What Are The Changes To Cheltenham Festival and Why?

What Are The Changes To Cheltenham Festival and Why?

The longest race at the Cheltenham Festival has been shortened by a furlong and a half as a result of welfare concerns raised after this year’s renewal.

The National Hunt Chase, to be run over 3m5f 201yds in 2020, will also have much stricter qualifying criteria for horses and jockeys alike, while the number of fences has been reduced to 23 from 25.

The updated conditions are a result of a review and consultation process, during which the Jockey Club's team at Cheltenham worked with the BHA to analyse ten years of race data as well as gathering participant input following the latest renewal.

What Are The Changes?

  • All horses must have a minimum BHA rating of 120 to participate, which brings the race in line with Grade One novice chases at the meeting
  • Horses must have run at least once in a steeplechase during the current season and must have run in at least two chases in their career – and finished in the first four in a chase staged over two miles and seven and a half furlongs or further
  • Jockeys must have ridden a minimum of 20 times and achieved at least five winners over fences (excluding point-to-point races)

Ian Renton, regional director for Cheltenham and the south west at the Jockey Club, said: “After the festival this year, we felt it was important to review the National Hunt Chase as part of our commitment to ensuring the highest welfare standards for participants at the home of jump racing.

“Having done this fully, we have made some evidence-based changes to the conditions of the race and the distance over which it is run.

“This is designed to improve safety for novice chasers and amateur jockeys, while ensuring the National Hunt Chase remains a highly competitive spectacle that has a place within the world’s best four days of jump racing.”

Why The Changes?

The National Hunt Chase attracted widespread criticism in March, with half the field falling and only four of the 18 runners finishing their race.

The stewards suspended four jockeys for a total of 37 days after deeming the riders to have continued to race “contrary to the horse’s welfare” and to have used the whip when their mount was showing no response.

Jockey Declan Lavery was hit with a ten-day ban after it was claimed that he should have pulled up his mount after jumping the penultimate fence because he had ‘no more to give’.

It was a decision that incurred an instant backlash from 20-time Champion Jockey Sir AP McCoy, who called the ban "the worst decision in 25 years" at the meeting.

“It’s an absolute disgrace – it’s indefensible,” McCoy said on ITV Racing.

Lavery’s ban was quashed at a subsequent appeal.

New Grade Two Chase

Meanwhile, the BHA have also announced that a race at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival will be axed in order to make way for a brand-new Grade Two Mares’ Chase.

No decision about which race will go has been made, but the BHA have made it clear that the meeting will continue to consist of 28 races over four days.

The Mares’ Chase is expected to be run over two and a half miles, with further details to be announced in due course.

Renton added: “The introduction of a mares’ chase at the festival is something we have been considering for a while in discussion with the BHA, who are keen to see further promotion of the mares’ race programme.

“Given the recent improvement in the quality of mares racing, we have agreed to introduce a mares’ chase at the festival in 2021.”

Which Cheltenham Race Will Be Axed?

Paddy Power have priced up the Close Brothers’ Novices Handicap Chase as 5/4 favourite to be the race to go.

Race to be dropped for 2021Odds
Novice Handicap Chase5/4
Juvenile Handicap Hurdle9/4
National Hunt Chase5/1
Kim Muir Handicap Chase7/1
Martin Pipe Conditional Handicap Hurdle12/1
Brown Advisory Handicap Chase12/1
Mares’ Novice Hurdle14/1
JLT Novice Chase25/1

Spokesman Paul Binfield said: “We’re pretty sure it won’t be the Gold Cup that’s chopped, but we make the Novice Handicap Chase favourite to go as the runners in that have the option of the JLT Novices’ Chase and the other handicap chases.”