Summer jumping used to be a dirty phrase in the racing community. Purists would look down their nose at the mere thought of National Hunt horses jumping over obstacles outside of the traditional winter months. Facilities and attendances at summer jumping venues were low, and crucially so was the quality of the animals that were on display.
Over the last decade through there has been something of a revolution at various tracks around the country, and a recent visit to Newton Abbot confirmed that the once derided summer jumping game is now a major asset to the Sport of Kings.
As families and punters poured through the gates of the Devon venue, it was clear that the turn to summer racing in the early 2000s had really paid dividend from a business point of view. What had started as an initial idea to combat the weather conditions during December and January, has now grown into a successful venture which only appears to be going in one direction.
A packed crowd overlooking the parade ring at the Devon venue
Playgrounds and magicians keep the children happy but just as important as the off-track activities are on a family day out, Newton Abbot have also realised that the need to put on the best quality sport on the track, is equally essential if they are to attract the more seasoned racegoer.
Prize money at venues like Newton Abbot has continued to rise in recent years and local owners and trainers, in particular, have responded in kind.
Ten-time Champion Trainer, Paul Nicholls said "Tracks like Newton Abbot put really good prize money on for their novice hurdles and novice chases, and that gives us the opportunity to run some better horses in the summer."
That was certainly born out at the weekend with the Nicholls trained Bagad Bihoue, rated 142, completing a four timer in the novice chase, by beating the 136-rated Vosne Romanee. A clash between two highly rated unbeaten classy novice chasers would have been unheard of in the summer in the past but thanks to the pot on offer, and the safe ground, both sets of connections were happy to let their horses take their chance.
Case and point that elevated price money leads to a better product.
Such races are becoming increasingly frequent during the summer months, and we only have to look back at the roaring success of the Market Rasen card on Saturday to confirm those suspicions. Their Summer Plate Handicap Chase, which also went to Paul Nicholls with Alcala, had close to £30,000 for the winner, and as a result it drew one of the best fields in recent memory for the time of the year.
With Market Rasen leading the way, Newton Abbot are clearly following close behind with prize money at the forefront of their business model.
Managing Director of the Devon track, Pat Masterson said "We are now looking to do something similar to Market Rasen, and have a £150,000 race day. We want trainers like Nicky Henderson at Lambourn and those further up the country to come here."
Throughout the year, Newton Abbot have a minimum prize money of £6000 each race, and that has clearly proven attractive. With costs high for trainers in terms of transportation it is clearly a mantra that works, with Messrs Henderson, Mulholland and Olly Murphy among those joining Nicholls with runners at the track during our visit.
As well as attracting an improving equine talent, we are also seeing the human stars on show at tracks like Newton Abbot, with jockeys more than happy to spend their precious summer time riding for decent prizes on quality horses.
Sam Twiston-Davies, fresh from winning the big prize on Alcala at Market Rasen, said: "It's lovely to be able ride for good prize money during the summer, and because of that we kept him (Alcala) going, so it's lovely when a plan comes off."
Noel Fehily and Lizzie Kelly were among the jockeys at Newton Abbot on Sunday
Top jockeys do of course need time off during the quieter summer months, but the advent of higher quality cards is an increasingly attractive proposition, and in turn that makes the entrance fee even better value for money.
No one is suggesting that summer jumping will ever surpass the thrill and quality of the winter version but attendance figures, and customer satisfaction, does suggest that there is a place for both. Tracks like Newton Abbot and Market Rasen have clearly got the balance right, with both crucially realising that the quality of sport they offer remains the fundamental ingredient to any day out.