14 Apr 15

There’s more to Aintree than just the Grand National and whereas Phil Smith’s Head of Handicapping blog covers the showpiece there’s a bumper update here on most of the other top-class action, starting with a former Champion Hurdler who looks back at the height of his powers.

 Jezki’s just the job

We were rather spoilt with the quality of performances put up in the two open Grade 1 hurdle races at Aintree, and whilst it’s hard to be dogmatic about the exact level of what Jezki achieved in winning the Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle I’ve credited him with a belated return to his Champion Hurdle-winning best for the time being, writes Graeme Smith.

The race looked in the balance when Arctic Fire crashed out at the last. If anything McCoy was a shade more active on Jezki than Walsh on Arctic Fire, but that’s essentially a difference in their riding styles, and with Arctic Fire having run to 169 when second in the Champion Hurdle I felt it was fair to promote Jezki back to that level – something I was more comfortable doing in the knowledge he’d achieved that rating last season. He had shaped as though the longer trip may well help with a revival when only fourth in this season’s Champion too.

169 is a fair bit higher than the average winner’s rating of 164 from the last five years but the two big guns looked to make for an above-average renewal in any case. Certainly a standard based on pre-race ratings went a good way to backing that figure up. I rated Rock On Ruby three lengths closer than the official margin as he was around five lengths in front of Volnay de Thaix (finished a length and a half behind Rock On Ruby) when hampered by the falling Arctic Fire at the last, and going through his pre-race 160 also backed up Jezki’s figure.

The Grade 1 World Famous Just Eat Mersey Novices’ Hurdles provided Nichols Canyon with the opportunity to redeem for his slightly disappointing third in the Neptune at Cheltenham and he took it with both hands.

He’d raced far too freely at Cheltenham but had earlier beaten the winner Windsor Park over a shorter trip at Leopardstown and pushed himself back above that rival on my figures with a bigger defeat of Parlour Games (148) than Windsor Park had managed. Nichols Canyon took over travelling easily at the second last and, after Walsh had rather waited in front, put an extra three lengths between him and the runner-up from the length-and-a-half margin at the last when finally asked for everything. For that he earned an extra 1lb over the bare four and a half lengths – which I’d say is relatively conservative – and I now have him on 154. Rather like Jezki’s figure, that will obviously have to be finalised in discussions with the Irish Handicapper prior to the publications of the Anglo-Irish Classification at the end of the season.

The other 2m4f Hurdle at Aintree was the ultra-competitive Alder Hey Children’s Charity Handicap on Friday’s card and there’s every chance one or more of the principals will have gone into many a notebook.

I’ve been really impressed with Theinval on his last two starts and have rated him in advance of the bare form he’s achieved both times. He’d travelled like a horse some way ahead of his mark when landing a well-contested handicap for horses balloted out of Cheltenham last time at Kempton and did so again as he moved on going to the second last. Admittedly, he was out in front of the scrimmaging that affected the second and third among others before they closed on him after the last, but for me he’d done his job by then (also racing into a headwind) and he looks full value for a 7lb rise to 151.

The Saint James and Daneking also came in for an extra 1lb on account of the trouble they met approaching the second last. The former gave a further endorsement to the Fred Winter form following on from All Yours and Starchitect in the Grade 1 juvenile and goes up 6lb to 144 while Daneking will be 5lb higher at 142 should he return to Britain in the near future. The extra the first three were given means the fourth-placed Stonebrook (up 3lb to 130) will get a pull of 4lb, 3lb and 2lb respectively with them despite having finished closer to them than that would suggest – he had the luxury of a clearer run as he stuck to the inner.

Further back in the field I thought Some Buckle did enough to suggest he’ll prove competitive from a mark of 135 another day and he stays put despite finishing only 13th. He has some solid form with the likes of Glingerburn from novices and has shaped with promise on both handicap starts – competitive at the second last here only for his stamina to run dry and compounding things with a very tired mistake at the last.

 Whisper bar none

As I suggested in my Cheltenham blog, Whisper shaped much better than his finishing position at Prestbury Park and duly turned the tables on World Hurdle victor Cole Harden, writes Martin Greenwood.

Whisper flew through the hurdle ranks last season, culminating in a defeat of At Fishers Cross in the Liverpool Hurdle. He looked sure to continue his improvement but training troubles, which meant nine months off the track, followed by an inconspicuous stab at chasing looked to have brought an abrupt halt to his progress. Following that promising run at Cheltenham however, Whisper has climbed the staying hurdle ranks again by posting a career-best effort in winning the Aintree race for a second time.

With Cole Harden adopting his customary front running role, the field was well strung out turning in and only Whisper looked a possible challenger. Taking up the running at the second last, Whisper galloped on relentlessly to score by three and a half lengths with Un Temps Pour Tour (career best 159) a further six lengths back.

The standard of the Aintree race compared to the World Hurdle is usually inferior but on this occasion, and after some re-jigging, I have Whisper’s 167 superior to Cole Harden’s 163. One would imagine the chasing career will be put on hold and Whisper can continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the top staying hurdles, with the return of More of That and promising novices notwithstanding.

