This weekend could be of huge significance in the wider context of the National Hunt season – Festival clues abound everywhere and the ante post favourites for the Gold Cup, Stayers Hurdle and Triumph Hurdle will all be in attendance.
I formed the view that there was just too much high quality racing to devote enough time to doing detailed previews on all of them, and it would be perhaps unfair of me to do so. I do have some more abridged thoughts, which I’ll refer to at the end, but I’m not sure I’d call the thoughts espoused therein as selections as such.
TIMEFORM NOVICES´ HANDICAP CHASE – 12.35
At the entry stage it was very much noticeable that many of the possible runners had form over three miles rather than the two and half miles that this race will be run over. I wondered, on that basis, whether there was a degree of attempted handicap mark preservation going on with eyes perhaps being fixed on other targets. There very well might be. This appeared particularly true of Royal Vacation and Singlefarmpayment, with the latter named having been campaigned as a stayer since the back end of last season, but also of Ibis Du Rheu, Champers On Ice and Potters Legend.
As an example, take Champers On Ice, who has previously been tried exclusively over three miles since graduating to the larger obstacles. There’s obviously significant merit in running him here – a strongly run two and a half miles might suit him very well (on his last winning two starts over hurdles he made all, and I assume he will attempt to here) but similarly the trip might be a little on the sharp side for him. Therefore, it’s likely to be a very informative exercise to run him here – you know that he’s already proven himself to be consistent enough to suggest he’s likely to run well and thus get the answers that connections seek. Whatever he does, it opens up more avenues down the line – if he wins impressively maybe the JLT would be an option but if wins in more of a grind then perhaps he has a speculative tilt at the RSA. If he doesn’t win by virtue of a lack of tactical speed then his consistency means he’ll probably run well enough to ensure that hemaintains a handicap mark in the region of his current 143. It will probably not have escaped everyone’s notice that Un Temps Pour Tout, for the same connections, followed a very similar path en route to winning the Festival Trophy Handicap Chase off a mark of 148.
Ibis Du Rheu has a similar profile in so much as that he too has been exclusively tried at longer trips since going chasing. I suspect he’s short enough in the betting here because I’d assess him as being region of eight to ten pounds lower than Champers On Ice’s conqueror, American (148), through their collateral form line with Pobbles Bay. Bearing that in mind, when you take account of his rating of 146, the idea that he’d like further then he’s becoming one and that he’d also like to see a bit more ease in the ground then is perhaps likely then he’s not the most attractive of potential favourites.
Admittedly the last point above is inferred from his breeding, rather than being a definitive statement, but the strike rate of Blue Bresil’s progeny thus far is signficantly higher on heavy ground (33%) than it is on both soft (21%) and good ground (13%). I think the most likely possibility with him, Champers On Ice, Royal Vacation, Singlefarmpayment and, to an extent Potters Legend, is that they contribute to a strong early pace which ultimately leaves the race in the hands of a two and a half mile specialist.
In terms of detailed analysis of who that might be, I thought the most fitting place to start here was with the rapidly improving Mercian Prince, who won off a seven pounds lower mark at Sandown earlier this month. On watching the race back, the most surprising aspect of that form is the way that he slipped, almost imperceptibly, into the race shortly after the Pond Fence, to the point where he was barely mentioned in the commentary.
I’m not sure though, even without forgetting how well he travelled, whether or not he retains sufficient capacity for improvement to win a better race from his revised rating. I say this because, for all that he travelled well into the race, it initially appeared that he was beaten fairly quickly and going down to the last fence he looked almost certain to be third. Shortly thereafter, he appeared to ‘hit overdrive’ and go away from his rivals relatively easily. While visually impressive, you’d have to be slightly worried that the finishing effect was equally likely to have been caused by the other two reaching the end of their tether and coming back to him rather than the other way around. Obviously if he is a doughty stayer, and the pace up front is likely to be relatively strong, then that may suit, as will the uphill finish, but I’m uneasy about offering him as a selection at this stage.
