Last weekend was very much one of ‘what ifs’ wasn’t it?
In the end, I was amazed to see De Dollar Man go off the price that he did, and, just for a second I thought he was going to be the start of a great day. Beyond Conceit deserves huge amounts of credit for his victory in the end – he did an awful lot wrong on the way round and appeared beaten as they turned for home – but I think the doubts that were cast over Topofthegame’s resolution were probably accurate.
If that had have been the end to the misfortune, I suspect I’d have been able to cope with it, but to have Flintham get beaten by a short head, over a race 57 yards longer than advertised, by a horse whose jockey got an eleven day whip ban was, as one kind soul pointed out to me on Twitter, ‘sickening.’
Thankfully, Vicente was at least beaten on merit – I’m not sure I could’ve coped with another close call. He was very disappointing, and will need to be much better to have a chance in April.
Once I’d calmed down – I will freely admit to kicking the sofa in frustration immediately after Flintham – to have been involved in close finishes at big prices – De Dollar Man (14/1) and Flintham at a much bigger price than he would ultimately start – is at least testament that some of the form analysis theories are working.
One day soon, we’ll all come out on the right side of a photo finish and all will be well again. Maybe that’ll be this weekend?
In any event, I’ll be looking at the Dovecote, the BetBright Chase, and the Eider, and, without further ado, here goes.
SKY BET DOVECOTE NOVICES´ HURDLE
I was, and still am, amazed that Capitaine is (or depending on when you read this, was) available at marks in the region of 11/4 and, in what is becoming almost a familiar refrain, he cannot go unbacked at that kind of price. He should be much shorter.
There is a degree of mistrust about him, but it’s not immediately clear why this is. Rationally, he is the only graded winner in the field (he is penalised accordingly, but so too is Elgin for winning a lesser race) and he has been favourably compared by his trainer to Call Equiname – not a comparison that is likely to be thrown around lightly, even if he was better known as chaser than a hurdler.
His performance in the Tolworth was also much better than he is being given credit for – being beaten by five lengths, on manifestly unsuitable going, by Finian’s Oscar is absolutely no disgrace at all and he will improve significantly if the surface underfoot at Kempton remains sound. His preference for it so being is fairly obvious, two of his three career defeats have come on soft ground and all three victories have come on good, good and good to soft ground, but are also further confirmed by his breeding as progeny of Montmatre tend to show a significant preference for better ground with reference to their percentage strike rates.
Even if you start to delve a little deeper into the minutiae of the form, the case for Capitaine is maintained – he meets Captain Forez on the same terms that he beat him on at Ascot and should have more than enough to account for Peter The Mayo Man by virtue of their comparable form through Lough Derg Spirit.
I’d rather formed the view that Peter The Mayo Man was a little shorter in the market than his form necessarily implied that he should be, for all that he too seemingly requires a sound surface and may well get one. The reasoning behind this is for all that his two victories earlier in the season were visually impressive, there is a lack of depth to the form of the race that he won at Newbury in particular. Examining the subsequent performances of Barizan, who finished third, and Auenwirbel, who was fourth, suggests that he was very much entitled to win as he did, and, more to the point, he really should have done. Both of those horse have been repeatedly beaten since – Barizan four times and Auenwirbel twice, causing ten and six pound reductions in their handicap marks, and, allied to the point regarding Lough Derg Spirit, I am just struggling to build a case for him.
I felt more or less the same way about Elgin and Mohaayed too. Both of these horses have been considered in these pages before (prior to the Supreme Trial at Haydock) and I had been dismissive of them then because it appeared that the thinking behind the support for them was flawed. That was that their popularity in that market was derivative of their performances against Jenkins, who subsequently let the form down. It is may be telling that, subsequent to that, Jenkins has now been put away for the season, lending a further air of dissatisfaction to already shaky form.
At the time, I argued that there was little logic in allotting Elgin a rating of 145, by virtue of a two length victory over Dubawi Angel (132) and beating the 136 rated Ballyhill by twelve lengths, in light of the fact that the Ballyhill went on to be beaten sound by Willoughby Court. That logic is probably confirmed by the fact that his rating has now fallen to 142, but even that may not yet be a truly accurate assessment of his abilities, given that his performance behind Neon Wolf naturally engenders a relatively lofty rating but, ultimately, Neon Wolf could’ve won that Supreme Trial by whatever distance he wanted to. Further, I’m not really sure we learned too much about Mohaayed either by virtue of his victory in a weak race at Taunton over a horse he was rated almost a stone better than, and for all that he gets three pounds from Elgin and Capitaine, that’s probably nowhere near enough to render him competitive.
