Cheltenham Festival 2020 | Handicappers Blog

17 Mar 20

‘Boum Boum’

Al Boum Photo successfully defended his Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup crown, and in doing so became the first horse since Best Mate to win back-to-back Gold Cups, writes Martin Greenwood

The 2020 Gold Cup looked very competitive, with only a handful of pounds between them on pre-race ratings. That’s mainly how it panned out too, with a sensible pace meaning they were still all very tightly bunched at the third last. It was then a case of ‘after you’ as they tried to get sorted but even at the line only around seven lengths separated the first six home.

Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend

Taking everything into account, including historical standards and the poor time (only 12 lbs quicker than the following Foxhunters), means it is nigh on impossible to rate this as anything other than a standard renewal. In fact, I don’t even have Al Boum Photo running up to his pre-race 175. Santini ran a cracker in second, staying on stoutly having been denied a clear run and forced to switch, and he was possibly unlucky. He posted another personal best on 173, which puts him ahead of fellow GB-trained challengers Lostintranslation (much more like it), Bristol de Mai and Clan des Obeaux, the last-named pair yet again failing to get home in a Gold Cup. With Kemboy looking a shadow of himself from last season, the Irish fared better with Monalee (better than ever this season), Delta Work (did well considering he jumped as poorly as at Down Royal earlier in the season) and Real Steel (travelled like a dream but faded late).  

Santini and Delta Work were two of a trio that made the 2019 RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase a hot race but I am not sure the latest version is quite up to that level, though it did provide one of the finishes of the Festival.

Champ and Barry Geraghty jumping the last

There were a few disappointments in the race but the first three in the betting all came to the fore in a thrilling climax. Irish challengers Allaho and Minella Indo poured it on from the front and looked to have the race between them at the business end. Just when the latter looked to have got on top (despite being outjumped at the last), he was mugged close home by Champ who absolutely flew up the hill after being around eight lengths behind at the last following a disjointed round of jumping. Finishes like this often divide opinion in that suggestions are that the winner is possibly flattered and/or the other horses were stopping. Take Champ out of the race and you could argue that the front pair weren’t stopping in relation to the others, while Champ’s acceleration may well simply be the mark of a very promising chaser. Short term I am happy to accept the result at more or less face value, with the caveat of revisiting if necessary. The 161/160/159 for the first three would be around the standard of this race historically, though it’s worth bearing in mind that between them they had only one previous run over 3m as chasers, so the trio are far from exposed.  

Henderson makes it champion time again

All talk of the weakness of this year’s Unibet Champion Hurdle was forgotten as the least exposed of the big field, the favourite Epatante, ran out a decisive winner, writes David Dickinson

Despite the sad lack of the defending Champion, as well as other notable absentees Buveur d’Air, Saldier and Klassical Dream, the seventeen strong field was the largest since Punjabi won in 2009.

Given the field sizes and relative strengths of the trials, putting a figure on the outcome involved only a small rise of three pounds to 162 for the winner. That is the same mark as the last mare to score in the race, Annie Power. It sees Sharjah return to his best figure of 165, whilst the third home, Darver Star, continued his improvement and enters the 160s.

Silver Streak and Ballyandy replicated their Christmas Hurdle running, and with the former beaten further in last year’s race, it does seem right to rate the 2020 Champion marginally below last year’s.

The four days opened with an incident packed Sky Bet Supreme, in which Shishkin just prevailed. The race again provided proof that whatever the conditions, stamina alone won’t win a Championship race at 2m, and speed remains important.

Shishkin winner of The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Shishkin’s 159 rating does owe something to the large margin back to the third horse but there is no doubting the quality of the performance in a race where other key players either failed to give their running or had hard-luck stories.

Talking of hard-luck stories, the main one of the week has to be Goshen in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. Ten lengths clear when departing at the final flight it would be easy to defend rating him seventeen pounds above the winner Burning Victory (the filly received the 7 lb sex allowance). That was my start point but once I had compared the splits that I took with the County Hurdle that followed, I realized Goshen had travelled from flight four to the last some eighteen lengths faster than the leader in that competitive handicap.

Clearly, I am not saying that he wouldn’t have won but I have taken the view that having been ridden to see out her race after a couple of mid race mistakes, Burning Victory was likely to have closed on Goshen from the last. I have no way to quantify that so I have rated the race as if his lead would have halved and rated the pair Burning Victory 146 and Goshen 158.

