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14th Mar 2021

“One in every three runners at the Cheltenham Festival is an ex-Irish Pointer” – Richard Pugh

Lloyd Murphy

No Cheltenham roar, no Irish pilgrimage, the deafening silence of The Guinness Village. Cheltenham won’t be the same. However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

The Festival is nearly upon us and despite no crowds, the show must go on with this year’s class of Irish Cheltenham hopefuls looking like a gift from the racing God’s. Pegasus himself wouldn’t be out of place in the lineup. In a Cheltenham preview last week Jamie Codd himself said that Envoi Allen is “as close to a horse with wings as you’re ever going to get”. High praise indeed.

This year’s Irish P2P graduate crop we will be talking about for years to come. They are a special bunch and have already done their talking on the track this year. Appreciate It, Shishkin, Bob Olinger, Envoi Allen, Monkfish, Sir Gerhard, and Honeysuckle – all short-priced favourites at next week’s Cheltenham Festival – started their racing careers around an Irish P2P field and now they will strut their stuff next week at the greatest show on turf. Magic.

Irish pointers will make up the majority of fields at Cheltenham on Tuesday, looking to get their names in lights at Prestbury Park by winning at the highest level in Grade 1 company joining the likes of Irish P2P festival legends like Denman, Florida Pearl Faugheen, and Best Mate. The depth of equine talent currently being produced through point-to-points in Ireland is phenomenal.

One man who is very much looking forward to the Cheltenham Festival is Richard Pugh, a man steeped in horse racing with a strong love of Irish pointers. The Sligo man is a highly rated commentator for RTE and best known for Irish Point-to-Point Services and the website both the go-to resources for all National Hunt fans.

Richard tells us his story, how he got into racing, how he ended up in the commentary booth, his love of Irish P2P racing, what to look for when buying a horse at the sales, and talks about his current role with Tattersalls Ireland.

Richard Pugh winning on Hopes Delight in 1996

Richard grew up in Sligo and from an early age, his love of the equine animals was apparent as a member of his local Pony Club.

“I rode 14 winners (PTP and track included) and this included a Punchestown festival winner in 1995 on Handyfellow in the Ladies Cup and a double at Sligo point to point the day I retired. My final ride was for Enda Bolger on a horse called Hopes Delight so it was lovely to go out on a winner for him having ridden a winner for my father earlier in the day. One year later I did my first commentary at the same Sligo point to point fixture in May 1997.”

Having retired from the saddle aged 19 at his local Point to Point track in Sligo, he completed his first commentary a year later at the same meeting in 1997. Overtime, he began to pick up more and more commentaries. It certainly paid off as today he is the lead commentator for RTE Racing.

“My first track commentary was at Down Royal on a day where the weather forced a cancellation after two races and visibility was almost zero and only one camera on the entire course so it has become easier over time!

Point to Point racing is a great way to get practice and those interested in getting involved spend too much time worrying about or trying to learn horses. It is important to be able to read a race in a manner which is informative, accurate and people will enjoy listening to it and once that is well-formed the last piece of the jigsaw is the learning of the horses. So practice at home by calling ‘the grey horse is in front of the red colours with the cheekpieces third etc and don’t worry about names when practising too much.”

Richard in his element doing some track commentary at Necarne.

Away from the P2P field, you are likely to see Richard in the sales ring where he is Director of Horses In Training Sales for Tatterstalls Ireland. The role is varied with Richard contributing to Bloodstock and Marketing meetings, carrying out inspections, and even doing a bit of auctioneering on the side when needed. This year’s Cheltenham Festival is a brilliant advertisement for Irish pointers with some short-priced favourites.

 “The main part of my role is to assist the Newmarket team in the running of the Cheltenham Sales which have had great success in selling Irish Point to Point horses for the most part. Tiger Roll has been a great graduate for non pointers but our Pointing graduates last season included Ferny Hollow, Envoi Allen, Shishkin, and Monkfish who won the Cheltenham bumper and Novice Hurdles respectively and the latter three are short-priced to follow up in their equivalent races over fences this year”.

