Should the entire National Hunt system in Britain and Ireland be speeded up?
In recent weeks this column has focused on some of the bigger-picture issues that National Hunt racing is facing. The bloated Graded race programme is the fulcrum around which much of these problems and their consequences revolve around. However, one issue that was touched upon in the article about the dire state of the top-class hurdling divisions is the changing dynamics of National Hunt racing and the bloodstock sector that underpins it. This is a subject that is most certainly worth expanding on.
As was outlined in that article, the National Hunt breeding and trading sectors have changed significantly in the last 20 years. Bumpers were once the shop window of choice for trainers and owners that wished to showcase young horses they had brought on and hoped to sell for a profit, but point-to-points have come to dominate the National Hunt shop fronts in recent decades.
The last 10 years or so have also seen a notable change in the expectations of the amount of work that is generally done with 'store' horses when they are offered for sale. Gone are the days when raw four-year-olds were considered acceptable at store horse sales, as for many years now vendors have been expected to produce three-year-olds that have a much greater amount of handling, education and conditioning done with them so that their buyers can kick on with them as soon as possible, often with a view to having them ready to run in the highly-commercial point-to-points for four-year-olds as little as six months after the store sales.
This change isn’t just an anecdotal feeling, it can be illustrated in black and white. Back in 2002, 54% of the catalogued lots for the prestigious Derby Sale at Tattersalls Ireland were four-year-olds. Since 2016, no more than 2% of the catalogued lots in the Derby Sale have been four-year-olds. This year, only one of the 466 lots was a four-year-old.
In a nutshell, the game has changed dramatically. While in the not-too-distant past it was common for National Hunt horses sourced from France to have their longevity doubted due the fact that they often started racing over jumps far earlier than their British and Irish counterparts, the system in this part of the world has changed to put an ever-increasing emphasis on precocity in National Hunt horses. Now, it is completely normal for a big, scopey, staying chase type to be readied to run in a point-to-point before they have even reached their actual fourth birthday.
Yet, despite this massive change in attitudes and training styles in British and Irish National Hunt racing, the programme has remained the same. It is still structured in a way that assumes the animals are slow-maturing and need to be brought along slowly. The result is that many of the most exciting and precocious National Hunt horses in training are spending much of the prime of their careers in restricted divisions.
The most obvious and current example to illustrate this is Envoi Allen. He is without question one of the most exciting and talented horses in training, yet despite the fact that he was precocious enough to bolt up in a point-to-point in February of his four-year-old year (12 days before he turned four in real terms) and has never met with any sort of injury setback, he almost certainly won’t run in an open Grade 1 until he is almost eight years of age. For a horse of his precocity and talent to be able to spend a full season in bumpers, a full season in novice hurdles and a full season in novice chases before taking on the best in open company can hardly be considered desirable for anyone bar his connections. It would be akin to confining a young Lionel Messi in age-restricted ranks until he was 25 or even older.
As we all know, National Hunt horses are fragile creatures. So, considering that the precocity of National Hunt horses in Britain and Ireland is increasing all the time, why isn’t the programme evolving to take account of this and deliver these horses into open company earlier? It is in the best interests of the sport that the most talented horses in it are competing against the best competition possible and the current programme does everything it can to help delay that for as long as possible.
There are any number of ways that the programme could be changed to help achieve this, some more radical than others. Traditionalists, stop reading now, because you aren’t going to enjoy this part.
Firstly, it is clear that bumpers are far less relevant than they once were and it is difficult to see this changing. Thus, I would suggest that the role of bumpers should be reviewed as a matter of urgency. Are there too many of them in the calendar? Should horses be allowed run in them beyond their four/five-year-old season? Should horses that have run in point-to-points be allowed run in them? Should there even be Graded bumpers anymore? All of those questions should be considered in the context that the goal of any changes is to speed up the path of young horses into open company.
Secondly, perhaps we can take a lead from France who have been decades in front of Britain and Ireland in encouraging precocity in their National Hunt horses both in terms of breeding and training. Over there, three-year-old hurdles start in the first week in March and three-year-old chases start in the third week of July.
Finally, the novice chase programme is most certainly worthy of scrutiny. 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 horses are sent novice chasing, the vast majority will have acquired ample experience over hurdles and in many cases over fences in point-to-points, so is it really 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 shouldn’t need a drawn-out “education” in novice chases. The exploits ofConeygree 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? Those races could be replaced by 0-155 novice handicap chases and any novice chasers rated above 155 would be 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 Shishkin and Envoi Allen butting heads with the established chasers in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and/or the Ryanair Chase rather than our current reality of those two horses being kept apart and going off at odds-on for their respective novice chase targets at the Cheltenham Festival.
As has been repeated ad nauseum in this column in recent weeks, the National Hunt programme in Britain and Ireland is badly broken. The Graded race schedule has become bloated beyond recognition. The structure of the programme caters to the needs of slow-maturing National Hunt horses that are nearing extinction in the face of changing market demands. Most importantly, the National Hunt programme is no longer fit for the purpose of creating a consistently engaging spectacle for the racing public. Small-field Graded races with odds-on favourites are the enemy and our sport has become overrun with them.
Plasters and sticky tape aren’t going to solve these problems. To be frank, the National Hunt programme books in both Britain and Ireland need to be thrown on the fire. What is needed is a completely new Anglo-Irish National Hunt structure and programme that capitalises on the links between the two jurisdictions, the increasingly precocious nature of National Hunt horses and the need to provide a compelling racing product throughout the season.
Such action will require a great amount of bravery and daring from those in power to even get it past the proposal stage. These suggestions will be resisted at every turn by the most powerful players in the sport and by traditionalists whose voices tend to command the most influence.
However, if National Hunt racing is to fulfil its potential as an engaging sporting spectacle, changes such as these that are designed to remedy such clear shortcomings in the fundamental structure of the sport must be considered. The long-term greater good of the sport is far more important than the short-term vested interests of those that benefit from the status quo.