Stayers’ Shocker

A first defeat in two years for reigning champion Paisley Park in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle was one of the biggest shocks at a Festival in which no less than five favourites were turned over at odds on, writes Andrew Mealor

The latest Stayers’ Hurdle was run at a strong gallop from the off courtesy of Apple’s Jade, and time comparisons with the earlier Pertemps Final over the same distance show it was unsustainable. The Stayers’ Hurdle field were still around 5.5 seconds (twenty-two lengths) ahead of the Pertemps field three out (the flight at the top of the hill) but slowed from there, with the overall time ending up roughly 2.5 secs slower.

Such a scenario – and the resulting emphasis on stamina – seemed likely to suit Paisley Park but he clearly wasn’t himself on the day, as was demonstrated by his unusually laboured response to pressure. A clear excuse soon emerged with a post-race examination revealing the gelding to be suffering from an irregular heartbeat.

His below-par showing leaves a very underwhelming look to the form, with the field led home by 50/1-shot Lisnagar Oscar, who came into the race rated just 146. His proximity to Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle (when third) had made this particular handicapper take a low view of that race (!) but he improved plenty on even that run in beating Ronald Pump by two lengths.

A rating in the mid-160s would be par for a Stayers’ Hurdle winner but a lower figure looks warranted this time around given the relatively bunched finish and the horses involved. A mark of 161 for Lisnagar Oscar makes him the lowest-rated Stayers’ Hurdle winner this century, just behind Penhill and Solwhit (both 162). Ronald Pump has been very progressive in handicaps over the past twelve months or so and he also produced a career-best figure of 159 (+ 3 lb).

Having decided on the overall level of the form, the other major decision was what to do with the rating of Paisley Park who came into the race head and shoulders above the opposition on 169. Rating him solely on this season’s form would result in a figure of 162 (+), but I have given him the benefit of the doubt for now and left him rated on the form of his two big Cheltenham wins last season, with a slight downward revision of his Stayers’ Hurdle form leading to a new rating of 167. Hopefully he can make it to Punchestown fit and well and justify that decision.

One of his opponents at Punchestown (if it takes place) could well be Pertemps winner Sire du Berlais who produced a high-class handicap performance off a mark of 152. His new rating of 161 suggests he’s well capable of mixing it with the established stayers in Graded company.

Paisley Park was one of six odds-on shots over the three days. The sole winner amongst that sextet of ‘bankers’ was Envoi Allen who produced a commanding display when landing the Ballymore Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle.

He already boasted arguably the strongest piece of novice form this season courtesy of his defeat of Abacadabras and Darver Star in the Royal Bond, and he confirmed himself a potential top-notcher in the Ballymore. The bare form of Envoi Allen’s four-length defeat of stablemate Easywork doesn’t do full justice to his superiority as he looked to score with something in reserve having given the second and third a bit of a start turning in.

Envoi Allen and Davy Russell

Historical standards suggest a figure in the mid-150s but there is ample reason to think Envoi Allen is an above-average winner of the Ballymore. A figure of 160 for him is the best in the race since Monsignor (also 160) back in 2000, putting him ahead of the likes of The New One and Samcro (both 157). Monsignor was plagued by injury after and never ran again. Let’s hope Envoi Allen has more luck.

There wasn’t such a dominant performer in the Albert Bartlett Spa Novices’ Hurdle with the first four covered by only around one and a half lengths at the line – and it likely would have been even less had Thyme Hill not been squeezed out at the last and again briefly short of room on the run-in. That said, the first four impressed in quickly putting distance between themselves and the rest from the last turn in a race that didn’t test stamina quite as much as usual, and Monkfish’s rating of 152 is up to standard for the race. Thyme Hill has been rated alongside the second and third on 151 for now. 

Fifth time lucky at the Festival for Politologue

The feature race of day two at Cheltenham was the 2m Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. In the run-up to the festival this was shaping up to be a crackerjack of a race with the leading three horses in the division declared to take each other on, but unfortunately it didn’t pan out that way, writes Chris Nash

Politologue and Harry Skelton

Both Altior (rated 175) and Chacun Pour Soi (171) met with late setbacks and had to miss the race – the latter withdrawn on the morning – which left Defi du Seuil (170) to take on just four rivals. He had an obvious chance on ratings being 5 lbs and upwards clear of the others and was sent off as the 2/5 favourite. However, he produced a performance some way below his best in finishing fourth and victory went to the 2018 runner-up Politologue, who gained a first win at the Festival from his fifth appearance. He crossed the line nine and a half lengths clear of his stablemate Dynamite Dollars. 

