The Cheltenham Festival 2018 | Handicappers Blog

20 Mar 18


In extending his unbeaten run to ten and defending his Unibet Champion Hurdle crown, Buveur d’Air demonstrated his willingness to battle, writes David Dickinson.

Through the winter this had shaped more and more like a one horse race but that wasn’t the case as, despite the lack lustre run of Faugheen, both Melon and Mick Jazz threatened to lower his colours. I have rated his performance a pound below the level he achieved last year at 166. The irony of this is, that for a dual Champion Hurdle winner his standout performance remains last year’s 169 figure in the Betway Aintree Hurdle over half a mile further and this remains his official rating.

It was the best performance of Melon’s career and I now have him on 165 for losing out but in the bravest fashion by only a neck.

Buveur D’Air & Barry Geraghty wins The Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1)

The Festival kicked off with the Sky Bet Supreme and a rare reverse for Ireland when Getabird was blown away by old adversaries Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov, first and second in the 32Red Tolworth at Sandown in January.  Given the winner’s jumping errors over the final flights I believe that the winning margin of four lengths in the Sandown race is a better guide as to their relative merits and now have them rated 156 and 152 respectively

The Grade 2 Trull House Stud Dawn Run Novice Hurdle produced the most visually impressive winner of the week in Laurina but this was a race in which they went too fast mid race.

I had blogged about my doubts that Maria’s Benefit would be suited by Cheltenham and so it proved, especially as she did not get an easy lead. From turning in, the field was lengths slower than either of the opening races on the Friday. I have moved Laurinar up to a rating of 152 but I do remember that the inaugural running of this race was won in a similar fashion by Limini.  She then started a hot favourite for the open Novice at Aintree only to be no match for Buveur d’Air and Petit Mouchoir. My reservation this time around is that this became a stamina test and I doubt that any of the first three home will turn out to be best at two miles.

The clock that told one tale in that Mares’ race it told another in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. On paper, with the smallest field since 1965, this looked a below par renewal. That assertion is very much not supported by the stopwatch. Not only was the race run faster than the following Randox Health County Hurdle but also it is faster run from the second last flight. Whilst accepting that Apple’s Shakira (who got a bit worked up in the preliminaries) and Redicean (who probably wouldn’t want the ground this testing) were disappointing, the Irish raiders were a revelation. I have rated Farclas 157 in victory and, on the clock, I could have gone higher still.

As for the County Hurdle itself, I have blogged this winter about the way we deal with conditions races. Flying Tiger ran here off 140, despite finishing on the heels of Elgin and Call Me Lord in Wincanton’s Betway Kingwell Hurdle. This was latched on to in the betting market but, in the aftermath, connections felt that even this trip is beyond him on such ground.

Had those Flying Tiger supporters only turned their eyes back to Kempton’s Unibet Christmas Hurdle their wallets might be in a better state. In that race Buveur d‘Air 169, beat The New One (then on 163) with less than four lengths back to Mohaayed and then Chesterfield, who arrived rated 139 and 143. So mathematically I could have defended rises of at least a stone for each. My response? I left Mohaayed and dropped Chesterfield by three to 140, below the mark from which won last year’s Scottish Champion Hurdle.

Therefore I say again, supporting conditions races doesn’t necessarily prevent success in the top handicaps.

Flying Tiger & Richard Johnson jump the last to win the Fred Winter Juvenile handicap Hurdle.


The feature race on day two of the Festival was the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase run over two miles.  I thought the race was run at an honest pace, writes Chris Nash, and it looked a very fair test at the trip.  Altior started the even-money favourite and duly took the prize but only after looking in a spot of bother after three fences out when he appeared to get outpaced and needed niggling along.

Altior & Nico de Boinville win The Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

He came good however to be upsides Min at the last before powering clear up the run in.  He produced a performance which probably said more about his stamina than his speed.  Altior went to post unbeaten in his twelve previous races over obstacles and rated 170.  He handed out a seven lengths beating to Min who arrived rated 167 on the back of a career best effort last time out.  There were a further eleven lengths back to God’s Own in third who arrived here rated 158.

