Last week was perhaps as close as this column has come to a genuine disappointment – Smooth Stepper went well enough without ever truly looking like he was going to get involved in the finish in the Eider (with a nod to the fact that Emperor’s Choice might’ve clipped his heel at one stage on the second circuit), Three Musketeers was perhaps a little cautious in the BetBright (and made a mistake that dulled his momentum at a crucial stage) and Capitaine was just much too free in the Dovecote.
I suppose these things happen now and then, and that sometimes you just have to dust yourself down and move on.
It’s disappointing, but, there’s a good day just around the corner.
And that corner brings with it exciting times. This blog is still in its relatively early stages and, it hopefully goes without saying that I am grateful to all who cast their eyes to this particular corner of the internet to check it out.
I am deeply indebted to those in the racing media, and indeed in a wider sense, who have retweeted my thoughts and supported them, and, I have been in touch with some of them this week to express my thanks.
Briefly digressing, last year I produced a very brief Festival guide for myself, my girlfriend and my dad, but it was something I enjoyed doing, and, was probably part of the reason that I picked up the habit of writing again.So, I decided to reprise the idea again this year, but with the idea that I would also produce hardback copies to send to those who have helped when really there was no need to do so.
I have ten physical copies (there was a minimum that had to be ordered) and, I have a copy that is, as yet, unaccounted for. So I thought I’d do a half-baked competition for it. Simply tweet me with who you think is your banker of the week and I’ll pick a winner at random on Sunday who’ll receive a free copy, postage and all.
As a side note, in researching my printing options, I discovered that it was possible to self-publish on the Amazon store on the kindle platform. You can download an app on any decent smartphone to read it (it’s just the Kindle App) and ‘Do you like Apple’s – A series of form essays on the non-handicap races at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival’ is available for £7, or, for Kindle Unlimited users, totally free. It runs to about 25,000 words, is about 130 pages and is a continuation of what I’m trying to do on here.
There’s essays on all the main races, and some notes about horses that I thought were well handicapped too.
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get down to this weekend’s action.
I thought that it was best to tackle the Grimthorpe at Doncaster, and both the two and half mile handicap chase and the two mile handicap hurdle from Newbury.
BETBRIGHT GRIMTHORPE HANDICAP CHASE
At a certain point, you just have to accept the fact that some form stands out to a degree where it almost can’t be ignored.
Doing so was a mistake I made recently in trying to downplay the interpretive strength of the Becher when looking at the Haydock Grand National Trial, and it all just goes to add to the fact that The Last Samuri appears to have a winning chance here, and, seems very much overpriced.
It’s almost repetitious to say that One For Arthur won the Classic Chase at Warwick, and that Vieux Lion Rouge did go on to win the Grand National Trial despite the weight of my words added to the four pound rise that he had been levied with. When you add in the solid run on Ucello Conti in Ireland when he was next seen in the Thyestes, is it really that unlikely that The Last Samuri will win here from a two pound higher mark than he was then?
He’s obviously less well treated than he was last year by virtue of his performances in the meantime but there’s absolutely no reason why he couldn’t defy top weight – Doncaster seems to appeal to him and the combination of good to soft ground and a trip ever so slightly beyond three miles is a profile consistent with four of his eight wins under rules.
There might be some concern that this is part of his wider preparation for the Grand National, and, therefore he might not be entirely at peak fitness, but that same point could have been raised last year too and he came home a resounding winner. I suppose it might be a potential worry that the form of that win isn’t all that strong – only Drop Out Joe, beaten some 68 lengths, has won since and even that was after a seven pound slide down the ratings, but, that can’t be as persuasive as the Becher Chase form is.
As regards the forecast favourite, Definitly Red, I’d formed the view that the handicapper had his measure with allotting him an eight pound rise for his win in the Rowland Merrick and, that form, extrapolated through the Haydock Grand National Trial probably bears that theory out – he was able to defeat Blaklion (who was perhaps below par) in receipt of officially twelve pounds (ratings 141 v 153), which became nine once Jamie Bargary’s claim was taken into account.
Clearly this is not a premise that should always be worked from, and conditionals claim for a reason, but given the qualities of Mr Bargary, he was good value for that three pounds worth of assistance, and, as such, I am going to take account of it. Given the margin of defeat – around ten lengths – you could make a clumsy argument that, at level weights (less Bargarry’s claim) that the two would have finished level, or within a length or thereof, even without accounting for the fact that Blaklion perhaps under performed.
