Drastic changes needed in National Hunt racing
National Hunt racing is a way of life in this part of the world. It engages the racing public in a way that Flat racing can only dream about and is considered by many followers of racing to be the people’s sport.
However, the National Hunt game has changed greatly in the last 15 years and not all of those changes have been for the better of the sport. Rather than being the racing discipline where the “small man” has every chance of success at the highest level as it was traditionally billed, jump racing has arguably being even more dominated by a small number of big players than the Flat game.
The shortcomings of this reality are often glossed over in the public arena, but the unusually large number of high-profile horses that have fallen by the wayside this season has served to expose some of the ramifications of this situation, as well as fundamental weaknesses in the structure of National Hunt racing.
In a nutshell, there are simply not enough high-class horses around to consistently provide engaging action within a programme book that has become bloated with graded contests. Given that so many of the best horses are in a small number of hands, this programme book is regularly exploited to keep the best horses apart.
While the Cheltenham Festival is billed as the Greatest Show on Turf and in theory should provide all the big clashes that the racing public are largely starved of throughout the season, that meeting has also become bloated which has led to a dilution of many of the top races. All told, the sport has changed in such a way that allows too much scope for the racing product to be far less engaging than it might be in different circumstances.
The causes of these issues that can be attributed to the programme book were laid out in detail in this space a year ago and that piece is worth revisiting in the context of this conversation.
To briefly summarise, the relevant findings, the number of Graded races in Great Britain and Ireland have increased significantly in the last decade despite a notable drop in the number of runners in the same period.
To give credit where it is due, the Irish racing authorities have made some welcome changes to the Irish National Hunt programme book since the publication of that piece. In August, they announced the downgrading of 10 Grade 2 races to Grade 3 status and two Grade 3 races to Listed status. In addition, 12 handicaps had their status upgraded, with three of them now being Grade A contests worth €100,000 and nine of them being Grade B contests being worth €50,000.
However, those changes do not go nearly far enough. One of the wonderful realities of National Hunt racing in Great Britain and Ireland is that each jurisdiction is essentially the master of their own destiny in terms of race planning. This means that unlike in the world of Flat racing where the programme of pattern races is subject to the standards and approval of the European Pattern Committee, the British and Irish authorities can essentially do as they please with the National Hunt programme book.
This comparative freedom in shaping the programme book is an underutilised tool in National Hunt racing and given that the British and Irish National Hunt spheres are so closely linked, this raises the potential for cross-border agreements on race programming to be reached between the jurisdictions for the greater good of the sport. If the problems that have been created by the bloated Graded race schedule in both countries are to be remedied, drastic action will be necessary.
As a sport, we can sometimes be bound too tightly by tradition and history, so let’s cast aside that tendency for a moment and venture into left field in search of solutions to the issues that modern National Hunt racing is confronted with.
While there has already been a move towards more valuable handicaps at the expense of weight-for-age graded and listed contests in both jurisdictions, there is scope to greatly increase this emphasis. Far too many graded and listed contests on both sides of the Irish Sea feature long odds-on favourites that only the purest of purists enjoy.
The problem is that there isn’t enough high-class horses to make such races competitive enough off level weights, so the solution is an obvious one. If every graded and listed contest outside of Grade 1 company was changed from weight-for-age status into an open handicap, it would greatly enhance the competitiveness of National Hunt racing overnight.
For example, rather than having the unappetising prospect of a 160-rated chaser being sent off at 1/5 to beat a field of 140 horses in a Grade 2 contest, we would have the much more engaging prospect of seeing that same horse trying to give 20lb and more to the same field. As well as making such races much more competitive, it would also serve to make them far more attractive betting race, which is in the best interests of racing’s finances.
Not only would it make for far more engaging races on a regular basis, it would also serve to encourage the connections of lower-rated horses to take on highly-rated rivals without fear of having their handicap mark destroyed for finishing too close to such rivals.
As well as leading to bigger field sizes in such races, such a move would give the connections of lower-rated horses much more opportunities to go in pursuit of big prize money pots on fair terms, which can only serve to incentivise new ownership.
Another suggestion would be a reduction in the number of Grade 1 races. These contests should be the very pinnacle of the sport and everything should be done to ensure that such races are as competitive as possible. While it may seem logical to provide Grade 1 opportunities in every trip category in every division as is the case now, doing so has served to dilute such races as there simply isn’t enough Grade 1-standard horses to make them consistently competitive.
Reducing the number of them with a view to funnelling the best horses from every division into them at the key junctions of the season would surely be beneficial for the sport as a spectacle.
An even more drastic proposal relates to the novice chase division. It is fair to say that having an extensive novice hurdle programme makes sense. The horses that contest them are generally inexperienced and are learning their trade both as racehorses and over jumps, so it is logical to allow them the opportunity to do so in the company of similarly inexperienced runners. However, whether such an extensive programme is necessary for novice chasers is much more debatable.
By the time a horse goes novice chasing, the vast majority will have acquired ample experience over hurdles and maybe even over fences in point-to-points, so is it necessary to provide them with a full season of Grade 1 novice chase opportunities?
It could readily be argued that at the highest level, experience is overrated. The very best horses are generally precocious in every regard, this is part of what makes them so good, thus they don’t need a drawn-out “education” over fences that lesser horses do.
The exploits of Coneygree and Thistlecrack in recent years have shown us that on the rare occasions that a top-class novice chaser is tested against open-class chasers they are more than capable of competing and winning at the highest level.
With this in mind, would it be sacrilege to suggest that Grade 1 novice chases should cease to exist after the end of February each season, with those races perhaps being replaced by 0-155 novice handicap chases and any novice chasers rated above 155 being obliged to race in open company for the remainder of that season?
This would have the potential to create some incredibly engaging clashes between the younger and older generations at the spring festivals. For example, if such a situation existed this season, we would be looking forward to the mouth-watering prospect of Douvan finally meeting a worthy rival in the shape of the potential superstar Altior rather than our current reality of those two horses being kept apart and going off at 1/3 for their respective targets at the Cheltenham Festival.
Of course, many if not all of these suggestions are sure to be unpopular with the majority of industry figures. Horse racing places great value in tradition and these suggestions fly in the face of the long-established structure of the programme book. They will be even more unpopular with the most powerful trainers, owners and jockeys in the sport who profit so much from the bloated Graded race programme.
However, while the risk-averse manner in which so many top-class horses have been campaigned during the last decade has almost brainwashed racing fans into seeing the apparent logic of such actions, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is a sport and the objective is to find out who the best horses are.
The programme book shouldn’t make it so easy for such conservative campaigning to take place given that it comes at the expense of the racing product, the quality of which will ultimately dictate the long-term health of the sport and industry.
The hope would be that the suggested changes would lead to increased competitiveness throughout the racing calendar, deeper Grade 1 contests and seeing the generational clashes that are so enthralling a season earlier than we usually do. These are changes which have the potential to turn the sport inside-out overnight in terms of a spectacle and betting product.
While many are likely to let their valuation of history and tradition cloud their appreciation of the benefits of such drastic moves as the ones that are suggested above, it is surely a discussion worth having in the best interests of the sport.