Kevin Blake

Kevin studies the numbers and discovers some alarming issues regarding the quality of National Hunt racing, including the effects of an inflated Graded race programme.

  • Wednesday 25 November
  • Blog
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Alarming statistics highlight major issues in National Hunt racing

Wonderful news! The quality of National Hunt horse in Great Britain and Ireland has never been higher. This is vividly illustrated by these remarkable statistics detailing how the number of horses rated 140 or higher over hurdles and fences in Britain and Ireland has grown to an incredible extent during the last 15 years.

Chasers Rated 140+ in Britain and Ireland

Season Total (Novices) Britain - Total (Novices) Ireland - Total (Novices) Rated 170+ % of 140+ horses rated 170+ 3-year rolling average
2005/6 151 (55) 104 (38) 47 (17) 4 2.6%
2006/7 175 (52) 125 (40) 47 (12) 5 2.9%
2007/8 184 (43) 120 (27) 61 (14) 10 5.4% 3.6%
2008/9 214 (75) 148 (54) 63 (19) 7 3.3% 3.9%
2009/10 231 (82) 148 (46) 83 (36) 6 2.6% 3.8%
2010/11 230 (73) 154 (51) 75 (22) 9 3.9% 3.3%
2011/12 240 (79) 165 (52) 75 (27) 6 2.5% 3.0%
2012/13 220 (85) 147 (51) 73 (34) 10 4.5% 3.7%
2013/14 287 (105) 196 (66) 91 (39) 3 1.0% 2.7%
2014/15 292 (100) 198 (66) 94 (34) 7 2.4% 2.7%
2015/16 307 (109) 197 (68) 109 (41) 7 2.3% 1.9%
2016/17 310 (127) 206 (72) 103 (55) 4 1.3% 2.0%
2017/18 313 (116) 195 (70) 118 (46) 4 1.3% 1.6%
2018/19 325 (118) 212 (69) 112 (48) 9 2.8% 1.8%
2019/20 343 (126) 222 (75) 121 (51) 9 2.6% 2.2%

Hurdlers Rated 140+ in Britain and Ireland
SeasonTotal (Novices)Britain - Total (Novices)Ireland - Total (Novices)
Rated 170+% of 140+ horses rated 170+ 3-year rolling average
2005/6112 (33)73 (23)39 (10)
2006/7123 (40)72 (28)45 (9)
2007/8132 (51)82 (32)46 (19)
2008/9174 (66)114 (45)59 (21)
2009/10156 (55)104 (39)52 (16)
2010/11175 (57)120 (38)55 (19)
2011/12178 (70)107 (39)71 (31)
2012/13182 (71)115 (41)66 (30)
2013/14208 (86)132 (53)76 (33)
2014/15224 (94)149 (64)75 (30)
2015/16230 (76)129 (33)99 (43)
2016/17236 (92)151 (54)84 (38)
2017/18219 (87)128 (48)90 (39)
2018/19260 (93)151 (44) 109 (49)
2019/20264 (101)147 (51)117 (50)

Remarkable, isn’t it?

What makes these numbers look even more extraordinary is that they came during a 15-year period that saw a substantial reduction in the number of runners in National Hunt races both in Britain and Ireland, as shown by these statistics:

                 Great Britain                            Ireland
Year       NH Races     NH Runners     NH Races     NH Runners
2006     3380             35368                 1394               20119
2019      3719               31423                  1424               16467

Unfortunately, these numbers aren’t remarkable for the reasons that those of a blindly positive disposition might first think.

Rather than being indicative of this being a golden age for National Hunt racing in this part of the world, these statistics represent just one of the unintended consequences of race programming that has diluted and diminished the quality of National Hunt racing as a spectacle, and facilitated the continued growth of dominant trainers at the top of the sport.

As can be seen in the first table, despite a significant reduction in runner numbers during the same time frame, there was an incredible increase in the number of horses rated 140 or higher both over hurdles and fences in both Britain and Ireland. The number of chasers with such a rating increased from 151 in 2005/6 to 343 in 2019/20 - an increase of 127.2%. The number of such hurdlers increased from 112 to 262 in the same time - an increase of 135.7%.

Yet, the data also shows that in the same time period, the percentage of horses rated 140+ over hurdles and fences that got to a rating 170 or higher reduced significantly. This was particularly pronounced over hurdles, with just one hurdler rated 170 or higher since the start of the 2016/17 campaign. This contrasts with a decade ago when it was typical for two or three horses to reach such heights each season.

