Jumps racing must tackle its pre-Cheltenham Festival winter crisis
Racing is overflowing, some might say overloaded, with opinions. The very fact that you're reading this column shows you realise as much.
The vast range of views expressed ranges from the original (rare) and the inspired (very rare) to the unoriginal (often) and the downright bizarre (occasionally). Firmly filed away in the ‘bizarre’ cabinet is a suggestion aired in the ‘Racing Post’ by columnist Julian Muscat and aimed at tackling the large problem of small fields in the midwinter build-up to the Cheltenham Festival. A problem that reared its ugly head again at the weekend, including at Newbury’s celebrated Betfair Hurdle meeting.
The idea revolves around forcing horses out of their boxes more often. And its central plank is docking a percentage of the prize money received by Festival winners unless they turned out a requisite number of times during the preceding months of the National Hunt season. So, for instance, if the Gold Cup winner had not made a minimum of four appearances beforehand, connections would forfeit a slice of their purse, perhaps up to £50,000.
Cue uproar, rather than Cue Card, I hear you say. How can such a revolutionary concept be introduced without allowance for injuries or abandoned meetings? Imagine the furore next month, for example, if Willie Mullins uses all his training skills to nurse the fragile ANNIE POWER back to her victorious best, only to be told he and Rich Ricci won’t be receiving full financial reward.
And of course, you’d be right. Festival history is enriched with the multiple-winning exploits of lightly-raced horses such as SEE YOU THEN, BEST MATE and QUEVEGA. Exploits that might not have been achieved had they been forced on to the track more often.
The idea is flawed also because it might tempt trainers to declare their charges on unsuitable ground or when they are carrying knocks, and it even runs the risk of invoking the non-triers’ rule as horses are given quiet jogs out the back simply in order to satisfy a contrived rule.
I have little doubt that, much like the reigning Gold Cup hero CONEYGREE next month, the proposition is a non-starter. But as well being bizarre, it does deserve a place in the file headed ‘original thinking’, and it does warrant respect for at least seeking to find the cure for a problem that is fast turning into a crisis for Jumps racing.
Let’s take the weekend just gone. Of 35 races run at the five most high-profile meetings spanning Newbury, Warwick, Gowran Park, Exeter and Navan, 15 paraded five runners or fewer. Of the 12 Graded or Listed contests, nine contained maximum fields of five. In Ireland, without the omnipresent Mullins, at least one of its races would have been a walkover. In the UK, unless a solution is found, it can only be a matter of time before a major Saturday is blighted by a walkover.
The reasons stare racing in the face: bad, bottomless ground and the reluctance of connections to risk a run on it so close to the Festival. The desperately deep ground, which has prevailed now for the best part of two months, produces racing that is unpredictable, uncompetitive and, on occasions, uncomfortable viewing. Few good horses can handle it. Across the two days, a staggering total of ten odds-on favourites were all turned over, including 1/5 shot L’AMI SERGE at Warwick and Paul Nicholls’s SOUTHFIELD VIC, who was downed as an 1/8 shot in a two-runner match. Southfield Vic’s demise came at Exeter, where the sad sight of the veterans’ chase raised questions as to whether racing should have happened at all. On gruelling ground, just one horse finished and even he was so dog-tired that he had to be vigorously cajoled on the run-in simply to put one foot in front of the other.
Newbury and Warwick had been eminently raceable 24 hours earlier and could not be blamed for the paucity of runners. The races they framed and the prize money they supplied appeared to meet the demands of most who go racing or watch racing, namely good-quality horses and/or competitive contests. Yet, with the exception of the Betfair Hurdle itself, which remains in rude health, the participants still didn’t come.
Frustrations were hardly quelled by the ludicrous decision to stage almost identical 3m novice chases at each course. But I can honestly say that the support card for one of Newbury’s biggest days of the year was the worst I can remember. The return of Champion Chaser DODGING BULLETS and the emergence of exciting youngster OUT SAM were welcome treats, but apart from an interesting Bumper, the rest of the fare was as miserable as the weather. The disappointment was encapsulated by the Denman Chase, a race originally designed as a Gold Cup trial but reduced on this day by a field of seven wildly exposed and out-of-form chasers to a contest that was to next month’s Blue Riband what Donald Trump is to diplomacy.
Sadly, much like Trump, I don’t know the answer. However, a start can be made by racing and its media outlets following Muscat’s lead by accepting that the problem does at least exist. It was depressing to hear Racing UK presenters ‘talk up’ Newbury’s card on Saturday in a patronising insult to its viewers who, as informed subscribers paying good money, knew otherwise and knew better. In churning out phrases such as ‘great card’, ‘lots to look forward to’ and ‘excellent racing’, it was as if they were following a regular script that had to be religiously adhered to. A script containing not one iota of context or perspective.
I’m sorry to sound such a curmudgeon with the Festival just around the corner. But the curse of small, unappealing and uncompetitive fields is beginning to eat away at the heart of the Jumps game. Many more winters like this and it might be time, horror of horrors, to start taking an interest in what’s happening at Meydan.
GRAND NATIONAL ON THE HORIZON TOO
Excitement is mounting as the Cheltenham Festival draws ever nearer. But this week’s unveiling of the weights for the Grand National and announcement of record prize money at Aintree’s April extravanganza reminded racing fans that another magnificent meeting is also on the horizon.
Gone are the days when Liverpool was a decided poor relation of Cheltenham. It complements the Festival perfectly and now boasts a total purse of £2.9 million. It’s not all about the National either. The rest of the action is of the highest class on a wonderful course that has improved beyond all recognition and in a city exuding vibrancy and bonhomie. If you haven’t yet sampled the three days, I implore you to do so. And while you’re at it, check out PERFECT CANDIDATE for the big race.