In 2016, Annie Power became only the fourth mare to win the Champion Hurdle in the 90-year history of the race. Heading into this year’s Cheltenham Festival, three of the top horses in the betting for the highlight of the opening day of the meeting are mares: Apple’s Jade, Laurina and Verdana Blue.

Is it just by chance that we are currently enjoying a plethora of classy mares in the National Hunt field? Or is it that the combined efforts of the BHA and TBA in Britain, as well as Horse Racing Ireland and the ITBA, are gradually encouraging more owners to race mares over the jumps, thus leading to more and better females coming to the fore on the track?

Statistically, as well as anecdotally, there is good reason to believe that the latter is very much the case. Since the 2005-2006 season, the number of opportunities for mares has grown steadily with the percentage of mares’ races having almost doubled, from 4.6% to 9.5% of the National Hunt programme.

Knowing that any comparable growth in the number of mares in training would only ever be a trickle rather than a flood, the BHA, and in particular Ruth Quinn, Director of International Racing and Racing Development, who has been driving the project for the last decade, can take some pride in the fact that with those extra races has come an increase of 274 mares in training during that same period. Traditionally, mares represented around 20% of the entire National Hunt population in training, but a breakthrough year came in 2018 when that figure was nudged upwards to 23%.

“Annie Power’s Champion Hurdle was one of the best moments in my life,” says Quinn. “Talented jumping mares, including chasers, are no longer viewed as a phenomenon and their exploits are witnessed quite regularly now on ITV as a Saturday horse.

“That kind of considerable change, and it is a considerable change, is being achieved, without doubt, as a result of the development of this long-term project.

“It’s a result, therefore, of the enhanced programme and a re-education about the prospective merits of mares who can actually run and jump successfully.”

The introduction of the OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, which was upgraded to Grade 1 status in 2015, was followed by the Grade 2 Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. It’s fair to say that these races have not been met with universal approval, with those against the idea of mares’ races citing the fact that they can detract from championship events – witness the hysteria on social media in the brief spell between Apple’s Jade winning the Irish Champion Hurdle by 16 lengths and her trainer confirming that the Champion Hurdle, rather than the Mares’ Hurdle, would be her Cheltenham target.

Annie Power’s Champion Hurdle was one of the best moments in my life

Nevertheless, these two mares’ races featured as numbers 25 and 29 in the top 40 betting races in Britain in 2018, the latter just one place behind the Ascot Gold Cup and one ahead of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, while both had another ten Festival races behind them from a punting perspective.

More importantly, however, these races have combined to dangle a significant carrot for the top owners, and thus the bigger National Hunt stables, to ensure that they have a mare or more in training. After all, when it comes to Cheltenham, a win is a win.

Of course it isn’t just the expansion of the race programme and some Festival incentives which have had an effect. In order to combat the dire lack of interest in fillies at the National Hunt foal and store sales, the TBA launched the NH Mare Owners’ Prize Scheme (NHMOPS) through which eligible mares can be awarded bonuses of £5,000 for a bumper win and £10,000 for victories over hurdles and fences, with 196 races being included in the programme last year.

The top-class chasing mare La Bague Au Roi (left) is unbeaten in four starts this season – Photo: George Selwyn

Since its inception from the foal crop of 2012, the scheme has had 1,861 fillies signed up by their breeders, and from when the first bonuses started to be paid out in 2016, has delivered just shy of £500,000 to owners.

Slowly, prices have started to rise for fillies at the sales, though a great disparity still exists, not just between the prices for fillies and colts/geldings but in catalogue spaces awarded to them, particularly for the select sales.

Doug Procter, who runs The Glanvilles Stud, where Geoffrey Guy bred the unbeaten hurdling mare Honeysuckle, says this is one of the reasons why colt foals are still prayed for by National Hunt breeders.

It’s fantastic to see so many mares high in the betting for the Champion Hurdle

“When I plan my matings I’m still hoping for a colt,” he admits. “I’m not aiming to have fillies to sell but the prices are getting better for the fillies with the better pedigrees and if you have a nice model they should do okay. Last year I had three fillies by popular sires and they were out of their boxes showing as much as the colts.

“With stores you’re on the back foot a bit because you want to get into the select sales but there’s huge demand for places.

“It is much harder to get a filly into a select sale because, of course, the sales companies know that the geldings sell better.”

He adds: “Honeysuckle is a case in point. There was no bid for her at the Doncaster foal sale and then we sold her for €9,500 as a three-year-old, which, being by Sulamani, probably was a fair market value.

“She’s now the most expensive Sulamani ever sold and we’ve all seen what she can do.”

‘It was so important the mares races were introduced’

Indeed, it is the niche horses-in-training market in which figures have soared in recent years. Timing is everything when it comes to selling, and the fact that Honeysuckle was offered at the Goffs Punchestown Sale within a week of winning a maiden point-to-point in Ireland saw her price elevated from €9,500 at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale in June 2017 to €110,000 just ten months later.

