In Alphabetical Order
CUT IT TO TWO DAYS AND CRAM IT FULL OF Grade 1s - Has been a mischievous view of Kevin Blake, top racing pundit. 'It works for the Dublin Racing Festival so it should work for Cheltenham.' There is no doubt that the DRF is a fantastic blast. Lots of stand-alone Grade 1s. Not trials. Four top handicaps. Big pots. Scheduled at the right time for the Spring Festivals. Chance of getting to a Six Nations game.
Kevin's view does open a debate. What does the DRF do for the Irish NH Calendar and fixture list? Take the Thyestes out, maybe Red Mills Day. Tony Keenan on Off The Fence ATR has suggested that there is not a big lot else between Leopardstown at Christmas and Fairyhouse in April. Granted there are some Graded races but to me, there just seem now to be even more Cheltenham Preview Nights to fill the gaps.
I miss the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunter Chase. It used to be the race after the Irish Gold Cup. A fine Cheltenham prep for the hunters. No idea if it still exists, or where. It must be remembered that Point to Points are the backbone of NH sport in Ireland and they should be given the opportunity to be celebrated on the big stage. Glad to see Richard Forristal RP supporting the return of a Champion Hunter Chase in his 2023 DRF Review 8th February.
For me, the amateur jockey races are just as much part of Cheltenham as the Grade 1s or the handicaps. The Hunters Chase and the Kim Muir have as much right to be there as the Grand Annual, the Arkle, or the County. Performances like Mr JT McNamara on Rith Dubh, Miss Maxine O'Sullivan on It Came To Pass or Miss Harriet Tucker on Pacha Du Polder have filled me with as much thrill as Rachael on Honeysuckle, Ruby on Kauto or AP on Wichita Lineman. Tiger Roll pipped by Delta Work in the Cross Country. His final race was a heartbreaker. But it won't be forgotten. The two warriors walking back together to the parade ring. The clue's in the name. It's the NH Festival not the NH Grade 1 festival.
THREE DAYS. IT WAS FAR BETTER THEN, MORE COMPETITIVE, BIGGER FIELDS - Apologies in advance, a personal bugbear. In my opinion, it wasn't, it was just different. Chris Cook RP, lovely man, has told me off for having this view. After attending a very decent 2022 preview night in the Harcourt Hotel, Dublin 2, I woke up to 'Rants of a Veteran Stats Analyst.'
I first went in 1985. Brand new suit and shoes, in awe of Prestbury Park. That bit hasn't changed. In 1984 Badsworth Boy had won his third QM. A five-runner field, prices 4/5 the winner (came home alone), 5/4 Bobsline (F three out) and whatever price you wanted for the rest. If there had been social media (and Corals' James Knight in particular), there would have been uproar as to the weakness of the division. In those days we had the beautiful and much scorned four-miler full of wonderful slow boats. More of that later. The penultimate Festival race was something called the Cathcart, a small field novicey conditions chase thing. Usually with a short priced fav, no one bar Rory Delargy would have had a clue as to the entry criteria. At least one of the field had already run unsuccessfully that week. It was like a pause before we all geared up for the County. The Cathcart had no right to be at any NH Festival. I also watched the magnificent Istabraq strolling three Champion Hurdles. Fields of 18, 14 and 12 runners. Beat what, again? Oh yes, Theatreworld.
I suggested this on Twitter recently and was slapped back by being asked when did the Supreme become 8-runner fields. Yes, the last two renewals have been smaller fields. But Constitution Hill went off at 9/4 jt fav. Dysart Dynamo set the race up for him. He was the other jt fav and a Grade 2 winner. Pre race, the 2022 edition was seen as a highly competitive affair. As I write as is the 2023 version.
Let's return to 1979 and the ill-fated Golden Cygnet, one of the most visually impressive winners of the Supreme. Ever. They went 4/5 the winner, 8s Western Rose, 12s bar. 18 runners. He hacked it. 15 lengths. Western Rose was 2nd. His previous run was to be beaten in a 2m 4f Haydock h'cap hurdle. He was the Supreme second favourite to the Cygnet, remember. Third home was a 33/1 four yr old, Bootlaces. It seems that Bootlaces was only running because he was likely to have been balloted out of the Triumph. That's correct, balloted out of a 30-runner Triumph Hurdle. Golden Cygnet should have been threes on. Not much depth to novice hurdlers that season?
These are just examples that I remember. If pressed, I'm sure I could find uncompetitive big field races most years. Monsignor's rout of mainly social runners in the 2000 RSA Novice Hurdle. Unsinkable Boxer? Surely the Triumph has become a better and fairer race with the lesser quality heading for the Boodles?
