Big Races, Small Fields

The Betfair Chase on Saturday was a joy to behold. Five of England’s top staying chasers not only went to post, but had a chance turning into the final straight with Haydock specialist Bristol De Mai tanking to victory from Gold Cup hero Native River.

It was no doubt the highlight of the season so far in Britain and Ireland but for the biggest Grade One this side of Christmas, why were only five horse entered? Is there a dearth of quality among the top rank of there-milers?

I’d suggest not. Not a single novice from last season took their chance at Haydock while the likes of Definitly Red, the Charlie Hall winner, Double Shuffle and Tea For Two, among others, were all absent for reasons which don’t involve injury. Furthermore, there wasn’t a single challenging raider from Ireland.

The problem of small fields in big races exists in the Emerald Isle too, however and arguably to an even greater extent. The recent Morgiana Hurdle, which initially looked set to provide a stellar field, consisted of just four runners, won by Sharjah, a horse who should lack the quality for that level. Three of those four were trained by Willie Mullins and the fourth, Tombstone, had no realistic chance anyway.

Looking ahead to the weekend, both the Ladbrokes Trophy and Fighting Fifth at Newbury and Newcastle respectively, possess fields which could yet implode. The former is down to thirteen runners, the smallest field for the race this century and ludicrously low for such a massive handicap. The latter is reliant on Samcro’s participation which we’ve learnt to take with a pinch of salt. Whether he runs or not, the race looks stronger than average but another five-runner Grade One without him would be a disappointment once more.

Either race could yet shrink significantly further, trainers regularly expressing concerns about suitable ground. National Hunt horses traditionally prefer a bit of cut yet “good” ground is often seen as too quick nowadays. Surely the mere definition of “good” ground is that it is the soundest and most appropriate surface for horses to race on. Either this definition needs changing or the rules require an update with regards non-runners. “Good” ground should not be taken as an excuse for a horse’s absence.

However, particularly with the pressure of mega-rich owners desperate to see their horses win whenever they run, it is understandable that a trainer may want to be absolutely certain conditions are in their favour. Similarly, it is not simply an affliction that affects the top of the game.

A recent example of tiny fields at a run-of-the-mill meeting, and a deeply concerning one at that, occurred at Kempton earlier in the week when just nine runners lined up across the opening three races. For a track whose closure has been threatened, this can only ramp up the pace. Kempton is an historic racecourse but it seems that the sport it calls family is not too willing to save it.

The King George on Boxing Day will no doubt raise the alarm once more and the race is set up to be an intriguing affair whatever the size of the field. It would nevertheless be fabulous if we had a double-figure field. For that, we may need a couple of windmill-touting hopefuls but Double Shuffle was a 50/1 second last year and Tea For Two not much lower in the market in third. Shocks are possible even with the highest prizes at stake.

Nowadays, those highest prizes are under exclusive ownership of Cheltenham racecourse. As much as I love the Festival in March, and it is a truly wonderful time of year, perhaps it has become too mighty. There has rarely been any issue attracting horses to run at Prestbury Park (Footpad scared away the opposition in the Arkle this year and the Ryanair is a reserve race for horses unsure of their chances in the Champion Chase or Gold Cup so their smaller line-ups are understandable), nor will there be in a few months time. There is too much prestige to the point where the general rhetoric about race fitness, even as early as November, is that a horse’s ultimate aim is to be fully equipped for Cheltenham. Anything gained in the interim is a bonus.

Grade One status is not the same as Cheltenham status. Whoever wins the Fighting Fifth, whether that be Buveur D’Air, Samcro or Summerville Boy (or one of the other three, for as I’ve stated, shocks are possible) the celebrations will only be supplemented by claiming the Champion Hurdle. If anything, defeat in the latter would be made even more bitter with victory on Saturday. The higher you rise, the further you fall.

How the BHA could lessen the appeal of Cheltenham I do not know, although Brexit could well make the Irish opposition less prevalent in future years. Until then, we may have to accept smaller fields for the purpose of both quantity and quality come the Festival. It is an investment that pays rich dividends once a year but for most spectators it is worth it.

For now we are all left to question, as Ed Chamberlain just has through my headphones, “where are all the runners?”

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