IN the years following the loss of the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunter Chase when the Dublin Racing Festival was created in 2018, the leading Irish trial for the Cheltenham Festival Hunter Chase has undergone quite a period of change.
One year visits to Punchestown and Navan preceded the latest incarnation of the race being run at Naas on the final weekend in January.
The creation of the race at Naas also coincided with the hunter chase at Thurles being moved back by a month from its more traditional date on the Kinloch Brae card on the penultimate Sunday in January, to the Co Tipperary venue’s Michael Purcell Memorial Novice Hurdle card in the second half of February.
This is set to change again this year with the Thurles race reverting back to the Kinloch Brae card on Sunday, January 23rd and the Naas race moving to Saturday, February 12th.
This leaves four weeks between Down Royal and Thurles, three weeks between Thurles and Naas and five weeks between Naas and Cheltenham, creating a clear path in the top hunter chase division for the leading horses to follow if their connections so wish.
As the Thurles race looms, its conditions have caught the eye of some handlers.
For the 2019/20 season, penalties were removed from the main hunter chases that were open to track horses in order to rectify a set of conditions which were penalising those horses which who had worked their up through the ranks in maiden and winner hunter chases when they then came up against highly rated track horses in open hunter chases.
The case of Macs Legend in the 2019 Thurles event, where he had to carry a 7lb penalty for winning low-level hunter chases at Tramore and Downpatrick against the penalty-free high 140s rated Ucello Conti, highlighted the inequality of the penalty structure.
It had been thought that the Thurles race was to be one of the races run without penalties; however the published conditions for the latest renewal of the Thurles race later this month would see it as an outlier with the inclusion of penalties.
Not only will those horses who have won one hunter chase have to carry a 4lb penalty, and the winner of two hunter chases being allotted a 7lb penalty, but the base weight of 11st 9lb for horses aged six and older, is also 7lbs lower than the weight carried in the other main non-penalty open hunter chases here.
With the majority of point-to-point riders claiming 7lb under rules, that claim off 11st 9lb would bring many of them below their usual lowest weight when in action between the flags.
With the removal of penalties from many of the other main open hunter chases having been well received, it would seem all the open hunter chases should operate off the same conditions in this regard.
AT the conclusion of this weekend’s action, just two fixtures remain in the month of January following the cancellation of the fixture at Dungarvan on Sunday January 23rd.
One of those remaining fixtures, the point-to-point at Ballyvodock on January 30th will play host to the first of a number of older maidens in the 2022 spring programme to feature an INHSC-backed bonus of €1,000 for the winning owner.
Should the insurance crisis be resolved, a further three older maidens will also offer similar €1,000 bonuses - these being awarded at Tinahely on February 27th, Loughbrickland on Saturday March 19th and at Castletown-Geoghegan on Sunday April 3rd.
They will be followed by a €5,000 final to be held at Monksgrange on Sunday April 24th open to horses aged six and older who have finished in the first four in a point-to-point during the current season.
Recent interruptions have blighted attempts to run the €5,000 final since the inaugural edition at Dromahane back in 2019 and should that fixture get the green light, it will be among a number of meetings with sizeable pots up for grabs in the spring.
Following a first race being run specifically for horses trained by handlers that had not previously won more than 10 races during the autumn, a further two such races have been programmed for the spring, with each carrying €3,000 bonuses for the winning owner. These two races will take place at Lingstown on March 13th and Largy on April 30th.