The International Racing and Breeding Forum was the headline event of the ITBA’s two-day Expo at Leopardstown at the end of February but the debate that drew the most passionate crowd reaction was the seminar on National Hunt-bred fillies.
Despite the weight allowance in Ireland for jumps mares racing against geldings having risen from 5lb to 71b last year, and a dedicated ITBA-backed series of mares’ races, the general consensus from attendees was that more needs to be done to encourage owners to race mares and thus increase their appeal at the sales.
Managing Editor of the Irish Field and Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder columnist Leo Powell took the chair and did an excellent job, both in stimulating discussion and keeping the sometimes heated debate on a civilised footing.
A usually reserved Michael Hickey of Sunnyhill Stud was moved to add his thoughts from the floor, saying: “There is a template for Flat fillies – they don’t run against the colts. The National Hunt programme is an insult to people who breed and race fillies. It’s rubbish. We need to develop a programme where mares can come out on top of their own sex.”
Jockey Davy Russell, who is Horseracing Ireland’s National Hunt Ambassador, was also among the audience and agreed with Hickey.
“It makes sense for fillies not to take on geldings – they can only rarely compete with them,” he said.
Expanding the race programme
Their comments were largely in response to panellist Noel Meade’s assertions that the introduction of more races solely for mares would downgrade the racing programme and be a turn-off for racegoers.
Meade added: “I never buy fillies. I’ve found that they’re not as good or as strong as the geldings. You have very limited opportunities if you buy a filly and a gelding has a better opportunity of making money.
“The majority of good mares look like men – a bit like female tennis players. For fillies to win they must have their own races but there are only so many of those you can have.”
While Meade took a dim view of expanding the mares’ programme, his fellow panellist Richard Pugh, a leading authority on the Irish point-to-point scene, echoed Hickey’s call for improvement, saying: “Having an equivalent of an Oaks or 1,000 Guineas would work for fillies over jumps. There are no mares entered in the championship races at Cheltenham.”
With Irish point-to-points being better established as a nursery for young jumpers than the British pointing scene, Pugh would also like to see a more level playing field for mares competing in this division.
He added: “There is a big market for maiden point-to-point winners and the sport allows an accessible and cheap starting point for owners, but the number of suitable opportunities for mares are few and far between.”
Despite the greatest drop in foal numbers in recent years having been in Ireland’s National Hunt section, Coolamurry Stud owner Jim Mernagh felt the need to issue a note of caution to jumps breeders, warning: “If your mare is not good enough to have a filly foal then she’s probably not worth breeding.”
Ability must be tested
Therein lies the crux of the matter, particularly within National Hunt breeding. It’s not unusual for well-bred fillies to retire to stud unraced and, while there are notable examples of untried mares producing champions, it is still much more desirable – and not just from a commercial aspect – to have pedigree backed up by performance. The cyclical problem of fewer filly foal registrations, lack of interest at the sales and owners and trainers being reluctant to give jumps mares a chance can be broken only if the opportunities to race against their own sex are increased. Easier targets they may seem, but how many owners and trainers will turn down the chance of winning?
As with all competition, the best will rise to the top and mares such as Voler La Vedette and Golden Gael have proved that they can hold their own against the geldings, albeit with that valuable weight allowance.
While there was wild applause from the floor at the suggestion of increasing the number of races for jumps mares, the subject of raising the allowance again – to ten or 12lb – was generally not deemed to be a suitable solution. Ireland is marginally ahead of Britain with regard to the percentage of races restricted to mares staged, with 8.3% of the total programme last season compared to 5.2% in Britain, where the TBA has recently announced financial incentives for racecourses to stage mares-only races.
Ironically, as the debate was raging and this column was being written, Blazing Tempo sat at the top of the table, with more prize-money than any other National Hunt horse of either sex in training in Ireland this season. The Cheltenham Festival altered that but the eight-year-old daughter of Accordion is fortunate to hail from the stable of a trainer who is happy to give mares a chance.
There’s a clear desire from Irish breeders for an enhanced programme and it would be no surprise to hear that British breeders feel the same way. The biggest challenge they face, however, is not in convincing the race-planning departments but in changing the mindset of agents and trainers.