The staying novice on the Friday threw up a major surprise in Thistlecrack. With several fancied horses, notably Roi des Francs, disappointing badly, it maybe took less winning than seemed likely beforehand, but Thistlecrack ran out a very impressive winner.

Unraced beyond 2m4f previously, he didn’t look an obvious stayer but he turned the race into a procession and had the measure of Alpha des Obeaux (now 145) when that horse fell at the last. Using the pre-race figures literally it would appear that this performance would count has one of the best of the season but I have tempered my view for now and rated him around the five-year standard, putting him up to 153 (from 135) while accepting the race could be higher. Both the top rated Vyta du Roc and the third Our Kaempfer never landed a blow, but both deserve another chance. The former looked a probable stayer when blundering away second place in the Neptune at Cheltenham, while the latter travelled powerfully upped substantially in class and trip looks a more than useful sort in the making.

 Triumph leading to disaster

The theory that four weeks between the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals would enable the placed horses from Prestbury to bounce back on Merseyside didn’t go entirely to plan, the Grade 1 Betfred Anniversary Hurdle being a case in point, writes David Dickinson.

The perceived wisdom was that the quicker surface at Aintree would favour the Triumph third Hargam and he started a strongly-backed odds-on favourite, but he ran a lack lustre race and didn’t really give his supporters that much hope in the latter stages. So much so that he failed to confirm the Cheltenham placings with the Triumph fourth Devilment.

The fact that neither won wasn’t the first sign that the Fred Winter might be a stronger race than was thought at the time. At Fairyhouse on Easter Monday the Triumph Hurdle eighth Dicosimo started favourite to beat the Fred Winter tenth Buiseness Sivola. Ruby Walsh had ridden both at Cheltenham and had picked Dicosimo but he could finish only fourth to his Paul Townend-ridden stable companion.

Throughout the meeting the Fred Winter looked strong, with The Saint James and Box Office running solid races in handicaps and All Yours, Bouvreuil and Starchitect all running with credit in Thursday’s Grade 1. This is a hard race to be dogmatic about but it was no surprise to see the runner up Devilment improve on his Triumph form given a better surface and a flatter track.

I rated the race around the performances put up by Bristol de Mai at Chepstow and Sandown, the latter race linked to high-class handicap form via the winner that day Garde La Victoire. Both these races were on considerably softer ground, hence the note of caution.

Similarly, Friday’s Grade 2 was in some ways hard to fathom. What it did contain though was a very fine winning performance from the exciting Cyrus Darius. The-six-year old has come an awfully long way as a hurdler in a very short space of time, having previously looked hugely impressive in minor events at Newcastle and Hexham. Rather than complain about an initial mark of 141, Malcolm Jefferson looked at the shape of the Aintree race and took the brave decision to run. In his post-race interview it sounded as if that decision was swayed by the fact that no fewer than six of the field were rated within 2lb of each other, with only Glingerburn rated considerably higher. The logic of never being afraid of one horse was amply rewarded, as like Hargam, Glingerburn was a long way short of his best.

The tactics on Vago Collonges made this something of a stamina test which further played into the hands of the Hexham winner. In rating Vago Collonges above Friday’s third Qewy but below his Kempton conqueror Days of Heaven, Cyrus Darius, who was ridden out to the line, is promoted to 153.

Granite proves too tough

Henry de Bromhead, a master trainer of 2m chasers, has unearthed another gem in the imposing shape of Sizing Granite, writes John de Moraville.

Benefitting from the absence of Un de Sceaux, Sizing Granite made it four wins from his four completed starts with a compelling performance in Aintree’s Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.

Emulating stable-mate Special Tiara, who captured Saturday’s Grade 1 prize two years ago, Sizing Granite has shown sustained improvement since switched to fences last November.

Running to a mark of 159 with this latest show of class, the seven-year-old looks ready to slip into the shoes of veteran former-champion Sizing Europe, who has notched a remarkable 22 wins for the de Bromhead yard.

As for this season’s 2m novice chase pecking order, Un de Sceaux, the brilliant Arkle winner, remains out on his own on 168, while God’s Own failed on Saturday to run up to the 160 he achieved when second in last month’s Cheltenham showpiece.

Whereas Sizing Granite always looked to be travelling sweetly, God’s Own jumped less than fluently round the much sharper track at Aintree. Rallying bravely, he did well in the end to again finish runner-up, this time performing to 157.

Both God’s Own’s chase wins – in a Punchestown Grade 1 last May and in Exeter’s Haldon Gold Cup – have been achieved right-handed. It will be fascinating to see how he fares at Sandown or back at Punchestown later this spring.

The hugely progressive Traffic Fluide (154) fully vindicated the high opinion of his trainer Gary Moore, stepping up from handicap company with an excellent third place ahead of Court Minstrel, who, before an almighty final-fence blunder, had looked set to run to that same figure.