Up to date now; thanks for your patience and well done all winners.
Thanks again to Quai for opening up the Friday forum. I'll open this now in case Wix goes down again this evening, and also because I have a bee in my bonnet that I needed to get untangled and cast out into the open. Normally, this sort of post would be in another section of the forum, but I think we generally agreed last time it was discussed that it's fine to have non-nap, non-daily racing stuff posted here.
The loss of Discorama and Eclair Surf after suffering injuries in the Grand National has led to speculation about further changes, with the Post carrying two articles inside a few days - Chris Cook and Richard Forristal. Both mention the possibility of field size being reduced to 30; neither recommends it but given past decisions, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Despite the softening of the course over the years, problems remain, mostly I'd say in the early part of the race as the rush for position inevitably takes its toll. I don’t believe the course or fences or distance should be the first point of call in looking to make the race safer, but some radical thinking could easily do so to the advantage of all concerned. I suggested on twitter yesterday that perhaps staggered starts would help: Give them all 10.7 and execute the handicap by speed or distance, the latter being the easiest to pull off in my opinion. The only two who responded thought I was joking. One of them, Simon Rowlands batted a couple of tweets back and forward suggesting I was 3 holes short of a full stirrup leather. Am always happy to debate with anyone, but the danger with this kind of idea is that 99% of those ‘in the know’ (like Simon) ridicule it from the outset without taking any time to consider. The big sticking point for many will be the start, but that’s easily solved by using specially adapted starting stalls.
Anyway, I will elaborate here to get the thoughts of hundreds of years experience on this forum.
Simon’s calculations on it - “A 1lb differential would be equivalent to about 0.29s or about 4 yards”
So instead of conceding weight, our runners would concede distance/time, with the former the easiest, I think. Looking at last Saturday, the winner Noble Yeats would have started the race 48 yards ahead of the 2nd Any Second Now. The full range of the handicap is much tighter than in the old days - the scope on Saturday being 11.10 to 10.5 - 76 yards if using a distance handicap. So, you would break the field into three cohorts, each of them containing horses of close ability on ratings. You can’t get this dead on, but weight could be brought into the equation again to balance the cohort more accurately if necessary.
We then put in place three sets of starting stalls, specially adapted for the size of steeplechasers: one set is on the inside, one in the middle, and one on the outer. If working on a time basis, the sets of stalls would be sited across the main start line, with the inside going off as normal, measured pause before the second set of stalls open, and another pause before the last set open. But handicapping by distance would be much easier from a practical viewpoint. This year, Noble Yeats would have been in the first cohort and Any Second Now in the final cohort. The latter’s set of stalls would sit 48 yards farther back than the winner’s, though still on the outside rail to ensure an unimpeded run to the first.
Pros and cons?
On the distance handicapping, you’d have to make a decision about cohorts 2 and 3 running beyond the published distance of the race, or cohorts 1 and 2 not running the full published distance. It wouldn’t bother me either way, but is in the con column. I cannot think of another drawback in this, but doubtless they would emerge as it was examined.
On the pros side …
Removes the need of a charge to the first and the battle for position over the early fences.
Horses and jocks can see much more of what is around them in the early stages and have acres of room to manoeuvre.
Aside from the normal excitement of the race, I believe it would be greatly enhanced if it was managed properly - each horse or jock wearing a cohort colour as well as their standard colours; each cohort given its own commentator until the fields finally merge. It would lead to quite a few more betting opportunities too and would arguably make bets on the better horses a bit more risky as they must, eventually, overcome everything in front, sacrificing the possible advantage of being in the leading group at the first.
From a welfare viewpoint, all horses carrying the same low weight as well as having the chance of more room, and hopefully less early speed, contributing to a raised number of finishers and many fewer crowding accidents.
From a marketing viewpoint, it should open sponsorship opportunities on starting stalls and cohorts.
Overall, it would, I think make the race safer and considerably more exciting on the first circuit.