New mares' hurdle for Cheltenham
The 2016 Cheltenham Festival will feature a 28th race after confirmation that a Grade Two mares' novices' hurdle will be added to the schedule - and Willie Mullins is odds-on to win it.
There has long been speculation that a mares' event of some description would replace the charity race on day three of the Festival, and now we know that it will be the Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle, a £75,000 affair over two miles and a furlong.
Industry insiders have welcomed the addition of another opportunity to win at jump racing's premier gala, though many purists are appalled by what is perceived to be a further dilution of quality at the elite National Hunt mecca.
The OLBG Mares' Hurdle has already been the subject of considerable debate, proving a virtual gimme for the relentless champion trainer Mullins, who has won seven of the eight renewals, including six in a row with Quevega.
In Quevega's absence last March, Mullins' Annie Power was set to hose up only to crash at the final flight, leaving her stablemate Glens Melody to atone for a narrow defeat to Quevega 12 months earlier.
Given the lack of viable opposition to Mullins' powerhouse in such a niche event, the decision to this year upgrade the race to a Grade One infuriated critics further.
Now, the new race will also likely reduce the level of competition in the Grade One, given that, as novices, this year's third and fourth would have been eligible to take part.
In light of the concentration of power at Mullins' yard, bookmaker Paddy Power offer odds of 4/6 about his saddling the inaugural winner.
Davy Russell has been a vocal supporter of the expansion of the mares' programme, citing the prevalence of mares' Group One races on the Flat.
"You must recognise the best filly," Russell Tweeted of the development. "It is a marvellous idea."
The theory behind the promotion of mares' races is that they will help raise the standard of female racehorses.
To that end, with a line that will have further incensed traditionalists, the British Horseracing Authority also declared yesterday that it is working with Cheltenham "to explore the possibility of a mares' chase being added to the Festival in the coming years".