National Hunt Racing is the be all and end all to a vast number of racing purists. But the sport so many have fallen in love with is sluggishly becoming less and less seductive. The code has a following the flat can only admire, yet if the powers that be are not careful; dare I say, the roles could be reversed.
This season has exposed some gaping flaws in the National Hunt programme. Injuries to a swathe of top horses; Thistlecrack, Faugheen, Coneygree and Don Cossack amongst others – as well as the high profile tragedies in the cases of Vautour and Many Clouds have highlighted this over reliance on a small number of horses to pull the blinkers over fans and pundits alike.
It is now apparent we no longer have enough quality horses to fill an ever growing programme of graded races. The fixtures need an overhaul, with British and Irish authorities working together to ensure the best results. The programme needs refining to ensure competitive action remains week in, week out, not the novelty it has become through the winter.
Cheltenham is the best sporting festival on turf and nothing will change that. But it is has grown into such a spectacle and held in such heed that it has engulfed the entire code. There are brief exceptions – The King George, the Grand National and the Hennessy the major illustration of this. Yet even these races are seen as a guide to March, and pundits and the press quickly quote the effect that the outcome has on festival odds. Hang on a minute… Thistlecrack has just won the King George as a novice and all we care is that he’s now 2/1 to win the Gold Cup. We should be able to enjoy special moments like at Kempton on Boxing Day, and the season as a whole. If we can’t then in reality what is the point of it?
Cheltenham needs to continue to grow, but has to help the rest of the sport keep up and the only way to do this is by changing the race programme. Qualification races need more prominence and the ‘heats’ need to mean something throughout the season. There are obvious problems with this such as injuries causing the best to miss out, but having defending champions automatically entered shows there are ways of making it work. Many would say Cheltenham justifies a poor jumps season, but we can’t let this be the case forever.
National Hunt needs to look forwards not backwards, but there are important history lessons available to guide us. It starts with the cult following around certain horses; people are slowly losing interest in the fragile nature some, not all, horses are treated with. The million pound bonus tried to rectify this and in theory was a good idea, yet in practice it had very little, if any effect. The horse that wins the Betfair Chase early in the season then has it’s campaign mapped out and there is no way it would be risked in any other contest. Then the remainder of the field can do as they wish and the bonus has absolutely no bearing on any of their targets. The problems are obvious.
It’s easy to bask in the past glories of National Hunt, but the days of Desert Orchid, Dawn Run and even as recently as Kauto Star and Denman teach us a plain theory. We need to see the best horses as often as possible, and against one another. In the modern jumps scene the best horses are rarely seen on track, let alone the same track at the same time. Trainers are not directly to blame, but would Douvan have been campaigned the way he has over past seasons if David Elsworth had control of this monster in the late eighties?
The major owners are good for the sport at a glance and without their money we would be in a perilous situation. But, let’s say JP McManus or Rich Ricci abruptly pulled the plug on their respected armies. Suddenly these horses are spread throughout the ranks and we have competition on our hands. Dream land is a wonderful place, and understandably this all sounds too good to be true, but there is substance to it. These owners that have a monopoly on ownership ensure the little man rarely has their moment in the sun.
The business like approach to horse racing cannot continue if we wish to open up the sport to a new generation of fans and punters. Tobefair has arguably been one of the highlights of the season. A group of friends in the pub (just as all good stories start) bought what they believed was at best an average horse. The rise has been phenomenal to follow, seven wins on the bounce and went to Cheltenham with a big chance of making it eight gives everyone hope. Debra Hamer has 15 horses in her stable and the tough times will be a lot more frequent than the joyous ones, but when a jewel such as Tobefair emerges, the early rises become a lot easier. It is this spirit that needs to be tapped into.
The upper echelons of horse racing are reluctant to change and this blinkered approach is creating underlying problems that could bubble above the surface in the not too distant future. Fresh impetus has to be put into the jumps programme and there is nothing to lose by giving it a go. The model we have now is sufficient, but only sufficient and at the very least gives us a fall back. Ideally we want racing on the front pages again, but right now it would struggle to get on the back page. Some minor juggling and adjustment can help us in that quest to reignite the love affair we have with the great game.