Following Rock On Ruby’s heart-warming victory in the 2m4 Dornan Engineering Hurdle at Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day fixture, his questionable participation in this year’s World Hurdle sparked sizable dispute. The Cheltenham Festival in March is largely seen as horse racing’s Olympics – is there need for a middle distance championship to crown the Ryanair winners of the hurdling sphere, or would it be a mark of excessive greed on a meeting that already exhausts its exclusivity?
27 races take place throughout the anticipated 4 day festival, an extended schedule that has gradually materialised over the many years the event has been held. It caters for the assets of a variety of equines already, and arguably contains too many unnecessary races as it is, a 2m4 championship race would give horses such as Rock On Ruby more opportunities to gain credit and excel over the more suitable distance.
Often horses do not stay 3 miles but 2 miles is too short, this does not mean they are talentless and should not be considered among the best. Is a horse considered less of a champion if its doesn’t boast a festival triumph?
Many horses compete successfully at the Cheltenham festival and then continue on to race at Aintree, therefore attention would not always be diverted from the established Grade 1 over 2m4 at Merseyside. It could in fact boost the strength of the field and clashes could become more interesting. Cheltenham and Aintree are also very different tracks- Aintree is largely a flat course, a lot sharper than Cheltenham, whereas the undulations and ‘galloping’ nature of Prestbury Park require a different set of skills.
The Ryanair Chase can be used as an example to exercise understanding of what a 2m4 Grade 1 hurdle would possibly have to offer, as it is only be a furlong longer and over fences rather than hurdles. It may yet take a better horse to win the Ryanair Chase than the Queen Mother Champion Chase this season, showing that diluted racing would not always necessarily be the result of an additional race. The Ryanair has been won by many talented horses and provided exciting contests in the past with winners such as Fondmort, Imperial Commander and Cue Card; a 2m4 hurdle race could do the same. In the past, top chasers did not have an alternative race at the festival and were therefore inconvenienced. Using the past three runnings as a guide, it has taken a horse rated around 167.4 to win the Ryanair, and a horse of around 163.3 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, so relatively speaking by no means is it an easier option.
The Cheltenham Festival rightly or wrongly is the pinnacle of our sport. Should this be embraced and accepted or do drastic changes need to take place in order to sway from this glorified universal obsession with four days in March?
In comparison, many people believe the 2m4 race would be unnecessary as Aintree’s fixture is a hugely popular and established event and serves a purpose. The threat of a Cheltenham equivalent could be seen as a detrimental display of rapacity by the organisers at Prestbury Park.
The trouble with using the Ryanair Chase as a logical equivalent to the prospective 2m4 hurdle is that the difference in distance between the Champion Chase and Gold Cup is approximately 2 ½ furlongs greater than between the Champion Hurdle and the World Hurdle. This means that the Ryanair is more worthy of its position at the festival. Would a 2m4 hurdle race be?
The likes of The New One and the late Oscar Whisky would have had the hypothetical race as a possible target; this would detract from the quality of the Champion Hurdle and World Hurdle fields, hence crowning false champions. Often the entire “will he stay, won’t he stay” spectacle in a race renders thrill and adds dimension. Furthermore, should this race be permitted, experienced horses would be forced to carry penalties against unexposed types who were climbing the ranks. In general field sizes are declining rapidly; the 2m4 hurdle race could accentuate this.
It may be more suitable to host a Grade 1 2m4 race at another racecourse at another time in the season. This way horses are more likely to run at their peak on both engagements, a smaller course would gain more recognition and the horses would face a more unique challenge in comparison to the more commercial demands of Cheltenham or Aintree. An ideal scenario could be where Champion Hurdlers and World Hurdlers take each other on at Aintree. A Cheltenham race would decay the chances of this materialising.
Finally, the issue may be reflective of the wider picture, in that we should not be initiating races just so good horses can win them. The best horses win in a range of circumstances, and every horse cannot constantly be gifted ideal conditions.
Personally, I am unsure as to whether the introduction of a 2m4 Grade 1 event at Cheltenham would benefit the sport and those within it equally. Without the collective and balanced consideration of owners, spectators, trainers and horses I cannot suggest whether or not this race would be a success, as under scrutiny other indirect factors present difficulties in making this a viable proposition.