Could there be scope for another National Hunt super-meeting in Ireland?
There is little doubt that two of the best ideas in recent Irish racing history have been the creation of Irish Champions Weekend and the Dublin Racing Festival.
Both ideas centred on the simple concept of taking the best elements from a number of race meetings that didn’t necessarily capture the public imagination by themselves and combining them to form a showcase meeting that proved to be much greater than the sum of the parts that made them up.
While the notion of amalgamation will never sit well with everyone, with it being more difficult than ever for horse racing to make a splash in mainstream circles on all bar the biggest occasions, it makes more and more sense to pool resources in this manner to showcase the best of what our sport has to offer.
With this in mind, the success of the Dublin Racing Festival got me thinking. The Irish National Hunt season now has a number of notable focus points both at home and abroad in the shape of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, the Dublin Racing Festival, the Cheltenham Festival, the Aintree Grand National/Fairyhouse Easter Festival and the Punchestown Festival.
Thus, the second half of the season is fairly well mapped out for the best horses in the country. However, one wonders could there be scope for some amalgamation in the pre-Christmas period that would provide a meaningful focus point at that stage of the season which is so often derided as a series of phoney wars before the real action kicks off?
Most people enjoy a bit of a puzzle, so to allow you to hypothesise about what various combinations might work best in a perfect world devoid of the politics that can be such a barrier to the greater good, here is a list of all the Graded National Hunt action from the end of September up to the beginning of Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting.
GRADED NOVICE HURDLES
01/10/17 – Tipperary 16f 4yo+ Grade 3 novice hurdle
03/11/17 – Down Royal 16f 4yo+ Grade 3 mares novice hurdle
12/11/17 – Navan 16f 4yo+ Grade 3 novice hurdle (For Auction)
26/11/17 – Navan 20f 4yo+ Grade 3 novice hurdle (Monksfield)
03/12/17 – Fairyhouse 16f 4yo+ Grade 1 novice hurdle (Royal Bond)
10/12/17 – Cork 24f 4yo+ Grade 3 novice hurdle
17/12/17 – Navan 20f 4yo+ Grade 2 novice hurdle
01/10/17 – Tipperary 16f 4yo+ Grade 3 hurdle
03/11/17 – Down Royal 16f 5yo+ Grade 2 hurdle (WKD)
11/11/17 – Naas 16f 4yo only Grade 3 hurdle (Fishery Lane)
12/11/17 – Navan 20f 4yo+ Grade 2 hurdle (Lismullen)
19/11/17 – Punchestown 16f 4yo+ Grade 1 hurdle (Morgiana)
03/12/17 – Fairyhouse 20f 4yo+ Grade 1 hurdle (Hatton’s Grace)
03/12/17 – Fairyhouse 16f 3yo only Grade 3 juvenile hurdle
GRADED NOVICE CHASES
01/10/17 – Tipperary 20f 4yo+ Grade 3 novice chase
19/10/17 – Punchestown 18f 4yo+ Grade 3 novice chase
05/11/17 – Cork 20f 5yo+ Grade 3 novice chase
19/11/17 – Punchestown 23f 5yo+ Grade 2 novice chase
19/11/17 – Punchestown 16f 4yo+ Grade 2 novice chase
03/12/17 – Fairyhouse 20f 4yo+ Grade 1 novice chase
09/12/17 – Navan 17f 4yo+ Grade 3 novice chase
10/12/17 – Cork 17f 4yo+ Grade 3 mares novice chase
30/09/17 – Gowran Park 20f 5yo+ Grade 2 chase
19/10/17 – Punchestown 25f 5yo+ Grade 3 chase
04/11/17 – Down Royal 20f 4yo+ Grade 2 chase (not won chase before 01/05/16)
04/11/17 – Down Royal 24f 5yo+ Grade 1 chase (JNwine.com Champion Chase)
11/11/17 – Naas 16f 4yo+ Grade 3 chase (not won a chase before 01/05/16)
12/11/17 – Navan 16f 5yo+ Grade 2 chase (Fortria)
16/11/17 – Clonmel 20f 4yo+ Grade 2 chase (Clonmel Oil)
10/12/17 – Cork 17f 5yo+ Grade 2 chase (Hilly Way)
10/12/17 – Punchestown 20f 5yo+ Grade 1 chase (John Durkan)
To me at least, the racecourse that springs to mind as a candidate for such a move is Punchestown. The highlight of their year is the Punchestown Festival which is one of the best meetings in the Irish racing calendar, but their other Grade 1 meetings are frankly damp squibs in comparison.
The Morgiana Hurdle meeting is a two-day event that took place on November 18th and 19th last year, with the highlights being the Morgiana Hurdle and two Grade 2 novice chases which all took place in the 19th. They also staged a one-day meeting on December 10th with the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase being the feature race.
While the weather can obviously be a big factor, neither meeting tends to attract a crowd of note and the positioning of their races do not necessarily fit in ideally with the rest of the racing programme. For instance, there have been rumblings for quite some time that the John Durkan is too close to the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, a point that was hammered home this season with Sizing John and Djakadam finishing first and second in the John Durkan only to disappoint badly in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase having seemingly not got over their Punchestown exertions.
One wonders could there be scope to bring the best races from those two meetings together into one card and move them into a slot in late-November or early-December which would leave a gap of between four and five weeks to the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.
Better again, one wonders could there even be a possibility of getting Fairyhouse to come on board with Punchestown to combine that best-of Punchestown meeting with the Hatton’s Grace card at Fairyhouse to form a two-day weekend meeting in that same slot in the calendar.
A two-day combination of those three fixtures would feature five Grade 1 races along with other Graded contests and valuable handicaps that would offer a real pre-Christmas focus point for many of the top horses in the country.
It would also slot in perfectly in between the JNwine.com Champion Chase meeting at Down Royal and Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting. Doing so may necessitate some slight adjustment amongst other meetings in the same time frame, but the hassle could well be worth it for what the end result would promise to be.
With so many in the National Hunt game bemoaning that the season-long focus on the Cheltenham Festival detracts from the action building up to it, the Dublin Racing Festival proved that such focus can be shifted and the above suggestion is potentially another way to achieve this at an even earlier stage of the campaign.