The theory seems to be then that the biggest danger to Capitaine is likely to be Mr Henderson’s River Wylde. There’s an element of logic to that – he is unbeaten over hurdles – but at the same time, it’s notable from his prior form that he’s underperformed on the two occasions that he’s encountered a genuinely sound surface. Admittedly both of those starts were in bumpers and, accordingly you might argue that they are of limited reference to this race, but there was clearly a degree of confidence on both occasions (he started EvensF and 13/8F) and even if there were other factors at play (perhaps inexperience in his first start under rules and then a preference for a flatter track), when you are having to make multiple excuses to explain repeated issues, it becomes a real worry about his chances.
There is little that can be explained by reference to his breeding – sons of Oscar tend to be relatively versatile ground wise, and he is out of a Mandulus mare, again hinting at versatility – but that the second race that he won at Ludlow was the deeper of the two, and was on the softest ground, raises some alarm bells for me.
I’m also not entirely sure how strong that form is – his debut effort, from which he is entitled to improve, comes out at a rating somewhere in the low 130s by references to the distances that the inferior Melrose Boy (123) and Monbeg Oscar (119) were beaten – that being seven and eleven lengths respectively – and it’s not overly promising that the third placed horse on the second of his two hurdle wins, The Blue Bomber (120) was beaten some forty three lengths on his next start.
None of the other horses in the first six that day have run since, although there is perhaps an interesting parallel to be drawn via Newera, beaten eight lengths in receipt of seven pounds by River Wylde, whom had previously been beaten just over eight lengths by Harry Fry’s Challonial – who was three and a bit lengths behind Captaine in the Tolworth. Literal interpretation of a pound to a length is not necessarily encouraged, but, on that basis, it would seem to indicate that River Wylde comes out marginally the better of two, and then receives three pounds from Capitaine.
But, and here is why literal interpretation is sometimes in appropriate – ultimately, if Captaine can achieve a mark of 145 on going conditions that were not entirely suitable to him, then the scope for his improvement once he gets his ideal conditions should sufficient to enable him to concede that weight, especially because those self-same ground conditions would have the effect of making it less likely that River Wylde runs to his potential.
Or, expressed differently, River Wylde is, on the basis of what we know, slightly better treated by the conditions of the race, but is likely to face conditions that render is less probable that he runs to his full potential. This is of course on the proviso that the Met Office data is correct and that Kempton missed the worst of the weather brought in by storm Doris. If so, and the ground remains good – the going stick reading on Wednesday afternoon suggests that this is a possibility – then that impliedly reduces the factor by which he is perceived to be better off with Capitaine.
That effect is then doubly exaggerated by the fact that Capitaine is likely to improve for the different conditions and as such should have more than enough class to win here.
BETBRIGHT HANDICAP CHASE
The feature handicap of the day, could, and perhaps should, go to Dan Skelton’s Three Musketeers.
He has undoubtedly been a shade disappointing as a chaser, given the promise of his previous form, but this race presents him with an ideal opportunity to get things back on the right track. It should not be forgotten too that he ran in four grade ones as a novice, including at the festival, and he is and was clearly held in some regard by connections. It was also subsequently confirmed that he was a little bit lame after that run, and that that would go some way to explaining his apparent under performance.
I’m not so sure that he is soft ground dependant, despite all his four wins coming on an easier surface, by virtue of the fact that he was a respectable fourth in last year’s JLT, beaten only just over five lengths behind Black Hercules, Bristol De Mai and L’Ami Serge on good ground.
In an interesting comparable, Three Musketeers is now rated 152, following his Market Rasen win in first time cheekpieces, whereas the others three horses named above are now rated 156, 166 and 152 over fences. Now, Bristol De Mai and Black Hercules are probably the significant outliers in all of that, being that one has improved significantly this season, and the other has been largely disappointing – Black Hercules’ 156 rating does not look robust at all – but the relative ability level L’Ami Serge. who has now run to marks of 153, 153 and 152 on his last three chase starts, suggests that Three Musketeers would need only to improve by a couple of pounds from his performances last season to be (theoretically) very well handicapped from a mark of 152.
