20th March 2012 – THE CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL
A fantastic week and we have a bulging blog. Phil Smith leads off with his Gold Cup thoughts in the Head of Handicapping Blog and the other five NH Handicappers have turned out to have their say here. There are reflections on the standings of Champions and possible future Champions, whilst deep into the piece Martin Greenwood and Chris Nash fire back at some criticism the team was surprised to receive during the week.
A TRUE CHAMPION?
The Stan James Champion Hurdle may have produced a shock result but it proved a relatively easy race to assess, writes Dave Dickinson.
The admirable Overturn had run to 166 on two of his last three starts and it seems hard to imagine he has run below that rating, given the wonderful ride he got from his pilot, Jason Maguire. Using Overturn as the benchmark, the winner Rock on Ruby is raised 5lb to 170.
So what of Hurricane Fly and Binocular? The going map showed that the good to soft ground in the good (good to soft in places) was all in the back straight on the climb towards the third last. Consequently kicking at the top of the hill was a very good tactic, certainly on the first two days. When Maguire made his move having briefly slowed the pace going up the hill, Noel Fehily on Rock on Ruby was in a position to cover it but the two previous winners were not. Worse still, they were also caught behind horses who were in the same boat. I would take nothing away from the winner but another race between Rock on Ruby, Hurricane Fly and Binocular would be well worth seeing.
Cinders and Ashes proved an up to standard winner of the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle running to a figure of 151, using both second and third as benchmarks.
The JCB Triumph proved an altogether trickier race to reassess. I used Hollow Tree, who was seventh home, as my benchmark to put Countrywide Flame up to 152. The solid pace in this race compared well with the County Hurdle thirty-five minutes later and the diminutive winner never looked likely to play a leading role until the home straight, leaving the strong impression the emphasis was firmly on stamina, something he does not seem to lack. There was a suspicion he may have been flattered by staying towards the middle of the course as only the third home Sailors Warn of the first four in the following County Hurdle began his move towards the stands side in the home straight. However that theory didn’t appear to hold up in the Conditional Jockeys Handicap later on the card.
KING IN WAITING?
Sprinter Sacre(169) lined up for last week’s Racing Post Arkle Trophy as the highest-rated novice chaser this century, and his dazzling performance at Cheltenham underlined why, writes John de Moraville.
The imposing six-year-old was never out of second gear in taking his unbeaten chase record to four with Barry Geraghty employing cruise control throughout.
Cue Card ran a career-best 157 in second – on a par with the three previous Arkle runners-up Finian’s Rainbow, Somersby and Kalahari King – but Sprinter Sacre did not have to better his eye-watering Game Spirit performance to stroll home by seven lengths.
Would Sprinter Sacre have won the Queen Mother Champion Chase? Impossible to say but he is already rated just 4lb below last week’s winner Finian’s Rainbow and has yet to come off the bridle.
With boundless scope for further improvement it’s no wonder he is already a warm order for next year’s 2m showpiece. Look at the difference a year has made to Finian’s Rainbow – 157 after last year’s Arkle and now top of the pile on 173.
While Finian’s Rainbow and defending champion Sizing Europe (171) fought out a thrilling duel, last week’s Queen Mother – with the final fence having to be bypassed – was an unsatisfactory renewal.
Next year that pair will be ten and eleven years of age respectively, too, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the dashing young pretender is hovering around the even-money mark to seize the crown in 2013.
Sprinter Sacre wasn’t the only novice chaser to leave an indelible impression on the heaving Cheltenham masses. The Irish have a budding new star in unbeaten Sir Des Champs (162), immediately ear-marked for next year’s Gold Cup after fluently disposing of gallant Champion Court (155) in the Jewson Golden Miller Novices’ Chase.
There was no shortage of candidates for ride of the week – Barry Geraghty (Riverside Theatre) and Tony McCoy (Synchronised) spring readily to mind. But for sheer artistry and audacity, Paul Carberry producing ‘bridle horse’ Bellvano (up 10lb to 148) to snatch the concluding Grand Annual Chase in the final 75 yards took some beating.
RIVER IN FULL FLOW
Thursday’s Grade 1 Ryanair Festival Trophy was the strongest renewal of the race to date, writes Mark Olley.
Pre-race Riverside Theatre, Albertas Run and Rubi Light were all rated 168, while Somersby and Kalahari King were 166.
Albertas Run probably produced the best effort in defeat of this year’s Festival and I see no reason why he didn’t repeat the form he’d shown when winning the last two runnings, so have based the race around him on 168. Medermit was half a length behind and moves up 2lb to a new career-high figure of 167. Alan King’s gelding has run a string of excellent races this winter and if he can just sharpen up his jumping a top prize must surely come his way.
I have allowed 2lb for the half-length winning margin of Riverside Theatre as he didn’t get the clearest of runs, being repeatedly bumped, and this moves Nicky Henderson’s top-class gelding to a new high of 170 – a mark that can also be justified on the two Ascot wins he’d recorded prior to this. This compares very favourably with recent winners of this race – Albertas Run ran to his 168 in both 2011 & 2010, Imperial Commander was 165 in 2009 and Our Vic was 168 in 2008.