Stepping ever so slightly into the hypothetical, Blaklion (152) (a perhaps fresher iteration of) was later beaten by Vieux Lion Rouge (146) by just over three lengths in the aformentioned Grand National Trial, conceding six pounds to his rival. Adjusting, again in an ungainly manner, to level weights, you could perhaps say that Blaklion would have been the hypothetical victor by an analogous amount than he was actually beaten by, and, may be the better horse at the weights. That improvement is perhaps explained by the difference in his physical well being from one start to the next, Wetherby having been his third tough race in the space of two months, and Haydock being preceded by two months off.
The margins are freely available and discoverable fact, but the suppositions about Blaklion’s well being are clearly less definitive. The further hypothetical element of it is that if The Last Samuri (159) had gotten to within a length of Vieux Lion Rouge off 142 in the Becher, conceding over a stone, then given that his rival was, in hindsight, well treated – then a rise of two pounds for that performance – given Vieux Lion Rouge’s subsequent win over Blaklion off 146 in the Haydock trial, and further rise to 155, then he should be able to account for Definitly Red off 149, conceding a mere twelve pounds.
That assessment is not offered cheaply, Definitly Red clearly has a significant chance – his victory over Otago Trial in a Newcastle Rehearsal Chase reads well in light of the fact that his rival would go on to score from a five pound higher mark subsequently, and would also be next best behind Bristol De Mai in the Peter Marsh.
Ultimately though, this race might develop into a genuine stamina test – the presence of habitual front runners Yala Enki and Vivaldi Collonges should see to that – and, on that basis, it will pay to side with The Last Samuri based on his known reserves of stamina and the fact that he all but denied top weight in the Becher despite a fairly similar pace profile taking effect there.
That had been the methodology by which I had sought to oppose Vieux Lion Rouge – reasoning that the potential for a slightly reduced pace angle at Haydock would be disadvantageous to him but, firstly, I was wrong about that, and secondly, the participants here are likely to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Selection: The Last Samuri
WILLIAM HILL “HIGH 5” SUPPORTING GREATWOOD HANDICAP HURDLE
At what point do you give up on a horse?
Is it too much to put him up one last time, in the knowledge that if he doesn’t win that you’re effectively guaranteeing that one day you’ll both walk hand in hoof toward’s the cliff?
Because, yet again, I cannot let Chesterfield go without support.
He remains theoretically well handicapped – at a de facto three pounds below his last ‘winning mark’, i.e. the mark that he would’ve won from but for a last flight fall – but he will need to settle better and it is notable that Seamus Mullins has enlisted the services of Jeremiah McGrath to ride him on this occasion, rather than Daniel Sansom or Kevin Jones, whom have ridden him previously. I am not sure whether this is by choice or through injury, but it is, nonetheless, worthy of comment.
Of course he will need to settle better than he did in the Lanzarote – a race that has already produced subsequent winners in the shape of Lord Of The Island, Kalondra and Fountains Windfall – but, theoretically, the step back in trip should suit him in that regard. Indeed, that was his first attempt at a trip beyond two miles, and perhaps it is no surprise that he was so headstrong early on.
It would be best to strike a line through Kempton entirely – everything seemed to go wrong, he was much too keen and went so wide at one stage that he looked liable to take a detour through the car park – and we know him to be much better than that. His historical form with Cloonacool and his run in the Ladbroke is enough to assure us of that.
At the time, I loosely worried that hanging in the way that he did was derivative of a physical ailment, which was possible given how long he was off for while in Bloomfields’ care, but thankfully it would appear that there are no ill-effects. Thinking back, his form in the Ladbroke looked quite good at the time, particularly so off the back of a long absence – which probably had a significant amount to do with the considerate ride he received – and, in support of that, Modus, whom was seventh to Chesterfield’s eighth in the Ladbroke would go on to win the Lanzarote off the same mark and Golden Spear would go on to be beaten just a length in the valuable Coral.ie handicap in Ireland won by Ice Cold Soul.
The trainer’s blog – usually a source of vital information as well as mirth was surprisingly quiet about his potential chances, but that may be in part because he was saving his more bullish comments for the Racing Post, a publication that he featured in last Sunday and spoke favourably of Chesterfield. .
