17 Mar 15

This year’s Cheltenham Festival was awash with Champions’ performances, with pretty much all the novices won by realistic championship contenders for next season. Coneygree and the rest of the staying chase division is discussed in the Head of Handicapping blog but the rest is all put into context right here. Read on…

Faultless Faugheen

The outcome of the Stan James Champion Hurdle answered a question or two but posed a fair few more, writes David Dickinson.

There was always the feeling that Faugheen had shown the best winter form, most notably when winning Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle, but the winter’s red herring surely came from Irving’s defeat of Arctic Fire in Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth. The trainer’s pre-Cheltenham assertion of Arctic Fire’s improvement proved far more accurate than the form book.

So those questions were answered but others were posed. Did Jezki and The New One jeopardise their chances by taking Faugheen on? Was Faugheen allowed too much rope in front or was that just the brilliance of Ruby Walsh? Were Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly aided by not getting into a dual with the winner? Not an easy race to assess but Arctic Fire has got very close to Hurricane Fly twice before and has now reversed that form. I have both horses currently on 169 which would seem reasonable from a handicapper’s standpoint. Both are now rated above Jezki.

Faugheen’s eventual rating will depend on what the winning distance is considered to be worth when British and Irish handicappers get together in early May. Jumping the last Faugheen looked sure to win by a good deal further than the eventual winning margin of one and a half lengths.

Douvan looked a high-class winner of the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He looks a star in the making and a rating in the high 150’s seems guaranteed, whatever next season holds for him. A hurdle campaign would beckon in any other yard but a career in novice chases, leading presumably to the 2016 Arkle, might be taken up given that his yard has just fielded the first three in the Championship race.

On a week when the Mullins yard held sway in many of the hurdle races, Nicky Henderson saddled a wonderful one-two-three in the JCB Triumph Hurdle via Peace And Co, Top Notch and Hargam. In giving a sizeable beating to Devilment and a number of other good rivals, all three showed themselves to be classy in an above-average renewal and all are now rated in the 150’s.

My hand times on the Triumph and the County Hurdle were almost identical and with Wicklow Brave so visually impressive in the latter from the penultimate flight, it seemed reasonable to compare his time from that flight to the line with that of Peace And Co. Not only was Peace And Co the quicker but by quite some margin, over three lengths quicker from the second last to the last and another three lengths quicker on the run-in. To hear Barry Geraghty talk afterwards about the unsuitability of the rain softened ground for his mount was little short of scary. To hear him refer to his mount’s number of gears, certainly seems borne out by the clock.

I’m sure Top Notch will thrive over further but Peace And Co looks the most likely at this stage to trouble the Willie Mullins selected come the main event next March.

Speeding Bullets

For the third successive season we can celebrate a winner of 2m chasing’s Grade 1 Triple Crown of Tingle Creek, Clarence House and Queen Mother Champion Chase, writes John de Moraville.

And Dodging Bullets achieved that considerable feat at Cheltenham last week by comprehensively upstaging his two predecessors, Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy.

Though top of this season’s 2m tree, Dodging Bullets did not have to run up to his best mark to clinch the Betway-sponsored title as both the aforementioned duo failed to fire.

I had the seven-year-old running to 167 last week and have restored gallant runner-up Somersby – appearing at his seventh Festival and 11 years old now – to 164, the same figured achieved by the popular veteran when second to Sire de Grugy 12 months ago.

But back in January, Dodging Bullets had underlined his Cheltenham credentials when posting 171 in winning Ascot’s Clarence House Chase, the race in which runner-up Sprinter Sacre (167) had threatened to rekindle hopes of a return to the glory years. But, sadly, for the latter, it was not to be.

Odds-on Un de Sceaux lived up to his stellar reputation in Tuesday’s Racing Post Arkle Chase with a clever, nimble round of jumping. His 168 for that sparkling all-the-way victory is second in the 2m novices’ department only to Sprinter Sacre’s stunning 169 in 2012 and bookmakers were quick to promote him to favourite for next year’s Champion Chase.

Gods Own (160), by a quirk of the fixture-list still a novice despite his Grade 1 Punchestown victory last May, threatened momentarily before the winner stretched readily away up the hill. Josses Hill (158) justified the high opinion held by connections by finishing a creditable third.

Vautour, King for a day!

The Grade 1 JLT Golden Miller Novices’ Chase was one of the very few races that you get to watch and instantly know you are seeing something very special, writes Mark Olley.

