Cotswolds-based National Hunt handler Kim Bailey, who has trained over 1,200 winners, says the Cheltenham Festival is no place for small fields
WE witnessed records broken on all days at the recent Cheltenham Festival, and it was an amazing four days featuring everything you could wish to see on a racecourse.
The hype for the meeting was as strong as ever. The fact that we raced behind closed doors last year resulted in record attendances this year, especially on day one to see Constitution Hill set himself up as probably the best novice hurdler seen for some years.
We all had the chance to buy him last year when he appeared at the rerouted Cheltenham Tattersalls sales at Newmarket. In hindsight, he was staggeringly good value at £120,000.
After last year’s Irish dominance, the UK trainers really did hope to hold their end up. On day one, Nicky Henderson had two winners followed by Alan King’s star novice chaser Edwardstone, a home-bred horse from Norfolk, which proved to be our best two-mile novice chaser when taking the Arkle Chase in style, claiming a huge result for British breeding. Lucinda Russell brought her Corach Rambler south to win the Ultima Chase, resulting in a good first day for the British.
But then Rachael Blackmore and the gallant and brilliant mare Honeysuckle, in Irish terms, “hosed up” in the Champion Hurdle, making it 15 wins from 15 races. Day four ended with a staggering five-timer for Willie Mullins, and then Rachael brought the house down when A Plus Tard simply bolted up in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.
A speechless Rachael warmed the hearts of every racegoer and pundit. She has now won everything. She and Henry de Bromhead became only the second trainer-and-jockey combination to win the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup in the same year. The last was Norman Williamson and I back in 1995.
THE big talking point came at the end of day one after clerk of the course Jon Pullin walked into the weighing room to ask the jockeys for their opinion of the ground conditions. They all said warily that the course was drying fast and water was needed before day two.
Now, if you ever thought that the clerk of the course had an easy job, you were soon to be mistaken. Day two started with a dry night and not a huge amount of rain forecast, so Jon rightly added water to the course to help the ground. But then the heavens opened and it threw 21mm of water on the course, making the whole day a very different kettle of fish. It went heavy in the car parks and on the course.
IT was an excellent four days, but there are problems Cheltenham needs to address.
Small fields in major races, especially the novice chases, need to be sorted. I believe the early-closing race-entry situation does not help.
Making entries for Cheltenham sets the owners’ hearts ticking, but the cost of running is becoming high, especially when you don’t believe you can be placed.
You can’t just blame the Irish dominance, but having a runner for fun is not there at the moment, whereas it is at Aintree.
I have always hated early-closing races as horses improve as the season progresses. Making entries for big races a couple of months before the day is not helpful. We have become bookmaker fodder and that also applies to the ridiculous reserve system in the big handicaps.
Why do we have a reserve system for big handicaps like the Coral Cup at Cheltenham which closes at 1pm the day before the race? It should close on the morning of the race like in Ireland. Sam Thomas fell short by one in the Coral Cup and then there were three non-runners because of the ground.
The Grand National has the same reserve system. Frankly, it is outdated and wrong. The defence is that the betting market has no time to readjust. I am sorry, but it is the one time we should not be pandering to the bookmakers and their markets. Owners and their horses must come first.
Rest assured we will all be back next year, though probably not with the five days of racing everyone’s talking about.
- This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 31 March
You may also be interested in…
Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find how you can enjoy the magazine delivered to your door every week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access our online service that brings you breaking news and reports as well as other benefits.