I have decided to advance Min by 1lb to a mark of 168 which has Altior running to 175 and God’s Own running to 157.  The form looks fairly secure and I am quite happy for this to rate a career best for Altior.  There is an argument to suggest that the way he was pulling away at the line he could be rated a pound or two higher but I’m happy with a figure of 175 for now. We will see how this form works out and if he can better this effort before the season’s end.  In an historical context his winning figure for this race has only been surpassed by Sprinter Sacre (188), Master Minded (186), Moscow Flyer (180) and Sizing Europe (177) this century.

The two mile novice chasers had their championship race on day 1 in the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy.  A small but select field went to post – there were only five runners but amongst them were four of the five highest rated novice chasers seen over the trip this season.

Footpad and Ruby Walsh winning The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase

This was a strongly run race and almost certainly too strongly run with both Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados seemingly intent on making the running.  They blitzed along in front and raced clear of the others before, unsurprisingly, paying the price for their early enthusiasm.  Victory went to Footpad who arrived as the highest rated runner in the field (162) and started as the 5/6 favourite.  He let the leaders get on with it and sat a very respectful distance off them but picked them up quite readily to lead on the home turn and ended up skipping away from them to win pretty much as he pleased.  He crossed the line fourteen lengths ahead of Brain Power (156 pre-race) with Petit Mouchoir (157 pre-race) a further three-quarters of a length away in 3rd.

Footpad’s performance was visually most impressive but from a form point of view that must be tempered by the way the race was run and the small field size.  I decided to give him a figure of 166 for this which has Brain Power running to 152 and Petit Mouchoir running to 151+.  Brain Power raced in last and stayed on up the hill to pick up the pieces from his toiling rivals.  Petit Mouchoir was probably the second best horse on the day, given his early exertions, and I’m quite happy to leave him with his rating of 157 and, therefore, ahead of Brain Power who I have trimmed to 155.

The disappointment of the race was Saint Calvados who arrived with a mark of 160 (our second highest rated) but seemingly didn’t enjoy being taken on for the lead and was beaten a long way from home. I have lowered his rating to 158.  In an historical context this winning figure has only been surpassed by Sprinter Sacre (169) and Un De Sceaux (168) this century and Altior ran to 165 when winning this race in 2017.


The Grade 1 Ryanair Chase was a fascinating race to watch, notably the masterful jockeyship of Davy Russell on winner Balko Des Flos says Mark Olley.

Last year’s winner Un De Sceaux raced in almost exactly the same style as twelve months ago. He was keen and pulled his way into the lead at the fifth fence from where he set a strong pace. At the third last, just when Paul Townend must have been hoping to get a slight breather into him, Davy Russell kicked into the lead on Balko Des Flos and went for home ensuring this race was a real stamina test for the distance and that Un De Sceaux had nothing left for the end of the race. Both horses finished relatively slowly, understandable considering the tactics, but Balko Des Flos had this won from some way out.

After consultation with Irish handicapper Andrew Shaw, we have agreed a rating of 169 for Balko Des Flos (up 3lb from a pre-race 166). This is a shade below the race standard of 170, is a pound higher than Un De Sceaux achieved in winning the race last season and matches the 169 of Uxizandre in 2015.

This leaves Waiting Patiently heading the 2m4f Anglo-Irish rankings on a figure of 170 but hopefully we will see both of them again before the season ends.

Shattered Love and Jack Kennedy with groom Camilla Spiers after their win for trainer Gordon Elliott.

The JLT Golden Miller Novices’ Chase was run more steadily than the Ryanair and that resulted in Shattered Love finishing the race in a stronger fashion. In her preceding two races she won a Grade 2 novice at Cork over 2m and a Grade 1 novice at Leopardstown over 3m, so she is clearly very versatile trip wise.

As a mare she received a 7lb weight allowance from the geldings, so that needs to be added back onto her new rating of 153 (up 9lb from a pre-race 144) if it is to be compared to previous winners like Yorkhill (161) last year and Black Hercules (159) in 2016.

Five year old Terrefort continues to progress. He was rated 151 after his win in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles in February and is up another 2lb to 153. Benatar ran an excellent race in third, he kept on very strongly considering how keenly he raced early on and, if suffering no ill effects from the injury he sustained here, must win more races.


