Major changes to be made to National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup with new Mares’ Chase set to be added in 2021

Cheltenham Festival organizers have announced that major changes have been made to the National Hunt Chase, along with plans for a new Mares’ Chase, which will be added to the Festival schedule in 2021.

Amongst the most historic races in all of jumps racing, purists were adamant no change should be made to the National Hunt Challenge Cup. However, a quick look through the most recent editions of the race pours light on the dangers Cheltenham Festival’s four-miler poses to its entrants and it was clear something had to be done.

In the past decade, only 53% of novice chasers to take part in the National Hunt Chase have managed to finish the four-mile marathon, a percentage which has lessened significantly in the past two seasons, with just 10 of the 34 runners completing the course. One horse has tragically lost it’s life following in four of the past five years. While there may not have been a fatality in 2017, Edwulf had to be resuscitated on the track before making a miracle recovery.

The BHA have been under pressure to act in recent seasons, so it was no surprise when the announcement of major changes to the National Hunt Challenge Cup came on Monday afternoon.

30 furlongs of Cheltenham’s hallowed turf will now need to be crossed, a two-furlong reduction, cutting the number of fences jumped down to 23 from 25. Along with a shorter trip, stricter entry criteria have been put in place, both for the horse taking part and the jockeys enlisted to ride.

Only horses to have reached a rating in excess of 120 will be allowed to enter the National Hunt Chase. Entrants must have competed in at least two chases, at least one during the current season and horses will need to have secured a top-four finish in a chase over 23-and-a-half furlongs or further to gain entry.

While the race remains open to only amateur jockeys, those hoping to ride in the National Hunt Chase must have ridden in at least 20 races and achieved a minimum of five victories in races under rules – a new rule which excludes wins secured in point-to-point contests.

These changes have been received very positively on the whole, with top amateur jockeys, Sam Waley-Cohen and Jamie Codd praising the BHA’s actions. Derek O’Connor – a two-time National Hunt Chase winner and representative for the Irish Amateur Jockeys Association – gave his reaction to the Racing Post yesterday.

“The National Hunt Chase is one of the races you dream about winning when you become an amateur jockey, it’s one of the pinnacles of our season,” O’Connor said.

“The changes that have been made may mean some riders have to get more experience than they would previously, but that’s no bad thing and overall the new requirements look pretty fair.”

Along with the news of changes to the National Hunt Chase, the BHA also announced that a new Mares’ Chase would be added to the Cheltenham schedule in 2021.

Ian Renton of the BHA stated on Monday that a Grade Two Mares’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival would “would bolster the extensive work which has been put into enhancing the mares’ chase programme” and the addition of the race would be for the “greater good of racing”.

This imminent addition means one of the current 28 races would need to be eliminated from the Festival. The Close Brother’s Handicap Chase for novices, the Cross Country Chase and, incomprehensibly, the Mares’ Hurdle have all been mentioned as possible makeweights. As has the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle which, to me, seems the most obvious race to replace.

From a business point of view, it would make perfect sense. The Fred Winter ranks amongst the worst races at the meeting when it comes to betting turnover and often proves to be a complete minefield for punters.

This handicap currently offers juveniles, who were not deemed good enough to run in the Triumph Hurdle, a chance to gain some valuable Cheltenham Festival experience. There are more than enough options for handicap hurdlers as it is and there’s nothing to stop juveniles from entering either the County Hurdle, the Coral Cup or the Martin Pipe, a race that is open solely to first-season hurdlers.

Removing the Fred Winter could also encourage more trainers to throw their best juveniles into the Supreme as Joseph O’Brien did with Fakir D’Oudairies this season. A slot on Ladies’ Day would be the perfect place for a high-quality Mares’ Chase at Cheltenham. The Fred Winter has got to go!