PUNCHESTOWN has made some changes to the conditions of its cross-country races and hunter chases with the aim of reducing the risk of fallers and injuries.

Horses declared to run in any of the three cross-country races at the upcoming Festival must either have previous experience over a banks course or must complete a schooling session over “a selection of banks”.

Only riders who have ridden in at least 20 races (including point-to-points) can participate in those races and the safety limit has been reduced to 16.

The two hunter chases at the meeting will have a safety limit of 22 runners, riders must have ridden in at least 10 races, and runners must have run at least three times.

Racing manager Richie Galway said: “We have always reviewed race conditions and procedures internally, reacting to what happens at Punchestown and on other tracks.

“We keep track of statistics around non-completion rates and we have noticed a trend emerging in those hunter chases and cross- country races which needed attention.

“Working with our clerk of the course Brendan Sheridan, the trainers’ association and experienced riders, Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, we have tweaked the race conditions to ensure that the riders and horses taking part in those races have suitable experience.

“Not everyone will be supportive of these changes but I can assure you that Punchestown want to maintain the tradition and integrity of these special races, while ensuring they are reasonably safe.”

Bernadette Murphy, racing secretary to trainer Denis Murphy who is a big supporter of Punchestown’s banks races, said: “I can understand why Punchestown are doing this, and Richie and his team have always been very good to us.

“Providing schooling opportunities over the banks is the most helpful thing Punchestown can do. We used to be allowed school over the back line but not any more.”

Galway confirmed: “We have built a banks course specifically for schooling purposes and this was used ahead of our banks races this winter.”

Handler and rider Benny Walsh has also enjoyed plenty of success over the Punchestown banks course. He said: “I have my own banks at home so my horses are always well-prepared. But I have noticed that a lot of younger riders don’t come from a hunting background, and can be lacking balance and don’t know how to ride into a bank.”

Walsh would like to see the race conditions altered to make it more difficult for graded-level chasers to compete in cross-country races.

“These races are so important for farmers who own and train low-grade horses,” he said. “It’s not right that they should have to compete with horses stepping back from graded races and using these events as a stepping-stone for the Grand National.”

This week’s cross-country chase at Cheltenham was cancelled due to unraceable ground. Galway said: “We will be getting in touch with the connections of those horses who did not get to run at Cheltenham and this might mean more runners for the cross-country races at Punchestown.”