The British Horseracing Authority made a decision in 2022 to change Grade 3 races into Premier Handicaps. It means that the third-level of races beneath Grade 1 and Grade 2 offerings will be Premier Handicaps moving forward.
The change came into effect on the first of October that year, with the newly named races carrying the same Black Type status as the Grade 3 events had. The grading process as a whole was first introduced in 1964, with Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3 races amongst the best types of races in the horse racing industry.
The change to become Premier Handicaps doesn’t alter anything on that front. Whilst they are beneath Grade 1 and Grade 2 races in one sense, that doesn’t meant that they are less worth watching than the more prestigious events. The Grand National is likely to be making the jump to become a Premier Handicap race, for example, and few people would say that the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’ isn’t as important or as prestigious as events that run under the Graded banner.
There might be a feeling in some quarters that this is a big change, but in truth it really isn’t.
Premier Handicap Races At The Cheltenham Festival
|Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase||1m 7f 199y||Premier H'cap||£122,963|
|County Handicap Hurdle||2m 179y||Premier H'cap||£98,370|
|Plate Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Premier H'cap||£118,044|
|Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle||2m 7f 213y||Premier H'cap||£98,370|
Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
Fred Winter Juvenile Novices' Hurdle
|2m 87y||Premier H'cap||£78,696|
|Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle||2m 5f||Premier H'cap||£98,370|
Ultima Handicap Chase
Festival Trophy Handicap Chase
|3m 1f||Premier H'cap||£122,963|
Premier Handicap Races At Other Cheltenham Meetings
|Fillies' Juvenile Handicap Hurdle||2m 179y||Premier H'cap||£39,348|
|Greatwood Handicap Hurdle||2m 87y||Premier H'cap||£98,370|
|Handicap Chase||3m 3f 71y||Premier H'cap||£73,778|
|December Handicap Chase||3m 2f||Premier H'cap||£59,020|
|December Gold Cup Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Premier H'cap||£127,881|
|Trophy Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Premier H'cap||£98,370|
|Fairlawne Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Premier H'cap||£98,370|
|Paddy Power Gold Cup||2m 4f 44y||Premier H'cap||£157,662|
Premier Handicap Races Explained
Races that would previously be in the ‘Graded’ category, including Grade 3, are the races that are most watched around the world. The only real different between the races we’re talking about here and the same races when they were Grade 3 offerings is that they will all be run under handicap rules from now on.
There has always been only a slight difference between the three Grades and that remains the case under the new ruling. Whilst Grade 1 events are often weight-for-age offerings, Grade 2 races are similar but with a lower quality.
Premier Handicap events will see every horse in the race given a weight to carry, depending on their Official Rating. This ensures that the races are filled with excitement, theoretically because the horses could all finish first if the handicapper has done their job correctly. That never happens, of course, but it could in theory.
It is not as if there are any specific rules about what type of horses can take part in Premier Handicap events, with each race having its own rules that will be adhered to moving forwards. How long they are, how many jumps they feature and so on will be judged case-by-case.
Why Have The Rules Changed?
The obvious question that most people will be asking is why, exactly, the rules have changed. It is not an easy answer to give, although there was something enlightening about the matter from the British Horseracing Authority.
The feeling was that the term ‘Grade 3’ was confusing for customers of horse racing as a sport. It wasn’t clear what the role was that such races played in the overall framework of the Pattern, meaning that some felt as though a re-brand might help to make things a little bit clearer for punters.
The hope is that giving the race type a new name, it will be significantly clearer that these are ‘Britain’s principal Jump handicaps’, which will give racing fans a ‘clearer, more logical signposting’. In other words, the fact that the races were previously known as ‘Grade 3’ options meant that a lot of people thought that they weren’t very good races.
As a result, adding the word ‘Premier’ into their title is seen as a good way of letting people know that they are exceptional, high-quality races that are a crucial part of the horse racing calendar.
What The New Grading Means
The new title of the races means very little in the grand scheme of things. This is a re-branding, rather than some sort of over-arching alteration of the very core of jump racing. That being said, the BHA is introducing changes that will affect more than just Grade 3 races. There has also been a decision to abandon the term ‘Listed’ for handicaps altogether, with races that have previously come under that category now either being promoted or else downgraded.
Listed handicap races that are good enough will become either Grade 2 or Premier Handicap events, whilst those that aren’t will drop down to Class 2.
At Cheltenham, an example of this comes in the form of the E.B.F. Mares’ Final Handicap Novices’ Chase. That is being upgraded to become a Grade 2 offering, though it will retain its limited weight-range moving forwards.
Another Listed race that is run at Cheltenham Racecourse is the Regulatory Finance Solutions Hurdle, which will be downgraded to Class 2, with the same thing applying to the Mares’ Handicap Hurdle. Similarly, a number of Pattern races will be downgraded as part of the same review, though none from Cheltenham.
You Don’t Need To Worry
In truth, most people who watch horse racing won’t even notice that there has been a change. The races themselves will still be run in the same manner, with the handicappers applying their rules to the horses when deciding how much weight they’ll have to carry for a race.
The races will still be the same length that they were before, involve the same number of horses and the same number of jumps. Any changes to any of those factors will be made entirely separately and will not be because of the change of name to Premier Handicap.
It also won’t make any difference to how bookmakers price up the horses or how your betting works. Indeed, the best way to think about the change is as a cosmetic one, in which the name has changed but all of the other information to do with the race is the same.
