BHA urges trainers to give novice chase measures a chance as criticism mounts
The BHA has urged horsemen to give measures introduced on October 1, designed to ensure the novice chase system best supports the development of the next generation of chasers and improves the competitiveness of such races, more time to take effect after a spate of small-field races this autumn prompted some bleak assessments of the state of the novice chase division.
Following the conclusion of a review in August by a dedicated working group consisting of the BHA, trainers, media, owners and racecourse representatives, the sport’s governing body announced a raft of changes to the novice chase division starting from October.
The most significant were arguably a trial exempting 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, and an increase of up to 25 per cent in the programme of weight-for-age novices, to be balanced by a decrease in the number of novice handicaps.
While the changes were broadly welcomed by horsemen at the time, the perception two months on could hardly be described as one of success.
Indeed, match races in a weight-for-age novice chase and graduation chase on the same Kempton card last month led champion trainer Nicky Henderson to call the situation “rather embarrassing” and had Paul Nicholls highlighting the fact “it's too easy” for horses to run in handicaps instead.
Despite those criticisms, the BHA is hopeful the new measures will prove beneficial given time.
Paul Johnson, BHA head of racing, said: "The BHA has made several alterations to the novice chase programme in recent years. While these changes have resulted in a slight improvement in novice chase field sizes, it was agreed by the industry we need to do more to safeguard the future health of the novices chase category, for the benefit of steeplechasing and jump racing as a whole.
“As a result, in August the BHA published a series of recommendations regarding the novice chase programme which had been compiled by a dedicated working group."
He added: “The recommendations of that review group included a trial of alterations to handicapping practices, the programming of confined races and an increase in number of weight-for-age novice chases, and had the primary objective of providing clearer pathways for novice chasers at all levels of ability as well as aiming to improve the competitiveness of novice chases.
"We've also programmed a £100,000 end-of-season novice chase final as a further incentive for horses to be sent over the bigger obstacles, as well as providing a further boost for northern jump racing.
'It's still very early days'
Johnson added: "We've seen a marginal uplift in field sizes since the changes came into effect, but it's still very early days and we'd expect it to take more time before the benefits are truly felt. In particular we'd expect it to take some time for trainers to adjust to the fact that beaten horses aren't having their handicap marks raised.”
Data produced by the Racing Post shows average field sizes in weight-for-age novice chases from October 1 to December 10 are marginally down at 4.52 (from 4.65 for the same period in 2016), although if beginners' chases are included that figure rises to 4.78 (from 4.65 in 2016).
Alan King, who sent out Sceau Royal to win a two-runner Warwick novice chase at odds of 1-16 last month, believes any amount of tinkering is unlikely to improve the situation due to a dearth of top-class performers.
"There aren't enough good horses around, simple as that,” he said. “If you've got a horse rated 130 there's no point taking on something that's rated 150 or 160, it's common sense.
"They may now be exempt from being put up by the handicapper but what's the point of ending up being a fence behind? The horse gets disillusioned. Young horses have to learn their trade and an ordinary horse is much better off in a novice handicap.”
Nicholls and Henderson, with 55 and 37 winners respectively, have saddled by far the most winners in weight-for-age novice races over the past 18 months, while only one such race since October 1 has attracted more than seven runners.
Members can read analysis of this issue by amateur jockey Chester Williams, son of trainer Nick, here