Racing: Major racecourses propose radical changes to 'sex up' jumps season

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The Independent Online

A blueprint was issued yesterday for sweeping changes in National Hunt racing that could result in smaller courses such as Huntingdon losing their best races to bigger tracks and horses such as Norton's Coin being denied the chance to take part in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The authors of the report are officials at Racecourse Holdings Trust, the largest owner of British racecourses including such leading jumps venues as Aintree, Sandown, Haydock and Cheltenham.

Worryingly for those racegoers who prefer to support their local courses and look forward to the occasional top-flight performer gracing their tracks RHT also have courses such as Huntingdon, Warwick and Wincanton among their portfolio of 13 tracks.

Should recommendations in the report be implemented, a race such as the Peterborough Chase would be moved from its existing home of Huntingdon to a Grade One course. Attractive midweek races such as Exeter's Haldon Gold Cup would switch to a Saturday.

In a report that is sure to provoke a great deal of argument among the jumping fraternity, the RHT proposes setting up an order of merit among chasers to determine who can run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Blue Riband of steeplechasing would be open only to the top 16 horses in an order of merit decided by points awarded for their achievements leading up to the race. As well as Norton's Coin, the 100-1 winner in 1990, the 1991 winner Garrison Savannah, 1992 winner Cool Ground, 1997 winner Mr Mulligan and 1998 winner Cool Dawn might have struggled to reach the required standing to take part in a race that often falls to the horse that adapts best to a fast-run slog round Prestbury Park rather than to one who has been mopping up races at level tracks such as Kempton through the year.

RHT's report was presented at a meeting chaired by Edward Gillespie, managing director of Cheltenham. He said: "There have been similar reports which have fallen flat, but this time it will need a great deal more than a wonderful horse coming along to deflect from our aims.

"I see this as the greatest challenge I can recall for jumping and it needs the support of all the participants to make it work. We have from now until the spring to push ahead with our proposals and to discuss them with all interested parties. Our first move will be to put our suggestions on to our website."

On the question of moving high-profile chases, the RHT racing director, John Smee, said: "So much more could be achieved by moving a race like the Peterborough Chase to a Grade One track. We are not yet involved in discussions, but we need to maximise the impact of our jewels in the crown, and a race like that is one of them.

"We feel there is a need for a Grand Prix-type concept, based on the Class A races, and this would not detract from the lustre of a race like the Cheltenham Gold Cup as it would mean that only the cream of the crop could participate."

Other proposals in the report include stretching prize-money to sixth place in top races and installing a big handicap in midweek cards to replace top races which might be moved.

Smee added: "In order to sex up the programme we feel we need to implement high-profile handicaps in midweek with the objective of establishing something exciting to keep everybody interested and focused.

"It is our hope that there are no fewer than eight runners in the majority of races, and it might mean using the horse population in a more aggressive way in order to achieve that."

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