Richard has been lucky to see some of the finest pointing graduates over the years run under the flags including the likes of Gold Cup heroes Best Mate and Imperial Commander, Beef or Salmon and the favourite for Tuesday’s Arkle Shishkin. He feels he has been very lucky to see these graduates and follows their rules careers closely.

“I have been so lucky over the years to call home some of the finest pointing graduates including Best Mate, Imperial Commander, and Beef Or Salmon, and more recently Shishkin and it is great to watch their careers progress from that first-ever victory”.

Shiskin winning his maiden at Lingstown in 2018

This year’s Cheltenham festival currently has 8 favourites that are ex Irish P2P graduates. The Irish P2P scene has proven so successful over the years and Richard explains why that is.

“For a jumping prospect to begin their career in point to points seems logical. Even Gigginstown introduced most of their young horses via this sphere. Given the distance is three miles it gives horses time to develop into a race and not in a rushed sense and the jumping which needs to be perfected in advance of running is crucial.

Young horses learning to jump and race in this way seem to perform extremely well. If these horses are well schooled and taught to relax and jump they are well setup for the future. Aside from being talented, it is notable how good Shishkin, Envoi Allen, and Monkfish are to jump and relax in their races. Many lesser horses also do this which allows them to maximise their ability also”.

“One in every three runners at the Cheltenham Festival is an ex-Irish Pointer and they won half of the Grade 1s last year which was an incredible return”

The beautiful and picturesque Belharbour P2P track in Co.Clare. 

Envoi Allen is undoubtedly the current poster boy for Irish P2P graduates this season along with Monkfish and Shishkin in the UK. All three horses are now odds on for their Cheltenham engagements next week. However, Pugh doesn’t get too excited about Novices until they go into open company where many fall short when they really get into top Grade 1 level against seasoned and hardened campaigners.

“There is no doubt that these three look special and I would like to think they can all can go and win their respective races at Cheltenham next week. Irish Pointers have won many Gold Cups with Native River, Best Mate (x3), Mr Mulligan, Denman, Imperial Commander, War Of Attrition, and many more. We are also seeing more two milers too so hopefully we can spread our success.”

Envoi Allen’s impressive debut under flags beating Appreciate It.

The global pandemic in 2020 and to date has had a huge effect on Irish P2P horses with the season being cancelled. HRI have now added more races to cater for the curtailment of the season with a full P2P card tomorrow at Punchestown to cater for P2P horses for example, with extra races being added to the National Hunt calendar. Richard is hoping the season will return sooner rather than later as it could have a real impact on the industry as P2P handlers need to clear their horses from February to May each year in order to replenish their stock of young horses bred for National Hunt racing.

“That really depends on the return date. Every week that passes with no racing has a real impact as point-to-point racing is a cog in the overall national hunt wheel. The point-to-point handlers need to clear their horses from February to May each year in order to restock with Stores and those Store traders go back to the foal sale and that has an onward effect on the stallion owners.

If we miss too much of this window from February to May it has the potential to have a real impact on the NH industry so let’s hope we can return sooner rather than later and catch up some of what has been lost to ensure the cycle remains strong. Every industry faces challenges and we are just unlucky that this three-month period is so critical for us and we cant push out into the summer so its an uncertain time for handlers”.

It’s hard to buy a ready-made champion at the sales let alone a sound racehorse who will give its owners years of enjoyment. When at the sales Richard says if the horse moves and looks well and is athletic you are onto a winner. We all dream of owning a top-class racehorse and pedigree is obviously a major factor when looking to pick up a Grade 1 horse.

“A good judge once told me that if he was walking down the street alongside Usain Bolt it would not take a genius to work out which person is likely to run 100metres in under ten seconds. It is similar in a racehorse. If the horse moves well and looks athletic there is a good chance he will have the talent. Pedigree is a huge factor to indicate the likelihood of the horse reaching a high level and temperament is the difficult one to identify but invaluable when found!”

Envoi Allen winning the Ballymore at Cheltenham last year.

Cheltenham will run a Mares Chase for the first time which has caused widespread discussion amongst the National Hunt fraternity. Some people in favour of it and others not. The mares programme Richard believes is going in the right direction and those unhappy with mares not running in the big championship races should look at other codes. He makes a comparison to the flat and why we don’t question their programme with lack of fillies running against colts in the big races. No programme for mares – no mares Pugh says.

