As another week passes, another seemingly impenetrable handicap lands upon us.
There are in fact two such races on the Ascot card alone, so I have concentrated my efforts on the two mile Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle (run last season as the Ladbroke) that rounds out the card.
It’s a race that I found a little difficult to characterise. In many ways, it was more or less the opposite of last weekend’s Caspian Caviar Gold Cup, which had a very familiar cast of characters and a lot of more exposed form lines. Here, aside from the form from last year’s renewal, there’s not a great deal of overlapping form. I suppose this is the very nature of handicap hurdles – they offer a route for unexposed young horses to stamp their own mark onto the wider consciousness.
Meet The Legend, who is prominent in the antepost market (and in purely analytical terms I can see why) is one such horse – he is unexposed as so much as he’s very lightly raced and this represents his handicap debut. The mark that he has been assigned is by inference little more than a best guess formulation of how good he is.
The market would seem to suggest that he has the potential to be very good, and by that equation therefore very well handicapped. He is also versatile ground wise, having won a bumper on good to firm ground and a maiden hurdle in the mud. In terms of divergence, that’s not too far from polar opposite of each other.
I fear, however, that his position in the market is something of a false one and that he does not represent particularly good value at this stage. His run at Kelso, when judged on in running comments alone seems to hint that he might not quite have got the trip having travelled powerfully and then weakened. If b follows a, then stepping back down in trip should suit. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.
However, when I watched the footage back, I interpreted it somewhat differently. He shaped more like a horse who was flattering to deceive and that was perhaps a strong traveller but one that might not find much when asked the question. This might be harsh, and I might be inferring too much for a young and inexperienced horse.
But at 6/1 in a large field handicap is it worth the risk?
When you add in that he also looked very keen in the early stages and took a little while to warm up with his jumping, then he starts to look less and less attractive.
The other market leaders are also not without their flaws. Jolly’s Cracked It, subject of very strong support this week, has not been seen on a racecourse in some 364 days and while this alone isn’t enough to dismiss him (more on this point later), aside from his win in this race last year (dead-heating with Sternrubin) his better form has come with a little bit more cut in the ground then he’s likely to get here. Obviously the rationale for selecting him is persuasive because that form is very strong – Sternrubin has subsequently won off an 8lbs higher mark and Jolly’s Cracked It is only up six, but there is just a nagging doubt that while he is well handicapped this might not be the ideal forum for him to return in.
That being so, he clearly likes Ascot – he’s won three of his four starts there – and remains lightly raced.
Given last year’s result, it also makes sense at this stage to consider Sternrubin’s chances too, beyond the mere mention of him in a paragraph about Jolly’s Cracked It. He is now the better part of a stone higher than he was last year (10lbs) but given that he has won off a mark only two pounds lower than he will be on Saturday; it remains plausible to consider him well handicapped.
There may be some concern about whether or not he has peaked given that he was uncharacteristically below par in the Greatwood when last seen, but I am willing to forgive him that because he ran as if perhaps the track didn’t suit him. A return to Ascot should assist.
My concern with him is that he is likely to be prominent and from previous evidence he will want to lead. Whether or not that is possible given the presence of fellow habitual front runner Rayvin Black is not so clear. While that rival appears to be well handicapped on the basis of his win in the Kingwell off a mark of 149 (he is now rated 145), the interpretive strength of the form collapsed when Irving ran no sort of race. Once he had so done, Rayvin Black did little more than beat rivals that he should have beaten. His form this year gives further credence to the theory that he is unlikely to win here.
Whether or not his presence will be unduly detrimental to Sternrubin’s chances creates a risk for Sternrubin and makes it a chance that I am not particularly willing to take.
In terms of the wider shape of the betting, in much the same vein as support for Jolly’s Cracked It, the reasoning behind a market move for Consul De Thaix is easy to comprehend. He was an eye catching second behind Brain Power at Sandown when last seen and he is now weighted to reverse the form with that rival.
That said, there are several potential flaws in that logic.
