WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL
Supporters of National Hunt racing were jolted from their summer hibernation last Monday with the news that a Grade 2 mares’ chase over two-and-a-half miles will be added to the Cheltenham Festival from 2021.
That announcement generated plenty of chat by itself, but the additional news that an existing race would be axed to make way for it really did set tongues wagging.
Firstly, in the main I don’t think there is too much informed objection to the development of the racing programme for mares. It makes perfect sense and has been working very well in the last number of years at all levels of British and Irish National Hunt racing. Indeed, BHA statistics suggest that the percentage of horses in training that are mares is currently at an all-time high.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be forcing the issue by putting on yet another mares-only race at a meeting such as the Cheltenham Festival. Is it races such as those that have encouraged more people to put mares in training or is it the creation of a far better programme of mares-only maiden/novice/handicap races over both hurdles and fences throughout the calendar that has done so?
Given that Willie Mullins has won 13 of the 16 mares-only races run at the Cheltenham Festival since the creation of the Mares Hurdle in 2008 shows that only a very select group have directly benefited from their creation.
With a view to what this new race might look like, the Anglo-Irish Classifications from last season don’t offer much encouragement that it will be a contest that captures the imagination of anyone bar those directly involved in it. There were only 10 mares rated 145 or higher over fences that ran over them last season and half of those wouldn’t have been likely runners in the new race had it existed last March.
In short, even if the race been run at Thurles on a Thursday last season, it wouldn’t have stood out as being particularly exciting, never mind had it been staged at the Cheltenham Festival.
The case being made is that the creation of this race will lead to more high-class racemares being sent over fences than is currently the case. However, given the obvious heightened risk of sending horses over fences, owners of mares that have shown high-class form over hurdles are always likely to be cautious of doing so with their future broodmare careers in mind. Considering that, it is difficult to imagine this division ever being one that is stacked with talent.
Thus, the creation of the Mares’ Chase promises to add yet another relatively uncompetitive mares’ race to the Cheltenham Festival. While there have been a handful of exceptions over the years, it could readily be argued that the addition of mares’ races has had a net negative impact on the meeting.
The Mares’ Hurdle robbed us of seeing Quevega tested at the highest level at the meeting and would have robbed us of Annie Power winning a Champion Hurdle but for Faugheen’s injury. Not to mention the likes of Vroum Vroum Mag, Apple’s Jade, Benie Des Dieux and Laurina who would all have been well up to competing against geldings in their divisions rather than taking the easier mares’ only options when they did.
To paraphrase one wag on Twitter a few years ago: “If Dawn Run had run in races like the Dawn Run (Novice Hurdle), there wouldn’t be a race named after Dawn Run.”
The presence of these mares’ only races only serve to dilute the action at the Cheltenham Festival. One can be sure that they would be much more appreciated at a different meeting for whom they would represent proper feature races. They could be given centre stage there rather than being considered a nuisance at Cheltenham as they are by many.
The Cheltenham Festival should always be about the best taking on the best. That should very much include the very best mares taking on the geldings in receipt of a mares’ allowance rather than them being given soft mares-only options against overmatched rivals.
That point leads us on to the wider implications of this discussion. After it was revealed that one existing race will be scrapped to make room for the Mares’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, the debate about which race should go was very interesting. It was notable for just how many cogent cases could be made for getting rid of any one of more than half a dozen races at what is supposed to be the absolute pinnacle of National Hunt racing. It served to reinforce the view that the meeting has become incredibly bloated in its current format.
Rather than offering a wider spread of options to the best horses, the race programme for the Cheltenham Festival there should be unapologetically aiming to funnel the best horses into the same races. Mares-only races and mid-range trip options serve to dilute the Grade 1 action and it is the spectacle that suffers as a result.
In amongst all of the reaction to the news, I ran a poll on Twitter asking everyone what they would do if they had the power to pick the length of the Cheltenham Festival. The results were fascinating:
If you had the power to pick the length of the Cheltenham Festival, how many days would you want it to be?
Reducing it to three days would obviously mean losing seven races, while increasing it to five days would require at least a few new races.
— Kevin Blake (@kevinblake2011) August 14, 2019
The headline figure to draw from that poll is just how few people would want to see the meeting extended to five days. Given how popular the Festival is, that just 11% of the near 5,000 voters would want to see another day of it is telling, particularly when one considers that the possibility of a fifth day being added is persistently mentioned in racing circles.
The Cheltenham executive would do very well to heed what that poll clearly indicates. Adding another day to the meeting would be in complete contrast to what the Festival should represent and what its audience wants.
The poll results go on to show that not only do the vast majority not want more of it, 39% of the voters would like to see the meeting trimmed to one extent or another, with 21% wanting to see an entire day lobbed off the meeting. In terms of those that are happy, a 50% approval rating of the current format could hardly be considered a ringing endorsement of it.