It is possible that the cheekpieces that have been applied have yielded a greater improvement than has already been quantified – he was more impressive than he is being credited with at Market Rasen, and visually appeared to down tools a little over the last, Harry Skelton having not gotten too serious with him in the act of opening up an impressive lead – and it is equally plausible that a step up in trip could also yield further improvement. Of course there are counter points to these theories – the cheek pieces may not be so effective second time round, or, alternatively, he could equally be disadvantaged by the step up to three miles, as he appeared to weaken in his one previous start at the trip in a point to point – but I’m satisfied that he’s previously shown sufficient stamina to win over an extended two and a half miles to assuage the latter worry.
It’s perhaps telling that Dan Skelton had considered stepping him up in trip on his seasonal reappearance, before deciding against the idea. At 8/1, he too is a must back for me this weekend.
I wasn’t too thrilled with the prospects of anything else in the race, and became even less so once Tea For Two came out, but of the remainder, Theatre Guide would perhaps be the one who causes most alarm. He is a previous winner of this race, last year, from a mark of 139, but he remains progressive and landed a decent Cheltenham handicap in December, narrowly touching off Perfect Candidate, whom franked the form by coming out and winning comfortably off a three pounds higher mark at Exeter next time out, but, he has had three fairly tough races thus far this season – that Cheltenham win came sandwiched between creditable runs in both the Hennessy and the Welsh National – and I just wonder whether or not over the last two seasons he has given the impression that he’s slightly better when fresher at the start of the season.
My overriding feeling about this market is that it has been priced up in a manner that furthers the thought that it’s now a weaker than average renewal. That creates an uncertainty, and has led to a situation whereby Irish Saint heads the market, almost by virtue of the fact that he is trained by Paul Nicholls, whom, as champion trainer, has a better chance than anyone of training the winner and because he was won three times here.
Objectively, he has shown no sign that he will stay three miles thus far, and, being that his last four starts have either been over three miles or just ever so slightly further, would you want to back a favourite whose races comments read ‘weakened, finished tired’, ‘weakened two out’, ‘weakened’ and ‘kept on one pace’?
There may be a perception that he will improve for better ground, possibly by virtue of the fact that two of the starts where he weakened were on soft ground and that naturally fosters the idea that he ‘didn’t get home on the ground’ but of his seven victories under rules, only one of them came on a sound surface and two have been on soft, two on good to soft, one on very soft and one on heavy, and he’s by a sire (Saints Des Saint) whose progeny are customarily better on softer ground, so that argument isn’t perhaps as compelling as it might appear. I would be happy to overlook him.
I would also be relatively happy to overlook Double Shuffle, for all that he appeared to improve for the step up to three miles when winning a course and distance handicap over Christmas. The six pound increase appears broadly reasonable – he was quite impressive – but Go Conquer, Out Sam and More Buck’s have not come out and advertised the quality of that form since, and he meets Three Musketeers on three pounds worse terms than he did at Newbury, and may have struggled to go past him in any event. Allied to the fact that he is not always the most fluent of jumpers, he may find that things progress quicker than might necessarily be expected in a three mile chase and that that will put a potential flaw under some pressure. He had also been relatively well held off a variety of marks in the mid to low 140s to suggest that 149 might be a little bit beyond him.
The latter premise is offered with greater confidence than the first – the pace angle here is by no means obvious, so much so that the only element of it that I would be relatively confident in confirming is Viva Steve, but there are enough of these, including the protagonists, who would like to be tracking the pace and will, by their mere presence, ensure relative honesty in pace terms. If that is the case, I think that Three Musketeers will be able to sit just behind it in the early stages and get himself into the race. If he does so, and stays the trip, then this could be his day.
BETFRED EIDER HANDICAP CHASE
It was difficult, in all honesty to come to a totally firm view on this race, but, that notwithstanding, it is one that has the appearance of there being some hidden value.
That is because a lot of the top end of the market is, to say the least, unconvincing.
Alto Des Mottes looks interesting on the basis of his course win last time out, but has produced weak finishing efforts in consecutive renewals of the North Yorkshire National – and a three and a half mile handicap at Haydock – and these cast real doubts over his stamina.
Meanwhile, although there are no doubts about his stamina, there is an element of protective pricing about Shotgun Paddy, and his market prominence appears almost based on his former glories more so than anything else. He is, and always will be, a horse whom has jumping flaws, and, it is a credit to him that he runs consistently well in spite of them.
Theoretically you could look at him and take the view that he has a real chance – he is some seven pounds lower than he was when second in this last season, and, perhaps more operatively, is eight pounds lower than when he last won – but a lot of his better form now is historical, and there is no room for sentiment in such scenarios. That his last win was three years and thirteen starts ago is, to me, starting to look more as a result of the ravages of time more than it is sliding to an attractive handicap mark.