I watch plenty of horses win races easily, but very few when the winner brushes aside high-class rivals the way that Vautour did on Thursday. Apache Stronghold (second) and Valseur Lido (third) are both Grade 1 novice winners, while Irish Saint (fourth) and Ptit Zig (fifth) have both won Grade 2s.

Pre-race ratings had nothing between Apache Stronghold and Valseur Lido, both on 155, and they flashed past the line with just a short-head between them, albeit with the Bryan Cooper on Valseur Lido putting up 1lb over-weight. Irish Saint went into the race with a figure of 153 and finished a further three lengths back. The sort of result that makes you think this handicapping game is easy, especially when you factor in that our standards for the race suggest that the placed horses should be in the 151-155 ballpark!

The early pace of the race was far from frenetic and that allowed Vautour to really stamp his authority from three out, where he really put his rivals to the sword. His time from the third last to the line was 53.2 seconds (my hand time) which compares very favourably with that of Uxizandre (55.4 secs) and Darna (54.1 secs). To put some context to the above, Uxizandre set a much faster pace so you would not expect him to maintain it to the line and he was carrying 11-10 compared to Vautour’s 11-4.

As Vautour is trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins his rating is as much the responsibility of Irish Handicapper Noel O’Brien as it is mine, if not more so. However, we were both thinking along the same lines and decided on a figure of 171. This was a really significant rating as it made Vautour the highest rated novice this century and put him 2lb higher than the previous best, Sprinter Sacre.

The crown of highest rated novice was not to last long with him, as eluded to in the headline, as Coneygree posted a higher figure just 24 hours later when lifting the Gold Cup, as explained by Phil Smith in his Head of Handicapping blog. My personal feeling is that long-term Vautour could turn out to be the better horse.

The Grade 1 Ryanair Festival Trophy was won in decisive style by Uxizandre and will almost certainly be most notable for being the last Cheltenham Festival winner of the legendary AP McCoy.

Uxizandre went off hard with a visor on for the first time and turned this into a real stamina test. This was emphasised by runner-up Ma Filleule, who has winning form over 3m, and Don Cossack (third) who has won over 2m7f and also finished second in a Grade 1 3m+ novice. Hidden Cyclone was a fine second in this race last season, but he found this stamina test against him this time round and faded out of it on the run-in.

Uxizandre moves to a new rating of 169 which sits just behind the 172 of Cue Card in 2013 and the 170 of Riverside Theatre in 2012, but above the 168 of Albertas Run in 2011 and 2010 and the 164 of Dynaste of last year.

The key to Alan King’s high-class chaser seems to be front running tactics on drying ground in the spring and I would imagine he will take some catching in the Melling Chase at Aintree.

This is not a wind up!

Wind operations are often game changers, at least in the short term and a very high profile example surfaced at Cheltenham last week, writes Martin Greenwood.

Cole Harden ground the opposition down to land a wide open Ladbrokes World Hurdle and provide trainer and jockey with a virgin Festival winner. There was no obvious superstar in the line-up this year which probably explained the much larger entry and 5/1 the field.

Cole Harden’s previous form, while relatively consistent, looked short of what is normally required to win a World Hurdle but the operation he undertook after his disappointing effort at this track less than two months earlier paid big dividends. After adopting his usual front running tactics, he proved a very tough nut to crack and nothing could land a serious blow, with pre-race top rated Saphir du Rheu (165) coming closest but still finishing just over three lengths behind, while the latter’s stable companion Zarkandar was a similar distance away in third having thrown away any winning chance when blundering at the second last.

My five-year standards suggest somewhere in the mid to high 160s for the winner, and he is now rated 166. Saphir du Rheu hasn’t quite reached his rating this season after a failed chasing career and drops back marginally to 163, while Auteuil specialist Zarkandar remains on 160.

Two other runners to mention are last season’s third, At Fishers Cross, who finished well to claim fourth and record easily his best form (159) of the season albeit below his very best. He still looks hard work however and it’s easier to argue the fifth, Whisper, shaped much better. Like Saphir du Rheu, Whisper was a most progressive hurdler last season and scored over 3m at Aintree. However he had endured a long absence prior to trying chasing in January, and seemed to suggest a combination of the trip on a much stiffer track and possibly lack of absolutely peak condition found him out.