Being realistic, there is no chance of the Cheltenham executive ever reverting to a three-day festival, but there is a strong message in those poll results and it mirrors the general theme of the comment that was generated by the announcement of the Mares’ Chase. The Cheltenham Festival is bloated and there is far more support for it to be refined rather than expanded.
The organisers of the Cheltenham Festival are in a position that is the envy of everyone else in the sport. Their four-day meeting is the main focus for the vast majority of the National Hunt season on both sides of the Irish Sea and beyond. It is billed as the staging ground for all the clashes that lovers of National Hunt racing yearn for and build towards all season long, but all too often those clashes don’t happen because the programme offers opportunities for ducking and diving.
Of course, this is all relative. The Cheltenham Festival remains the greatest show on turf in National Hunt racing and it is difficult to see it losing its position as the focal point of the sport any time soon. However, Cheltenham would do well to realise that magic is a finite resource and watering it down will only serve to reduce its effect.
A FANTASY CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL
With all of the above in mind, let’s play a game. One of the great assets of National Hunt racing is that the programme book in Britain and Ireland can essentially be changed at will. There is no wider governing body such as the European Pattern Committee to answer to, so the racing authorities can do as they see fit in terms of race planning.
So, for a bit of fun and with no regard for history/tradition, I’m going to set the programme for what I would consider to be the perfect Cheltenham Festival for racing fans.
It goes without saying, all the mares’ races would be the first thing to go from my Cheltenham Festival. I’d give them to some other track that would be very grateful for them and the detrimental impact that they have on the proper Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival would be no more.
Next, I would get rid of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. It only serves to dilute the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle which caters perfectly adequately to novice hurdlers that stay well. Those that aren’t happy with that can run in Pertemps Handicap Hurdle, from which I would remove the qualifier system and make it a normal open handicap hurdle.
Next to go would be the JLT Novices’ Chase as all it does is facilitate high-class ducking and diving. If you have a high-class novice chaser, the only real options one should have are the Arkle or the RSA. If you don’t like it, run in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase or the National Hunt Chase. If people got really annoyed, I wouldn’t be against shortening the RSA Chase by a couple of furlongs, but that would be the extent of my bend on that.
Next, I would get rid of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. Do we really need a consolation race for the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival? Likewise, the Kim Muir also goes in the bin, as we don’t need a consolation race for the Ultima Handicap Chase.
The Juvenile Handicap Hurdle is another for the bin. While I’m at that, I’d reduce the field size limit of the Triumph Hurdle from 22 to 16 to try and prevent a return to the bad old days of that race. The other handicap to go in the bin is the Novices’ Handicap Chase, as it was an awful idea from the outset and should never have been introduced.
This trimming of the handicaps leaves us with what is all we should ever have had in terms of those races at the the Cheltenham Festival, open handicaps around two, two-and-a-half and three miles over both hurdles and fences. They serve the function of catering for those that are one tier below the best. Giving opportunities to those lower than that is an exercise in lowering of standards and dilution of quality.
You might have noticed by now that I’ve thrown quite a few races in the bin. That I have. Indeed, I have thrown so many races in the bin that we now are left with just 20 races. Could that mean a glorious return to a three-day Festival??
Alas, even I’m not that naive. The three-day Festival is gone for good, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be creative within a four-day Festival. Would it really be that radical to suggest that a unique event such as the Cheltenham Festival, having been trimmed to emphasise quality over quantity, would be strong enough to justify holding four days of five-race cards?
While I’m in radical humour, I would propose restructuring each day with a view to building to a crescendo by having the feature race as the closer on the card. In most other walks of life, the main event is the last one of the day, so why not in racing?
The races could be spaced out a bit more, allowing a proper multimedia build-up to each race which would be entirely appropriate for such an occasion. This is the best of the best that National Hunt racing has to offer, why rush it?
Having the main event as the last of the day would also allow for a much fuller celebration of the winner and discussion of what has just happened without everyone involved having to rush off for the next race.
For those that are a bit limited on the imagination front, here’s what it might look like:
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
National Hunt Chase
Ultima Handicap Chase
Arkle Challenge Trophy
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle
RSA Novices’ Chase
Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase
Pertemps Handicap Hurdle
I expect most readers of the above to be sent into convulsions at the sight of so much change and breaking of traditions! Mind, those with long memories will notice that the line-up of races is very similar to what it was back when Cheltenham was a three-day festival.
For those that are still reading, ask yourself, would such changes really be that mad? I would suggest that not only would the reduction in races lead to a far superior racing spectacle throughout the week, the trimmed and tweaked format would make for a more enjoyable and marketable raceday experience for all.
Hopefully the above will prove to be food for thought, if nothing else.