Wednesday 1 May 2019

A Few Thoughts on the National Hunt Season and also the Need to Change the Novice Chase Programme

Owners for Owners will have its first ever runner in Acey Milan at the Punchestown Festival on either Thursday or Saturday, provided that we aren’t balloted out. Bearing in mind that in one of the races Willie Mullins has 17 entries, I’m hoping there will be mass defections and we can kick off a new season and / or end the old one with a cracking performance. After a stellar bumper year, our horse unfortunately like a few others had a very bad chest infection this season and we haven’t really been able to build momentum and get back on track. No matter what happens in Ireland, he still looks a lovely prospect for staying races, particularly on soft / heavy ground, from October onwards.

While we weren’t able to scale the heights of the previous year, we still had more than 10 wins with horses including Acey Milan, Dr Dunraven, Lord Condi, Melekhov, Scented Lily and Sojourn. Another horse I’m associated with, Nobby, put in a couple of excellent runs including almost winning the Listed bumper at Newbury for us for the second year in a row. On the Flat, Sunday Prospect won as well, and has now been sold to race in France.

Looking to the future, we’ve increased our involvement in NH foals and yearlings, as it is proving increasingly difficult to buy ex-point-to-pointers with form for anything other than prodigious prices. We’ll be continuing with this policy, as we have had more success, at a higher level, with youngsters that we’ve brought through and developed from foal days rather than buying the finished article. It has also provided great pleasure for us, our co-owners and their families. We’ve decided to go one step further on the Flat, having set up the first ever Owners for Owners breeding partnership with Mayfair Rock, who we are hoping is now in foal to the former Karl Burke trained super sprinter, Havana Grey. We saw her at Whitsbury Manor Stud recently and couldn’t be more pleased with the way she has let herself down and relaxed into her new role.

As for the season that has just finished, all credit has to go to Altior for his record-breaking 19th consecutive win. Richard Johnson had 200+ winners up for the season and was duly crowned Champion Jockey again. As I always say about Richard, he’s a champion person as well as champion jockey, and a tremendous ambassador for the jumps game. Bryony Frost, who rode one of the horses we were associated with during the season, became Champion Conditional Jockey and her lyrical way of speaking has engaged everyone. She really is another great asset for our sport. The hour at the Cheltenham Festival when Paisley Park won the Stayers’ Hurdle, immediately following Frodon in the Ryanair, was one of the best moments I’ve experienced on the racecourse. The atmosphere was electric and for everyone connected with the horses it was a joy to behold. Our friend and agent Gerry Hogan had purchased Paisley Park as a youngster, and it was excellent to see him have a winner at the highest level. He’s one of the most honest and genuine agents you’ll ever come across – thoroughly recommended to anyone wanting to buy an NH prospect. He is also a grand fella.

The jumps season, however, certainly didn’t lack for controversy, what with the equine flu disruption, trainer boycotts of ARC racecourses, not to mention the frustration of unseasonably fast ground for most of the winter, which made it very hard to plan a race programme for the horses. There were also a few silly and embarrassing incidents, not least caused by BHA interference in activities that should be left to the grass-roots trainers and stewards to sort out. It is definitely time for the BHA to rise above that, and bring all the key parties in racing together for another round of strategy creation so that the sport can deal with the potential £60 million black hole emerging from the loss of media rights payments due to the likely closure of betting shops as FOBT stakes are compulsorily reduced to £2. Hopefully the strategy will be developed with purposeful, collaborative intent by all the key stakeholders – BHA, RCA, Horsemen’s Group etc. – as the last thing we want to see in racing is public falling-out and parties resorting to direct action such as the Ralph Beckett-led boycott of races. While it may have achieved its short-term purpose, it was terrible PR for the sport, particularly in the eyes of government.

It won’t surprise the reader of this blog that I’ve got my own ideas about the required strategy for British Racing and the priorities within that. I’ll leave the content, though, till another day. One element of that is the way the race programme is formulated. As this blog has primarily been about National Hunt, one major change that I’d like to see is a complete rationalisation of novices’ and beginners’ chases, with a dramatic reduction in number and frequency, and with them organised into a series rather than single, stand-alone events. At the moment far too many of them are unexciting races between a couple of horses from a couple of top yards, and absorb far too much prize-money.

That’s it for this month. Bag packed and off to Punchestown!

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