He is by Pivotal, which suggests he should handle the forecast softer ground and, his runs at Kempton and Cheltenham suggests that he does – equally he is a four time winner on ground which features good – and would not have been disadvantaged if the rain hadn’t come either . In terms of comparative analysis, its also perhaps worth noting that his flat rating was 86, putting him ahead of London Prize.
He, Chesterfield, is selected here, albeit that he may well be headed towards the doors of the last chance saloon!
I could not make the same case that Bloody Mary was particularly well treated, despite her market prominence. In part, her popularity could be derivative of her proximity to Limini in the Mares’ Novices Hurdle last year – form which looks stronger now that Limini may potentially be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle. Perhaps a more feasible yardstick is Dusky Legend (who was a four and a half lengths second to Limini in that same race) and who is now rated 135. Given that it was a further two and a half lengths back to Bloody Mary, it suggests, to me at least, that 133 is probably a relatively accurate rating for Bloody Mary at this stage considering that Dusky Legend’s mark is pretty robust on the back of three starts this season, each time performing to a mark between 130 and 135. I’d also be a little concerned that this is the first that we’ve seen of her this season, and, accordingly she probably yields a little bit of race fitness to her rivals.
The presence of London Prize is interesting. He naturally creates an impression of being unexposed by dint of having been travelling strongly enough when falling at Musselburgh last month in a race won by the useful Diego Du Charmil. Whether or not, in realistic terms, he is particularly well treated though is another issue. His hurdles form thus far is quite difficult to accurately quantify – his mark of 128 is theoretically accurate relative to that of Bandsman (129) in light of their meeting, but that was in the middle of December and the latter named hasn’t run since, and London Prize fell on his only subsequent hurdles start. It is therefore potentially possible that both are underestimated by their current marks, or that both will find them difficult to win from. It might perhaps be telling that although both were fifteen lengths clear of the third, then fact that Bandsman only went up four pounds, suggesting that may be it wasn’t the deepest of races – an idea which the subsequent performances of Ain’t No Limits and Straits Of Magellan re-enforce. As a further comparator, his flat form, although clearly not strictly determinative of his chances here, entitles him to a rating of 84, slightly below Chesterfield’s 86, suggesting that there should be less between them than their prices suggest.
The final one to note is Alan King’s Montbazon, whom is now five pounds lower than when third in the County Hurdle in 2014. He clearly doesn’t quite get up the hill at Cheltenham – he’d probably be a dual festival winner if he did – but his mark does make him tempting here at a track where he won in good style when still in the novice hurdling ranks. It’s interesting that connections are persevering with him – he’s been off for around eighteen months twice – and there must be some hope that he retains some of his old abilities, for all that there was little or no sign of that towards the tail end of last season. He might be one to watch, but not back, here.
All this being said, I thought that there was a decent chance that, had he run that, this would have gone to Paul Nicholls’ progressive High Secret, and these notes are being left here for future use.
His proximity to both Lough Derg Spirit (137) and Peter The Mayo Man (140) albeit receiving three pounds, was the first, and perhaps most obvious indication that a mark of 133 could well underestimate him. It was perhaps always the case that, at this stage, that a mark of 142 marginally overrated the latter named – as suggested by inference last week, and accordingly he has now been eased to a mark of 140, but, that still suggests that High Secret could be well treated here, perhaps all the more so now Peter The Mayo Man’s mark has reached a more robust figure. The trip, at just a shade over two miles, will be much more to his liking than the slightly shorter trip at Musselburgh when he was perhaps a little outpaced. In some respects, it was a surprise that he took in that race – two of his six wins on the flat were over two miles and the other four were over trips in excess of a mile and a half – and that might be an implied hint about the esteem that he is held in at home, given that both of his rivals that day were being talked up as potential candidates to take in the Supreme – albeit that that notion may have cooled with Peter The Mayo Man following his slightly disappointing run in the Dovecot.
The ground, now soft, a development which may hamper a number of his would have been rivals, should not have unduly disadvantaged him in quite the same way (being by High Chaparral he really should act on any surface in any event, but we can specifically point to a solid performance in an Ascot flat handicap – one of two times he has encountered such conditions, the other being his career debut, over a trip that time would prove to be woefully inadequate) as evidence that he, should, subjectively, be able to perform to his best. He was more than useful on the level, and indeed was rated 95 (the highest in the field) suggesting too that if (and it must be an if) he is able to translate all of that ability to this code, that he will be one to note going forwards.
