When I read that Michael O’Leary had called for a Ryanair-style hurdle race at the Cheltenham Festival, I thought perhaps he was proposing a race where half the horses couldn’t run because there weren’t enough pilots.
But it turned out that I’d got the wrong end of the stick. It was much, much, worse.
The Ryanair Chase was introduced as a Grade 2 steeplechase in 2005, over 2 miles, 4 furlongs. Becoming a Grade 1 steeplechase in 2008, the race was deliberately pitched at a distance in-between the Queen Mother Champion Chase (1 mile, 7 furlongs and 199yards) and the Gold Cup (3 miles, 2 furlongs and 70 yards – depending on how many whiskies the Clerk of the Course has enjoyed while inputting the race distances to the BHA’s admin site).
[Incidentally, I am not casting aspersions about Simon Claisse, Cheltenham’s Clerk of the Course who recently issued two corrections to the race distance of the Cotswold Chase – merely judging by my own standards, which dictate that a minimum of two whiskies are required to get the race distances correct following a movement of the rails.]
O’Leary’s (rubbish) idea was to create a championship race for hurdlers at a distance between that of the Champion Hurdle (just short of 2 miles) and the Stayers Hurdle (just short of 3 miles). His reasoning was understandable, if a bit transparent: he’d like to win as many Grade 1 races as possible and he has so many horses in his ownership, it would surely create an extra opportunity for at least one of them. It’s difficult to argue with the logic.
But the problem is that the proposed race inevitably reduces the quality of the two principle events. I love watching the Ryanair Chase. Of course I do; who wouldn’t? It’s a great race, attracting wonderful horses. But they are horses that should be competing in the Champion Chase and Gold Cup – the twin peaks of jump racing.
Since the introduction of the Ryanair Chase, those peaks have been eroded. It’s a bit like knocking 1,000 ft off the top of Mount Everest and saying that the challenge is just as great, because it is still the tallest mountain in the World.
Creating a championship hurdle race over 2 miles and 4 furlongs would have the same impact. The Champion Hurdle would become Kangchenjunga and the Stayers Hurdle would become Ben Nevis – by which I don’t mean to denigrate the achievement of climbing on top of Ben Nevis. He was a marvellous horse.
Anyway, there’s no need to panic this year. Cheltenham’s races have already been programmed and Jimmy Moffatt will be studying the form ahead of Cartmel’s annual Festival Preview Night on Wednesday 7th March. Together with race-day presenter John Sexton, top northern jockey Brian Hughes and form expert Marten Julian, Cartmel’s leading trainer will be naming all the winners at this year’s Festival. Tickets, including a light supper, cost just £16 and can be purchased by calling Cartmel Racecourse.
Perhaps they’ll review footage from the Morebattle Hurdle, programmed at Kelso on Thursday 15th February – a race which has provided Champion Hurdle clues in the past.
In the meantime, I intend to build up my Festival funds by backing this week’s selection, which runs at Musselburgh’s 2-day Festival Trials Meeting: the Jim Goldie trained Sir Chauvelin in the Bet365 Scottish County Hurdle.