I do think though that there’s a lateral form line arising out of that race that could well be useful to follow here though. Marchillac, who was one of the twosome who came back towards Mercian Prince last time, was ultimately beaten some six lengths receiving two pounds, having previously been beaten eight and three quarter lengths, receiving eight pounds by the probably less heralded Dark Flame.
This is not the only metric by which Dark Flame’s form reads favourably – he managed to put eight lengths (conceding three pounds) between himself and More Buck’s when last they met, but now, by virtue of subsequent events is now only set to carry a pound more than that rival.
In a further, final boost, Poker School, the winner on Dark Flame’s last start went in again not long afterwards from a five pound higher mark. If he were from a more glamorous yard, I suspect he would be shorter price than he’s likely to be here. He’d be my choice.
NEPTUNE INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT CLASSIC NOVICES´ HURDLE - 3.25
There are two horses entered here that are defending unbeaten records.
They are from big yards, have powerful connections and of them looks as if he may have the potential to be the best horse in this race in the fullness of time.
And yet I think that they’re both going to taste defeat for the first time. Admittedly to an extent, the market does too, but that is rather by the by.
In the immediate short term, i.e. for Saturday, the most compelling case for me here is the one for Coo Star Sivola, Nick Williams’ comparatively exposed son of Assessor. To my mind, it seems that everything is set up for him, and in contrast to some of his rivals, I’d say that this is his optimum trip. Yet there’s still the potential for him to fly under the radar by virtue of his likely rivals – in a limited sense, he should still be near the top of the market – considering that he is a previous course and distance winner, considering that he is perhaps more battle hardened than any of his peers and considering that his form stands up to significant scrutiny.
In terms of the latter, not only was he third in a Fred Winter (a point which also goes someway to illustrating his battle hardness) he was also only beaten a length in a Grade Two at Chepstow in October – form that was advertised when the third, Mirsaale, was only beaten two and a quarter lengths by Moon Racer – who may now end up running in the Champion Hurdle.
There’s possibly been some unfair criticism of him – in hindsight it’s quite surprising that he wasn’t sent off favourite on New Year’s Day – but I suspect that might be, or have been, due to his lack of affection for a softer surface as evidenced by his poor performance at Auteuil this season (in a Grade One) and a below par run at Chepstow last term.
If the rain stays away, he will be hard to stop.
As for whom the best will be going forwards, I think honour falls to JP McManus’ Kimberlite Candy.
It was not immediately clear, earlier in the week, where his preferred destination wass this weekend having been also entered in the River Don over three miles at Doncaster. To my mind, that staying trip might’ve been better suited to him – he’s by Flemensfirth so stamina shouldn’t be an issue – because I just wonder if the pace and tempo here might catch him out a little bit in a way that three miles round Doncaster might not. I appreciate that both are novice graded contests so that difference may well be marginal but there’s going to be a natural variation in pace to take account of the difference in trip and at a relatively early stage of his development then the shorter trip may pose a theoretically greater chance of him being caught out.
The market appears to have been somewhat surprised by his win in a two and a half mile maiden on debut in a race that contained several previous winners – which if interpreted literally would probably leave him with a rating somewhere in the mid to low 140’s – and I’d say that he still looked a shade green when winning at Newcastle the time afterwards. Interestingly enough, that form, when assessed via the 121 rated Indian Brave (who was beaten around twenty lengths or so) probably affirms the rating which seemed plausible after his debut win. That greenness is what might well ultimately catch him out but at his current forecast price (14/1) then he might be worth a small investment.
Elsewhere, there is likely to be significant support for Paul Nicholls’ Topofthegame after his victory in a strong looking Ascot maiden.
