Friday 31 August 2012

Novices (At The BHA)

My involvement in six NH horses, three of whom (Ballyboker Boy, Cross Of Honour and Kings Lodge) will be starting their chasing careers this autumn, makes me particularly interested in changes taking place from 1st October with regard to novice chasing. Alas, as with much of racing at the moment, the needs of racecourses and bookmakers seem to be at odds with those of trainers and owners.

It all probably seems pretty straightforward to a non-owning administrator, hunched over spreadsheets in BHA Towers in Holborn. Runners in novice chases have been falling over the last few years, and too many have had seven or fewer; betting turnover, and therefore levy, is declining; racecourses are naturally worried about non-competitive racing. What to do about this? Simples. Cut the number of novice chases being run in the UK (20% across novice, beginners and maiden chases); don’t allow novices to go straight into novice handicaps (it will now be mandatory that novices make their chasing debut in weight-for-age races); offer a few sweeteners to owners (three end-of-season novice handicap chases, run in April, probably at 2m, 2m4f and 3m, with a minimum of £60,000 prize money, open to horses that have run in at least two weight-for-age novice chases during the season). Problems solved.

Two obvious questions don’t seem to have been addressed by the BHA. “What is the purpose of novice chases”, and “Why has there been a decline in the number of runners?“

Surely the whole rationale of such races is to educate inexperienced horses and give them the confidence to show their potential. Evenly paced races, with smaller fields of similar standard horses, on courses and over fences that do not over-face the animal, are essential. Forcing young chasers to come up against potential superstars from the big yards strikes me as a recipe for disaster. There must be a real risk under the proposed regime that two sets of horses will be competing in the same race – a few top class, but the majority out of their depth. This will either lead to the lesser contingent being overfaced, with an inevitable increase in fallers, or jockeys being encouraged to pull up the weaker brethren as soon as possible. Especially since the new system doesn’t stipulate that horses actually have to complete their races.

The issue of declining numbers of runners is clearly complex. Doubtless one contributing factor is the lack of incentives for owners in the current racing financial model. More specifically, in the context of novice chasing, I wonder whether the BHA made any real attempt to explore longer-term incentivisation options that could address some of the root causes. Let me know what you think – just drop me an email on

Racing isn’t just about putting money into bookies’ satchels. I’ve watched all Frankel’s races this season. Small fields. Not competitive. Not a betting medium. And yet he’s drawing capacity crowds. I’ll be following Sprinter Sacre in the same way over the winter. Can’t wait! 


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