So, are we really to believe that the volume of horses rated 140 to 169 has more than doubled in the last 15 years, yet the number of 170+ chasers have remained largely static, and the number of 170+ hurdlers has significantly reduced? It doesn’t seem to make much sense.

One common assumption is that the apparent influx of French-bred National Hunt horses in the last 15 years is likely to be contributed to the vast increase in horses rated 140+ in Britain and Ireland. However, this theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

As can be seen, while there have been some changes in the distribution of the origin of 140+ horses in Britain and Ireland, with the Irish-bred proportion of chasers and the French-bred proportion of hurdles both increasing, the overall proportions of the origins of 140+ horses has stayed much the same over this time period.

When I first highlighted these strange statistics almost five years ago, the handicappers on either side of the Irish Sea were not able to provide a convincing explanation. I would welcome their views, as it really is a puzzler.

While we wait for an official response, I’ll put forward a theory. Considering the number of National Hunt runners have fallen significantly in the last 15 years, it is notable just how much the number of Graded races increased on both sides of the Irish Sea during the same time period.

Graded Races in Ireland

   2006 2019 % Increase
Grade 1                                   28 37 32.1%
Grade 2 29 30 3.4%
Grade 3 28 37 32.1%
Total 85 104 22.4%

Graded Races in Britain

2006 2019 % Increase
Grade 1 28 40 42.9%
Grade 2 (non-handicap)49 61 24.5%
Total 77 101 31.2%

The vast increase in the number of Graded races at the same time that runner numbers have reduced, coupled with the concentration of a greater proportion of high-quality horses in a smaller number of powerful yards, has created a very unhealthy situation in National Hunt racing.

It has never been easier for trainers to pick and choose Graded race options for their horses, ducking and diving to avoid highly-rated rivals and stablemates in an entirely understandable effort to maximise their vast array of equine riches. The main consequence of this process is a proliferation of small-field, uncompetitive Graded races on both sides of the Irish Sea. Indeed, last weekend alone saw five Grade 2 contests take place, only one of which had a field bigger than four runners. The exception had seven runners. How anyone bar those with runners in these races could consider that a satisfactory situation at what is the very top end of our sport is beyond me. There simply aren’t enough high-quality horses in differing hands to come close to adequately filling up the vast array of Graded races in the National Hunt calendar.

Quality races need to hit the "Grade"

For Graded races to maintain their status, the three-year average race rating (the average of the official ratings of the best four horses to start in the race in any given year) has to stay above a set parameter for that Grade. It seems the official handicappers are often inclined to rate these Graded races at a level expected by that grade, rather than handicapping the races on their individual and often below-standard merits. This would go a long way to explaining the vast inflation of the number of horses rated 140 and higher in line with the significant increase in Graded races, whilst the number of horses rated 170 or higher has stayed static or reduced.

Of course, the consequences of an inflated Graded race programme are far more significant than handicap marks being thrown out of skew. The day-to-day spectacle of National Hunt racing has suffered as calculated, risk-averse campaigning of the best and most promising horses in training has become commonplace. With so many of the best horses now being in a much smaller number of hands, it has allowed the biggest trainers to exploit the bloated programme book, making it much more difficult for trainers with less fire power to compete.

Even the Cheltenham Festival, billed as the Olympics of our sport, has become a victim of the inflation of its programme, regularly failing to deliver the clashes that the sport craves all season. This dilution continues to this day, with the inclusion of a mares’ chase to this season’s Cheltenham Festival adding yet another superfluous race to the meeting that will only serve to subtract rather than add to the spectacle.

Potential solutions to these ongoing issue have been put forward in this space for many years and were reiterated as recently as last month. The main proposals are a ruthless reduction in the number of Grade 1 races and a conversion of all Grade 2 and Grade 3 races into handicaps. Many will undoubtedly see those proposals as being too drastic, but the situation has been allowed to worsen for so long that it will take a drastic adjustment to make a meaningful difference.

National Hunt racing still has all the assets to consistently deliver great sporting spectacles, but right now the bloated programme of Graded races is failing the sport, the vast majority of its participants and all of its followers. The key question is whether anyone with the power to make the necessary changes will be brave and bold enough to defy the wishes of the biggest players in the sport and make the drastic changes that are so clearly needed.

Kevin Blake
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