Reforming The National Hunt Mares’ Programme

As a keen follower of bloodstock and the sales ring I often study what’s been produced by breeders and what’s popular for the top buyers. As well as that, I study the pedigrees of the big race winners and the top names and I have a good knowledge of what nicks work and what would be good selections. Everyone has their favourite sire lines and broadmare sires when previewing the catalogues but the one thing I look at most are fillies and mares. Nowadays, the National Hunt programme caters well for fillies, with mares only race’s of which there are now two at the Cheltenham Festival and Grade 1’s at Fairyhouse and Punchestown also. The other good thing about having a race mare is that her career doesn’t stop after the track as she can be turned out to the paddock and bred from. This acts both as a safety net, should the race career not go to plan, and also as an add on to it if it does, especially if the mare can get some race black type. The third recommendation to buy a filly for racing is that she will receive a seven pound allowance if she takes on the males. The mares allowance is in place to give them a fairer chance against their opposite sex which is all well and good until we start talking about mares with names like Annie Power, Apple’s Jade, Quevega and Vroum Vroum Mag. These fillies record handicap ratings from the mid 150’s and upwards and have all, at some point, shown the geldings the way home in comprehensive fashion. Encouraging mares to the race track is something I’m 110% all for, but the wrong approach would be to shift the balance and tip the favour from one side to another.
In handicapping, the goal is to give horses a certain weight to carry so as to level the playing field and give everyone an equal chance of winning. Weights are judged as one pound equals one length, so if Annie Power dead heats with Faugheen and she has her allowance, then theoretically Faugheen is seven lengths better off of levels. It’s not so black and white but if they’ve both run perfectly well than that is pretty close to how it is. Annie Power has an official rating of 166 and if she showed up in a handicap hurdle against an up and coming Champion Hurdle contender like Yanworth, then she would have to give him three pounds to allow Yanworth just to get level with her. In the Champion Hurdle, however, she will get seven pounds off him therefore meaning Yanworth has to improve ten lengths on his best performance before he’s even loaded to go racing. Annie Power is clearly a superstar and just because of this it doesn’t mean she should be punished but I believe the allowance has become an inaccuracy with the production and development of highly talented female equine athletes. She isn’t a one off as far as top class mares go, with Vroum Vroum Mag having also beaten highly rated geldings at Grade 1 level. She has won 11 of her 13 career starts and in the care of Willie Mullins her only defeat came in last month’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, only losing by a short head which is as close as it gets in defeat. Her conquerer that day was Apple’s Jade who not only had a mares allowance but a four year old allowance too, that is only available in Ireland. She was receiving 11 pounds from the solid Shaneshill back in third. Shaneshill was seven lengths behind the two fillies giving Vroum her seven pounds. The son of King’s Theatre is rated two pounds better than Vroum Vroum Mag and eleven better than Apple’s Jade and yet he is seven lengths down at the line. Granted he made a mistake at the last which cost him a couple of lengths but not enough to trouble the front two. So while Annie Power is arguably the best horse in her race, the evidence in the Hattons Grace result is the opposite if the Turf Club figures are accurate. These are still top race mares we are talking about and two I feel are worth more than the Turf Club believe, especially the Mullins mare but the official ratings paint a bad picture and while I trust my own system, I am not an professional handicapper. 
The pattern continues further down the list. I felt that prior to the Royal Bond Novices Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December that Airlie Beach was a 141 mare which was only a pound higher than official ratings. With her concession, she would be running to 148 which was the rating that Champagne Fever had when winning the 2013 Supreme Novices Hurdle. The 11/1 odds on Airlie Beach an hour before racing were snapped up and she ran out an all the way winner by 6 1/2 lengths to Saturnas, a subsequent Grade 1 winner himself. Off of a reduction she would still be giving him a race by that win distance.
Consider Jer’s Girl’s Punchestown Festival Grade 1 win. She was rated for that race on 143 and yet got 18 pounds from O O Seven rated 149. She beat him by ten lengths that day but with twelve pounds in hand for being a four year old filly. Seven of which were because of her sex. Thomas Hobson was third rated to parity with her and yet he gave her eighteen pounds for a near thirteen length beating. 

