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It's On The Line justifies favouritism to win Aintree Foxhunter

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"Quality will out" is a watchword for racing at Aintree nowadays, where the era of long-priced unfancied horses has largely been put to bed by changes to race conditions and the shape of the fences. And perhaps the racing over the National fences is better for that. 

That quality was proven yesterday when 3/1 favourite It's On The Line, trained by Emmet Mullins, and ridden by Derek O'Connor, outstayed the other 9 finishers in the 22 runner field that faced the starter in the Randox Foxhunter Chase. 

Rated 140, It's On The Line was rated 6lb higher than any other horse in the field bar third placed Annamix, a contender from Closutton. Second, Benny's Hill, trained by Dan Skelton, took up the running 5 out, but was run out of it on the elbow and finished 4 1/4l adrift, Annamix a further length behind. 

Time Leader, prominent throughout, briefly disputed the lead on the lead-in, but couldn't maintain the advantage for Huw Edwards, and was the only amateur-trained runner to finish in the money.

Not everyone is pleased to see the sport's biggest owner scooping up a prize designed for the amateur division. Whilst there is much to admire about the contribution J P McManus has made to the sport at every level, the amateur ethos of this type of race, and the Cheltenham Foxhunter last month, is being eroded by horses trained by licensed trainers attracted by the relatively large prize funds. The £50,000 on offer here compares to £5,000 or less for an ordinary hunter chase, £1,000 or less for a point-to-point.

It seems manifestly unfair that of the 22 runners, only three truly amateur -ridden horses finished the race, outpointed by better quality animals that could as equally be running in proper Rules races. This is one reason why Sine Nomine's victory at Cheltenham, and Premier Magic's the previous year, were so well received. Fiona Needham's horse represents the true grass roots of the sport.

The counter-argument is of course, that the quality of the races has improved overall. that is not in dispute, but the number of horses rated 130+ in hunter chases and point-to-points is modest, and these potential competitors are being crowded out by professionals - trainers and riders too in all but name. Perhaps a rating cap is required to allow more point-to-pointers to take part without feeling over-faced, but this approach is also counter-intuitive.

In the much smaller US steeplechasing scene, the programme for point-to-point and mainstream Jump fixtures is now largely combined, but this is not currently the case in the UK or Ireland, although fixtures like the Barbury International tried to achieve it.

No easy answers, but surely an issue race planners might seek to address.

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