There is no suggestion from the British Horseracing Authority that there will be any material changes to the way in which the races work, so unless you’ve always paid attention to what Grade a jump race was in, you almost certainly wouldn’t even know this has happened.
Big Grade 3 and Premier Handicap Races
The best thing to do in order to help you understand the manner in which Premier Handicap (former Grade 3) races can vary wildly from each other is to have a look at some specific examples.
Here we’ll take a look at the Grand National as well as the Premier Handicaps that are run at Cheltenham during the course of the National Hunt season.
First run in 1839 and taking place at Aintree Racecourse on the outskirts of Liverpool, the Grand National is the most valuable European jump race. It is often said that it is the race that even non-horse racing fans will watch, such is the importance of it in British culture. It is run over 4 miles and 514 yards, with 30 fences to be jumped.
The fences are bigger and more challenging than the fences you’d find in pretty much any other race, which is part of what makes the race so exciting. It is open to horses aged 7 and over that have a rating of 120 or more and that have managed to place in a chase of 3 miles or more before this race. The maximum weight for the handicappers is 11 stone 10 pounds.
Crest Nicholson Chase
Known under numerous sponsorship titles since it was run for the first time in 1993, the Crest Nicholson Chase is for horses aged 5 and over. It’s run at Cheltenham over 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 127 yards and features 17 fences. It was a Listed race when it was introduced, eventually being upgraded to Grade 3 in 2005 and converted to a Premier Handicap in 2022.
Festival Trophy Handicap Chase
Run over 3 miles and 1 furlong and with 20 fences to be jumped, the Festival Trophy Handicap Chase is for horses aged 5 and up. It is one of the races on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival and was originally known as the National Hunt Handicap Chase. Horses that do well in this often compete in the Grand National in the future.
Another Cheltenham Festival race, the Coral Cup is for horses aged 4 and over. Run over 2 miles and 5 furlongs, it has 10 hurdles and was established in 1993. It has always been sponsored by Coral, hence its name, and was promoted to Grade 3 in 1999 and Premier Handicap in 2022. In 2008 it didn’t take place as planned owing to high winds, instead being moved to the New Course.
Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle
Named after the successful jockey and trainer Fred Winter, the race is open to 4-year-old juvenile novices. There are 8 hurdles that need to be jumped during the 2 miles and 87 yards of the event. It was one of a number of races that were introduced to the Festival in 2005 when a fourth day was added on to the meeting and was Listed until being promoted to Grade 3 in 2009, then becoming a Premier Handicap in 2022.
Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase
Open to horses aged 5 and over and run over 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 127 yards, the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase has 17 fences. The convoluted name of the event comes from the fact that it is sponsored by Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable, having enjoyed numerous sponsors since its inauguration in 1951.
County Handicap Hurdle
The Cheltenham Festival has more Premier Handicap races than any other meeting at Prestbury Park, with the County Handicap Hurdle being for horses aged 5 and over. It’s run over 2 miles and 179 yards and there are 8 hurdles during that process. Inaugurated in 1920, it was the final race of the Festival until 2009 when a new running order was announced.
Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase
The Grand Annual is run over 2 miles and 62 yards, boasting 14 fences. It’s open to horses aged 5 and up, taking place on the New Course at Cheltenham during the Festival. It’s the meeting’s oldest race, having been run for the first time in 1934 and moving to Prestbury Park permanently in 1913. The name of Johnny Henderson was added to its title in 2005.
BetVictor Gold Cup
Cheltenham is a course synonymous with the Gold Cup, though this one is different to the prestigious event run during the Cheltenham Festival. Inaugurated in 1960, it is run over 2 miles and 4 and a half furlongs, offering the challenge of 16 fences along the way. It takes place in November and has boasted its current title since 2016.
BetVictor Handicap Chase
Another race sponsored by a bookmaker, the Handicap Chase is run over 3 miles, 3 furlongs and 71 yards and is for horses aged 4 and over. There are 22 fences, proving the fact that there really can be any number of obstacles and any distance to run in a Premier Handicap event. It has enjoyed numerous sponsors over the years briefly being the Henrietta Knight Handicap Chase in 2012.
Open to horses aged 4 and over, the Greatwood Hurdle is run on Cheltenham’s Old Course over 2 miles and 87 yards. It boasts 8 hurdles and was classed as a Listed race until it was promoted to Grade 3 in 2004 and converted to a Premier Handicap in 2022. It’s another race that has had numerous different sponsored titles over the years, with Greatwood being a charity that looks after retired racehorses.
BetVictor Handicap Chase
Run in December, the BetVictor Handicap Chase takes place over 3 miles and 2 furlongs and took place for the first time in 2003. It was promoted to Grade 3 in 2011 and has had various names over the years as different sponsors have been involved with it. There are 22 fences that the horses need to negotiate during the course of the event.
December Gold Cup
As mentioned elsewhere, Cheltenham is a racecourse that is associated closely with Gold Cups. This one is run in December over 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 127 yards, with 17 fences to be jumped. First run in 1963 as the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup because of sponsorship, it’s for horses aged 4 and over and is often run by horses that took part in the BetVictor Gold Cup.
Fairlawne Handicap Chase
A race for horses aged 5 and over and run over 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 127 yards, the Fairlawne Handicap Chase features 17 fences. It takes place on New Year’s Day and was first run as the Cleeve Hill Handicap in 1990. It was given Grade 3 status in 2009 and since 2014 took on the title of the Fairlawne Chase, which was a conditions race over 3 miles run at Windsor until 1997. It became a Premier Handicap as part of the Grade 3 rule changes in 2022.