NATIONAL HUNT RACING'S ROAD TO A BRIGHTER FUTURE
Whether we like it or not, National Hunt racing is under pressure. The world is moving in a way that any sports or entertainments involving animals are coming under more targeted and public scrutiny than ever before. Inevitably, National Hunt racing is moving closer to the front of the line for such scrutiny and this represents the biggest long-term existential challenge to the sport.
How National Hunt racing should best respond to such scrutiny has been a hot topic for many years now. Should we try to get ahead of it by making changes to the sport that seek to soften the public perception of it? Should we seek to educate the masses about some of the more nuanced and sometimes harsher realities of our sport? Or should we stubbornly barrel forward and not water down our sport in a misguided effort to appease the unappeasable in wider society that wish to see racing done away with?
Arguments of varying validity can be made on all fronts. However, there is one fact in this discussion that all involved would do well to pay heed to - simply, that the greatest defence a sport like National Hunt racing has in the battle for its social license is its popularity. The more popular a pursuit is, the less vulnerable it is to politicians and social commentators singling it out as a soft target.
That may seem like an obvious statement and many may think that it goes without saying that everyone involved in horse racing is already pushing in the same direction to make the sport as popular as possible, but are they?
While there is a great amount of focus on increasing racecourse attendances and pushing racing coverage into the mainstream, I can’t help but think that National Hunt racing has been allowed to slowly slip down a slope that has directly impacted on its public appeal. Let me explain.
National Hunt racing has changed greatly during the last 15 years, and not all of those changes have been for the better of the sport. The number of Graded races in Great Britain and Ireland has increased significantly in that time, despite a notable drop in the number of runners in the same period. The same 15-year period also saw an unprecedented rise to dominance of a small number of powerful trainers and owners that exert a near monopoly on the brightest young equine talent in the sport. With so many of the best horses held in a small number of hands, this bloated programme book is regularly exploited to keep the best horses apart.
Thus, far from being considered the code where the “small man” can have a fair crack at big-race success, National Hunt racing is arguably more dominated by a small number of big players than the Flat.
Odds-on winners increase at Cheltenham Festival
Meanwhile, the Cheltenham Festival has long been billed as the antidote to any such quibbles. We spend all season building up to the “Greatest Show on Turf” on the promise that the big clashes the racing public are largely starved of throughout the season will take place there. Yet, the Cheltenham Festival has become bloated, leading to a dilution of many of the top races. This is reflected in the relentless increase in odds-on favourites at the meeting during the last 19 years.
Despite what is supposed to be the greatest showcase of National Hunt racing so clearly moving in this worrying direction, those with the power to change it are seemingly going with that flow. This was again hammered home by the recent introduction of the new Mares’ Chase which is highly likely to add another odds-on favourite to the meeting.
The dangers of this should be very clear. If we want National Hunt racing to remain popular, we simply have to provide engaging and exciting races as regularly as possible. Yet, we have somehow managed to allow the programme book to be changed in a way that lends itself to the exact opposite, not just throughout the season, but also at what we bill as the greatest National Hunt meeting of them all.
So, can this be fixed?
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 a grossly underutilised tool in National Hunt racing. 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 were created by the bloated Graded race schedule in both countries are to be remedied, drastic action will be necessary in both jurisdictions.
As a sport, we can sometimes be bound too tightly by tradition and history. If National Hunt racing is ever to truly deliver on its full promise as a consistently engaging spectacle, these shackles will have to be cast aside in finding solutions to the issues that modern National Hunt racing is confronted with.
Open handicaps instead of Listed, Grade 2 and 3's?
While there was already a subtle 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 and small fields that fail to engage the majority of observers.
The problem is there aren’t enough high-class horses and too many alternative opportunities, to make such races competitive enough off level weights, so the solution is an obvious one, and it has been made on this page on multiple occasions over the years. 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-rated horses in a Grade 2 contest, we would have a more engaging prospect of seeing the 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 more attractive betting races, which remains 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 increased for finishing too close. This would lead to bigger field sizes in such races and would give connections of lower-rated horses more opportunities to go in pursuit of big prize money pots on fair terms. This can only serve to incentivise new ownership and spread prize money around amongst trainers at all ends of the table.
Less is more
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 diluted such races as there simply aren’t enough Grade 1-standard horses making these races competitive. Reducing their number, with a view to funnelling the best horses from every division into them at the key junctions of the season, can only be beneficial for the sport as a spectacle.
Changes such as the above would have a substantial impact on the competitiveness and marketability of National Hunt racing throughout the season, but they wouldn’t solve the high-class problem that is the Cheltenham Festival.
Cheltenham remains in an absolutely wonderful position in that they hold the meeting every trainer and owner aspires to have a winner at. This gives them a great amount of power, but it also means they hold a great amount of responsibility to the sport. Expanding the meeting and diluting the quality of the big races unquestionably had a detrimental impact on the spectacle that the meeting provides, but it isn’t too late to change.
Last year I wrote an article laying out how I would restructure the Cheltenham Festival. You can read it in the lower half of this link. Many will consider such suggestions to be too radical, but even if you do, it is important to see the thought process behind such suggestions.
For the likes of me, and most likely the vast majority of people reading this, we would all tune into the Cheltenham Festival with great excitement even if it was a 10-day meeting including a few selling hurdles. We are committed followers of the sport, and to us, the Cheltenham Festival means everything. However, we are a minority.
Most people that tune into the Cheltenham Festival hold a more casual interest and are watching it because of its billing as the best of the best that National Hunt racing has to offer. If the Cheltenham Festival doesn’t deliver a truly exhilarating experience to those casual observers, we risk them not tuning in the following year. We as a sport have to maximise the likes of the Cheltenham Festival, and indeed the Grand National, as these are our greatest shop windows from which we can attract new followers. Failure to do this and sacrificing the spectacle at the altar of commercial gain will be to the great detriment of the sport in the long term.
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, a more level playing field for all trainers/owners and deeper Grade 1 contests on the sport’s most high-profile occasions. These are changes which have the potential to turn the sport inside-out overnight both in terms of a spectacle and as a betting product. If we want our sport to be as popular as it can be, we need to address these issues before it is too late.
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.