I was not necessarily sold on Baie Des Iles either, who appears from a mark nine pounds higher than when winning a Grand National Trial at Punchestowns on her last start. In many ways, she rather reduced that to something of a non-event, in a manner not dissimilar to that which Velocity Boy had done earlier on the card, and Acapella Bourgeois would do to greater fanfare in subsequent weeks, by getting an early lead which rapidly became insurmountable.
Her connections and/or rider deserve great credit for exposing that particular flaw in the race shape, because they were significantly different tactics than those which had been employed when she had run creditably in the Welsh National on her previous start. The difference in pace angle is enough to make her a slightly uneasy proposition for me here, particularly so off top weight, because with Rigadin De Beauchene in the field, there is no chance of her getting such an uncontested lead. That, added to the fact that she meets Raz De Maree on equal terms as when finishing behind him at Chepstow, means that I will look elsewhere.
My overriding fear with the Welsh National itself is that it is being retrospectively overrated because it was won by the (now) Gold Cup favourite. If you set aside Baie Des Iles victory on the grounds that it occurred as a result of a tactical quirk and is thus analytically unreliable, then the form isn’t necessarily that strong – Houblon Des Obeaux (third) has been beaten a cumulative sixty five lengths on his next two starts, Beg To Differ (fourth) looked well enough held at Sandown off a three pounds lower mark before his sad demise at Carlisle and Vicente was a huge disappointment in last weekend’s Haydock Grand National trial.
Should that happen, the other horse whom I though fitted that bill, and who has run respectably on heavy ground previously, was Sue Smith’s Smooth Stepper, whom landed the spoils in a three mile handicap at the track in good style when last seen. He has an excellent record at Newcastle – he is two from three at the track – and, although unsuccessful, his run in the Borders National suggested that he has the stamina for a marathon trip such as this, and, now that that has been proven, it would be no surprise for him to run more prominently – which will suit him more – than he was at Kelso, where there may have been an understandable worry that he would not last home if too exuberant too soon.
The form of his last win is no more than okay – second place Bigirononhiship was second off the same mark on his most recent start – but it was noticeable that there was a substantial improvement in him (Smooth Stepper) that day, both in the way that he travelled and in the fluency of his jumping, and I wonder if there is more to come. Even if there is not, there are some historical semblances of form that suggest he has more than a half chance of defying a career high mark here, most notably getting to within six lengths of the then 151 rated Seeyouatmidnight, albeit in receipt of three pounds, but, a repeat of that performance, at a course that he clearly has a great deal of affection for, would put him very much in the mix.
Analysis of his form via Bigirononhiship also reads favourably elsewhere, albeit in a convoluted way – because Bigirononhiship’s form relative to Chase The Spud (just over eight lengths ahead receiving eight pounds) suggests that in light of Chase The Spud beating Mysteree by three and a half lengths giving away ten pounds, Smooth Stepper can, theoretically, cope with giving seven pounds to the more fancied Mysteree, whom would have to defy a career high mark in any event.
For all my doubts on the Welsh National, I do feel that there is a potentially interesting horse to be drawn from the race and that is Neil Mulholland’s Goulanes. Roger Brookhouse has been incredibly patient with this son of Mr Combustible, and, at a certain point, that must be a hint that he retains a significant amount of his old abilities. Indeed, in something of a familiar theme for this column, he fits the profile of having travelled well for a time on his seasonal reappearance before seeming to get tired.
In many respects I was surprised to see him travelling so well, but, that came as a welcome relief in that that too hinted that he did retain the ability needed to win here.
Obviously he was still pulled up, but given that Goulanes hadn’t seen the track since winning a Midlands National in 2014, a lack of race fitness was almost implied. He will, undoubtedly, improve for that run, and talent wise, he was probably just about the best in this field. He was sixth in an RSA and won the Towton (on soft ground) as a novice, but owing to his absence, he is now lower in the handicap that he was when winning at Uttoxeter.
For a horse who jumps well, has historical class and is proven at staying trips, the 33/1 at which he was available meant that, had he run, he would certainly have been added to the weekend portfolio. Sadly, he does not run – a fact perhaps portended by sole start on heavy ground (2013 Welsh National where he was pulled up) and in light of that and his injury problems, it was no real surprise to see him withdrawn from the field. He does however remain of interest, perhaps for a repeat bid at Uttoxeter.
With best wishes,