The steady decline of jockeys — and horses — in point-to-pointing is an increasing concern. The number of registered riders is down 12% on this time last year and retaining riders is becoming more difficult.
The major problem, identified by many in the sport, is the cost — an initial outlay of at least £1,000, according to H&H point-to-point columnist Darren Edwards.
In an attempt to lure new riders into pointing, two new schemes have been launched this season.
The Master of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) has introduced a new programme to ensure that first-time riders will not be charged the hunt cap — saving a minimum of £40-50.
Horses will still be required to qualify with their associated packs by hunting at least four days per season.
“We are always looking to find new ways to help hunting and pointing combine,” said Mike Felton of the MFHA point-to-point committee.
“There’s been a decline in rider numbers for a variety of factors and one of the main ones is the cost.
“We’re being delivered some pretty competent young riders but, at the age of 16, cost is extremely relevant and we wanted some incentive for them.”
Mr Felton estimates that around 80-100 riders will be eligible for the MFHA scheme.
Sara Beamson, 43, a first-time jockey this season, welcomes the initiative.
“I’ve never ridden in a race before, but I really wanted to give it a go,” she said. “Hunt caps can be substantial, especially in the Duke of Beaufort’s country where I am based.”
Point-to-Point Authority (PPA) board member Steven Astaire added: “Every rider has to have a medical, a Riders Qualification Certificate [RQC] and pay the hunting cap. If you’re saving the hunt cap, at least it’s a start, and it’s nice gesture from the MFHA.”
Decline in quantity but a rise in quality
But while jockey numbers are down, the standard of riders coming into the sport is higher than ever before — thanks to pony racing.
This season, young riders will be given free membership to the Point-to-Point Owners and Riders Association (PPORA).
“It’s not much, but it all helps,” said Clarissa Daly from the Pony Racing Authority.
Lucy Tucker of the PPA added: “Pony racing has definitely improved the quality of riding. The sport is producing more stylish and braver young jockeys.”
And Jeanette Dawson from PPORA added that the organisation is seeing a rise in interest from girls thanks to pony racing — something that had been in decline.
“We’re about 40% girls now,” she told H&H.
There are 83 pony racing fixtures at point-to-points this season, the highest yet.
“It would seem that more riders who would have previously done other Pony Club activities are doing pointing now, due to the series,” added Ms Daly.
Anthea Morshead’s 16-year-old son Henry is going pointing for the first time this season, having graduated from pony racing.
“I’m desperate for him to stay in school and get his A levels, so the fact he can go pointing at the weekends is ideal,” she said.
“Pony racing is becoming a valuable stepping stone to the sport — not everyone wants to go professional, and not everyone will be able to do the weight under Rules. This way amateurs still get the thrill of racing.
“Both new incentives are a big help. It all adds up and if you drop some costs it makes a significant difference.”
Why are numbers down?
“Pointing is no different to other sports,” said Ms Dawson. “We are all having a hard time [due to the downturn].”
But Mrs Tucker added that many riders only stay for a season.
“They have the ambition of riding in a race and, once they’ve done it, that’s it,” she said. “Others enjoy it, but can’t get the rides.”
Many say that unless you are well connected, it can be hard to get a break. As fixtures are increasingly spread out, the top jockeys travel around more, picking up extra rides.
Steven Astaire also blames the multiple demands on our leisure time.
“The sport is losing out, as there are so many more options now,” he said. “If you give people the choice of watching football in a warm pub with a beer, going shopping or standing in a cold field, not that many will choose the latter.”
Then there’s the danger element.
“Racing is, without doubt, a tough sport — it takes bravery and an inner determination to race and come back from the inevitable falls and injuries,” said H&H columnist Jacqueline Coward.
“It’s a hardcore, dangerous sport,” added Lucy Tucker. “People might decide to do dressage, as it’s seen as safer.”
Hunt rides and team chasing are also hoovering up thrill-seekers. A spokesman for British Team Chasing told H&H that numbers were “up considerably this autumn”, especially in novice and intermediate classes.
However, she said this “wouldn’t impact” on pointing, as the riders often do both sports.
And the PPA remains upbeat.
“We had a dire season last season, escalated by the dreadful weather, but we’re hoping for a better year,” said Lucy Tucker. “Numbers will pick up in the new year — it is only the purists who are out in December.”
Time will tell if this season’s financial incentives will be enough to halt the decline of this most Corinthian of sports — or if more drastic measures are required.
This story was originally published in 19 December issue of Horse & Hound magazine.