LAST weekend threw up some excellent racing, but there were one or two gripes heard about Cheltenham’s November meeting, and I’ll deal with the main one further on. The second complaint may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a big deal for serious racegoers, and it’s easy to sort.
In days of yore, Cheltenham took a pretty firm line on trainers whose horses were late into the paddock, but nothing seems to have been said last week about several paddock no-shows. Over the weekend, only Kim Bailey’s Does He Know had permission to go to post early, and yet at least three horses arrived late in the paddock and left immediately to go to post.
There’s a reason that racegoers stand six-deep on the steps overlooking the Cheltenham paddock, and that’s to get a proper appreciation of the horses. Too often they are denied that without adequate excuse, and I’d hate to think we’re getting to a stage where trainers can decide whether they want to let the public see their charges close up. Stewards must clamp down rather than treating these incidents as if they don’t really matter.
The main moan, as it has been for the past few weeks, and will be until the wet weather truly arrives, is that of field sizes. In truth, I don’t have a massive issue with graduation chases or novice chases featuring top-class prospects which end up with three or four runners, and there was certainly drama enough in that infamous match on Friday.
Crowbarring in a few non-jiggers, if you’ll excuse the vernacular, does not solve that problem, but it can be to the detriment of a top-class novice if he/she is given simple tasks before tackling the best around, as glorified schooling sessions don’t teach a horse enough beyond an initial outing.
What is concerning isn’t the occasional race with three or four runners, but the substantial number of run-of-the-mill handicaps over hurdles and fences which see single-figure fields.
I heard Ruby Walsh make a remarkably simple but powerful point about how small fields can play havoc with the handicapping system, something already a concern with British-trained horses struggling to win a handicap at Cheltenham in the spring.
As Ruby pointed out on the Road To Cheltenham with Lydia Hislop, it’s par for the course to have three British courses staging small-field handicaps with almost identical conditions, but in Ireland just one track will host a race catering for a similar sub-group of horses, and there is likely to be a maximum field.
As a result, the Irish handicapper will raise the winner, and perhaps the placed horses in the weights, leave perhaps a couple who’ve run creditably unchanged, ignore early fallers, etc., and drop the majority of the runners in the handicap.
In Britain, the handicapper will go through a similar process, but will do so three times, meaning that more horses are either going up in the weights or staying on the same mark. Repeating this process weekly means that the whole horse population ends up overrated.
That’s not really an issue when handicapping within a single jurisdiction, but it falls apart when Irish horses and British horses meet, and the creep in ratings becomes too obvious.
It is regularly argued that Irish horses are too leniently treated come Cheltenham in March, but in reality, the problem is that British horses are overburdened, and will continue to be while the fixture list remains bloated.
This isn’t just a matter of delivering levy, which is the perennial argument for even more racing – it’s about ensuring that British racing remains compelling and competitive, and spreading it ever more thinly is not a long-term solution.