The first of those is that it naturally presupposes that the form at Sandown was strong and carries interpretive weight. In opposition to that, it could perhaps be said that several of the more fancied runners that day did not perform as expected (Indietir, Graasten and, to an extent, Zubayr) and that does not necessarily bode all that well. The shape of that race was also a little abnormal – the pace was relatively honest thanks to the front running Faithful Mount but it appeared that a lot of runners seemed to all go from travelling relatively kindly three out to be rapidly sending out distress signals. Whether that created an artificial environment for Consul De Thaix to run on through and thereby making it appear that he is more progressive than the reality would suggest is perhaps over stretching it but that any doubt exists is a little telling in itself.
There are also two other factors, beyond the control of Consul De Thaix, that also concern vis a vis his chances. The first is that he’s likely to be held up and that means that he’s going to need a certain amount of luck in running if he’s to be successful. That is a chance to be taken, and, in many ways is a known unknown – i.e. it’s accepted that there are potential risks in being held up but whether those risks materialise and thus compromise his chances are unknown. Expressed differently, you take your chance that it’s going to be okay.
The second, and perhaps more easily quantified problem is that of the ground. It might be argued that of Consul De Thaix’s four starts that his weakest performance has come on the soundest surface. If, as expected, the ground is good/good to soft this weekend then this might not assist. Now, it might be said that the sample size of those four starts is too small to make an informed decision. It might also be said that as that run was at the Cheltenham Festival then there may have been other factors which caused a below par performance.
With that in mind, I had a look into his breeding to see whether there’s anything else that could assist in interpreting the issue. This again did not yield definitive conclusions but being that he’s by the non-prolific sire Loxias (whose progeny include the very useful four year old chaser Crack De Reve, now owned by Messrs Suede and Munir) I’m happier about concluding that any rain would be a bonus to him.
If then I am not persuaded by him, then what of Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power given the proximity in which they ultimately finished last time out? I’m minded to think that Ascot is a track that will suit him– he appears significantly better going right handed – and there should be no issues with the ground but the concerns that I have with regard to the strength of the form pervade here too.
With that being said, to my eye at least, he idled a bit when hitting the front at Sandown having travelled up very smoothly and taking the lead over the second last. While the bare analysis of the form would clearly suggest that Consul De Thaix is better off at the weights (he now receives an extra 4lbs), I suspect Brain Power may be the one to take from that race. That was a career best for him and it is likely that in order to win he’ll need another one here.
So where next? Well, to make matters a little easier, as ever, there are a number of runners that I was content to draw a line through for the purposes of this preview.
The first of these is Hargam. He was a disappointment in the Greatwood and although he has won this season, that form (from Court Minstrel and Mister Miyagi) does not look strong based on what they’ve done since. He has perhaps been a victim of a desire for him to be top class when the reality says otherwise, which is of course not his fault. He was certainly campaigned last season as if that was true but the further we move away from the 2015 festival, the more it appears that the juvenile class that year was not as good as we would have liked it to be. Time, as they say, reveals all.
As a part of the wider search to find the winner, we happen upon another thing that is a frequent occurrence in famous handicaps – a seemingly well backed, unexposed Irish raider whom can count the crafty A J Martin as his trainer.
Currently triple handed, the most eyecatching of the trio he’s entered, and therefore the horse in the spotlight for the title of ‘dark horse’, is Golden Spear, a comfortable winner at Listowel when last seen over hurdles. Campaigned on the flat since, and with some success (he is rated 87), he has all the hallmarks of one that has been plotted out with such a race in mind. His profile too appears to be one that would set off the handicap plot klaxons at bookmaking firms all across the land. Having had a go over hurdles in the early part of 2015 (when under the care of Noel Quinlan) without success, it would appear that he has improved a fair bit since, albeit on the limited evidence of that Listowel win. While it must be said that the improvement was not immediate – his Punchestown run (shortly after switching yards) reads very much like a learning experience – I think we can take this lack of immediacy as a hint that there is more improvement to be revealed in due course.
The market is of the opinion that this is the day on which it will be released.
That said, there are several risks and they are the very same set of risk factors that beset Consul De Thaix – being held up and the ground. There is, as stated above, very little that can be said about the risks of being held up in a big field handicap so I will comment no further on that point. Whatever happens is going to happen. You might get a dream run, but equally you might not. That is the first risk at play for Golden Spear et al. The second, more specific risk, is that of the ground. When I looked at his form, I reached the conclusion that although he was relatively versatile, his very best performances to date, such though they are, come when the ground is on the softer side. While it is perhaps possible to distinguish Golden Spear’s ground preferences by reference to a a flat handicap win on good to firm ground in 2014, it may be that he was just the best horse in the race that day and that class saw him through. He has also been perhaps artificially shortened in price due to his trainers name, relative to his actual achievements.