“I think the mares programme is going the right way. I am always disappointed to read that punters are frustrated that mares are not running in the Open races such as the Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle. For so many years from Dawn Run to very recently we had a drought and it was those very mares opportunities that instigated the emergence of these top-class mares and now people lament that they won’t tackle the geldings.

No one ever comments on the 2,000 Guineas or Derby Winner as perhaps not being proven for not beating the Oaks or 1000 Guineas winner. If Honeysuckle wins the mares hurdle and is better than the geldings equivalent in the Champion hurdle so be it.

To me, that keeps the supply of mares strong and is no different to a poor crop of colts vs a strong year of fillies on the flat. It’s ludicrous and hard to listen to. No programme for mares – no mares. I think there was ten years of Champion Hurdles without a mare even running in the race”.

There has been a changing of the guard amongst National Hunt sires and Richard is looking forward to seeing what sires will fill the gap in the years to come. The likes of Flemensfirth, Stowaway, Presenting and Beneficial have sired many great champions but it’s going to be intriguing to what sires take their place in the years ahead. The likes of Maxios and Leading Light come to mind.

“It has been a time of change for NH sires with Flemensfirth, Stowaway, Presenting, Beneficial, and so many others all moving to one side for the next crop. It is somewhat similar to Ruby, Barry, Paul retiring together. It is fascinating to see what will emerge next to fill the gap”.

The quality from Irish points in the last 15 years has been nothing short of incredible. It has been a conveyor belt of talent. Denman (below), Best Mate and Faugheen to name but a few. Some go on to hit the heights of Grade 1 level while some others fail to deliver on the track despite their big price tag. But as Richard says if they look like a superstar they tend to be top class and the horses that don’t, injury tends to be a big factor.  

“Nowadays if a horse looks like a superstar they tend to be top end. The quality is so high (such as Envoi Allen beating Appreciate It) that you can’t fake that level of talent. This is the reason they are making so much at sales. They have proven such a high level of ability to win their point to point impressively it can be relied upon as a strong gauge of future success. Some don’t hit the heights but in recent years there are very few flops of those that looked exceptional barring injury being a factor perhaps”.

Denman an ex-Irish pointer and a true legend of the National Hunt game. 

Irish racing has been through a very tough time in recent months with the Charles Byrnes case and most recently the ban Gordon Elliott received. We will move on, learn from it and our sport will be in a much better place as a result of it. If Richard had the power to change one aspect in Irish racing it would be information like split times and horse weights being published quicker. We need more transparency and Irish racing needs to keep up with other sports from a technology point of view.

“Information. In this modern world, we cannot provide too much data to people getting involved. Some say it can be overwhelming for new people but other sports are spitting out masses of data. We have to keep up. Split times, horse weights and much more should be actioned asap in my view”.

Richard in his familiar position at Leopardstown in the RTE Commentary booth.

Richard has seen and commentated on many Irish P2P legends since he started calling races in 1996. In terms of a horse that we should be looking at for next year that has caught his eye, he says punters should respect the 4-year-old maiden form and that this level of form is a solid yardstick.

“I believe punters would do well to respect 4yo maiden form. If a horse has won a 4yo maiden then a reasonable level of form has been shown and any time they popup nearing each-way value they should generally not be missed. Whilst high-profile debutantes start short odds on the back of a decent sales price it is surprising how many still go under the radar”.

Faugheen winning at Leopardstown in 2020 as he brought the house down.

“In the last Decade Faugheen has been spectacular and a massive plus in how he has engaged such a wide audience which always helps the brand. Envoi Allen will take the baton from him I expect”.

Lastly, what four horses are you putting in your Cheltenham Yankee?

Shishkin, Envoi Allen, Monkfish and Sir Gerhard

It’s no surprise that Richard picks 4 ex-Irish pointers. Trust me, he knows a good horse when he sees one. He has commentated on many of the greats and seen them go through the sales ring after. Cheltenham is a magical place and once the final winner on Friday is declared I’ve no doubt the final tally of winners will have Irish pointing graduates top of that list.

You can check out the rest of Richard’s Cheltenham tips with Jamie Codd in The Tattersalls Cheltenham preview here.