SURE, LOOK AT THE NUMBER OF ODDS ON SHOTS... - A favourite topic of young Blake and Chis and yes, they're right, recently there are more odds on favourites. But are there more odds on winners? https://www.gaultstats.com/blog/fate-of-the-favourites-a-clerk-s-view?categoryId=83345 This link should take you to my Fate of The Favourites page where you can see if and how things have progressed. Since 2018 the number of Festival odds on shots (winners in brackets) have been 6 (4), 2 (1), 6 (1), 7 (3), and 5 (3). Those that didn't oblige last year were Shishkin and Galopin Des Champs (they're there to be jumped).
My view on odds on Festival shots is to ask why they are that price? We have had 26 in the last five Festivals yet only 12 have obliged. Well, over the last decade or so I can sit at home and at the touch of a button watch every race of every horse in GB and Ireland. The tips and opinions for the 2023 Festival started as soon as A Plus Tard crossed the line in March. Some sooner. Every year these opinions tend to become more and more entrenched until they seem like fact. We have Upping The Ante, In The Know, Off The Fence, The Road To Cheltenham. Podcasts by the dozen. 'That can't get bate' heard everywhere. Even Gaultstats to reinforce your views. In November Facile Vega was evens for the Supreme. Particularly shown in the QM where the small group of likely runners tend to be known from a long way out and sometimes don't appear that often (cough, Shishkin). This century there have been 11 QM odds on favourites but only three odds on winners. At 1/4 and 4/11 twice. This is no doubt that many favs deserve to be odds on but some maybe not. Easy enough for a hindsight view but for me, an odds-on shot doesn't necessarily make a race uncompetitive. Advertised to the nth degree by the results at the 2023 DRF.
To be fair to Kevin Blake, I like to look at those favourites 3/1 and under. To me that has always been a price to re-assess a Festival opinion. There had never been a Festival where there were more than 19 favourites returned 3/1 and under, and of those no more than nine had ever won. Until 2022. Last year there were 20 such shorties, 11.5 of which won. Four of the first five races on Gold Cup Day. I know of on-course bookies who say they had never lost at Cheltenham. That is, before 2022.
However, I like the four days. For me, it works. Below is my view as to how the current perceived problems might be alleviated. My objective here is to achieve larger and more competitive Festival fields and with no disrespect to WP Mullins, try to share Festival success amongst others.
To put into context, at the start of November 2022 the number of British trained horses with an official rating of 151+ has more than halved since 2019 to just 43. Applies to both chasers and hurdlers. WPM trains at least 36 horses that fall into that category. How can we even things up?
NOVICE CHASES - Four Graded novice chases are at least one too many. Came to a head last year when Stattler jogged home in the three runner 'nearly' 4 miler. Well, there were actually six runners but two of them were Rebecca Curtis sporting no-hopers and Braeside pulled up early. Far from an interesting long distance spectacle. We do however suffer from short memories. The previous four editions had 12, 14, 18 and 16 runners respectively. Tiger Roll won a fine four-miler in 2017. It might be a blip but the consensus is that there are too many races of this type for the horse population.
My suggestion is to return to the three-day Festival conditions of this race. Back to what the National Hunt Chase used to be. That is to horses that hadn't won any hurdle or a chase more than a beginners. Cut the prize money and return it to the days of JT McNamara, Marcus Armytage on Christmas Gorse and Richard Harding on Hot Weld. Great amateur jockeys getting the best out of sometimes less than cooperative partners. No longer have it as a rich Grade 2. That means that the Stattlers, the Galvins and the Tiger Rolls won't be eligible. I hear you shout, What about the NH Olympics? My view remains that it is the NH Festival for all parts of the sport. And that race for the slow boats was a treasure. Without any prompting from me, this return was espoused by Ruby Walsh on The Road To Cheltenham 20th January. He should know what he is talking about.
The benefit of this might be that those rated too high/won too often will have to run in the 3-mile novice, hopefully raising their numbers and then perhaps force a trickle down to the Turners.
The Mares Grade 1 Hurdle - This does provoke debate. Kevin's view has been to cut it to a Grade 2, make the rating limit 150, forcing those who own and train such as Honeysuckle and Marie's Rock to go to the Champion Hurdle/Stayers. Not sure about this. It might work but we should remember that post race career is when mares are at their most valuable. And those that own/breed them rarely respond to being 'forced'. More likely to be retired to paddocks after a couple of decent wins than to be a plucky loser to geldings? Not sure what's to be gained for the owners in those circumstances.