Its arguable that he had the run of the race that day – the early pace was moderate and he was ridden much closer to it than the eventual runner up Criq Rock – and in a race of this nature he too looked very green in the closing stages. It was noticeable early on in the straight that his head carriage had become awfully high and matters started to descend towards farce as he began to throw the race away before rally late on. For all that that suggests that he was probably value for more, you’d perhaps be hard pushed to say that his performance was on a par with that of Coo Star Sivola or Kimberlite Candy bearing in mind the proximity of the 125 rated Alpha Male (beaten two and three quarter lengths)
At the moment, it seems to me that Nicky Henderson’s William Henry is far too short bearing in mind that his debut form with Pingshou – he was beaten a length at level weights – ties him fairly closely with Coo Star Sivola, who beat Pingshou thirteen lengths receiving ten pounds. Granted the three pounds he receives just about edges things in his favour, but for all that he is entitled to have improved from that performance, was there sufficient merit in his victory over Le Dauphin (who had been previously beaten twenty sixth lengths by the now untrusted Jenkins) to justify him being five times shorter in the betting market?
Coo Star Sivola
GALLIARDHOMES.COM CLEEVE HURDLE – 4.00
All too often it seems like trainers are too willing to make excuses for their horses, sometimes diving reasons for their defeat when most impartial observers can see that they were beaten on merit.
I’m not entirely sure that’s true of Ballyoptic, who really does seem to have been frighteningly unlucky to slip so significantly on landing that he’s ultimately over balanced. To that end, I’m minded to agree with Nigel Twiston-Davies when he says that there’s no inherent flaw in his jumping, he’s just landed in the wrong place at the wrong time, if you’ll excuse the cliché.
He seemed to benefit from new tactics at Ascot on his latest start (it was tough to tell in the fog) but by all accounts Richard Johnson seemed to think that he had quite a lot of horse left beneath him when gravity beckoned and, if you draw a line through his Newbury run, when a heavy fall at Wetherby might have left its mark, then you can start to make a case that he represents the value choice relative to Uknowhatimeanharry.
I’d say that there is much less to choose between them then the five pounds which splits them on official figures would seem to imply – on the basis of the limited pictures that were available from Ascot, it didn’t seem that there was an awful lot in it and Ballyoptic has shown previously that he’s not one that will down tools when things get tough. In fact, he’s the total opposite of that, as evidenced by his performance at Aintree last April.
In part, I suspect that the ratings gulf, and indeed Uknowhatimeanharry’s lofty rating in a wider sense, is derivative of his win in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, where there was a probable excuse for Ballyoptic and where the strong travelling Snow Falcon fell as the race was developing.
My concern with that is, if Snow Falcon fell, and Ballyoptic was below par – does that make it sound and reasonable basis to anoint him a short priced favourite both here and for the Stayers Hurdle? Respectively, I’d say both probably and no.
I suspect the only reasoned alternative to him here is Ballyoptic, but you’d pick him fully in the knowledge that that it’s actually not a particularly great betting stratagem to take a chance, from form that you couldn’t clearly see, that there’s some kind of proof that Ballyoptic had an excuse at Newbury and his new tactics will work.
Alternatively you could take the chance that Cole Harden’s return to hurdles sparks a resurgence in form, but that too is a risk bearing in mind that he’s now without a win in the six starts since his World Hurdle victory, and, cynically, at a certain point, breathing operations are probably subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Ultimately I formed the view that the most prudent move was to back Kotkikova each way, simply because there’s at least equal justification to suggest that she runs into (at least) a place as there is in backing Ballyoptic win only in a race the form suggests he might not be good enough to win. Where it’s 4/1 a place on Kotkikova and 4/1 win only on Ballyoptic, it just seems a safer option.
So why back her? Well, most, and in fact damn near all, of her best French form has been when she’s been ridden prominently and it was notable that she was ridden with restraint at Leopardstown in the race won by Vroum Vroum Mag. The reasoning behind that has never been made clear but, with equal rationality, it could have been an effort to ensure that she got the trip or it could have been designed to try and educate her to the nuances of Irish racing.
It was interesting that in the aftermath that Nicky Henderson proffered the Stayers Hurdle as a potential long term target though and I’d expect her to be better this time around as she appeared there off an eight month absence. In that light, being beaten nine and a half lengths or so by Vroum Vroum Mag does not read badly at all.
I think the concern with her would be the ground and it’s arguable that what I perceived as a fitness issue was in fact an inability to quicken on a sounder surface than what she has been accustomed to. At the price, that’s a chance you take, although it would probably help her chances if there were to be some rainfall between now and Saturday.