Peter Molony, who wears many hats in the bloodstock world, including being a representative for Goffs and a foal-to-store pinhooker, bought Honeysuckle at Punchestown for his client Kenneth Alexander, who is one of a growing number of owners prepared to race decent mares with an eye on a future career as a broodmare.

Among Molony’s other purchases for Alexander is the recent Listed hurdles winner Sinoria, a £130,000 signing at last year’s Cheltenham Festival Sale six days after she too had won a point-to-point on debut.

“I’m going round looking at horses at the moment for the Goffs Land Rover Sale and we’re deliberately looking to attract some nice fillies, but they have to have the pedigrees to get into the select sales,” says Molony.

“It’s fantastic to see so many mares high in the betting for the Champion Hurdle. People derided the mares’ races at the Festival but it was so important that they were introduced and there are going to be some top-class mares competing this year.

It’s fantastic to see the support from the TBA and the trainers

“I’m delighted with the way it’s gone. I was involved in the ITBA fillies’ bonus scheme and that’s helped a lot. In the last couple of years I’ve bought filly foals to pinhook, which I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in the past.

“With foals you buy what you think you can sell, and I bought a couple of fillies this year and a couple last year.”

Another graduate of the Cheltenham Festival Sale, albeit a year earlier, is Highclere Thoroughbred Racing’s Posh Trish, bought by Tom Malone for £135,000 having realised just €1,200 as a foal. Encouragingly, she is one of a growing battalion of mares in training in the Somerset stable of Paul Nicholls, who is among the major trainers to have warmed to the idea of racing mares.

Ruth Quinn (right): believes much has been achieved in the National Hunt mares programme

“The programme has come on so much for them now that you have to have mares in your stable – Posh Trish is the highest-rated novice hurdler in our yard at the moment,” says Nicholls, who is also represented by the likes of recent winners Miranda and Silver Forever, as well as the Grade 2-placed If You Say Run.

Naturally, such strong support from a major jumps trainer is a great boost to those hardiest of souls, the National Hunt breeders.

David Futter, a breeder himself with a solid client list at Yorton Farm as well as being a member of the TBA’s National Hunt Committee, says: “I’m no longer as gloomy as I used to be when a mare foals a filly.

We have to embrace growth in a responsible fashion

“It’s fantastic to see the support from the TBA and the trainers. In this country there’s still not a great market for filly foals but it’s getting better at the store sales and there is good trade for a nice, correct filly, especially one with the MOPS scheme behind her.”

He continues: “The trainers I speak to are no longer averse to buying fillies and when they come to the farm to see the stock they will now look at the fillies’ field – the French trainers go to the fillies’ field first.

“I’ve had three sales reps to the farm in the last ten days and they have all been as interested in the fillies as the geldings, though the sales companies are being more selective with both geldings and fillies at the store sales. At the end of the day we need to be breeding correct, sound stock.”

Robust programme for mares can only keep helping them

This, indeed, is the key point. With such intense scrutiny on horse welfare, both on the racecourse and behind the scenes, breeders under both codes can help their young charges even before conception by ensuring that they are breeding from stock that has been tested and not just found to be talented but also to be physically sound.

A robust racing programme for National Hunt mares can only help this aim, and Ruth Quinn believes there is still room for expansion in some areas.

She says: “We have to embrace growth in a responsible fashion. This project has been in place for ten years and we’ve really stepped it up in the last five years. But it’s been graduated growth, which has been exactly the right thing to do.

“I think there are some aspects of the wider race programme now which have probably got enough mares’ races.

“We’ve obviously concentrated on creating a skeletal mares’ chasing programme in the last two years. And there’s certainly room for more growth there. But you want to do it gradually and proportionately and responsibly.”

Quinn adds: “Our aim remains to incorporate further enhancements in the coming years with the intention of further incentivising and encouraging behavioural change relating to a more positive approach to the breeding, buying, owning and training of jump mares.

“Our aim is not only ultimately to produce the optimum mares’ jumps programme, but within that to improve the value of the filly to jump racing and to ensure that a healthy, competitive market exists for fillies. And, yes, much progress has been achieved in very recent years, but more can be done.”

With National Hunt mares in training currently representing 23% of the jumping population – compared to around 42% on the Flat – Quinn now believes it’s feasible to aim for an increase to 25% over the next five years.

“It would be unrealistic, despite the fact that nature does this marvellous thing of producing 50% colt foals and 50% filly foals, to have any aspiration for half the foals within training to be female, because we know it’s just not going to happen,” she admits.

“We’ve seen substantial growth. So to get to 25% in five years feels absolutely achievable now, suddenly. And I’ve also said that we’d like to get to 30% in another ten years. That feels pretty reasonable to me – why can’t we have 30%?”

Why not indeed, and another female winner of this year’s Champion Hurdle would certainly be grist to the mill.