The Mrs Paddypower Mares Chase - For the love of God, please get rid of this. Even the name trivialises it. I understand the race reasoning to 'improve' the breed. You mean, to improve those of WPM and his owners? He has won the first two editions and apart from Impervious (JP owned) now dominates the 2023 antepost market for this. In its spot as the Festival's penultimate race it does remind me of the Cathcart. Small field conditions chase with a short-priced jolly (2022 WPM's Concertista @2/1). I know that is unlikely to happen forever. But... What to do with it? I have two options. The Mares Day in April could take a G2 centrepiece chase or if that doesn't work, there is that ridiculous Mares Handicap Chase in the December Meeting populated by horses rated in the 110s. Should never grace any Cheltenham card. This Grade 2 Chase would be a vast improvement on it. Advantages would be that any connections wanting to run mares in Festival Chases might have to beef up the Ryanair (with an allowance of course) or take their chances in a handicap.
A point I didn't realise was explained by Davy Russell on The Road To Cheltenham 19th November. Because of their value as broodmares, they tend to be retired a lot earlier than the geldings. A la Colreevy. It's only people like JP can afford the risk to keep them in training. The pool of chasing mares for this race is never going to be large. So do we really need it? There are other pools of horses uncatered for.
Let's replace it with the 2m 4f novice handicap. I admit to having treated this race with a certain cynicism but I actually missed it in March. Cut the rating ceiling back to 140. Whilst watching A Plus Tard win this by a mile was impressive, he should not have been running in a novice Festival handicap off 144. Went straight from here to be placed in a 3m Punchestown G1. Hindsight yes, but he should have been taking on Defi Du Seuil in the Turners. Those rated 141+ should have to find another Festival chase, hopefully a novice conditions one. It used to be fun to watch trainers trying to get their horse up to a rating of near 140 but not above. Trainers on its Roll Of Honour since 2013 include Mick Channon, Alan Fleming, Jamie Snowden. Dads Lad may have has broken his course handicap chase duck but WPM has yet to win a Festival Handicap Chase. This race also needs the Festival. Last year it emerged as a five-runner affair at Consolation Kempton on the Saturday with a rating ceiling of 135.
HANDICAPS CHASES- I have little to say on these except as to their position on each day but more of that later. They still tend to have the big competitive fields. Shortest priced handicap chase fav in 2022 was Andy Dufresne at 100/30 in the Grand Annual. She was unbacked by me but it was great to watch Miss Lucy Turner's success this year in the Kim Muir aboard Chambard. Keeping Sam Waley Cohen on Mister Coffey at bay.
HANDICAP HURDLES (PRESERVE OUR PERTEMPS) - I'll start with the Pertemps and the campaign launched by David Jennings RP 15th Jan/22nd Oct 2022 'to get rid' of this fine race. I like David, I enjoyed Upping The Ante with Gavin Lynch and now with Johnny Dineen. David dislikes the qualification system. Wants to replace it with a 3-mile handicap hurdle just by ratings. I'd like to oppose that. I believe Pertemps has supported well over 300 races in the GB and IRE Racing Calendars since 2002. I have no idea how much money this fine firm has put in but the prize fund for the 2021 Leopardstown Christmas Qualifier totalled well over 25k euro and the final in 2022 had close to £100k. The qualifying races certainly add value to race meetings throughout the season. Cheltenham Festival sponsors come and go. Without checking as I write I can't remember who sponsored the 2022 Gold Cup and as for the JLT/Marsh/Turners/Brown Advisory/Craft Irish Whiskey, it's getting pretty hard to keep up with the names and the races they support. As each new sponsor comes and goes, I am afraid to say I am less and less interested. And apart from the obvious, I have no idea as to what their companies do or produce. And I'm a Festival nerd.
David complained that the winners of Qualifiers rarely win the main event. True, but those that do, like Fingal Bay in 2014, came from recent qualifiers and probably have kept their form better than some who have won at Wincanton on Boxing Day or even before. He also complained about the 'plots'. Well, it's a horse race with a handicap, David. Plots? Who knew? Imho with the change in qualification, the plots have become a little more difficult. This season you now have to have to finish in the first four in a qualifier and you usually have to be rated circa at least 135 to get a run in the Final. Gone are the days when M Pipe declared Unsinkable Boxer for a qualifier and then made him a nonrunner. And still jogged the Final. Not that easy now to hide your light under a bushel. The Irish qualifiers are always very competitive events. The GB events less so. Hardly the fault of one of National Hunt's finest sponsors. Last season there was that 'dirty' seven runner qualifier at Warwick in February where the first six home would qualify. I did note all jockeys that day seemed to be doing their best to win the race. It even produced Third Wind, the 25/1 winner of the Final.
