* Photo by Kelsey Pecsek Hruska.

More Major NCHA Events Trying Leveling This Year

At least three major limited-age cuttings plan to offer leveled classes this year. Officials hope testing the leveling system proposed during last year’s National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Convention will give insight into how well the class-restructuring system works.

Organizers of the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association (PCCHA) Core Balance Derby, the PCCHA Holy Cow Performance Horses Futurity and the Metallic Cat West Texas Futurity will use the system this year. The proposed leveling format has Open, Non-Pro and Amateur divisions that each have separate restricted Intermediate and Limited classes. Class eligibility is determined by lifetime earnings.

The leveling system, which is still under consideration by the NCHA, allows riders to compete against those with similar earnings records. Under the current format, rollbacks and exemptions can result in riders vying with competitors who may, in some cases, have won significantly more money and have much more experience.

“We’re really excited,” said West Texas Futurity organizer Skip Jones. “We’re excited that we’re going to give some opportunities to some of those mid-level and beginning trainers that may have some good horses that have been a little leery about coming.”

The PCCHA tried the leveling system for the first time in late April at the Protect the Harvest/Lucas Oil Gathering in Tulare, California. Phil Benadum, executive director of PCCHA, said the system was well-received by attendees at the spring event. Thirteen competitors who don’t normally attend the association’s aged events said they only went to Tulare because it used the leveling system, he said.

“No complaints and — and I’ve been doing this 10 years — people left and were happy as I’ve ever seen them,” Benadum said of the Tulare show, which the PCCHA held for the first time this year. “So, I think it was a good start. It was a good test.”

Exit surveys were handed out after the Tulare show, and Benadum — who is on the NCHA Competition Committee — said information from the surveys would be forwarded to the committee. He expected the leveling system to be further discussed and possibly refined in June at the NCHA Convention in Texas.

In addition to the Tulare and Derby shows, the PCCHA Board also voted to use leveling in October at the PCCHA Futurity in Las Vegas.

In addition to using leveling, the West Texas Futurity expects to offer more added money in 2019 — $264,000 total — in order to help maintain the payouts in the top level of the Open during its test run of the proposed system. Organizers believe payouts in the top level of the Open will be similar to last year, so long as entries remain the same, Jones said.

This year’s title sponsor of the West Texas Futurity, Equi-Stat Elite $26 Million Sire Metallic Cat, also will offer a $10,000 bonus to the sire’s top-advancing offspring in the Open finals.

“By leveling the show we did not take anything away from any of those [top-tier Open] classes,” Jones said.

The proposed leveling system was part of a class-restructuring effort crafted by members of the NCHA’s Competition Committee to create a level playing field at a time when the organization is trying to combat a steep drop in membership. At the 2018 NCHA Convention, members were told the association’s membership has fallen by more than 34% in six years. Total show entries dropped 43% from 2007 to 2017 at NCHA-sanctioned events and, although some shows have held their own in 2018, several large limited-age cuttings have experienced substantial drops in entries this year.

So far, two major cutting events have used the leveling system that is under consideration by the NCHA: the 2018 Cotton Stakes and this year’s The Ike Derby & Classic. The Cotton Stakes saw a 162% increase in participation. The show recorded 1,104 entries in 2018 compared to 387 in 2017.

The Ike had similar success with a 78% increase in entries under the leveling system, rising from 576 entries in 2018 to 1,028 entries this year. The Cotton Stakes and The Ike are produced by Robert Charles Brown at the Ike Hamilton Expo Center in West Monroe, Louisiana.

Part of the jump in entries under the leveling system is likely because riders in lower classes have the option to enter more classes than under current NCHA rules, which only offer a Limited and regular class within each division. Although a Limited or Intermediate rider can choose to only compete in their earnings-restricted class under the leveling format, the system gives them the option to enter up in one or two classes against riders who have won more money.

A number of riders at the Tulare show entered up into additional classes, Benadum said, particularly Limited Open riders who also competed in the Intermediate Open. Like the West Texas Futurity, the PCCHA Core Balance Derby plans to offer more added money in 2019. The PCCHA is advertising more than $240,000 in added-money this year, which is up from the $185,000 added it offered last year.

Jones, who is on the NCHA’s Executive Committee, said having more big events use the leveling system will help the association determine how well the proposed system works.

“[Officials at the NCHA] need about four or five legitimate leveling shows that use the concept with the added money and the breakout and the paybacks and all that to see if the concept’s going to work,” he said. “And we just decided to be one of those shows.”

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