For anyone lucky enough to attend the Cheltenham Festival in the flesh, or at least watch on from home, the vast majority would argue that there’s little that can be done to improve the action.
But a successful format can always be tweaked further, and organisers have made two announcements to changes that will come into force in the next couple of years.
The first is that the National Hunt Chase will be shortened by two furlongs in an attempt to tackle safety concerns. The 2018 renewal of the race turned into an absolute farce with just four of the eighteen runners completing the course, with the Willie Mullins horse Ballyward sadly suffering a fatal fall.
And in separate news, the Jockey Club has revealed that one race will be dropped from the schedule at the 2021 edition to make way for a new Grade 2 encounter called the Mares’ Chase.
Otherwise, the showpiece occasion will remain as it is, with 28 top-class races spread across the four days of action.
Which Race Will Make Way for Mares’ Chance to Shine?
At the time of writing, the Festival’s organisers are yet to confirm which race will be dropped from the schedule in order to allow the Mares’ Chase to be added.
Cheltenham Festival Races by Grade
|Grade 1||Supreme Novices’ Hurdle||Arkle Chase|
|Champion Hurdle||Mares’ Hurdle|
|Ballymore Hurdle||RSA Chase|
|Champion Chase||Champion Bumper|
|JLT Chase||Ryanair Chase|
|Stayers’ Hurdle||Albert Bartlett Hurdle|
|Triumph Hurdle||Gold Cup|
|Grade 2||National Hunt Chase||Dawn Run Hurdle|
|Grade 3||Ultima Handicap||Coral Cup|
|Fred Winter Hurdle||Pertemps Final|
|County Hurdle||Grand Annual Chase|
|Listed||Close Brothers Chase||Brown Advisory Plate|
|Class 2||Glenfarclass Chase||Kim Muir Chase|
|Foxhunter Chase||Martin Pipe Hurdle|
The move to add another race for the mares to the schedule has been met with universal approval, with Nicky Henderson pointing to the popularity of the Mares’ Hurdle as confirmation that ‘it is a great time to introduce a Mares’ Chase’.
The Mares’ Hurdle, which was awarded Grade 1 status back in 2015, is one of the most popular races with spectators and punters, with the likes of Quevega, Benie Des Dieux and Apple’s Jade all taking the spoils in recent years.
The Mares’ Chase will look to capitalise on that success, and is expected to be run over a two and a half mile mark, although more details are yet to be confirmed.
But Ian Renton, a regional director at the Jockey Club covering Cheltenham, recognised the time was right for more mares’ exposure. He said:
“Given the recent improvement in the quality of mares racing, we have agreed to introduce a mares’ chase at the festival in 2021.
“We recognise the importance for the sport of providing opportunities for mares at the very highest level and the introduction of first the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and then the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle have been well received.”
Renton did not confirm which renewal was facing the chop, although Paddy Power have started a book on which Cheltenham Festival race will be dropped from the calendar.
The favourite is the Close Brothers’ Novices’ Handicap Chase. In existence since 2005, there are a number of other chases for novices to be pointed out, and so it is one race that could be considered non-essential to the smooth running of the event.
And with a typically low-quality field separated by just a few pounds by the handicapper, this tends to be a race which is met with minimal interest by all involved. It tends to be a tricky puzzle for punters to unravel too with so little differentiation in the weights.
Next in the market is the Fred Winter, or the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle to give it its official title. This was another race added to the schedule when Cheltenham was extended, and with handicap hurdles not in short supply this too is a likely casualty of the re-think.
Another surely up for consideration would be the Kim Muir Handicap Chase, with more prestigious renewals for stayers already available both at the festival and on the National Hunt trail.
One race that will presumably survive the cull is the National Hunt Chase, although this renewal faces significant changes from 2020 onwards to tackle a questionable welfare record for what is one of the longest chases in the sport.
The National Hunt Chase Under Close Scrutiny
The National Hunt Chase is something of a traditionalists’ race, with the four-mile distance a throwback to days of yore.
But the distance is just part of an equation that has led to much controversy in recent years – and especially following the 2019 renewal which was, at times, difficult to watch.
Only four of the eighteen starters made it across the finishing line, with 50% of the field either falling or unseating their rider and another five being pulled up as they struggled to stay up with the leading pack.
That was down on six finishers of sixteen in 2018 – still a dangerously low total in its own right, and just as troubling was the suspension of four jockeys who used the whip in a way that was ‘contrary to the horse’s welfare’, i.e. when they were showing no response, in that horror-show back in March.
And worst of all was the passing of Ballyward, whose fall in front of the Best Mate enclosure left many onlookers with a horrific view of the incident.
Organisers have made some big changes to the National Hunt Chase in time for the 2020 meeting, with a shortening of length by two furlongs just the beginning.
The number of fences has been reduced from 25 to 23 as well, and all runners and riders must now pass a series of qualifying checks before being accepted into the field.
All horses must have a minimum rating of 120, to meet the Grade 1 novice chase requirements, while all competing jockeys must have at least 20 previous rides under their belts, include five wins over fences.
There is also the requirement for any entrant to have finished in the top four of a chase run over 2m 7f or further, and also competed in at least one chase of that length in the current campaign.
The changes come after the Jockey Club and the BHA sat down together to analyse 10 years’ worth of data for the event, with the modifications designed to improve the welfare of all of the horses involved and avoid a repeat of the horrors of 2018.