On that basis, if you are minded to think that Mr Martin will be responsible for training the winner – on the basis of the ‘Tony Martin Handicap Plot Theorem’ – it may pay to side with his perceived second string, Quick Jack. He is the type of second string that I’m sure every trainer would dearly love to have and he’s clearly a very versatile individual as although most of his starts are on the flat nowadays and he always seems to reappear over hurdles when there is a chance to try and seize a big handicap prize. In many ways, he is the identikit Martin runner. In his favour, he is by far and away the highest rated of these on the flat (he was last seen when 6th in a Group 1 in France and is rated 112) and I would not read too much into his last run over hurdles when finishing down the field at Galway. With the benefit of hindsight that looks very much like it was a tune up race for the Ebor.
The nagging doubt with him is that his mark may have crept a little too high for him to win here. He is now rated almost a stone higher than when third in the 2015 County Hurdle and he may find himself vulnerable to a young improver – ironically a profile not dissimilar to his stable mate.
In the interests of completeness, the final Martin runner, Pyromaniac, is also the final runner whose chances I am happy to dismiss. Although, as stated above, we are almost duty bound to give anything from the stable serious consideration in races like this, I just cannot make a case for him. He has not been seen over hurdles since July when finishing down the field in a handicap at Galway off a 2lbs lower mark than he will bear on Saturday. Add in that he is also comparatively well exposed, has not won since May 2015 and ran below expectations on his previous visit to the track for this race two years ago, he is not an attractive option.
There is of course a chance that the trophy may make its way back to Ireland in the hands of a trainer other than Mr Martin. The other protagonists in this regard are Waxies Dargle (Noel Meade), Chesterfield and Fergall (Seamus Mullins).
Of those three, Waxies Dargle is the most exposed. He is a regular in good quality handicaps and rarely disgraces himself, as evidenced by his prior performances in the 2015 Greatwood and the 2016 Coral Cup. He also seems to improve for a sounder surface and that is a factor in his favour but on balance he seems to have a lot to do from his current mark. He was also pulled up on his previous visit to Ascot.
The Seamus Mullins runners meanwhile are very intriguing. It would appear that that Mr Mullins posts an occasional blog about his yard and the entry regarding this weekend speaks of ‘looking forward to a memorable day out’ and that we are ‘all still on for a big day out’. I wondered if he might be a man prone to hyperbole but he wasn’t nearly so effusive about Song Light’s chances in the Greatwood and he ultimately ran very well. Therefore, I’m taking him at his word. It might be folly, but it similarly might not be.
Of his two runners, I am more intrigued by Chesterfield.
Yes he has been off since November 2014 and that is a concern but it might be that there have been some wider issues at play that have prevented him returning to the track sooner. He was owned by Bloomfields (and officially in the care of John Ferguson) until the end of November and I wonder if the reorganisation of roles at Godolphin has had a trickle-down effect sufficient to have impacted on his entries. It is telling that as soon as he was sold he has been engaged in a contest such as this.
It is also worth noting that he is running off the same mark as when looking set to land a Kempton handicap (he fell at the last when leading) that worked out well (the ultimate second, Violet Dancer, went on to win the Betfair hurdle off three pounds higher and the winner Cloonacool also won off higher marks subsequently) and when you add in that he was rated 89 on the flat, he’s is clearly no mug. At a big price, there are many worse each way bets.
I was less persuaded by the chances of Fergall. To my mind he is not weighted to reverse the course and distance form with Sternrubin and the presence of fellow front runner Rayvin Black may also stretch his stamina beyond its limits given his apparent failure to quite see out the trip in October. If a big day is to be had, I suspect it’s with Chesterfield.
From where else might the winner spring? Well, as with most Saturdays, the Nicholls runners (Diego Du Charmil and Modus) appear have respectable chances.
Like some others, it appears Diego Du Charmil may well held up and becomes something of a hostage to fortune (see above) but beyond that he seems to be overpriced at the moment. He is entered off the same mark as he was when favourite for the October handicap that was won by Sternrubin and although he was disappointing that day but he a) travelled much closer to the pace than previously that day and b) made an early blunder that may have destabilised him a tad. In this regard it is worth remembering that he is only four and is comparatively inexperienced. If you were to draw a line through that run (or indeed if he hadn’t run at all) then the market is currently markedly underestimating him.
