“Scunner’ is a Scottish word that means strong dislike or disgust. If your scunnered with your commute you’ve had about all you can take. A few racing folk have been scunnerred today by small fields at Kempton where there were two matches (2-horse races). and one 3-horse Novices Hurdle.
The matches were a Novice chase and a Graduation chase which are races for horses just setting out on their steeplechasing career. These types of races are notorious for small fields. In 2013 the Maiden/Novice Steeplechase classification used by the BHA to report on field size showed that the average number of runners that year was 6.00. And the decline seems difficult to arrest:
2017 (until Oct 31): 4.77
Why is it happening? The favourite theory is that trainers of not so good horses do not like to run against good horses in non-handicap races. If a horse of relatively low-regard finishes with hailing distance of the future stars, trainers believe its handicap mark will be unfairly affected.
On August 8th this year a BHA working group published its proposals to help remedy matters. Their key recommendation – and it was implemented on October 1st – was this:
No handicap rating increase in weight-for-age Novices’ Chases of Class 2 and below other than for the winner. This will only apply to horses who have already made four appearances over obstacles (either hurdles or fences) and be introduced on a trial basis.This system mirrors a trial which is being implemented in Flat conditions races in 2017. While it is not borne out by handicapping data, it is understood that a preconception exists amongst trainers that running in close proximity to a higher rated opponent in Novices’ Chases race may result in a significant rise in a horse’s handicap rating.The working party felt that perception can be as important as reality and to encourage more horses to run in weight-for-age Novices’ Chases, trainers’ preconceptions of the handicappers’ reaction needs to be addressed.
That amounts to a written promise to trainers, but if today is an early litmus test, they’re not buying it, preferring to take the view that Phil Smith and his Peaky Blinders will be more inclined toward the fierce-eyed stare that says “I know where you live”.
The working group also put together an incentive in the shape of a pile of cash by introducing a new race:
The £100,000 final for novice chasers will take place at Ayr on 21 April 2018, which will also provide an additional boost to Jump racing in the region through the provision of a high value, end of season target.
The final, which will be run over three miles, has been created to support the recent changes resulting from the novices’ chase review, and will be an open novices’ handicap steeple chase.
In order to qualify for the chase final, horses must have finished in the first eight in at least one weight-for-age novices’ or beginners’ chase during the 2017/18 Season.
The BHA are to be applauded for trying to fix this but they must overcome an aversion in trainers that’s arguably passed from generation to generation. £100,000 is a lot of money but I suspect the view among the training hoi polloi is, ‘So what? Nicholls or Henderson will probably win that as well.’
Perhaps the hundred grand would have been better spent in a simple prize draw made at Sandown on the final day of the season; rules as follows:
One point is awarded to every horse who ran in but did not win a qualifying race, so a yard that has sent out, say, 20 runners gets 20 tickets in the draw. Winner gets £60,000, runner-up gets £30,000 and the third, £10,000. Crude, unscientific and probably unfair but it might just work a wee bit better than the alternative.