The majority of horse races run in Britain are handicap races which, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica rightly points out, represent ‘an outright repudiation of the classic concept that the best horse should win’. However, the aim of the handicapping system is to create competitive races, in which each horse has, at least in theory, an equal chance of winning.
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) employs a team of handicappers, who analyse every horse in every race and award a ‘performance figure’ which, in turn, is used as a basis for a ‘handicap rating’. A handicap rating expresses, in imperial pounds, the ability of a horse in the eyes of the BHA and determines the weight it is allocated in a handicap race. The horses that are eligible to run in a particular handicap race, in terms of handicap ratings, are stipulated in the race conditions. In, say, a handicap open to three-year-olds rated 0-55, a horse rated 55 would be allocated top weight, of 9st 7lb, while a horse rated 54 would be allocated 1lb less, or 9st 6lb, and so on.
Trainers often query the treatment of their horses by the BHA handicapping team but, while performance assessment may include informed opinion, as well as fact, each handicapper must provide a logical, reasoned explanation for any decision. Typically, a handicapper seeks to identify a horse that runs to the same level of form as its current handicap rating, or has run to the same level in recent races, and therefore provides a ‘benchmark’ for the race being assessed. Thereafter, the relative merits of the other runners in the race can be assessed using a sliding scale of pounds-per-length figures, ranging from 3lb a length for five-furlong races to 1lb a length for races over fifteen furlongs on the Flat, or National Hunt races.
When looking at the racing calendar there is one race that is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of its profile – the Aintree Grand National. With last year being an unfortunate exception to the rule, it’s the race of office sweepstakes, of choosing a horse because of its quirky name, of going for that ambitious, big priced outsider.
There is such tradition to the Grand National, which on the whole has to be a good thing. Though as Katie Walsh highlights in this Betway segment, some traditions outstay their welcome. It wasn’t until the late 70s and because of the Sex Discrimination Act that a woman even started taking part in the Grand National (Charlotte Brew in 1977). Participation was patchy over the years but in 2012 Walsh herself placed third in the Grand National. This was the best performance by a female jockey to date. With three female jockeys taking part this year, surely it’s only a matter of times before we have our first female winner. It will be a big achievement; one that is long overdue.
Owned by John Hales and trained by Paul Nicholls, Neptune Collonges was a top-class staying chaser with three Grade One victories to his name. Indeed, he ran in the Cheltenham Gold Cup four times, finishing a closing third, beaten 7 lengths and short head, behind stable companions Denman and Kauto Star in 2008. However, as far as the man in the street is concerned, Neptune Collonges is best known for winning the 2012 Grand National, which was the last to be run over the traditional distance of 4 miles 4 furlongs.
The son of useful jumps sire Dom Alco spent the whole of the 2009/10 season on the sidelines after sustaining a tendon injury in the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup and had won just once in nine starts since returning to action at the start of the 2010/11 season. He had looked rejuvenated when failing by just a neck to win the Grand National Trial, over 3 miles 3½ furlongs, at Haydock, under 11 st 5lb, in February, 2012 but, even so, victory at Aintree appeared unlikely.
On Grand National Day, his intended jockey, Ruby Walsh, was injured in a fall in the Aintree Hurdle earlier on the card so, with Daryl Jacob deputising, and shouldering 11st 6lb, he was sent off at odds of 33/1 to give Paul Nicholls his first National winner. That he did, but only after a thrilling finish, in which he reeled in the leader, Sunnyhillboy, in the final stride to win by the minimum possible margin, a nose. Connections had already decided that, win or lose, Neptune Collonges would be retired immediately after the Grand National and, true to his word, Hales said, ‘He’ll never race again. That’s it.’
Nowadays, the National Hunt Chase is a Grade 2 novices’ chase, run over 3 miles, 5 furlongs and 201 yards on the Old Course at Cheltenham and restricted to amateur riders. Currently scheduled as the final race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, the National Hunt Chase has been a fixture of the March showpiece since its inception in 1911, notwithstanding various changes to the race conditions down the years.
Indeed, the most recent changes followed a troubling renewal in 2019, when only four of the eighteen starters completed the course, the favourite, Ballyward, was fatally injured and three jockeys were suspended for riding offences. Immediately afterwards, the very existence of the National Hunt Chase was called into question but, following a review, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) opted instead to shorten the race distance, from its previous 3 miles, 7 furlongs and 170 yards, thereby reducing the number of fences to be jumped to 23 from 25, and introduce more stringent qualifying conditions for both horses and jockeys. The revised conditions, which are due for review after the 2022 running, resulted in the smallest field in over a century in 2020 and, on soft going, only six of the fourteen runners completed the course, although the majority of those who failed to do so were pulled up.
Regardless of what the future holds for the National Hunt Chase, experienced Irish amateur Jamie Codd has won the last two renewals, on Le Breuil in 2019 and Ravenhill in 2020, repectively, to become outright leading jockey since World War II with three wins in total. Similarly, Jonjo O’Neill, who trains at nearby Jackdaws Castle, remains the leading trainer in the recent history of the National Hunt Chase, with six winners between 1995 and 2016.