A little over a year since Cheltenham announced that a mares’ chase would be added to its Festival schedule from next March, the new contest will replace the meeting’s two-and-a-half novice handicap chase, while the running order over the four days has also been tweaked, to put the new race on the final afternoon’s card alongside the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The novice handicap chase, run for the final time seven months ago on the Festival’s opening day, was one of four races believed to be under consideration for the axe to make way for the Mares’ Chase, along with the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (still better known, perhaps, as the Fred Winter), the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase for amateur riders and the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle, for conditionals.
The discontinued race was added to the Festival schedule in 2005 when the meeting expanded from three days to four. Its 16 winners included two trained by the late Ferdy Murphy, L’Antartique and Divers, while A Plus Tard gave the leading Irish jockey, Rachael Blackmore, her first Festival winner in the race in 2019.
Ruby Walsh, who retired in April 2019 as the most successful Festival jockey in history with 59 winners, said on Wednesday that the decision to remove the race from the schedule had been the right one, while also suggesting that it could have been saved as part of an expansion to a five-day Festival.
“If there was something that had to go, it was probably the novice handicap chase, because there’s other races at the Festival for those horses to run in,” Walsh said. “I’m glad the Fred Winter didn’t go, because that’s made the Triumph Hurdle a genuine Grade One, instead of the cavalry charge that it used to be.
“But if it was up to me, I’d probably have found two more races and gone for five days and six-race cards, starting on Monday and finishing on Friday.”
The new race has a name and a sponsor after bookmaker Paddy Power agreed a three-year deal. Coming amid the continuing turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic and with racing seemingly set to remain behind closed doors – or, at best, with very limited attendance – until after next year’s Festival, the news that Cheltenham has a long-term sponsor for its new race can only be a cause for some optimism.
Paddy Power, meanwhile, was also unveiled a few days ago as the returning headline sponsor of Cheltenham’s November meeting, leading to yet another name change for the meeting’s feature handicap chase, which was run for the first 35 years of its existence as the Mackeson Gold Cup. It will revert to the Paddy Power Gold Cup, having been sponsored by BetVictor for the last four seasons.
The rejig of the running order that sees the new mares’ chase installed on Gold Cup day is completed by a switch of the Grand Annual Handicap Chase from Friday to Wednesday, while the Boodles/Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle will move from Wednesday to the opening afternoon.
12.30 Dark Zeas 1.05 Ayr Poet (nb) 1.40 Perfect Swiss 2.10 Quick Look 2.40 Irish Eileen 3.10 Viva Voce 3.40 Flashing Approach
12.45 Goldencard 1.15 Brooksway Fair 1.50 Legends Gold 2.20 Lord Bryan 2.50 Bring The Action 3.20 No Quarter Asked 3.50 Maggies Mogul
1.30 Avoid De Master (nap) 2.00 Shinobi 2.30 Mr Medic 3.00 Who What When 3.30 Zarazena 4.00 Global Wonder 4.30 Monkey Puzzle 5.00 Salley Gardens
4.10 Undercover Brother 4.40 Shaykhoon 5.10 Captainofthebounty 5.40 Passional 6.15 Basilic 6.45 Evening Spirit 7.15 Geography Teacher 7.45 Luscifer 8.15 Robeam
5.30 Shababiya 6.00 Koepp 6.30 Henrik 7.00 Grandfather Tom 7.30 Indigo Times 8.00 Seven Pockets 8.30 Her Indoors
The addition of new races to the meeting, and Graded events in particular, is often controversial due to fears that it will dilute the overall quality of the meeting if runners have multiple options, and the most powerful owners and stables are able to keep their horses apart.
The mares’ chase, however, is a less contentious choice than, for instance, a two-and-a-half mile Graded hurdle, which could detract from both the Champion Hurdle and the Stayers’ Hurdle.
“There are as many filly foals as colts,” Walsh said, “but colts and geldings are more attractive as racehorses than fillies. You need a mares’ programme to encourage owners and breeders to race fillies.”
Paul Nicholls, who recently took over the training of former top-class hurdler Laurina after a switch from Willie Mullins’s stable, also welcomed the arrival of the mares’ chase.
“There will certainly be plenty of good mares in both Britain and Ireland to contest it,” Nicholls said, “and I hope to have a good candidate in Laurine.”