Matt Tombs / Tuesday 1st April 2014 / 09:40
As is often the case these days after the Festival, there’s been debate about what races should be added or removed to the programme. I decided that as I’ve been critical of the way the Festival has evolved in the last decade – I should offer an alternative.
The problem with my alternative is that there is no chance of anything along those lines happening. The reality is that the Festival is now built on a model designed to maximise revenue from high quality racing. The racing remains high quality, but it’s lower than it was - because commercially, much more money can be made from 4 days of high quality racing, than by staging the best racing that could be put on, (which would only result in 3 days racing).
Thankfully, the powers that be at Cheltenham seem to understand the dilution of quality that has occurred, and plans for a further dilution via a 5th day have been shelved, (for now at least.)
It’s obviously not possible to give every horse its ideal conditions, regardless of how many races there are. If a horse wants a right handed, flat track and heavy ground (eg Arvika Ligeonniere) no amount of race planning can provide that.
Whilst the introduction of the Ryanair gave a more suitable opportunity for chasers who weren’t quick enough for 2m, but didn’t stay 3m2½f, you can’t give an ideal race distance for every horse. Cue Card would probably have ideally wanted a 3m race this season, (had he not got injured.) Special Tiara might have been perfectly suited by a 1m6f chase, and so on.
I’m therefore not persuaded by arguments that the extra races give more horses a fair crack of the whip. I’m looking for the top horses to take each other on. Horses will have to go left handed, on an undulating track and probably on a sound surface – over the trips available.
The aforementioned Ryanair is the first race to be axed. There are years where then the Champion Chase and Gold Cup are strong enough that horses being sucked out of them into the Ryanair, is less of a problem. This year, when both races were weak renewals, it exposed the dilution. Ironically, Dynaste might have won the Gold Cup had there been no Ryanair and its not beyond the bounds of possibility that Al Ferof or Boston Bob might have done.
The biggest problem is the novice chases. There used to be 2 (Arkle and RSA) and there are now 4 (JLT and 4 miler.) The clearest case for getting rid of a race at the Festival on the grounds of dilution of quality is the JLT. To take one simple stat – the Arkle averaged 14 runners this century before the JLT was introduced, since then its averaged 8.
The 4 miler has historic significance but I’m also in favour of the Festival having a couple of marathon races that suit real old fashioned National Hunt breds. That should survive but with penalties reintroduced – I’d extend the previous system of 4lb for a chase and 7lb for 2 chases, to 9lb for a Grade 2 or 3 chase and 12lb for a Grade 1. That ought to ensure the top staying novices go for the RSA.
The case is less clear cut in the novice hurdle division. The Supreme and Albert Bartlett had good fields of 18 this season and the Neptune had 15 – all 3 were well contested. In 2013 only 8 ran in the Neptune despite it being the hottest Supreme for years. At that stage, I was getting concerned that we might need to merge the Neptune and Albert Bartlett into a race over, say, 2m6½f. However, I’m all in favour of more races to enjoy if the quality is there – so it makes sense to keep all 3 Grade 1 novice hurdles, (although I’d keep the merged Neptune / Albert Bartlett as a fall back plan.)
Having landed a touch with Balthazar King, I might have expected to soften my opposition to the cross-country – but I haven’t. That definitely gets scrapped. I would also get rid of the novices handicap chase. Novices have a good record in open company in handicap chases so there seems little need for one restricted to novices. Similarly I’d get rid of the Martin Pipe, which is just another Coral Cup for conditional jockeys.
More controversially, as part of abolishing weight-for-age allowances (with one exception below), I would get rid of both the Triumph and Fred Winter. In the modern era I can see no need for races restricted to 4 year olds. Many are precocious enough to tackle their elders (especially French breds) and the presence of these races tempts connections into running horses in hard races, who would benefit from being given more time early in their career. This would also help National Hunt breeding, as the temptation for owners to buy off the flat would be reduced.
There are two races I’d amend and one new one I’d introduce. I was tempted to abolish the mares race, but there must be material knock on benefits of more mares racing. The issue, especially in an era where many trainers seem to think its better to win a small race at the Festival than try and win a Championship race, is the Quevega problem. For all that it’s a brilliant training performance to get the fragile mare to win the race 6 years in a row – it’s hardly a sporting one. She’s generally had 20lb+ in hand and should have been running in a Championship race. I’d therefore make that race a 0-150 to force the tiny number of top mares into the Championship races.
There are two races not currently on the list that I think would add something. The first is a veterans’ race. These have been successful in the wider programme as many chasers of ten or more find it very hard to win a handicap in open company against young improvers. Whilst I’d keep the races during the season as handicaps (possibly with a qualifying system similar to the Pertemps series), I would have the final as a conditions race with weight-for-age. Veterans races are open to 10 year olds and up, and I’d have 10 year olds carrying 11-10, with a 5lb allowance for each year older a horse is, with a minimum weight of 10-4, (effectively for 14 year olds and up).
One option would be to be rebrand the Kim Muir as this race. At the moment it’s a 0-145 handicap for amateur riders, but otherwise very similar to the Festival Handicap Chase. Having it as a veterans race would give it distinct personality. Similarly to the mares race, you don’t want top 10 year olds pot hunting so I’d make it a 0-155. I can see two potential issues with the race. Firstly, I’m not sure how many amateurs could do 10-4 or even 10-9. The weights might need tinkering with. Secondly, how competitive would it be? My gut feel is that it would be very competitive and the weight-for-age would give 12 and 13 year olds something to stay in training for, but you’d have to see how the first few renewals panned out.
The completely new race I’d have is a Grand National Trial. Given all the races it seems odd that there’s no handicap for out and out staying chasers. I’d therefore run a 4m open handicap chase with a full 28lb weight range. It seems ludicrous that the two biggest meetings of the year (Cheltenham & Aintree) are within 3 weeks of each other. Given the way ground is watered now, moving Aintree back (or Cheltenham forward) doesn’t seem a stumbling block, for all there would be plenty of administration involved. If this race was run on the Tuesday and there was a minimum of 4 weeks between the meetings, there would be no less than 32 days between the races. In any event, this would be a race that could stand alone if not many of the horses ran in both.
I would retain the 6 open handicaps over conventional obstacles (County, Coral Cup, Pertemps, Grand Annual, Byrne Group Plate and Festival Handicap Chase.) I would however, switch the Pertemps back to the old course where it used to be run over an extended 3m1f, which gave the race a different character as being one for real stayers over hurdles.
That would leave the Festival looking like this:
Supreme Novices Hurdle (extended 2m)
Arkle Novices Chase (2m)
Grand National Trial Handicap Chase (4m)
Champion Hurdle (extended 2m)
Pertemps Final (Handicap Hurdle) (extended 3m1f)
Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Veterans Chase (extended 3m)
Mares Hurdle (2m4f)
Neptune Novices Hurdle (2m5f)
RSA Novices Chase (extended 3m)
Coral Cup (Handicap Hurdle) (2m5f)
Champion Chase (2m)
National Hunt Novices Chase (4m)
Byrne Group Plate (Handicap Chase) (extended 2m4f)
Champion Bumper (extended 2m)
Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle (3m)
County Handicap Hurdle (2m1f)
Stayers Hurdle (3m)
Gold Cup Chase (extended 3m2f)
Foxhunters Chase (extended 3m2f)
Festival Handicap Chase (extended 3m1f)
Grand Annual Handicap Chase (extended 2m)