We are reaching the end of another Point-to-Point season, after one of the mildest winters ever with very few abandonments. Fixtures since mid-March, both under Rules and especially between the flags, have been plagued by small fields. This is not a new phenomenon, but it raises some thorny issues the sport needs to address.
Small fields are not a new issue. The number of hunter certificates issued for Point-to-Points has been on a steady decrease for years, but the current situation has been exacerbated by two years of Covid, during which only the most dedicated owner would persevere with a pointer, especially when he or she wasn't allowed to see it run, and this Spring by a dry spell during which minimal rain has fallen since the deluge that did for Shishkin in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
That most fixtures have enjoyed bumper crowds over Easter, and a generally positive financial return for their efforts is a great relief, but the current situation is not sustainable in the medium and long term. Spectators will not continue to pay for small fields wherever your racecourse is situated. Nor indeed should they.
The average number of runners across the 80 or so Point-to-Point fixtures since the beginning of March is 21. During the same period, 23 fixtures endured a walkover, and four unfortunate fixtures put up with two walkovers on the same card. Based on a 6 race card, this averages 3.5 runners per race, although this puts a gloss on the figure, as several fixtures ran 7 race cards to accommodate their hunt race.
At the same time, some 60 hunter chases have taken place on licensed racecourses, with an average field size of 6.04. Factoring out the Cheltenham and Aintree Foxhunter races, that average drops to 5.63.
The inescapable truth is clear: we are staging too many races and need to consolidate. But how?
It seems unlikely that licensed racecourses will want to continue to run hunter chases which only fill to a figure less than each-way betting. Racecourses are penalized on their media rights income for not reaching 8 runners, so logic would tell you they will alter their programmes. The reality however is that they face the same issue with other types of chase, in particular novice events. However, as a sport, we should be lobbying for a significant reduction in the number of hunter chases to allow for a majority of those runs to take place on Point-to-Point tracks.
Peter Wright at the Point-to-Point Authority has done sterling work in rebalancing the fixture list, to the extent that the number of pre-Christmas fixtures has swelled, when runners are plentiful generally. There is still some pruning to be done in the peak March-April period, which may be accelerated by this year's results.
The sport should also be looking at the number and type of races that are staged at each fixture. Perhaps the days of a 6 race card are limited. The first 20 years of this century saw a steady rise in the number of races on each card to the extent that 7 race cards have become the norm under Rules. But given the poor number of runs per horse, estimated at around 3 between the flags, we should be thinking about 5 race cards, as well as a reduction of fixtures.
What’s more, whilst there is collaboration between fixture secretaries within Areas, there is little overall race-planning oversight. This then allows races to compete for a horse population that is not enough to fill one race, never mind two or more.
There is no silver bullet to the issues around small fields. The sport needs to work with all its stakeholders to grow enthusiasm for participation. The growth of syndicate ownership under Rules is one example of where more and more people have become involved in the ownership experience. Point-to-Point livery yards may be able to achieve this sort of growth in interest, but the sport also needs to look to its roots to embrace owner participation. Many Masters of Foxhounds see the annual Point-to-Point as an irrelevance to the day to day business of the hunt, so perhaps the pendulum of interest needs to swing back the other way so that hunts embrace their own events.
Finally, a word about weight. Thirty years ago, riders in a confined race could ride at 12st 7lbs, yet the maximum nowadays is 12st. During the same timeframe, humankind has become bigger. There are plenty of things that have got better over the intervening 30 years, so I am not looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but some acknowledgement of weight concessions would draw in more participants who have currently migrated away from racing to other sports, secure in the knowledge they cannot make the weight. The sport needs to win some of these back to grow its ownership/participation levels.