Focus on horses’ welfare switches to Midlands National at Uttoxeter
Three Irish-trained hopes will take part in what is seen as one of the most gruelling stamina tests
The veteran former Welsh National hero Raz De Maree. The 14-year-old is famous for plugging on at the end of marathon races. Photograph: Getty Images
Ahead of Saturday’s gruelling stamina test in the Midlands Grand National, there is likely to be keen anticipation of any action that might be taken by the Uttoxeter stewards.
The prospect of four miles and two furlongs on ground that is heavy in parts would ordinarily be a daunting one for the 22 runners. But in the context of this week’s controversial British Horseracing Authority (BHA) actions at Cheltenham, where jockeys were penalised for not pulling up tired horses, this extreme test could end up a torrid affair in the stewards room.
Three Irish amateur jockeys were heavily penalised after Tuesday’s four-mile National Hunt Chase for not pulling up their horses.
They included Declan Lavery, who finished third of the four finishers on Jerrysback. He was suspended for 10 days for continuing in the race which, according to the stewards, appeared contrary to the horse’s welfare.
Former champion jockey Tony McCoy labelled that decision “a disgrace”, and widespread concern has been expressed within the sport about the BHA’s welfare focus at Cheltenham.
On Thursday another Irish amateur, Johnny Barry, got a 12-day suspension after the Kim Muir Chase, a race in which his mount Drumconnor Lad, fell at the last.The stewards imposed the penalty after judging Barry “had continued in the race when it appeared to be contrary to the horse’s welfare”.
Just one of the 22 riders in Uttoxeter’s feature event is an amateur. But the Midlands National is renowned as one of the most gruelling stamina tests on the calendar.
Last year half of the 18 runners failed to finish on heavy ground. In 2017 half of the 20-strong failed to finish. There were only five finishers in 2016.
The BHA has introduced welfare measures on the back of the 2018 Cheltenham festival at which six horses sustained fatal injuries, including three in a single race.
On the back of the controversy surrounding Tuesday’s race, a BHA spokesman defended the penalties.
“It is the responsibility of jockeys to pull up tired horses. This is absolutely fundamental, and the rules are clear that priority must be given to the horse if it would be contrary to the horse’s welfare to continue riding out,” he said.
How many horses might finish the Midlands National by that criteria will generate a lot of interest considering the official going at Uttoxeter is soft and heavy in places.
Jim Dreaper’s Goonyella (2015) was the last Irish-trained winner, and three raiders take their chance on Saturday.
They include the veteran former Welsh National hero Raz De Maree. The 14-year-old is famous for plugging on at the end of these marathon races and was seventh in Newcastle’s Eider Chase last time, a race in which “Shark” Hanlon’s Kilkishen finished fourth.
Gordon Elliott runs Folsom Blue, fifth in the Welsh National, and who ran in a hurdle race at Sandown last time.
A busy St Patrick’s weekend racing programme kicks off on Saturday at Limerick, which also stages a black type programme on Sunday.
Ground conditions are likely to be testing too at Down Royal on Saturday – with up to 15mm of rain predicted to fall before racing begins – and Wexford on Sunday.
Sunday’s Grade Two Charleville Mares Novice Chase at Limerick is the weekend feature, and it looks a good opportunity for Redhotfillypeppers. Willie Mullins’s runner was frustrating over hurdles, but looked a natural when winning here at Christmas over the bigger obstacles.
Mullins runs three in the Grade Three Shannon Spray Novice Hurdle, although another course winner during Christmas, Moskovite, could be one to trump them all.
Sunday’s Limerick card also sees the Grand National hopeful Mall Dini try to finally break his duck over fences in a two-mile Beginners Chase.
The 2016 Pertemps Final winner at Cheltenham has had 11 runs over fences without success, although his placed form includes a second in last year’s Kim Muir.
Mall Dini is as low as 20-1 in National ante-post lists, and is set to be ridden by Sean Flanagan for the first time.
Gordon Elliott has three of the five runners in Down Royal’s conditions chase and on the likely ground Mala Beach looks the best of them.