Dire state of the hurdling divisions needs to be addressed
Last week this column produced an array of statistics relating to alarming changes in the world of National Hunt racing in the last 15 years. There are numerous offshoots from those stats that warrant addressing, and one of the most pressing is the state of the hurdling divisions in Great Britain and Ireland.
To lay out the relevant figures again, here are the details of the number of hurdlers rated 140+ and 170+ every season since 2005/6 that were revealed last week. To further expand the picture, I have added horses rated 165+ over hurdles in those seasons to the table.
Hurdlers Rated 140+ in Britain and Ireland
While it was the vast inflation in the number of hurdlers rated 140+ that was the main focus point last week, it is the equally alarming reduction in hurdlers at the very top end of the sport that will be the focus this week. Given that wider context of hurdlers rated 140+, the reduction in the number of horses rated 165+ is very stark indeed.
Why has this happened?
The first contributing factor to discuss is the change in the behaviour of bloodstock traders and trainers. In decades gone by, bumpers were seen by many as the most desirable shop window for young National Hunt horses. Thus, many young store horses were bought and trained to win bumpers as that was where money was to be made.
It is a generalisation, but horses that start their careers in bumpers are usually more likely to be kept hurdling and this undoubtedly helped to swell the depth of the hurdling divisions. Indeed, it is worth remembering the backgrounds of the stars from the last golden era of hurdlers between 2003 to 2008. Of Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca, Harchibald, Macs Joy and Rooster Booster, three of them started their careers in bumpers and another started in maiden hurdles prior to reverting to bumpers.
Points and Flat not providing top-class hurdlers
During the last 15 years or so there was an ever-increasing move towards point-to-points being the medium of choice for traders to sell young horses. The emergence of a wide range of highly-professional point-to-point handlers in Ireland prepared to make substantial investments in store horses in the hope of selling them after running in point-to-points has served to accelerate this process, with a huge number of store horses being bought for this purpose.
Faugheen showed it isn’t impossible for point-to-pointers to become top-class two-mile hurdlers when graduating as the only Champion Hurdle winner in history to come from that background, but such a background seems to incline their connections to lean them towards chasing and/or longer trips as their career progresses. In practice this resulted in a high number of the best novice hurdlers being sent chasing rather than staying over hurdles during the last decade.
Another significant issue is the level of horses being bought off the Flat to go hurdling. With European middle-distance Flat horses now coveted all over the racing world, their values increased to an extent that those seeking to buy them for hurdling can rarely compete for them. Flat horses with ratings of 100 or higher being sent hurdling have become increasingly rare, and this has undoubtedly had an impact on the depth of top-class hurdlers.
Indeed, it is a sobering reality that if horses with identical profiles to Istabraq and Hurricane Fly emerged now, they would almost certainly be bought with a view to racing in Australia or the Middle East, rather than be sent over hurdles.
These factors have all contributed to lead the hurdling division to where it is now. For many years the two-mile and staying hurdle divisions have lacked depth in a big way. The introduction of the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival hasn’t helped either, as it served to reduce much-needed depth in the Champion Hurdle and Stayers’ Hurdle.
Of course, different divisions in racing will have strong and weak years that can be attributed to randomness at play, but it remains clear there are systemic reasons behind the weakening of the top-end of the hurdling ranks that need to be acknowledged and addressed.
Can hurdling's glory days return?
What can be done to reinvigorate the hurdling ranks? That isn’t a straightforward question to answer.
It goes without saying that the lack of depth at the top end of the hurdling division means there are without doubt too many open Graded races over hurdles, as there simply aren’t enough top-class horses to fill them. Reducing the number of these Graded races will help to produce contests of greater depth, though that alone won’t help in terms of increasing the number of top-class hurdlers in training.
Perhaps it will come full circle and connections of some of the high-profile novice hurdlers that are primarily sent novice chasing will realise just how shallow the open-class hurdling divisions are, and choose to keep their horses over hurdles to try and exploit that fact. Mind, the hurdle divisions have lacked depth in a major way for many seasons, and this hasn’t slowed the rush for top-class novice hurdlers being sent over fences.
Maybe there isn’t a way back for the open hurdling divisions in the short or medium term. Perhaps the changing dynamics of the market and the focus on embryonic chasers means that novice hurdles will merely act as a feeder system for future chasers, with the championship hurdle races catering for failed chasers and those that don’t have the scope to jump fences?
One can only hope that such fears prove to be unfounded. The Champion Hurdle in particular remains one of the most iconic races in our sport, and it will be a real shame if its relevance continues to shrink. However, hopes alone won’t stop it happening. Unfortunately, it seems likely to be a long time before we see a Champion Hurdle to rival the likes of what we saw in 2005 - a race that will live forever in racing folklore.