If any further evidence were needed of the problems besetting novice chasing, it was provided this week. Newbury had to re-open both the Grade 2 events that take place at the Hennessy meeting. and yesterday the British Horseracing Authority announced a consultation with trainers on the whole programme for that group of horses.
Clerk of the course at Newbury, Richard Osgood, was understandably disappointed that today’s RSA Worcester Chase and tomorrow’s Fuller’s London Pride Berkshire Novices’ Chase attracted less than ten initial entries between them. A second opportunity did garner additional entries, and five go to post this afternoon and at the time of writing 15 are in the frame for tomorrow, although of course, not all will go to post.
Neither race has ever been blessed with big fields; the Worcester had just six runners when Harry Topper won it last year, and four the previous season when Grands Crus was successful. Dynaste had five rivals in the London Pride last year and Bobs Worth three the year before. Going further back, Denman was up against just three horses in 2006.
Clearly then, quality is not an issue; the problem is getting the numbers in. Boosting the prize money, which Newbury has done, and offering prize money for the first six home, hasn’t made any difference.
Osgood felt that the increase in the number of novice handicap chases, introduced during the last year in an effort to boost the number of horses taking up chasing, had not helped his two races. He said, “I think it’s a BHA issue rather than a Newbury issue, but I fear there are not the horses at the top of the pyramid to fill those races now. I wonder if a lot of the horses who might help make up the numbers are running in the novice handicaps we have so many of now.”
That was also the view of trainer Paul Nicholls, who does have a runner in both the Worcester and the London Pride. He said, “I’ve always tried to support those races and have to say I was surprised at the small entry. It’s obviously frustrating, but perhaps people are looking at running in novice handicaps now instead. They’re probably a slightly easier option and it means the pool of horses available for the Graded races has got smaller.”
No doubt he’ll be saying as much to the BHA, which yesterday seemed at a loss to explain how the changes it introduced to boost field sizes in novice chases, whilst initially successful, now saw fewer runners in these events than before they were introduced. Announcing a consultation with trainers, BHA spokesman Robin Mounsey said, “In general the number of entries and declarations for jump racing is lower than forecast at this time of year, and this is particularly true in novice chases. The reason for this general decline is unclear, but it’s unlikely to be linked to a decline in the horse population as the number of horses in training is almost entirely static against last year.”
Mounsey said that the changes to the programme had seen the average field size in weight for age novice chases go up from 5.6 to 6.8, but this had fallen back to 5.3 in the last two months. Trainers raised some concerns when the changes were first introduced, and as a result made further amendments to the programme. There are now fewer conditions races, and around one third of novice chase events are handicap races.