It’s the end of an era with the Cheltenham Festival set to lose it’s traditional four-miler, the National Hunt Chase for amateur riders’.

The track’s owner Jockey Club Racecourses, in conjunction with the British Horseracing authority, have decided to shorten the race by just under two furlongs as a result of welfare concerns.

There is now also a stricter qualifying criteria for runners and riders, and the number of fences jumped has been reduced to 23 from 25 in the now 3m5f 201yds event. All jockeys riding in the National Hunt Chase must have ridden at least 20 times, including at least five winners over fences, while horses must have a minimum official rating of 120 – in line with the Grade 1 novice chases at the meeting.

Qualifying rides must have come in races under rules – so any experience gained in point-to-points is now meaningless..

Horses must also have ran in at least two chases and finished in the first four in a chase staged over 2m 7 1/2f  or further, and ran at least once in a chase during the current season.

Changes Come After Controversial Renewal

The decision to make the changes come mainly as a result of this year’s controversial renewal in which the Willie Mullins-trained Ballyward suffered a fatal fall in front of the Best Mate Enclosure and the stewards suspended four jockeys for a total of 37 days after deeming the riders to have continued to race “contrary to the horse’s welfare” and to have used the whip when their mount was showing no response.

Twenty-times champion jumps jockey Sir Anthony McCoy described the stewards’ decision as “an absolute disgrace” in the aftermath with amateur Declan Lavery having his 10-day ban overturned on appeal. The stewards’ decision meant’t that the five-day extravaganza made the headlines for all the wrong reasons and have animal rights activists the ammunition they needed to attack the sport as being “cruel”.

It was a PR blunder of the highest order in my opinion and the decision to pander to those who know nothing about the sport and are trying to damage it rather than listen to those who work in the industry day in and day out is going down a dangerous route.

Changes Come After Controversial Renewal

Ian Renton, regional director for Cheltenham and the south west at the Jockey Club, said: “After the festival this year, we felt it was important to review the National Hunt Chase as part of our commitment to ensuring the highest welfare standards for participants at the home of jump racing.

“Having done this fully, we have made some evidence-based changes to the conditions of the race and the distance over which it is run.

“This is designed to improve safety for novice chasers and amateur jockeys, while ensuring the National Hunt Chase remains a highly competitive spectacle that has a place within the world’s best four days of jump racing.”

In this year’s National Hunt Chase, won by the Jamie Codd-ridden Le Breuil, there were four finishers from a field of 18 with nine runners falling or unseating their rider and five pulling up.

Declan Lavery, finished 47 lengths back in third on Jerrysback and the stewards said his mount had made tired jumping errors at the final two fences.

Robert James was suspended for 12 days for his ride on Just Your Type, who fell at the final fence, whilst Noel McParlan who was aboard Mulcahys Hill – a faller at the penultimate obstacle – was given an eight-day suspension.

Post-race examination of the horses did not reveal any abnormalities. In 2018 there were six finishers from 16 runners. Winning rider Patrick Mullins received a six-day ban for overuse of the whip, while Mossback was fatally injured when falling on the final circuit.

Dual Grand National Hero Tiger Roll Among Previous Winners

Whilst nobody likes to see horses get fatally injured, it is something which can happen on the track or whilst they are galloping round a field at their stables.

They are superbly looked after by dedicated stable staff and I think it’s sad to change a race which has a rich history and produced some great winners.

Dual Grand National hero Tiger Roll triumphed in 2017, while 2016 Gold Cup winner Native River finished second in the race in 2015.

The race was first run in 1860 and until the 1930s it was the second most important jumps race in the calendar after the Grand National.

I personally cannot see how shortening the National Hunt Chase is  worthwhile, and Renton has said the new changes will be reviewed in 2022 to see  whether they are working effectively. It will be interesting to see what the outcome is.