David also seemed aggrieved that Willie Mullins doesn't win it. An opening perchance for other trainers? Gordon Elliott does seem to like it. David's idea is that we should have just a 3m handicap hurdle on ratings. Like the County. No qualification needed. Ok then. Two of the last three County Hurdles have been won by WPM 'plot' novices. Saint Roi and State Man. Both coming from winning maiden hurdles, heavily punted, extremely difficult for the English handicapper to get a handle on. Both immediately after upped to graded class. If the 3m handicap had similar conditions to the County, I would suggest that in 2022 The Nice Guy might have been nowhere near the Albert Bartlett. After his maiden hurdle win he would have been given a handicap circa 140, carried 10st 10lbs and jogged round to win on the Thursday. Different day, I know, but he carried 11st 8 lbs to win the Grade 1 AB in a time 4 seconds faster than the handicap. Then won the Punchestown G1.
And finally, David says 'do we need this race? It's the NH Festival, for goodness sake.' Well, we do. I repeat, it is the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival and NOT the Cheltenham National Hunt Grade 1 Festival.
CHANGES TO COUNTY HURDLE and the CORAL CUP - Since Thumbs Up won the County in 1993, Saint Roi and State Man have been the only two winners who had not previously run in a handicap. And we know why. Both novices were good enough to contest or even win the Supreme. I'm just surprised that WPM has yet to do the same in the Coral Cup with some machine that should be in the Ballymore.
The BHA have now stepped in to make it more difficult. From Oct 1st 2022 a novice shall only be qualified to run in a Class 1 or Class 2 Handicap Hurdle Race if it has run a minimum of four times in hurdle races in Great Britain, Ireland or France. Both those Willie good things had only three previous hurdle runs. The Boodles remains at three qualification runs.
But I'd also like to reverse DJ's argument and suggest that not only should the Pertemps remain as it is, but that both the Coral Cup and the County should impose similar qualification conditions. NH Racing in these islands has a plethora of Cl2 and above rated handicap hurdles from 2m to 2m 4f. I submit that it wouldn't be too difficult to produce qualification criteria for these two big Festival handicaps. Then less chance of that hidden light under the bushel.
The County has 26 runners every year. Always well oversubscribed. Owners want a Festival runner, trainers want to win a Festival race. The Betfair Hurdle at Newbury has over £40k more in prize money. In February 2022 it could only attract 14 runners. Make it one of the qualification races and their field numbers might increase. Horses may have to run more to get in. From the money we've saved on the 'nearly' 4-miler and the Mares Chase, we can make the County and the Coral Cup prize money rival the Galway Hurdle. Make those races 'finals'.
And for those who still don't think recent Festivals are competitive, another example. In 2011 What A Charm won the Boodles off 115, a mark only 10 lbs more than his Flat rating. Memory suggests that Paul Townend brought a stepladder with him to help the horse over each hurdle. Because he certainly couldn't jump. But with his flat speed, he was able catch up with the others. Would need to be rated a stone better to get in now.
CHANGES TO TIMES OF RACES - One thing I strongly agree with David Jennings. The feature race each day should be no sooner than the fifth race. Build to the crescendo. Ground permitting, of course. Mares Hurdle before Champion Hurdle Tuesday. Cross Country before QM Wednesday, Mares Novice to Race 3 Thursday. Gold Cup Day could start with the Martin Pipe as the aperitif before moving on to the Grade 1s. I also believe that the Festival should finish with the Grand Annual or the County. It worked for me. I am content with the 40-minute gaps between races. Don't need to be any longer. And despite the protestations of Bruce Millington RP, it must remain Tuesday to Friday. To move it to Wednesday to Saturday would mean losing the Gold Cup amongst all those other big sporting events, Six Nations, Premier football etc. In Ireland, the bars open very early on Gold Cup Friday. We all just take the whole week off work. Can't see how moving it to the Saturday would improve it.
Can't think of much more. Think that's enough. Thanx for coming along.
PS. This might be an Irish thing. But we tend to go horse racing to watch horse racing.
I also like a Guinness or three. I don't particularly like drinking poorly poured pints out of a paper cup at £7.50, a good £3 dearer than my local. When attending Cheltenham, I make sure to eat a hearty breakfast. The course is not that easy to get to, travel and board from N Ireland ain't cheap and it costs a lot to get in. When there, I will have a couple of beers before racing. Food and beverages are not my reason for attending. I will eat and drink well each evening. On my last attendance at a Champion Hurdle, I was running (slowly) from the pre-parade ring to get a good spot to watch the big race. Maybe 15 minutes before the off. I passed a queue of about 50 people at that expensive pizza van that sits above and between the two parade rings. I paused and thought, at this precise moment in the NH calendar, is pizza or beer that important? GO AND LOOK AT THE HORSES.