Henderson and Nicholls welcome shake-up to novice chase system
A raft of changes to the novice chase programme, long regarded as racing's most troubled division, have been welcomed by Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls after they were unveiled on Tuesday in a new BHA initiative.
Henderson said the changes, to come into effect on October 1, would "really help the good horses come through", while Nicholls welcomed "a lot of positives".
Over the years many attempts have been made at increasing field sizes and betting revenue while at the same time providing a fair and appealing programme for connections of horses of widely differing levels of ability.
The most controversial of the latest changes will be a trial that exempts horses finishing in close proximity to much higher-rated winners in weight-for-age novice chases from having their ratings raised in all but Class 1 novices, a move prompted by a preconception that is refuted by handicappers but has compromised novice chase field sizes for years.
One of many changes
The handicapping exemption, which follows a prolonged examination of data by a working party that included trainers Philip Hobbs, Emma Lavelle, Dan Skelton and Nick Alexander, is just one of many moves in an effort to improve the competitiveness of novice chases and define optimal pathways for novices of all abilities.
Also announced is the introduction of a new £100,000 novice handicap chase final in the spring and the raising of the ratings band from 0-140 to 0-145 for the Cheltenham Festival race run this year as the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase.
These changes come in a bid to encourage the running of novices more frequently in an effort to attain the necessary higher rating, rather than sitting tight to preserve a suitable mark once attained.
There will also be a significant increase in the number of weight-for-age novices, at the expense of novice handicaps, and six races are being introduced this autumn confined to horses who have won no more than one hurdle.
Explaining the background to the changes, BHA head of racing Paul Johnson said: "In order to safeguard the future of the category action must be taken to ensure these races provide a competitive and compelling spectacle on a more consistent basis and that there's an incentive for horses to be sent over the larger obstacles.
"We've made several alterations to the programme in recent years. While these changes have contributed to marginal improvements in the number of horses going novice chasing, average field sizes, and the number of races attracting eight or more runners, it was agreed more needs to be done.
Really excellent initiatives
"Continued focus and improvement of this part of the programme is viewed as necessary for the long-term health of the category and the sport."
Champion jump trainer Nicky Henderson said: "These are really excellent initiatives and will really help the good horses to come through the system.
"The very good horses have always been well catered, for but the 'good without being really top-class' ones will be so much better catered for.
"I especially like the confined races, for horses who have not won more than one hurdle race. I think these will be particularly popular and I think those unusual conditions are something we should look at doing more of."
Ten-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls agreed, saying: "There are a lot of positives. Novice chases are a very important part of the sport and anything that helps develop the future of really good chasers has got to be welcomed."
"The exemption from rises for beaten horses in weight-for-age races will give incentive to some people, so that might help, and raising the rating band for the Cheltenham novice handicap is a real positive too, as 141-horses were being forced into a grade in which they couldn't win. The new series of confined races and the £100,000 novice final have to be welcomed too."
'I'm not convinced'
Donald McCain offered a different perspective, however. He said: "Over the last few years we've been told we need more handicaps, and that idea has been spun around now.
"I'm not convinced the handicapping exemption will make much difference, as we've always been led to believe horses aren't punished in those circumstances anyway.
"Rather than taking on a 140-odd horse with a 120 in a weight-for-age novice, in the expectation of finishing second but not being punished, I'd be a lot more inclined to do it in a novice handicap with a chance of winning.
"For me there just weren't enough mid-tier novice handicaps, and that doesn't seem to have changed. I haven't had a thorough look yet, but it seems to me that the bread and butter everyday novices in the 110 to 130 range still aren't catered for."
- No handicap rating increase in weight-for-age novice chases of Class 2 and below, other than for the winner. This will apply only to horses who have already made four appearances over obstacles (hurdles or fences) and be introduced on a trial basis
- Increase of up to 25 per cent in current programme of 200 weight-for-age novices, to be balanced by decrease in number of novice handicaps
- Programming of six confined races during the autumn for horses who have not won more than one race over hurdles, a proposal aimed at providing a pathway for later-maturing chasing types
- Rating band for Cheltenham's Listed novice handicap chase to be increased to 0-145 (from 0-140). Increasing the banding was considered key to the success of the new system, with horses rated 146 and above more than capable of holding their own in Graded company
- New £100,000 novice handicap chase series final to be programmed in the spring, supported by BHA development fund. Horses must have run in at least two weight-for-age novice or beginners’ chases