Penhill & Paul Townend wins from Supasundae &  Robbie Power

For those who don’t know, Tony Bloom is the main man behind Brighton & Hove Albion’s premiership status, writes Martin Greenwood. Tony obviously likes his horses as well, and with Penhill he has enjoyed Cheltenham Festival success for the second year on the trot.

The amazing thing is that Penhill as only had one run in between these successes and that was way back in April at Punchestown. Willie Mullins is inundated with plaudits on a monthly basis but surely this ranks as one of the greater achievements.

Obviously Penhill  was unexposed having stepped straight out of novice company but it was hard to tell as he cruised through the race in the Stayers hurdle, after favourite and confirmed front runner Sam Spinner had taken them along at no more than a so-so gallop and jumping none too fluently. To be fair Penhill wasn’t the only one who had travelled strongly throughout and there were a host of chances turning in. Eventually the field began to spread out a little by the time they approached the last, and it came down to a shootout between Penhill and Supasundae (who had also scored at Cheltenham in 2017), with the former outstaying the latter by two lengths.

Robbie Power, the rider of Supasundae, suggested the overnight rain put paid to his chances but it’s hard to argue that his mount hasn’t run somewhere near to his pre-race 164, though of course there is a case that Supasundae would ideally be suited by a slightly less test, especially around Cheltenham. Rating the race is tricky since the field wasn’t stretched out at the finish due to the moderate pace.

It will rate one of the lower versions in recent times, along the lines of Solwhit in 2013 and Cole Harden in 2015. Certainly the time comparison with the Pertemps is worthless such was the pedestrian gallop in the later race, while the standards, unsurprisingly given the bunched field, are suggesting an average and median only in the low 160s. Allied to this the fact that several lower rated horses are close up and almost certainly flattered means it is impossible to be positive about the ‘bare’ form. Short term, and hoping both Aintree and Punchestown give me a much stronger direction, I have increased Penhill to 164, the same mark as both Supasundae and Sam Spinner. The last named is probably worth another chance when he makes it a proper test of stamina.

Moving on to the novice races in my division, the better of the two races appears to be Samcro’s success in the Ballymore Baring Novices’ Hurdle. With only three of the fourteen runners in single figures in the betting it suggested a race lacking strength in depth but the result suggests the first six home were above the norm compared to recent renewals. Samcro (155), Black Op and Next Destination (both 150) were already of a standard befitting such a race going in and they duly filled the first three places.

Samcro and Jack Kennedy winning The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle

Samcro had looked a monster in Ireland and he certainly didn’t do anything to suggest he is anything other than a very smart hurdler/future chaser in the making. Smoothly getting in contention, Samcro quickly put the race to bed and then seemed to doss in front but still had nearly three lengths to spare over Black Op (now 152), who had made a horlicks of the last.

I am in no doubt that Samcro had more in the tank and have given him an extra two pounds for the ‘style’ of the win.  Even that could undercook him and there is plenty more to come down the line. Recent race standards point to low 150s for the winner but Samcro’s 157 puts him on a par with The New One’s performance in this race in 2013. It would be no surprise to me if Samcro doesn’t surpass that figure very soon.

Nicky Henderson seemed to hold the aces in the three mile Albert Bartlett Spa Novices’ Hurdle on Friday with all four of his runners in with some sort of chance, especially Santini and Chef des Obeaux. The latter ran abysmally and was never in contention. He wasn’t on his own, though, with numerous horses never getting involved and performing way below the form they had been showing leading up to the Festival.

The few prominent racers seemed to go hard enough in the conditions and paid the price although Fabulous Saga deserves great credit given he was still leading approaching the last. By that time 33/1-shot Kilbricken Storm had taken over the lead and going after the leader earlier than the rest paid the ultimate dividend because none of the closing bunch could lay a glove on him.  We can only wonder what would have happened had they closed the gap earlier.

An average winner usually comes out high 140s to low 150s, and I have decided on 149 for Kilbricken Storm. Ok Corral (146), Ballyward (144) and Robin Waters (140) have also notched personal bests, albeit only marginally, while Santini deserves another chance to confirm his pre-race 150 given how Black Op (second to Santini last time) performed earlier in the week.