The BHA have announced a second season of the Challenger Series; an event that culminates in a Series Final at Haydock on Easter Saturday.
The hope is, that this exciting addition to the Jumps programme will prove a huge incentive and financial boost to the smaller yards, especially attractive and supportive of those trainers from the North.
A total of 35 racecourses will host series qualifiers during the winter, in six separate race categories. Horses rated up to 135 will attempt to qualify through a total of 85 races. Over fences we have the 2m 3f and 3m Handicap Chase, along with the 3m Mares’ Chase Series. The hurdlers have the 2m 3f Mares’ Handicap, along with two-mile and 3m Handicap Hurdle Series. There’s an attractive looking £50,000 in prize money for each of the six finals at Haydock in 2017.
Though numerous northern trainers made the inaugural finals, none found themselves in the winners’ enclosure. Despite the lack of a winner, Brian Ellison had a great day, with a pair of seconds and a third place finish for his Norton yard. Lucinda Russell arrived mob-handed for the meeting, and the likes of Donald McCain, Sue Smith and Jim Goldie were all well represented.
With fewer than 20 horses in training, Buckinghamshire’s Stuart Edmunds had a day to remember, when Petethepear took the Stayers’ Hurdle Series Final, collecting the £31,000 first-place prize. He said of the event: “It’s a great series to aim for with horses that fall just below the top handicaps, with excellent prize money. There’s a really good variety of races across the series and the spread of racecourses makes it easy to find a suitable qualifier. Haydock Park put on an excellent show for Finals Day and hopefully we’ll be lucky again this season and find another winner.”
John Baker, Regional Director of the Jockey Club Racecourses North West, said: “We were delighted to have hosted a successful first year Challenger Series Final at Haydock Park. While the Series is a great nationwide initiative, it has certainly been a major boost to jump racing in the north and quite rightly supporting an important level of our sport by giving more meaningful targets for the middle-tier jumps population. We look forward to making it even more of a success in 2017.”
The first race of the new series takes place at Worcester today, with a qualifier for the 3m Mares’ Chase. Carlisle have a 3m Handicap Chase series qualifier on their card this Thursday. And so the road to Haydock begins.
Richard Wayman, Chief Operating Officer for the BHA, added his backing, emphasising the aims of the event: “We were very encouraged with how the Challenger Series performed in its opening year. It created a genuine, valuable target for jumps horses who fall just short of the standard required to compete at the sport’s flagship festivals and is just the sort of initiative that will support the retention of racehorse owners.”
And he expanded on his hopes for the future, when saying: “In time we hope that the Finals Day itself becomes a notable event in the jumping calendar. It is an agreed focus of the BHA and the industry as a whole that we need to do more to bolster jump racing at the grassroots and middle tiers. The Challenger Series provides a great incentive to keep jump horses in training at this level, in particular the mares who now have two series dedicated to them.”
The series looks sure to thrive, with further publicity likely to focus the mind of both owners and trainers. The festivals of Cheltenham and Aintree remain the dream for those involved in Jump racing, but over time an Easter trip to Haydock may well be pencilled in as a season ending target for many.
And the final word on the series is left to Claire Sheppard, the Racing Director for the Racecourse Association (RCA), she said: “The Challenger Series is a fantastic initiative that the RCA are delighted to support. We are excited to be providing ongoing support for the series through a dedicated web page and social media presence for this season, giving trainers, owners and racegoers a chance to follow the series and keep track of which horses have qualified.”