That said, in pure breeding terms there is no reason why she shouldn’t be able to produce on good ground – she is by the same sire as Dynaste, Very Wood and Le Vent D’Antan who all could – but the visual impression from Leopardstown was that she’d prefer to get her toe in a little bit more than she will do perhaps here. Either way, she is a multiple, and indeed prolific, winner in France and in a race where there isn’t a great deal of high strength form – even Uknowhatimeanharry’s Albert Bartlett win doesn’t look as strong as one might hope – she is very much overpriced at present.
Ultimately, I’d be surprised if she ended up anywhere other than the mares hurdle – it would seem to make very little sense for her to be directed to the Stayers Hurdle, where her owner has other strong options in Uknowhatimeanharry and Jezki, away from a race where he perhaps has fewer solid choices.
That, over her optimum trip, is a price she could well land (the 16/1 that’s currently on offer in certain places for that looks huge) but in the short term, she’s certainly worth an each way look here too.
Kotkikova (each way)
So what of the other thoughts that I had?
Well I have previously expressed a natural disinclination to accept the form of short priced favourites in juvenile hurdles – a less persuasive argument with Defi De Seuil perhaps than with Charli Parcs – because it seems all too readily that these lofty reputations go on the bonfire of failed ambition. Assumptions are made about the quality of form (as evidenced recently when the selection of this page, Don Bersy defeated Coeur Du Lion at 1/3) that ultimately prove unsustainable. So at the likely prices, why not take a chance on Gary Moore’s Early Du Lemo, who was a seventeen length winner on his only start over hurdles in France?
I’m also intrigued by the Cotswold Chase, because this may well be the first real test of Thistlecrack as a top class staying chaser.
The King George, ultimately, was not. We wanted it to be, but it wasn’t.
Why is that? Well beyond the fact that he appeared to underperform in any event, it’s been clear for a while that Cue Card doesn’t perform as well right handed (his prior King George defeat to Silviniaco Conti and Punchestown performance last year shows as much) and, with due respect, a Gold Cup contender probably should be beating the likes of Tea For Two and an ageing Silviniaco Conti in the manner that Thistlecrack did.
We probably didn’t learn too much that we didn’t already know, despite the perception.
In contrast, there’s likely to be a strong pace on here – Many Clouds and Kylemore Lough (who is way overpriced for the Ryanair in my view) may well have seen to that, but Smad Place certainly will – and it may be here that a mistake is eked out with Thistlecrack’s jumping. The thing that was remarkable about Coneygree winning the Gold Cup as a novice was just how well he jumped. He did not jump in a manner that is customarily expected of an inexperienced chaser and it will be a long time before we see anyone jump like he does, whether a novice or otherwise. The same cannot be said for Thistlecrack, who is chancey in the extreme.
I’m not sure there’s any value in praising his bravery in jumping from outside the wings of an open ditch because if a lesser horse did that it’d be called a terrible blunder – as happened when Frodon landed on the same ditch that Thistlecrack did on Caspian Caviar Gold Cup day – and at some point, Thistlecrack is either going to have to sharpen up or will be beaten as a result.
Also, I just wonder if there’s been a slight, unspoken, shift in attitude among the training community following Kempton, as it’s noticeable that Oliver Sherwood has been more or less lining Many Clouds up for a showdown, and Kerry Lee has decided to send Kylemore Lough here rather than to the handicap chase earlier on the card, whereas before the King George we were almost scrabbling round for opponents. Do they now see light where previously there was only darkness in terms of plotting a route to stop Thistlecrack?
Finally, we’ll also find out the truth of the one talking point that did come out of Kempton, that of whether or not Thistlecrack was coming to the limits of his stamina.
My overriding thought was that he was, albeit that the effect was exaggerated by Tom Scudamore celebrating in the saddle, and that it would be interesting if something were to really take him out of his comfort zone. That issue is likeky to be resolved on Saturday afternoon.
Really, the crown is his for the taking – but only if he can prove himself of sufficient merit.
With best wishes,