GIVEN the poor field sizes de-clared for some of the best hurdling action recently, it’s no surprise Ffos Las has taken steps to protect its race of the season.
The Welsh Champion Hurdle will now be run as a limited handicap at an increased distance of two and a half miles, in a ploy to boost turnout.
Saturday, February 2 is due to be the second renewal of the contest since it was moved to Camarthenshire from Chepstow on the back of an absence, after frost claimed the 2012 card.
Run over two miles in 2011, the race proved easy pickings for Oscar Whisky and his owner, racecourse chairman Dai Walters.
On paper it was not the best renewal, with the next best horse in the race, Won In the Dark, rated 14lb inferior to odds-on Oscar on the books.
December’s Relkeel Hurdle, which was also coincidentally won by the Henderson horse, saw just three runners go to post.
That was despite in excess of £22,000 going to the winner and prize money going down to sixth place – a horse in that finishing position would have received £536.
I understand some trainers would not want to enter their horses to pick up such a sum, because of the entry fee, jockey, travel costs to the races and more.
I also appreciate there is a greater number of semi-talented horses than top class ones, which is why there are always so many horses plotting their way around courses like Wolverhampton.
Some fear if their horse runs the race of its life to a much higher rated rival, there is every chance the assessor will take a dim view.
Therefore, future chances of winning a handicap could diminish.
Furthermore, trainers seem keen to save their horses for just a handful of starts in a year and testing ground has not been to everyone’s liking.
But if I was an owner, I think I’d relish the chance for my horse to run in a race like the Relkeel.
Looking at the firepower of some of the bigger yards, it is disappointing races like the International Hurdle at Cheltenham and Newcas-tle’s Fighting Fifth were also short on numbers. I am not disputing their quality, because the International in particular was top notch, but like many punters I’d like to see more suitable runners competing.
I remember the days when Dr Philip Pritchard used to make a habit of running his run-of-the-mill horses in decent races, scooping prize money that no-one else was too fussed about.
While some laughed at his horses lining up because they were such big outsiders, his point was proven when 300-1 shot Blazing Batman came 6th of 7 in the 2004 Tingle Creek, picking up £1,800.
That is a similar amount to what the horse would have won for a low grade chase, so I commend the man for his initiative.
The BHA cancelled the Dipper Novices’ Chase because of a shortage of declared runners.
So I believe Ffos Las are spot on at aiming to bring competitiveness back to their feature.
Prize money has been increased to £50,000 and as a handicap, not only should more horses be entered, but a bigger field makes it more appealing to sponsors and punters.
Who, unless they have a lot more money than the average person, would have wanted to bet on 1-5 shot Oscar Whisky in the Relkeel?
A Welsh Champion Hurdle, with say 14 runners and a 4-1 favourite, is much more tempting to the regular Saturday betting shop client. Ffos Las general manager and clerk of the course Tim Long said: “If we can we want to avoid small field sizes, but we do sympathise with trainers, they do need to weigh up what to do and the weather has been a factor, “We are working with the sponsors and Channel 4 to put on a good competitive race- that is in the interest of everyone.”
At its previous distance of two miles, the Welsh Champion Hurdle clashed with a similar, long established race at Sandown.
“A limited handicap would lessen the risk of a good horse scaring the rest off,” explained Long. We are hoping it will be very successful and we also have the West Wales National on the day.”
I say good luck to them and fingers crossed for a mild and pleasant start to February.