In the last week Nicky Henderson complained about the programme for Novice Chasers, his comments culminating with the line “And that’s why there will be no chasers in three or four years time” . A forthright summary of his comments can be found on Dan Kelly’s excellent blog here , which firstly covers the ongoing concerns about the Betfair Chase distance, then moves on to the Novice Chase programme in the context of Nicky Henderson’s comments. So leaving the programme book aside, how does the pipeline of high class horses going Novice Chasing look year by year? Using Racing Post Ratings (RPR) the number of horses rated above 145, 150, 155 and 160 is given in Table 1 below for each of the years 2008-2013 inclusive. To qualify horses must be with GB based trainers, never have run in a Chase, achieved the rating at a GB track and have run within twelve months of the end of April of each of the years considered. These filters are designed to capture high class Hurdlers that are candidates for Novice Chasing. The filters will include Hurdlers that won’t go Chasing, and excludes recruits to Novice Chasing from overseas, so the list isn’t complete. Still, these effects should be the same year on year and not affect a year on year comparison. Table 1 shows the pool of candidate horses has varied between 46 and 70 in the last six years, with no clear trend. The numbers for 2013 suggest a healthy pool of candidate horses for Novice Chasing relative to the recent past.
|Year||RPR 145+||RPR 150+||RPR 155+||RPR 160+|
Table 1: High Class Novice Chase Candidates 2008-13
Using horses rated 145+, how has the concentration of horses by training yard changed over the last six years? Table 2 shows the number of training yards that have 1 only, 2 to 5 and at least 5 high class Novice Chase candidates. So in 2008 17 yards had one candidate. In 2013 there were 19 such yards. No real pattern exists year by year. However it is in the yards with at least one candidate that the picture has changed. In 2009 there were 11 yards with 2 to 5 candidates. By 2013 this had dropped to just four yards. The view that high class Novice Chase candidates have become increasingly concentrated at the largest training yards is borne out by the data. Table 3 shows the same information but represented by total number of horses. The number of candidates in 2013 at smaller yards is the lowest it has been in the last six years and the number in the larger yards the highest. Increasing yard concentration exists.
|Year||1 horse only rated 145+||2 to 5 horses rated 145+||5 plus horses rated 145+|
Table 2: Number of yards with Novice Chase candidates rated 145+
|Year||up to 5 horses||5+ horses||Total horses rated 145+|
Table 3: Novice Chase Candidates Yard Concentration
The falling field sizes in Novice Chases cannot be blamed upon the number of horses that could go Novice Chasing. Candidate numbers are healthy. So either the programme book or yard concentration is to blame. The changes made to the Novice Chase programme in the last year or two should have led to an increase in field sizes. The only explanation for their falling in the 2013-14 so far is the refusal of the larger yards to race their best horses against each other. The campaigning of horses is largely a matter for the trainers and their owners. However, if the BHA react to the concentration of the best horses in a few yards by making changes to the programme book to reflect campaigning realities, it is difficult to imagine this leading to a dearth of Novice Chasers in a few years time. Some trainers would argue that Novice Chasing is different from Novice Hurdling and their concern is primarily one of horse welfare. The first implication is that anyone arguing the opposite position does not have horse welfare at heart. Not a position anyone wishes to inhabit lightly. The further implication is that a series of uncompetitive races should exist so that high class horses can learn the ropes. This will then benefit their long-term career, which, in turn, benefits racing. Perhaps to address both small field sizes and welfare concerns a series of zero prize money Australian style ‘Barrier Trial’ Novice Chases at racecourses could be introduced, with the full cost of hosting these races borne entirely by the owners. No handicap marks would be awarded and no betting available. These trials would allow for legitimate schooling in public in near race conditions. Lowly handicapped horses could take part knowing their handicap marks will be unaffected, better horses could make their own way home, learning the ropes as desired by trainers. The quid pro quo would be that the Novice Chase programme would be further reduced. Welfare concerns are addressed by the existence of Barrier Trails, whilst field sizes in Novice Chases would increase because of the reduced number of races, improving the viewing spectacle for the racing public.