The addition of Mares Hurdle race’s at the Cheltenham Festival are well received and long overdue. However, the mares allowance is an inaccuracy in my opinion  and in open novice years it is quiet tempting to get a seven pound allowance against the geldings rather than take on your own at levels. Airlie Beach would rate highly in the Supreme Novices and Let’s Dance would take plenty of beating in the Neptune or Albert Bartlett off a seven length head start and who knows what Benie des Dieux is capable of. Augusta Kate is also a good example, in last Sunday’s Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Hurdle. She is clearly a talent and has already recorded black type in her short career but she is still a bit on the raw side of strength and also only a pony in height. As the race unfolded I felt she was going to land the big prize on only her second hurdle start, until crashing out at the last, however my observation was biased through both my money and fondness of the mare in support. Reflecting on the race replay, I am not sure she would have won as she looked to be getting tired, running around from two out. Whichever angle would have been correct is something we will never know but I think it’s fair to say she would have been a good second, at least, to a very talented gelding. Without the allowance she would have been well beaten so I can see that weight needs to be exempt somewhat. 

The tactics employed by the Ruby Walsh in last year’s Champion Hurdle were superb. With seven lengths on the field, he set a blistering pace to make all. This got his opposition racing quicker than they wanted and with more weight to carry they struggled to even keep up. Annie Power was running at an average 32.98 miles per hour in the Champion Hurdle, with 157 pounds on her back. Nichols Canyon runs at 32.81 miles per hour with 164 lbs, through the same formulae. Without the mares allowance, Annie Power would be running to 31.57 mph. 
If Annie Power’s allowance was reduced to five pounds, she would be running at 32.56 miles per hour, which would slow the race down a fraction but in doing so this would give all candidates their chance. I don’t believe that Nichols Canyon would have made his mistakes at more comfortably speed, yet with five pounds rather seven in her allowance, the mare is still handicapped with the benefit of doubt that she would prevail. 
Of course it’s too simple to apply a mathematical approach to find horse race winners, but the point is that Annie Power was able to run at that speed because she had it as an advantage and by simply viewing the race we can see that she is going so quick that only the faster horses can keep up. Making all the running allows us to calculate the effect of speed from the winner whereas coming from behind the pace would rely more on distances.
In the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, Vroum Vroum Mag prevails by 1 1/4 lengths to Identity Thief – rated three pounds higher – under another fine Ruby Walsh ride. She travels at a speed of 29.92 miles per hour at averages, with the runner up clocking 29.86 by the same means. Off of levels, his weight carrying performance would eclipse hers by 1.72 lengths. The result of winning distance off of levels and in the actual race is three lengths which shows the mares allowance should be at four pounds but considering Vroum Vroum Mag’s big jump left at three out costing at least a length, it comes in line with the reduction to five from seven. On top of this, the mare would arguably be more in command if hindsight could influence Walsh to take it up earlier and furthermore, she is going away at the line. 
Again, it’s dealing with individual performance but it proves that five pounds is a fairer allowance while still allowing the winning horse to come out on top. Vroum Vroum Mag would still win by a length – with these speed calculations.
The trend is solid through the Hatton’s Grace where the higher rated horse has no chance giving away seven pounds. Shaneshill’s mistake at the last looks to cost him two lengths but he’s beaten just over seven. The alterations and the elimination of a mistake would make him competitive in defeat. Jer’s Girl, Apple’s Jade and Airlie Beach all consist with this theory.
The result isn’t just two pounds equals two lengths as is the rule in handicapping but rather that the speed travelled at those two pounds effects the running of the race significantly in favour of the mare’s. The speed is proportional to the weight. 

The allowance was introduced in 2003 after it was found that the average gelding was 12 pounds better than the average mare over fences and ten pounds higher over hurdles between 1997 and 2001. Since then the programme for race mares has significantly improved and with more mares racing, there will be inevitable more talent. I understand that the allowance is also a reflection on the physical make up of the animal and in National Hunt there is bigger weights to carry than on the flat as well as tougher under foot conditions to get through but a pony sized mare with a big heart could be as tough as a seventeen hand gelding.

While I loved every second of Quevega’s record breaking David Nicholson Mare’s Hurdle six timer, I feel that the race is not serving its purpose. Superstars like Quevega, Annie Power (bar her last flight fall) and Vroum Vroum Mag are always going to win this event while honest good mares are missing out on a bit of black type which they are supposed to be competing for and the whole creation of the programme being defied. It lacks competition in the sphere. 
I understand and agree that we need to encourage mares to take on geldings and giving them an allowance does that but for the exceptional bunch of mares there is too easy a race at Cheltenham to win while giving them a seven pound allowance against top geldings does not conform to reason in handicapping either. My opinion is that the mares allowance needs to set a standard which will filter down through the whole programme when it approximates. The four year study from 1997-2001 which brought about the weight change, has exceeded its time limit in quality in this race as an example. 

