Henderson and Nicholls hit out as Kempton stages two match races
Nicky Henderson saw his Whisper collect £12,500 for beating the Paul Nicholls-trained Clan Des Obeaux in a match for the graduation chase at Kempton on Monday – but he was not as happy as a winning trainer might be.
Last season's champion was resolute in his defence of graduation chases, but said "I just don’t know why there aren’t more runners today. When the entries for this race were revealed, Paul sent me a text that said: ‘Is everybody asleep?'"
He added: "Races like the graduation chase are absolutely vital. I know betting offices don’t like it, but the National Hunt purist can watch two good horses go round. I agree, though, that it’s rather embarrassing, particularly when we’re trying to save Kempton.
"It’s not just about trying to save a graduation chase. We’re trying to save the racecourse. We have to keep Kempton. I’m not chaining myself to the open ditch quite yet, but I soon will be."
Nicholls was also the beneficiary of a race that ended up as a match as Give Me A Copper took the novice chase at 1-3, but he made his feelings clear when he said: "I think it's too easy for horses to dodge these races and to run in handicaps instead. It's not good for racing."
Kempton chairman Nick Mustoe has suggested a fear of high-quality opponents could be a contributory factor to Monday's small fields that also featured a three-runner novice hurdle won by the Nicholls-trained Mr Whipped at 2-9 after Sunday’s Sandown winner Irish Prophecy was unsurprisingly declared a non-runner.
Mustoe, who somewhat ironically owns Irish Prophecy, said: “It’s always disappointing to have such low numbers in certain races.
“We absolutely seek at Kempton to get as many runners as possible in each race – you always want to achieve that – so it’s disappointing when that doesn’t happen, but sometimes it’s just how these things turn out.
“The prize-money is good, but it’s often what is in the races that scares the others off. It’s a shame. We put a huge emphasis on owners and trainers at Kempton because we fiercely want to have good field sizes.”
The financial cost to Kempton is understood to have been around £13,500, as RMG tracks lose half of a media rights payment believed to be in the region of £9,000 per race whenever there are five or fewer runners, unless the race is part of the Pattern.
However, the shortfall was already budgeted for in part, so the unexpected part of the cost in terms of media rights was closer to £9,000.
Clerk of the course Barney Clifford explained: "We already budgeted for a small field in the graduation chase, as that's normal, but it's still an incredibly important race for us as it's strategically placed as a stepping stone for second-season chasers heading for the King George and is regularly won by a good horse."
While he admitted that seeing just two runners contest the race for a second successive year was "disappointing", if albeit not entirely surprising, Clifford was baffled by the other small fields.
He said: "I'm at a loss to explain the small fields in the novice hurdle and the novice chase. There's perhaps still a perception that you don't want to finish too close to a good one in a novice chase, although we know that's no longer valid, but the novice hurdle had 17 entries and I can't understand why we've ended up with only three runners."
Nigel Spencer was one of only four boards bookmakers operating in the ring, in addition to another seven on the rails, although as two firms had a pitch in both areas there were only nine individual businesses betting.
He said: "We're doing only light business in the small-field races but there's a bit of money about in the other races. It's not as bad as it might be, to be fair, but then there aren't many of us here chasing what money there is."
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