That is of course dependant on leap of faith that his below par performance that day wasn’t caused by going right handed given that all his previous good runs had been when going the other way around. There’s nothing that would immediately leap out to indicate this to be true but the idea itself could be enough to put you off.
If it is, then you may be persuaded that the Ditcheat runner with the best chance is Modus. He is only six and has notably improved this term – which is not to denigrate what he has done before. That improvement means that he’s now 8lbs higher than when second in the Greatwood, but he is potentially placed to defy that rise. He too will be held up in a race that seems to have the potential to be widely tactically divergent and in that sense he, and all the other hold up horses, might be vulnerable to one sat just off the pace. In Modus’ case, the perils of being held up are ones that have beset him once before (at Ascot when perhaps left with too much to do in defeat to Sternrubin in October) and could well do again. To win with such tactics requires timing and nous from the man in the plate and it is very easy to be slightly wrong. That is not a great mix when the margin for error is relatively narrow.
Added to that there might be some concern that his form (other than when second in the Champion Bumper of 2015) is notably worse in races with more than 16 runners. The Greatwood was a sign of progress in that regard, but the doubt still exists nonetheless.
Thinking laterally, I was of the opinion that the form of All Set To Go, who is now a non-runner, was sufficient to hold the chances of Unison. I do not think too much has changed in that regard now that he is out, and Jeremy Scott’s runner is likely to run well for a good way but may ultimately find the race a little too hot to handle. He is however a four time hurdles winner and deserves his chance at this level.
Moving towards the remaining few, I was tempted by the chances of Who Dares Wins, who was a decent juvenile last season for Alan King – as evidenced by his win at Grade 2 level in that sphere. He has occasionally shaped as if he might be better around two and a half miles, which could be a blessing or a curse, depending on how the race plays out. Notably he appears to be settling better now which will be an aid to his chances but he is now 8lbs higher than when winning at Newbury in November.
It might be said that if corralled appropriately, he could be one whom tracks the pace (if indeed he has now learned to settle), given that he liked to be so prominent last year but has now learned a little more about the nuances of being a race horse. That might benefit him more than being held up (as he has been both starts this year) and will allow him to make use of any stamina advantage that he has.
All of that being so, to my eye, the horse that seems most well handicapped is Wolf of Windlesham.
Firstly, he fits the bill of a horse who could well pick up the pieces from a strong pace having sat just behind it. In this regard he is an ideal candidate for the likely shape of the race. Further, he is off the same mark as when running a big race in the Greatwood – he fell two out when still travelling well – and when winning a juvenile handicap at Sandown in good style last term. I like that he has been sharpened up with a solid run on the all-weather track at Kempton behind Beltor and he could well be primed for another big run here. A note of caution for anyone prone to snap in-running judgements would be that he occasionally needs to be squeezed for a couple of strides to pick the bridle back up and this should not be misinterpreted if it happens after a mile or so.
As a brief conclusion, in a race that there are many cases to be made, I am minded to think that those put forward by Wolf of Windlesham and Chesterfield are the strongest. Of course Chesterfield relies to an extent on intuition and a fair amount of inference on the facts – this makes him the least reliable of the two but one that I will struggle to let go unbacked.
That leaves Wolf of Windlesham as the most risk neutral selection and to me he is the perfectly logical conclusion to this tricky puzzle. To be honest, I suspect if he was in the care of a Henderson, Hobbs, Nicholls or Tizzard, his price would be single figures and that he is not is no concern of mine. On any analysis he has a cast iron chance here and is, at the very last, an each way bet that I cannot ignore.
As a final caveat, if Willow’s Saviour were to run, it must be said that he placed on a very favourable hurdles mark and it shouldn’t be ignored that he is unbeaten over the smaller obstacles since he moved into the care of Dan Skelton. He is a multiple winner at the track too and on that basis would be an interesting runner. The overriding feeling with him is that his chase mark is being preserved (and is one for the notebook in that regard) as he is incredibly well handicapped in that sphere but could still make his mark here too.
If you made it this far, thank you.