I have many ideas to reform the mares programme starting with the most important issue which is the mares allowance, which I strongly believe is in need of a two pound reduction to five pounds.. The programme has grown greatly in recent years but it still needs improvement. I want to see mares in training and by creating more races for them affects this directly. Encouraging mares into the Graded open company while also growing the mares only category is paramount. For me, the system starts at the top where the mares allowance is most essential. Annie Power and Quevega set the standard in this regard. Annie Power’s front running performance is the Champion Hurdle is the perfect example as it exposes exactly the affect of the allowance from the best mare. By using the lower end of the scale and working upwards could find Annie Power receiving ten pounds from Faugheen, whereas at the lesser end, fillies would most likely be tested at low grade handicap company, a great exposure of ability anyway. I also feel that the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle needs a competitive edge as it’s become too much of a penalty kick.

Allowing mares to have a sex allowance reform of five pounds should also condition the Mares Hurdle. When you consider that, barring Annie Power’s infamous fall, the best horse to get beaten in the contest was Polly Peachum (155) and that taking Vroum Vroum Mag, Quevega and Annie Power out of the race would find the average winner rated 136, it is clear that there is quite a gap between the mares on ratings. Glen’s Melody was the best of them on 150 but the equally rated Refinement was turned over in the inaugural running so it’s far from a given that the high review is enough to land the prize. Handicapping the Mares Hurdle, and/or introducing a Mares Champion Hurdle under conditions would tidy the division up starting at the biggest stage, while giving the exceptional bunch the other option of competing in the big time with a five pound allowance. This would allow the others a chance to get some black type which would benefit breeders and therefore encourage owners to compete. It may look to be harsh from someone who professes to support the buying and racing of fillies, but the integrity of the game should not be jeopardised as a consequence and that is all that is being suggested in this column. However, typing up suggestions is all well and good and it’s financially unsound to have a quick fix like creating new races, but there is a solution without spending a penny on an existing schedule. By handicapping the Cheltenham Mares Hurdle would restrict and not ban, the superstar performers and also bring them in line with open class credentials through their sex allowance. With this I would make the Punchestown Mares Champion Hurdle the big event of the season in title and on merit. Mares are only coming into season by the time Cheltenham comes around and while it is the pinnacle of the National Hunt calendar, the contestants are capable of more by the time of Punchestown. This is so as mares tend to go with the seasonal conditions, some even so that they won’t show up until the conditions improve. Infra red stable lamps are used to trick mares into coming into season in the breeding industry and some trainers also employ this to affect racecourse performance. A mare’s race performance betters when in season and with nature dictating, the class of the Punchestown race would exceed.

The increase on talented mares isn’t just because more are coming racing because of the improvement on the programme. While breeding and training horses is always getting better, there is another outlet to which has excelled in producing talented thoroughbreds of which the females in particular, are of note. The AQPS system in France is a modern and successful conveyor belt of National Hunt produce. In translation, it means ‘other than thoroughbred’ which is self explanatory. Trained eyes can tell you how Vroum Vroum Mag doesn’t look particularly like a race horse but the proof is in the pudding. She is big with a huge girth and a bit awkwardly put together in that view. This could be because her blood is influenced outside of thoroughbred in close parentage. Yet, Vroum Vroum Mag is an extraordinary talent and this approach to breeding is a success as regards her. She is the best example and quality mares continue to come out of this sphere. They appear big and strong and with good lung capacity, generally looking a stamina laden bunch but not short of speed. 

It isn’t just the National Hunt mares that are consistently improving. In 2016, two of the top rated flat race horses were fillies in Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner, Found, and prolific 1,000 Guineas super mare Minding. Minding mainly kept to her own sex but when taking on the colts, she beat superior rated Ribchester, getting the three pounds fillies allowance in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes. In recent years, Treve, Goldikova, Zarkava, Black Caviar and Zenyatta have done likewise on the biggest global stage. While this article is focussing on one particular section of female racing, the above is just a reflection on the global talent of female thoroughbreds which continue to improve greatly. I encourage anyone who seeks my advice on purchasing race horses to consider fillies which I do because as well as being generally cheaper purchases, they offer a longer career for their owners extending beyond racing and if kept to within their limitations they can give a seven length head start at the race track. 

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