In his absence, the most cogent case is definitely for Chesterfield.
WILLIAM HILL “HIGH 5” SUPPORTING GREATWOOD GOLD CUP HANDICAP CHASE
This might, for the first time in what seems like a very long time, be the day for Vibrato Valtat.
It’s become fashionable to denigrate, or even not to trust him, but it might just be that things swing his way in first time blinkers, which could unlock the key to him.
They perhaps would’ve assisted in his recent run at Warwick, although it’s worth noting that the horse that beat him, Templehills, was in receipt of twenty four pounds and was perhaps underestimated by both the market and the handicapper (his prior form read F1F – but the win was comfortable and he fell too early to make an assessment at Leicester, but, tellingly he’s now up eight pounds) which made the size of the weight concession that Vibrato Valtat was attempting, all but impossible.
That being so, as a result of that outcome Vibrato Valtat has now fallen to his lowest rating since his early novice chasing days, and therefore makes plenty of appeal, especially with the useful Stan Sheppard taking off an extra five pounds.
He is comparably enough weighted with Dresden through No Buts, whom Vibrato Valtat was successful in to give the best part of two and half stone to (once you factored in the weight allowance of Daniel Hiskett (5)), Dresden having previously attempted to give him a mere nineteen pounds, narrowly failing in so doing) but has the class, the aforementioned weight assistance that Stan Sheppard brings and the unquantifiable aid of the first time blinkers -assuming they work – in his favour here.
That combination might well be enough to see him home in front since the 2015 version of the Haldon Gold Cup, which he won from a mark of 157 – perhaps tellingly, five pounds higher than he appears here.
In many respects, his ‘drop back’ down into handicaps was perhaps overdue – and has probably had the effect of masking the abilities that he retains because we have become used to seeing him defeated, but, his performances this season relative to both Vaniteux and Royal Regatta suggests that he still retains the abilities to be rated in the low 150’s.
Extrapolating from that rating, if the connections have formed the view that headgear will assist, it must be on the grounds that there is a notion that he is better than he has been showing. Taking that idea one step further, it would be harsh to say that he has been anything other than competitive without the headgear, and, theoretically, that 150’s ball park is probably a hypothetical ‘floor’ value for him if a resurgence is indeed sparked by the blinkers.
Overall, I thought that the early markets might well have got the early pricing of this race a little wrong – I had assumed that Dresden would be a little shorter than he appears, especially with the services of the Champion jockey in the saddle, and that Oldgrangewood would be a little longer bearing in mind that he is eight pounds worse off with Dresden for their meeting at Wetherby earlier on in the month.
I suppose that they are not is derivative of the fact that Oldgrangewood is perceived to have an ineffable level of progression – he won that handicap from Dresden off a mark of 130, having previously won a novice handicap chase at the same venue from the same mark.
There’s also a cogent argument to say that, had he not been brought down when travelling well at Aintree in December, that he’d be unbeaten over fences, and that engenders itself to a relatively short price. It’s not as if he’d been winning weak races either – third behind him at Wetherby was Captain Redbeard, who would go on to win a Haydock novice handicap from a six pound higher mark.
That being so, I did wonder ultimately though whether or not there’s a point at which that progression will start to level out, and It may be that that ceiling has been arrived at somewhere in the midst of the latest nine pound rise. The visual impression created by that win over Dresden was okay, but perhaps not meriting such a rise, and, it would be a concern that The Dutchman (beaten one and half lengths conceding seven pounds) is, fairly reliably, a high 130’s horse – he’s run to 139 on his last two starts – and to me that has Oldgrangewood at present, somewhere in the mid to upper 130’s, rather than the low to mid 140’s and I’d be happy to take him on on that basis.
I suspect too that Hollywoodien will improve for the step back up in trip – his reversion to the two miles came as a slight shock given how well he’d won over two and a quarter, relative to his poorer performance at two miles on his seasonal reappearance – and the return to better ground – but he has it to prove that he can win from his mark of 142, having looked a solid, if perhaps not particularly progressive type from 134 throughout the tail end of last season and the earlier part of this one.
I’d be happy to side with Vibrato Valtat here.
With best wishes,