Friday, 9 October 2020

Changes at the Cheltenham Festival as Novices’ Handicap Chase is Axed

It’s all change again at the Cheltenham Festival after it was announced that a new Mares’ Chase will replace the Listed Novices’ Handicap Chase in March.

The BHA had already stated back in August 2019 that a mares’ chase of one description or another would be added to the programme from 2021, much to the chagrin of many owners, trainers and punters. All that was to be decided was which race would be axed.

The event to be discontinued was up for debate with all of the game’s stakeholders apparently having their opinion, even if most of them were put forward via social media, but now we have confirmation that it will indeed be the Listed Novices’ Handicap Chase, only established in 2005 when the Festival was expanded to four days.

The race, a 2½-mile event, had been run on the opening day and while it has been axed from the Festival it is important to note that it hasn’t been lost to the calendar altogether. Now, the same race will be added to Sandown’s Imperial Cup meeting a few days before the Festival gets underway, a move that seems to have placated most people.

The new race will be staged at Grade Two level and while it will have big-name sponsorship from the outset, it will be registered officially as the Liberthine Mares’ Chase.

The change-up also means it is a good time to fiddle with the order of things at the Festival once again. The new Mares’ Chase will be run on Friday, Gold Cup day, forcing the Grand Annual to move to the Wednesday. In turn, this means moving the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle to Tuesday, the opening day, effectively replacing the discarded race.

Naturally for all those involved, deciding on which race to replace was never an easy decision. Feedback was sought and received from many within the game and it was essentially decided that there were enough novice chase races at the Festival, while a balance also needed to be kept between hurdles and steeplechases.

The real uptick this will lead to comes not just from the fact that a Listed race is being replaced by a Grade Two, but also because there are mares involved.

Unlike on the flat, not many National Hunt horses have a big value when they are finished their racing career, however a good race mare can be worth plenty and winning a Grade 2 at the Cheltenham Festival can significantly increase their desirability.

It goes without saying that this process has not been totally plain sailing, with some for and some against the decision within the sport.

Crack trainers Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins have all spoken out favourably about the decision, especially in terms of the logic behind it, while Mick Channon was one of the more disapproving voices in the jumps training ranks.

As it turns out, the Martin Pipe Conditional Hurdle, the National Hunt Chase, the Kim Muir and the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle were the other races considered for removal from the Festival schedule.

As was the case with the switch to four days in 2005, it seems those in charge cannot please everyone. Back in March, fans of the sport could not agree on whether the Festival should have even gone ahead given the coronavirus situation and now we have a whole new, if thankfully less important, argument on our hands.

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