A Saturday afternoon of high-class NH action very much centred on the return of champion Big Bucks only for his party to be crashed by an unheralded northern challenger as Knockara Beau (pictured on right) delivered a knock-out blow on the climb to the line. It was a race that polarised opinions in anticipation of the World Hurdle in March and Martin Greenwood leads off a comprehensive bulletin with his in-depth take on that surprise result.
All eyes were focussed on Prestbury Park last Saturday, principally on returning superstar Big Bucks, writes Martin Greenwood.
Unbeaten since 2008, Big Bucks was ridden for the first time by young Twiston-Davies following a rather bizarre publicly-discussed change of jockey issue.
Absent for over a year, Big Bucks looked to have found a straightforward task in the Gilliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle even allowing for him conceding weight to all but one of his opponents his nearest rival on ratings Reve de Sivola was rated 12lb inferior. Of course you have to factor in whether Bucks was a 100% or near 100% straight, and I think by the end of the Cleeve Hurdle one can only assume he most certainly was not.
Ridden boldly, Bucks looked like his old self for most of the contest, hurdling fluently and seemingly enjoying himself. However after looking the likely winner throughout he tired visibly on the run-in on the testing ground and was swallowed up by surprise winner Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross.
Opinion post-race seemed divided, some sections arguing he had gone and others suggesting it was a decent effort after being on the sidelines, and a percentage of both camps arguing he was ridden too forcefully. There may have been a case that Bucks would have won ridden slightly more conservatively but equally there is a chance that the tactics would have made no difference.
I favour taking a positive slant on the comeback, my figures notwithstanding. I have him running to only 160 compared to his long-standing 174 rating (first put on in 2009), but have dropped him to 170 to acknowledge the element of doubt following his absence. I think there was enough promise to suggest that he is certainly no back number and feel he still merits being favourite for the World Hurdle, the only caveat there being the race options of super-mare Annie Power.
Back to Knockara Beau, who was ridden as usual by Czech-born Faltejsek. Nowhere near as good as the likes of Big Bucks, hes nonetheless been a star for his small yard and often runs well at Cheltenham, despite the very long journey from Northumberland. He had seemed exposed as a mid to high 140s hurdler and chaser but was rated in the low 150s over hurdles a while back and for now I have increased his rating to 154, with At Fishers Cross back to the 157 he showed in his novice season having produced a better round of jumping.
Knockara Beau was one of many horses to strike a blow for the North on Saturday. The BHA Handicapping team is constantly being told that Northern jumpers are up against it, despite several sets of stats proving otherwise.why let the facts spoil a good argument, eh? As well as Knockara, we had a Northern winner of a handicap at Cheltenham and placed horses in both the featured handicap chase and the concluding handicap hurdle. Allied to that, the Northern-trained pair of Urban Hymn (142) and Blakemore (140) fought out the finish of the River Don novice hurdle at Doncaster, beating several Southern-trained runners in the process. Maybe, just maybe, the doom mongers out there should concentrate on the roses rather than the manure!
Coming of age early
An innovative strategy seems to be paying dividends for the juvenile hurdlers trained by Nick Williams, writes David Dickinson.
By the time Akdam won the first juvenile hurdle in Britain at Hexham in June, the Williams stable was already having runners in juvenile races in France. Le Rocher broke his duck with victory at Dieppe the day after Akdams initial success. This was not the first juvenile victory for the yard, Fox Norton having scored as early as April at Fontainebleau.
Fox Norton went to the top of my domestic juvenile figures by beating Royal Irish Hussar at Doncaster in December, the second time the pair had met, also the second time that Fox Norton had come out as the better horse at the weights.
In adding Saturdays Grade 2 to his Chepstow Grade 1 success, Le Rocher now goes to the top of the pile with a new rating of 149. Vicenzo Mio is the conundrum here the form of his Kempton win is working out well but his two runs at Prestbury either side of that success do not stack up nearly as well.
If the juveniles left a few questions to be answered, Annie Powers fluent Doncaster success told us precious little about her that we did not already know. She is good, very good and almost certainly deserving of the 165 rating given to her when beating Zarkandar so well on New Years Day. The only thing we dont know about her is which Cheltenham Championship race she will end up in. In receipt of the mares allowance she would be Hurricane Flys biggest threat, on our current figures at least.
And so to Hurricane Fly. His was an extraordinary achievement on Sunday in winning his 19th Grade 1. Here again we were left with questions to be answered but this is no time to criticise the winner he was set a task and he prevailed, end of story. Whether finishing less than three lengths in front of the thirteen-year-old Captain Cee Bee can be interpreted as the most solid championship form, I very much doubt.
When Our Conor moved up alongside the great horse and out-jumped him at the last, the Fly had to knuckle down and knuckle down he did, and he was pulling away at the line. The race was again not run to suit Jezki and he will likely need a strong pace throughout to play a part in the main event come March. From a handicapping point of view, what am I supposed to make of Captain Cee Bees last two runs, career bests at his age? I can see getting him in the right place in the County Hurdle weights (assuming he is entered) as one of next months challenges!
Valdez brings King in from the cold
The withdrawal of 2012 Champion Hurdle-winner Rock On Ruby stripped much of the interest from Doncasters Racing Post Lightning Novices Chase, writes John de Moraville.
But that will not have bothered trainer Alan King, for whom hat-trick scorer Valdez ensured the return of the good times after his stables untimely mid-season shut-down.
King stated that Saturdays Grade 2 event would determine whether Valdez was up to Arkle standard or would be better off focussing his Cheltenham sights on the less exalted Grand Annual Handicap.
This latest success, with Valdez running to a mark of 153, confirms that the Arkle remains a realistic target. And, since the gelding is unbeaten over fences and hails from a yard that has been under a cloud, there should be every chance of better things to come.
When last seen two months earlier, Valdez had romped away with a novices handicap chase at Newbury that proved very difficult to rate, so it is pleasing to reflect that raising the chestnut 17lb for that success to 152+ has not proved to be an overreaction.
Front-running Irish raider Arnaud (up 6lb to 148) maintained his progression with a valiant second on Saturday just ahead of the staying-on Fox Appeal (remains on 152), who appeared to find the drop back to 2m (all his twelve previous jump starts had been over at least 2m3f) against him.