My two novice races provided different tests. The Neptune looked visually steadily run and the field was well bunched though it was identical to the Coral Cup in terms of time. Windsor Park turned the tables convincingly on his Leopardstown 2m2f conqueror Nichols Canyon in what looked a competitive race, at least using pre-race ratings.

Windsor Park was much more positively ridden over the longer trip this time, while Nichols Canyon didn’t force the pace on this occasion and was pretty keen as a result. With British pair Parlour Games (148 pre-race) and Vyta du Roc (147, now 150, would almost certainly have finished second but for a bad sprawl at the last), who fought out the finish of the Challow Hurdle at Newbury, almost certainly running their races again I have rated the winner an above average 153 with the promise of more to come. Nichols Canyon, a top Flat racer, is given another chance to prove his 149.

As is the norm, the Albert Bartlett, over 3f further proved much more a war of attrition on the softer ground come the Friday. It looked a very interesting race going in and though the hot favourite Black Hercules never landed a blow I would imagine the principals are up to standard.

Milsean, another one of five Willie Mullins trained horses, attracted a bit of support at big odds and left his previous form way behind with a brave front running performance. Now rated 149, he saw off everything bar the similarly stout stayer Martello Tower (150) who was one of several who boosted the form of the Leopardstown race over 2m4f at the end of January. The well talked up No More Heroes (also 149) completed an Irish whitewash and he could well have got very close to winning had he not met interference at the last. All this trio will be interesting when chasing comes knocking, and I would imagine they will be taking high rank in the seasons remaining staying novices. Two others worth mentioning are fellow Irish challenger and previous Warwick score Arbre de Vie, who tanked along for the vast majority of the race but couldn’t quite get in a serious challenge, and the best of the British, Value At Risk, who seemed not to get home after a promising move into contention.

Finally a quick word on the handicaps. Both the Coral Cup and Pertemps Final went to unexposed sorts, both of whom will continue to progress. Aux Ptits Soins, two wins from two starts in France, looked a potential blot and he duly obliged but only by a neck in a close finish with two-Irish trained rivals and home-trained favourite Activial. The winning distance disguised the manner in which Aux Ptits Soins put the competitive race to bed however, for he travelled powerfully throughout before a late mistake and then idling. I factored this into his 11lb higher mark (now 150) and he looks well worth a try in non-handicap company before going fencing.

The Pertemps looked very competitive this year and a host of horses could be seen travelling powerfully beginning the turn in, including probable non-stayers Regal Encore (on a stiffer track, who could also be a bridle merchant) and Brother Brian (keen and plenty of use made of him, well worth trying at slightly shorter). Call The Cops shaped very well at Kempton in his first handicap in November and has won both his races since a near four-month absence. He sluiced up off 133 at Doncaster under a fortnight ago after the weights were closed and the 5lb penalty he got for that enabled him to get in this race. I had put the horse up a total of 12lb, a decision described as ‘ridiculous’ by his trainer in the Racing Post that morning. The silence has been deafening!

Power cut

Not only did Willie Mullins land a record-breaking eight successes at the Festival but he also had an able supporting cast who filled places behind his big guns in the Supreme and Champion Hurdle, and that plentiful approach reaped dividends in the OLGB David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle with Glens Melody ensuring the prize still made its way to Closesutton following Annie Power’s last-flight somersault, writes Graeme Smith.

Glens Melody had chased Quevega home in this race last year and didn’t have to advance any more on the improvement she’d already shown this season to make the most of her opportunity, probably idling after the last and credited with an extra 1lb on top of the bare 148 as a result.

Runner-up Polly Peachum would almost certainly have been suited by a stiffer test – she got outpaced initially at the bottom of the hill – and remains rated as Glens Melody’s superior at 155. The next two home, Bitofapuzzle and The Pirate’s Queen, continued their improvement and now rate at 147 and 144 respectively.

So what of Annie Power? She’d clearly have won easily. I clocked her around three and a half lengths up when crashing out. Given she’s still to be asked to hit top speed it’s not hard to imagine her having extended the margin to eight or 10 lengths – which would bring her out around 157. Had the race been more truly run she’d likely have beaten Glens Melody by even further and there must be every chance she’ll reproduce last season’s best of 162 if pushed into doing so.

The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap was dominated by the Irish and the first two posted smart performances after they’d each come there tanking. Killultagh Vic was another to endorse the form of Outlander’s Grade 2 at Leopardstown in January and I feel he’s value for a mark of 145 now. Noble Endeavor was conceding him 5lb and now goes to 149.