re within their rights to do whatever they like with their horses,” he continued. “But I’ve never had a problem with Cheltenham.
“It’s 100% praise from me, they’re so professional, no stone is left unturned to make sure everything is right for horses and jockeys.”
Extra safety measures have been brought in at the track following the deaths of seven horses at last year’s Festival.
Six passed away directly from their injuries suffered during falls, while another – Melrose Boy, also owned by the Rooneys – died after the meeting.
That prompted a thorough investigation from the BHA, who produced a dossier featuring 17 recommendations to improve equine welfare at the track.
Those included the introduction of pre-race veterinary checks on all runners, continuous assessment of faller rates and the possibility of introducing padded hurdles in future.
Happily, the New Year’s Day meeting at Cheltenham passed by without incident.