Every year, the clamour around ante-post prices for the Festival's championship races seems to start earlier and earlier. Prices are touted for Maiden winners at Stratford or Roscommon in August, when in reality, trainers and owners are just finding their way with horses who've only just learned to jump.
Until recently, the Foxhunter Chase at the Festival was largely ignored in this frantic scurry of guesswork and assessment of potential for improvement. But now, even the Gold Cup for amateurs has fallen prey to the oddsmakers as they compete to price up every one of the Festival's 28 races.
And despite the fact that many likely British entries haven't even had their seasonal bow in a Point-to-Point, never mind the minor detail that the race is among the final entries to close barely 2 weeks before the event, 25 horses are already priced up by one bookmaker or another. And those prices tell us something about how the race has altered these past few years.
Since the turn of the millennium, the 20 renewals of the race have fallen to licensed trainers 9 times, with several scoring twice. Enda Bolger (twice), Paul Nicholls (four times) and other leaders of the sport like Jonjo O'Neill and Nigel Twiston-Davies have all played their part in the growing professionalisation of the race. Nigel T-D at least introduced his sons to their riding careers through the race, but for others, this represents another chance to win Festival glory (and the largest trophy of the Festival by a street).
And this trend seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Among those priced up, favourite Billaway - second in 2020 - is trained by Willie Mullins; in fact, of the first seven home in this year's race, currently priced from 5/1 to 33/1, only one was trained from a Point-to-Point yard.
What's more, the list is heavily predicated toward the Irish. Eight of the past 20 winners have come from Ireland, reinforcing the view that their Pointing scene is more competitive than ours. In fact, all bar one of the horses quoted to date has already won at least one Open this autumn already.
With the exception of Nicky Henderson, the race is considered fair game by just about every trainer in the UK and Ireland, which leaves little room for fairytales, even if this year's 66/1 winner ticked that box for the O'Sullivan family.
Among the British contingent, two owners have long harboured ambitions to carry off the Foxhunter Trophy. So it should be no surprise that David Maxwell, currently sidelined with an injury, should be targeting the race with one or more of Shantou Flyer (third in 2020), Bob and Co, a French-bred Nicholls import who won 2 Hunter chases last winter, and Jatiluwih, another French-bred and already a winner this term for Bethan Childs at Bishops Court.
Meanwhile, Weatherbys and Ascot Chairman Johnny Weatherby is represented by Red Indian and Top Wood, from Kelly Morgan's yard, the latter having won the Aintree Foxhunter in 2019 and been second to Pacha du Polder at Cheltenham in 2018.
Among the Irish, Billaway, second this Spring, has already advertised his claims with a 6 1/2l win over Winged Leader at Down Royal this month, whilst Enda Bolger could be represented by last season's fourth Staker Wallace and Stand Up and Fight, who beat Billaway at Fairyhouse in November, on,y for the form to be overturned earlier this month in that same race aat Down Royal.
You can never rule out Shark Hanlon or Eugene O'Sullivan. It Came to Pass will likely return for a second crack at the race in 3 months after his shock win in 2020.
Whilst the British Pointing scene has yet to identify improving horses ready to step up from Open races, Hazel Hill, the 2019 winner, should return again, alongside Wishing and Hoping, already on the scoresheet after a facile win at Maisemore in October.
Professional trainers spend their winter achieving a handicap mark of at least 140 to qualify for any of the Festival's 10 handicaps. It's turning into much the same exercise in the Foxhunter, where the average rating is 139. Compare this to your average Open to understand why the Pointing brigade are struggling to keep up.
Is this the direction in which we want the Foxhunter to head? We all applaud excellence, and there's little doubt winners of the race can hold their own on the bigger national stage represented by the Festival, but it seems a little of the romance of the amateur game has been lost. Some tweaking of the Rules seems justified to return some of the amateur ethos in a way that has not been lost in many Hunter chases and banks races at the Punchestown equivalent.
Meantime, spend a little time over the next 2 months identifying the best British chance to retain the Foxhunter in the UK.