At the 2019 Cheltenham Festival an amateur jockey called Declan Lavery was punished for continuing on what the meeting’s stewards decided was a ‘tired horse’. Three jockeys in total were punished for the same offence, all of which were racing in the National Hunt Chase.

Lavery was given a 10 day suspension as a result of the stewards’ findings, which legendary jockey AP McCoy branded as ‘the worst decision for 25 years’. The Chase, which has been in existence for more than 150 years, found its future in some doubt in the wake of the stewards’ enquiries, given that it is run over four miles and is only open to amateur jockeys .

Instead of pulling the race in the future, however, the British Horseracing Authority has decided to make changes to the race’s rules. It will be cut by around a quarter of a mile, which is approximately two furlongs, and the participants in the race will only have to jump 23 fences rather than the 25 that were in use this year.

On top of that the Cheltenham Festival will see the introduction of a new race in the form of a Grade 2 steeplechase for mares, contested over two and a half miles. The race that it will replace hasn’t been decided upon yet, but given it’s not going to come into play until 2021 there’s plenty of time for the decision to be reached.

The Original Controversy

tired horseDeclan Lavery, who is from Downpatrick in Northern Ireland, finished third in the National Hunt Chase, but was 47 lengths behind the horse that came in second and stewards felt that Lavery should have pulled up Jerrysback when he made a couple of ‘tired mistakes’ at the fences leading to the final stretch of the race.

They felt that the horse had ‘no more to give’ after the second-to-last fence, with Lavery’s decision to keep riding him ‘contrary to the horse’s welfare’. He wasn’t the only amateur jockey that was suspended in the wake of the race, with Just Your Type’s jockey, Robert James, and Noel McParlan, who was on Mulcahys Hill, suspended for 12 and 8 days respectively.

Yet AP McCoy, who was crowned champion jockey 20 times during his career, felt that the decision to suspend the amateurs was ‘an absolute disgrace’, having a heated row with the chief of the British Horseracing Authority, Nick Rust, over the issue.

McCoy is of the belief that is is a contradiction for jockeys to face punishment if they don’t try to obtain the best finish possible for their horses and for pulling up a horse that is in contention for one of the places, yet to also be punished for pushing your horse too hard. The post-race examination of all three horses seemed to back up McCoy’s anger over the decision, with none of them revealing any sort of abnormalities or suggestions that they were pushed too hard.

The Planned Changes

jumpThe controversy was enough to encourage the BHA to take another look at the race and the rules surrounding it.

Here’s the information for the race in 2019:

  • Grade 2
  • Run over 3 miles, 7 furlongs and 147 yards
  • Horses must be novice chasers of 5 years of age or older
  • 5-year-olds weight: 11 stone 4 pounds
  • 6-year-olds and over weight: 11 stone 6 pounds
  • Mares get a 7 pound allowance
  • Amateur jockeys

Moving forward the British Horseracing Authority plans to make the race for horses with a BHA rating of 120 at least, which would bring it in line with the Grade 1 novice chases that take place during the Festival.

The horses themselves will need to have run in at least one steeplechase during the season, with at least two chase runs during their career to date. They will also need to have finished in the top 4 horses in a chase run over at least 2 miles and 7 and a half furlongs.

As for the jockeys, it will still only be open for amateurs, but they’ll need to have had at least twenty rides and won at least five of the races they’ve entered over fences, excluding any point-to-point events that they’ve taken part in.

The race will also be shortened by around two furlongs and have two of its fences cut, meaning that it will be run over approximately 3 miles and 5 furlongs and will have 23 fences rather than 25.

Changes Have Been Welcomed

close up of winning post at cheltenhamThe National Hunt Chase might well have found itself a victim of the current need for the welfare of horse’s to be put foremost in the thoughts of race organisers if these changes hadn’t been announced. Many racing fans simply call it the ‘four miler’, such is the extent to which it is known for its gruelling test of the horses that are run in it.

It’s a test that sets up the best horses well for the future, however, such as consecutive Grand National winner Tiger Roll who won the National Hunt Chase in 2017. Despite being known as a testing race for participants, the horse racing industry has been broadly welcoming of the changes that the BHA plans to introduce.

The race is considered one of three prestigious events that amateur jockeys can enter and are desperate to win, sitting alongside the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham and the Foxhunters' Open Hunters' Chase at Aintree.

That’s why Bob Davies, the President of the Amateur Jockeys’ Association, was pleased that the changes would likely see ‘the continuation of the race’. It was a few that was backed up by the champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who said,

“If the new conditions mean that the race still retains its character whilst hopefully making it safer for everyone who takes part, then that can only be a good thing”.

Nicholls’ response is one that is likely to be echoed by others in the industry, who are keen to ensure that horse welfare is put at the top of the list of priorities for race organisers but not at the expense of the character of the various races. The changes come after numerous other alterations to races were discussed earlier in the year, as I’ve written about elsewhere on the site.