WHEN it comes to attracting big-spending owners to National Hunt racing, there is nothing that quite drives spending like the lure of a winner at the Cheltenham Festival.

Given most headline purchases at boutique point-to-point sales are geldings, the buyer will likely never recoup the price tag in prize money unless scaling some of the sport’s biggest heights - and we all know there is only one Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National each year.

Splashing the cash does not automatically result in feature-race success at the Festival, though. That has been evidenced with a number of big-spending owners in recent times.

However, trade continues to be extremely robust, with two joint sale-toppers of £420,000 and a total of eight point-to-pointers fetching £200,000 or more at the latest Tattersalls Cheltenham Sale.

It all begs the question: what does an owner typically have to spend to have a runner in a Grade 1 race at the Cheltenham Festival?

Getting a definitive answer to this is basically impossible considering not all horses will be sold via public auction where their price tags are freely available to be seen.

In fact, of the 162 runners in Grade 1 races at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, the majority did not join their current owners via the sales ring. A total of 78 horses (48%) in these races either changed hands privately or were leased to connections, in comparison to 73 (45%), who joined their current owners at auction, and 11 (7%), who ran for their owner-breeders. That leaves us with public auction data being available for just shy of half the runners in top-level races at the Festival.

Auction averages

When converting all purchases prices to Euros, for the sake of accurately assessing all figures, an average runner in Grade 1 company at this year’s Cheltenham Festival cost €152,935 when joining their current owners (median of €110,000).

In total, over €11.1 million was the combined public purchase price of these horses when most recently changing hands at auction.

If a bookmaker was asked to price up which of the 14 Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival assembled the most expensive field at public auction, it’s hard to imagine the Ryanair Chase and Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle would have topped the market but those two contests were standouts in 2023.

Public purchases supplied five of the first six home in the Ryanair, spearheaded by £400,000 buy Envoi Allen, and the average runner cost €228,051 (median of €193,188)

There were 11 runners in the 20-strong Albert Bartlett field who were recruited for their current owners at public auction, reaching a combined total spend of €1.87 million and an average cost of €170,418 (median of €176,142). Paul Nicholls-trained winner Stay Away Fay was the most expensive runner at £305,000, though private buy Corbetts Cross, who ran out at the last, is thought to have changed hands for a fair deal more than that.

Overall, the cost of buying a novice/juvenile hurdler compared to novice chaser was largely similar at this year’s meeting.

A Grade 1 runner in the Supreme, Ballymore, Albert Bartlett or Triumph Hurdle cost an average of €173,138 (median of €140,144), while a representative in the Arkle, Brown Advisory or Turners Novices’ Chase weighed in at €177,279 (median of €96,598).

As for the Champion Bumper, nine of the 21 runners moved to their owners at auction for an average of €140,952 (median of €142,063).

Private purchases

Drawing firm conclusions from some of the senior Grade 1s is more difficult as a result of the influence of private purchases. For example, all seven runners in this year’s Champion Chase were private buys or homebreds, and only two of the seven-strong Champion Hurdle field were bought publicly.

All in all, the average cost of a Grade 1 winner at this year’s Cheltenham Festival who was bought for their owners at public auction was €183,363 (median of €136,380), while the split between private and public purchases was 50-50 in this year’s Festival Grade 1s (seven wins apiece).

Digging deeper into the results of 2023 Festival can tell us more about the recruitment policy of the sport’s top trainers, particularly when it comes to the meeting’s most successful trainer of all time, Willie Mullins.

Ireland’s 16-time champion trainer was responsible for an incredible 51 of the 162 runners in Grade 1 races at this year’s Festival - almost one in three horses in the meeting’s top races.

What stands out even more, though, is that 40 of his 51 runners (78%) did not join their current connections at public auction. Mullins is renowned for having a terrific scouting network in France and he is clearly capable of getting his hands on premier stock without having to engage in public bidding wars.

In contrast, some of his other main Festival rivals appear to be leaning more heavily on the auction route. Of Gordon Elliott’s 16 Grade 1 runners at Cheltenham, 10 had been sourced through public auctions at an average of €209,808 (median of €213,309), while Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, who both had eight top-level representatives at the meeting, saw five of their runners join owners through the sales ring.

Henderson’s average auction buy, admittedly from small samples, was €225,237 (median of €136,380), while Nicholls’ arrived at an average of €260,466 (median of (€346,602).

More can be done

Such lofty sums are a reminder that those in charge of increasing engagement in the sport really need to make the most of publicising bargain buys who have excelled far beyond the expectations of their price tags.

Of course, Hewick’s story as an €850 snip has gained national attention in recent months, but even less high-profile winners who have been bought for small figures deserve to be highlighted more often outside of our own racing bubble.

Money is a universal language. It’s not too difficult for a non-racing audience to understand and appreciate a horse being bought for roughly €15,000 as a yearling and sold for nearly 10 times that amount after a successful breeze-up - and we have had similar examples of this in Ireland in recent years.

The characters behind these success stories can often be engaging and relatable as small operators, and pushing to highlight them beyond racing’s media in national spaces can only be a positive for the industry.

Particularly at a time when certain political groups are critical of the government’s contribution to prize money, if it is predominantly for the sport’s big hitters.