Jump racing in Great Britain is alive and well. It would be difficult to argue with this statement and who would want to?
Year after year, we are fed with facts and figures that show how the Cheltenham Festival reinforces its reputation as the most celebrated horseracing fixture in the calendar.
We see the Grand National continuing to attract domestic and overseas TV audiences that would do justice to any worldwide sporting event, however big, while it easily maintains its position as the biggest betting race of the year and carries out an incalculable PR function for horseracing generally.
We see a structure to the jumps season that is wrapped around at least one major Saturday fixture from late October till early April, creating a sense of anticipation and excitement as each weekend approaches.
And, thanks to developments in ground-cover materials, turf husbandry to improve drainage and a weather pattern that no longer seems to deliver prolonged cold periods throughout the British winter, we find relatively few abandoned jump fixtures in the months of January and February.
So all is well in the state of British jump racing. Well, not quite…
For there is something going on with jump racing in the north of England that most definitely does not conform with the general euphoria
that surrounds the sport nationally.
Statistics show us there has been a sharp decrease in the percentage of jumpers trained in the north against the national figure. Field sizes may have been maintained at northern courses but only because of horses travelling from other regions.
We also see a decline in the quality of northern-trained jumpers, yet, paradoxically, the average prize-money and class of race in the north easily matches that of the industry average.
Nobody is quite sure why northern jumping is performing relatively badly. It is no surprise that the economic downturn of 2008 had an adverse effect on racing and racehorse ownership generally, but it is still unclear why the north has apparently experienced a slower recovery in terms of jump racing. Especially so, as we would expect an ROA survey, currently being worked on, to show training costs in the north are significantly lower than those in the south.
There is something going on with jump racing in the north that does not conform with the general euphoria
The ROA and horsemen are certainly alive to the situation and, working with the BHA, are central to the process for creating a set of initiatives to tackle the problem. It is already clear that, with the obvious exception of Aintree, more needs to be done to create a race programme in the north that drives aspiration.
For its part, the BHA has already started to implement a range of initiatives to create new targets for owners and trainers.
Examples of these are a Challenger Series for horses rated up to 135, with a finals’ day at Haydock carrying prize-money of over £300,000, and the introduction of a series of Listed mares’ chases at Market Rasen, Carlisle and Doncaster.
In turn, northern-based tracks and horsemen need to show a responsive attitude that reflects their willingness in wanting to make things better – something I know they can do.
It may be sad that we have moved from an era when northern-trained jumpers were winning many of the top jumping events to one where it is difficult to recall a single northern-trained runner, let alone winner, at the Cheltenham Festival, but at least we have recognised the problem and are now striving to find some answers.
Those of us who can recall those magical years when the intrepid young trainer Michael Dickinson sent horses from his Harewood yard in Yorkshire to scoop up numerous big races of the day in the south – not forgetting his momentous first five home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup – are still hankering after the days when northern-trained jumpers carried all before them. Let’s hope they may one day return.