Clearing the first Hurdle

09 Mar 15

Saturday’s Sandown card hosted a couple of major handicap hurdles and both winners are looking to make the headlines once more in even bigger ways in the next few weeks, with Imperial Cup winner Ebony Express now off to Cheltenham in search of a whopping £100,000 bonus. Our team give their thoughts on those races and then Mark Olley follows on with the state of play in the National Hunt Flat Race division as the Champion Bumper approaches.

Express en route to further riches?

The recent good record of novices in the leading 2m handicap hurdles continued as Ebony Express secured a hard fought win from two fellow outsiders in Saturday’s William Hill Imperial Cup at Sandown, writes David Dickinson.

This was a race where many of the well fancied horses failed to handle the conditions and the seemingly strong pace. From a standing start, those to the fore were favoured and there were some unlucky horses in behind. Desert Cry, who finished well past beaten horses from a most unpromising position was just one.

The key point of the race seemed to be leaving the back straight as the first four home took charge and were never caught. Both Thistlecrack and Some Buckle tried hard to get involved from slightly further back and both made very promising handicap debuts.

Rayvin Black forced the pace but stuck on splendidly when headed by the winner and was still coming back for more at the line. Just as in 2014, the Richard Lee trained Gassin Golf made the frame. Despite numerous good performances, he astonishingly remains a maiden.

The tightness of the finish limits my reassessments and I have left Gassin Golf in 0-135s by raising his mark 3lb. Fourth home was the hugely promising Camping Ground under top weight, in just his second run since coming over from France. He established himself as a more-than-decent chaser when scoring over 2m4f at Warwick on his British debut but his performance here over a shorter trip was at least as encouraging

Ebony Express goes up 6lb and is now a candidate for a £100,000 bonus should he win a race at this week’s Festival for his enthusiastic syndicate. Even with a penalty however, he is not certain to get a run in either the County Hurdle or the Martin Pipe, such is the competitive nature of just getting a run in Festival handicaps.

As for the week’s Grade 1s, you will hardly be surprised to learn that Douvan, Faugheen and Peace And Co have put in the highest rated performances this season in their respective races.

Look at Mee!

Sandown’s Grade 3 European Breeders’ Fund William Hill “NH” Novices’ Handicap Hurdle Final can some years prove one of the strongest handicap hurdles of the entire season, writes Graeme Smith. Recent winners include Albertas Run and the smart-but-fragile Beshabar, and it appears this year’s winner As de Mee is heading for Grade 1 company at Aintree on the back of it.

This wasn’t just another Saturday big-race success for the Paul Nicholls stable but a one-two this time as As de Mee and Great Try drew upwards of seven lengths clear of their 15 rivals at the end of a falsely-run race. Whilst the winning margin was only two lengths at the line the ease with which As de Mee travelled to the front at the second last suggested he was some way in advance of his mark and I considered him worth at least 3lb more than the bare result suggests, raising his rating 11lb to 141. More will be needed to make an impact in top novice company, but if you judge him by what he did on the bridle – acknowledging he then did more than enough off it – it could easily be that further progress will follow.

Great Try was having his first start in a handicap and he responded really well having come under pressure much earlier than this stablemate. He promised to make a bit more of a fist of challenging until jinking left approaching the last, but found plenty all the same. His 7lb rise to 132 gives a further endorsement to the Newbury novice won by Clean Sheet back at Christmas.

Kilgeel Hill was the best of the rest and I considered he was worth 2lb more than the bare result having been slowed by a mistake at the last, raising his mark from to 127 whilst leaving L’Aigle Royal – who finished just a neck behind – on 128.

Several of the ‘big guns’ who failed to fire further back still have the potential to have their day and I’ve been cautious about dropping quite a few of them for these isolated poor runs. One I did note running rather better than his sixth place suggests is Lucy Wadham’s Amidon. He was one of three or four who came off worst from a standing start and was left with a poor platform to launch his effort from in a race that favoured those ridden more prominently.

Bumper Thoughts

Anyone buying a racecard at Cheltenham will notice that there are ratings next to each horse in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, writes Mark Olley. The BHA does not publish official handicap ratings for horses in National Hunt Flat Races, however, we do put performance figures to every horse in each race and these are the figures shown in the racecard.

We keep these figures so that we have an idea of each horse’s ability when it comes to the Bumpers at Cheltenham and Aintree and we have to decide which horses get in those races in the event that they are over-subscribed. As already mentioned these are not official handicap ratings and all these horses will have to qualify for an official rating once they switch to hurdles.

For anyone interested, and who does not have access to the Cheltenham racecard, the figures are listed below and you can see our idea of the best horses in the race.

132 Moon Racer; 131 Bordini; 130 Ghost River, Pylonthepressure, Vigil; 129 Supasundae; 128 Stone Hard, Wait For Me; 126 Au Quart de Tour, Up For Review; 125 General Principle, Yanworth; 124 Bellshill, Jetstream Jack, Modus; 122 Altior, Western Way, Montana Belle; 121 Always Lion, Davy Doubt, Neatly Put; 120 O O Seven, Theo’s Charm; 119 Bay Of Freedom.

119 Livelovelaugh, West Approach; 118 Western Rules, Dueling Banjos, Turcagua, Final Nudge;  117 Justanother Muddle; 114 Sugar Train; 113 Rushvale, Broughtons Rhythm; – Golan Lodge;  110 Lip Service; 101 Robert’s Star; 98 Work du Breteau.

The second group are the horses that are involved in the elimination sequence (Bay of Freedom came out first of the 119-rated horses in the random ballot) and need horses to drop out at the overnight entry stage in order to get a run. They are listed in the order that they will get into the race as places become available, for example Western Rules needs three horses to drop out to get a run. Where horses are on the same figure then we used a random draw to place them in order.

I have been unable to award Golan Lodge a figure as he won a “Newcomers Bumper” at Fairyhouse. This was only the second year that it had been run under those conditions so I could not use race standards to help and any figure would have been a complete guess. It was a tricky process to decide where he should figure in the elimination sequence and I eventually decided on placing him above the three lowest rated horses, as none of them have won a race. It was far from satisfactory but in my opinion the fairest solution.

To give the above figures some perspective here is how they compare with the last three years:

In 2014 Killultagh Vic was top-rated on 136 (finished sixth), while Silver Concorde (winner) was 119.

In 2013 Golantilla (finished third) was top-rated on 131, while Briar Hill (winner) was 118.

In 2012 Moscow Mannon (finished fourth) was top-rated on 137, while Champagne Fever (winner, second top-rated) was 136.

At the bottom end, there is far more strength in depth than previous seasons. In two of the last three years there has not been a maximum field so everyone that wanted a run got one. In 2013, when four horses were eliminated, the highest rated of those four was 110. I will be surprised if any horse rated less than 118 gets a run this year.