The last ten winners of this race ran to figures in the range of 167-188 and averaged out at 174. Applying race standards gave a figure of 171 for this winner. Politologue made all and jumped really well – he produced a commanding performance and was much the best on the day. However, he had finished behind Defi du Seuil on both of his previous runs this season (admittedly giving him weight on the first occasion) and arrived here rated 165. I wasn’t convinced that he should be rated higher than any of the leading three horses in the division and so I settled on a figure of 169 for him,

which matches the figure he achieved when winning the 2½m Grade 1 at Aintree in 2018. That assessment also ties in with Dynamite Dollars running to his pre-race rating of 160. 

Defi du Seuil ran to a figure of just 156 in fourth but I left his mark unchanged at 170. Ironically, Chacun Pour Soi saw his rating rise despite not running – I had him at 171 pre-Cheltenham but his previous win was given a boost when Min won the Ryanair Chase and I edged him up to 172. That remains the leading performance of the season over 2m.

The 2m race for the novice chasers was the Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle and it was won by the Irish-trained Put The Kettle On, who beat Fakir d’Oudairies by one and a half lengths. There was a yawning gap of eighteen lengths back to Rouge Vif in third. The Arkle left as many questions as it provided answers and the disappointing runs/non-completions of three of the top four in the market (Notebook, Cash Back and Brewin’upastorm) made it no easier to assess. Averages and race standards suggest a figure of 156 for the winner (once her 7-lb sex allowance is factored in) and I have gone with that assessment for now, which means a big leap for the winner who was rated just 144 beforehand, albeit having missed most of the core season.  

Fakir d’Oudairies had to concede 7 lb to the winner and he comes out of the race rated higher than her at 161. Rouge Vif had won a Grade 2 last time and acquired a figure of 157 on the back of that but he was plenty below that level here (145) and I trimmed his official rating to 156. It’s worth mentioning the run of Maire Banrigh who was bang involved and travelling well when departing four out – it’s too far out to be definitive on her likely finishing position but I imagine that she may well have hit the frame. She currently has a rating of 148 and the potential in this performance means she is worth every bit of that and possibly more. Notebook came into this race with the highest rating (158) and was sent off favourite, but he ended up running a figure of just 139 in finishing sixth. However, given that he had beaten Fakir d’Oudairies earlier in the season I am happy to forgive him this effort.

Game Min battles to Ryanair success

A fourth festival appearance for Min resulted in a deserved first success in the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase, writes Michael Harris

Having finished behind Altior in all three previous Festival appearances, Min stepped up in trip on this occasion and under a positive ride he battled well to see off a determined Saint Calvados in a tight finish. Min’s Aintree success last season still looks his standout piece of form, and he probably didn’t need to quite match that effort to land the Ryanair. A ten-year average for the winner of the race is 169, whilst race standards suggested a figure between 167-170. A Plus Tard’s 166 rating coming into the race would also support a figure in that area and I have settled on the winner performing to 168 on the day – he remains officially rated 170. Saint Calvados (+6 to 167) has put up another career best effort and clearly is suited by this course and distance. He appears to have taken his form up another level under waiting tactics recently.

Min and Paul Townend

The Marsh Novices’ Chase produced one of the finishes of the week and a rejuvenated Samcro took the spoils in a thrilling three-way finish. Samcro had a wind op following his previous run when second to Faugheen at Limerick, and he was able to reverse that form and deny the bold-jumping Melon in a photo finish. The average winner of the race since 2011 has been rated 161 and I have Samcro running to 160, which matches the level he performed to when winning the Ballymore in 2018 – that figure is 2 lb lower than the 162 Defi du Seuil recorded when winning this race last year. Samcro responded more generously under pressure than he had done earlier in the season and if the wind op has done the trick then he may be able to elevate his form further in the future. Faugheen ran another terrific race and at 158 I have him replicating the level he achieved at Limerick over the Christmas period. Melon (159) looks to have produced his best run since finishing second in the 2018 Champion Hurdle and this was a significant step up on his early chasing form.