Things We Learned » Raz rules

Raz rules

Saturday’s Welsh Grand National was worth the wait.  A two-week delay meant that Raz De Maree was 13 years old, not 12, but it didn’t stop him winning it.

It was a fine training performance by Gavin Cromwell, only the second Irish-trained winner in the history of the race.  The realisation of a goal that was just about a year in the making, the coming-to-fruition of a plan that was hatched 12 months previously, when Jimmy Swan’s horse finished second in the race, beaten a length and three quarters by Native River, who was rated 13lb higher the following week. 

Raz De Maree raced off a mark that was just 1lb higher than last year’s mark on Saturday, and that was without taking into account the fact that the excellent James Bowen claimed 5lb, whereas Ger Fox claimed just 3lb last year.  So he was actually 1lb lower.

It all makes sense now in one, eh, sense.  He was handicapped to run a big race.  Hindsight being 20-20 and all, and fair play to you if you had the requisite foresight.  And horses for courses, horses for races.  The Welsh National is one of those races in which a proven ability to handle the track (and soft ground at the track) is a significant asset.  More than at most tracks.

Even so, it was still a mammoth performance by a 13-year-old. 

Even if he was really a 12-year-old for analysis purposes, he still had to overcome a considerable age stat.  The Welsh National is a young horse’s race.  Before last Saturday, only one horse aged in double figures – Mountainous in 2015 – had won the race since Riverside Boy won it in 1993.  And if you count Mountainous as a 10-year-old – which he was, even though he was actually 11, as the 2015 race was run in January 2016 – then no horse aged older than 10 had won the race since 1967, and no 12-year-old had won it since 1950. 

It was some performance by the horse, and it was some performance by the trainer, to get the Shaanmer gelding to put up the best performance of his career, 42 runs and almost eight years after it began.

Make Welsh National better 

You could make the Welsh National even better.  You could run it on the first or second Saturday in January for starters.  Keep it on the date on which the re-scheduled event landed this year, and on which it has landed on several occasions in the recent past.

As things stand, Welsh National day, 27th December, is a crowded day.  They have good meetings at Kempton and Wetherby in Britain, and we have Leopardstown and Limerick here.  Even if you do not go to Leopardstown or Limerick, even if you stay at home and try to watch it all, it is difficult to keep up.  And that is even if you don’t have the odd lingering Christmas guest with whom to contend.  

By contrast, last Saturday was a good day for the addition of an important race.  Tolworth Hurdle day at Sandown is a Grade 1 day, but it is a lesser Grade 1 day, a kindof Grade 1 and a half day.  The addition of the Welsh Grand National and the Finale Hurdle bolstered the quality of the day significantly.  And a change in the date would mean that Jenny Murphy and Raz De Maree wouldn’t have had to miss Christmas Day at home again.

Unfortunately, the crowds apparently go to Chepstow on 27th December, more than they do on 6th January, and that is ultimately the determining factor these days.  When you follow a template by which you continue to run the July Cup and the Bunbury Cup at Newmarket on the day that you run the John Smith’s Cup at York and the Summer Mile at Ascot, and which can also sometimes be Irish Oaks day at The Curragh, there is little hope for a change to the Welsh National date.

Another change to the Welsh National?  Move the start.  Ever since the general recognition developed that the start of a National Hunt race, even a long-distance National Hunt race, was important, the proximity of the Welsh National start to the first bend has been an issue.  (Remember Control Man unseating his rider in the first-bend scrimmage in 2005?)

You could move it forward so that they start racing up the hill, not around the bend, and you could shorten the distance a little.  Better, though, to move it back, perhaps to the landing side of the second last fence, so that they have to jump the first fence before they run down the hill and around the bend, and make the distance longer.  Start it at the two-mile-and-half-a-furlong start and go around twice, make it a three-mile-seven-furlong race, or thereabouts.  That’s a National trip.

Strange year could make for season of enthrall

It has been a strange season so far.  The announcements during the week that Death Duty and Thistlecrack would both miss the Cheltenham Festival only added to the sense that the season is not going at full throttle.

You want to see top class racing, you want to see the best take each other on, and you want to see the very best horses push the bar higher.  In that sense, Christmas racing fell short.  Faugheen was beaten, Sizing John was beaten, Djakadam was beaten, Yorkhill was beaten and we lost poor Nichols Canyon.  Mengli Khan ran out, Monalee fell, Min lost out in the stewards’ room, Special Tiara fell.  Even Might Bite did not impress everybody in winning the King George, in beating a horse rated vastly inferior. 

Altior is still missing, Douvan is in a race against time.  We’re waiting for Our Duke to bounce back from Down Royal, and we’re dying to see Samcro again. 

That said, there were big horses who performed over Christmas.  Footpad was brilliant, Apple’s Jade was great, Buveur D’Air was flawless.  And there were others who stepped forward again, like Road To Respect and Politologue and Espoir D’Allen and Yanworth and Next Destination and Supasundae and Anibale Fly and Shattered Love and Coney Island and Balko Des Flos and Snow Falcon and Sam Spinner.  And you know that at least some of the vanquished Christmas heroes will bounce back.  It could all make for a season of unprecedented enthrall.

Veterans’ chases

You can see the appeal of veterans’ chases.  One of the attractions of National Hunt racing is that we grow to recognise the competitors, they return to competition, perennials all, so that we become familiar with their characteristics, we get to know them as friends. 

So when the youngest horse in a race is 10 years old, you can be sure that most racing followers know most of the horses very well. 

After the final of the veterans’ chase series was run at Sandown on Saturday – won by the evergreen Buywise, an adjective that could have been ascribed to just about any one of the 14 competitors regardless of who won it – there was a suggestion that there should be a veterans’ chase added to the Cheltenham Festival roster. 

You can see the argument for.  (See above re old friends, familiar faces.)  And the argument that the Cheltenham Festival is about the best of the best – and that the veterans are not – does not stand up because, if it did, you wouldn’t have 0-140 handicaps at Cheltenham.  

But if you had a veterans’ chase at the Cheltenham Festival, you would detract from the other races, mainly the Ultima Handicap Chase, the Kim Muir, the Cross-Country chase and the Brown Advisory Handicap Chase.  And which race would it replace?

Also, if the final was run at the Cheltenham Festival instead of at Sandown last Saturday, there would not be the time nor the airspace to afford the winner the accolades and the attention that he or she is due.

No need for new races

One of the most worrying aspects about the talk of the introduction of a veterans’ chase at the Cheltenham Festival was the notion that there appears to be a new race under consideration all right: a mares’ chase.

There are 28 races now at the Cheltenham Festival, four days, seven races each day.  That’s a good fit.  There are probably more races than ideal, but there is symmetry there now. 

So you have to hope that the goal is not to add two more races, move to 30 races, and add a day, six races each day over five days, and a Saturday Gold Cup.  Hopefully the decision-makers have read the golden goose story.  You have to hope, if there is to be a new race – and there are pros and cons for the addition of a mares’ chase – that it would be instead of an already existing race, not in addition to all 28.

So which race to axe?  Who is your least-favourite child?  Good luck with that project.

© The Irish Field, 13th January 2018