There have been many column inches devoted to Hunt Ball and his remarkable climb up the handicap this winter, but his effort is not quite unique as anyone who remembers Venn Ottery can testify. In July 2003 Venn Ottery was rated 64 when trained by Oliver Carter and by March 2004 he had reached the height of 149 when in the care of Paul Nicholls. This is the exact same 85lb rise that Hunt Ball has made this season, but I guess Hunt Ball just shades it as technically he has gone from 68 to 154 (86lbs) as on his first handicap run/win he raced from 1lb out of the weights! Either way they are both remarkable horses.
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
‘There’s definitely a North-South divide in jumping these days, as you win a little race up there and go up 8lb and come down here and find you’re at least a stone wrong’. You would imagine these were the disillusioned rantings of a Northern trainer after one of his stalwarts was tailed off in one of the big races ‘down South’, writes Martin Greenwood. However it was the quote supplied to the Racing Post by Malcolm Jefferson after his Cape Tribulation had won the Pertemps Final on the Thursday of the Festival. Jefferson who trains in North Yorkshire couldn’t resist traipsing out the same prosciutto-thin argument that the BHA Handicapping team treat the Northern trainers differently to their Southern counterparts, despite all known evidence and stats strongly suggesting otherwise. It seems even standing next to a Cheltenham winner can’t budge such entrenched views!
Cape Tribulation returned to something like his best (now 150) after winning off 142, and he was the second ‘Northern’ handicap hurdle winner of the Festival following the Donald McCain-trained Son of Flicka’s victory in the Coral Cup the previous day – Attaglance (also trained by Malcolm Jefferson) became the third of the week on the final day and is covered by Chris Nash later in the blog. Son of Flicka, up 7lb to 142, also returned to near his best and made amends for his close second at the 2011 Festival.
The three non-handicaps I looked after at Cheltenham were of course headed by the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, which everyone in racing knows was won for an historic fourth consecutive time by Big Buck’s. An incredible reception greeted the winner post-race, and even an unsentimental cynic like myself was moved by the joyous scenes, which included witnessing a very emotional female RUK stalwart. Anybody who has read this blog over the years will know the undiluted admiration I have given to this horse ever since I awarded him the rating of 174 in March 2009, when I described him as a machine. That rating has never changed since, and remains the highest rating I have given in my time as a handicapper. Superbly ridden a usual by Walsh, who, it seems, is always aware of imminent dangers while riding ‘Buck’s’, the horse predictably found more for pressure after his closest challenger, the game Voler la Vedette (who put up a personal best of 160, receiving 7lb), appeared to be cruising. Superlatives run dry for such an imperious racehorse like Big Buck’s, and it would take a brave soul to bet against him to make it five in a row.
Obviously it would be no surprise that Big Buck’s was clear in the ratings, and the BHA had another top-rated winner in the 2m5f Neptune novices on Wednesday. Simonsig had created a big impression prior to then, and certainly enhanced his profile even further with a most clear-cut victory by seven lengths from Irish-challenger Felix Younger, having been left clear when Cotton Mill ducked out two out. The five-year standards suggest 153, while the time comparison suggests 161. I have rated the ‘bare’ form of the race around the standards which make both Felix Younger and Cotton Mill (who I have estimated would have finished around the runner-up spot) both 147, with Simonsig up 9lb to a minimum of 157. Simonsig is already a class performer, and he looks certain to play a part in top races next season whatever his chosen targets.
The 3m novice on Friday looked to be between Boston Bob (151), Sea of Thunder (149) and Brindisi Breeze (148) on the ratings, and two of those fought out the finish. Sea of Thunder, who achieved his rating when falling at the last at Cheltenham in December, hasn’t lived up to that form since and was particularly disappointing on his return to Prestbury Park. The other two more or less confirmed their pre-race ratings, Brindisi Breeze again showing strong staying capabilities once hitting the front at the ninth, keeping up the gallop relentlessly to see off Boston Bob by two lengths. The latter was asked to go about his business later than the winner and a mistake at the last put paid to his chance. Brindisi Breeze is now 150 while Boston Bob will be a maximum of that figure should he return to the UK again this season. Grand Vision in third (147 from 136) and Meister Eckhart (141 from 133) in fifth continued on the upgrade, while fourth-placed Lovcen confirmed his pre-race rating of 142.
Finally, returning to my original theme, it should be noted that Brindisi Breeze is trained in Scotland, and Countrywide Flame, winner of the Triumph earlier in the day, is trained in Yorkshire. Add these to the three handicap winners already mentioned and maybe it’s the turn of the Southern trainers to complain about their Northern brethren!
MORE THAN A GLANCE
Further to Martin Greenwood’s piece on the north-south divide, I thought it worth looking at the result of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle in depth, writes Chris Nash.
Attaglance prevailed in a tight finish to give Malcolm Jefferson his second handicap success of the week, with a neck and the same back to Toner d’Oudairies and Oscar Nominee and the first eight covered by seven lengths.
Within those eight horses we had runners trained not only in the north and the south but also two trained in Ireland. They were aged from five to eight years and were a mix of experienced handicappers and unexposed novices. Two had won last time out, one had been placed on his most recent start and five hadn’t been especially competitive. As such the race stands up as a fine example of what our team is trying to achieve – a competitive race with an exciting finish regardless of horse profile.
Attaglance had gone up 9lb for winning ‘a little race in the north’ on his previous start. He goes up a further 5lb on the back of this.
Written by Mar 21st, 2012.on