Festival Focus

18 Mar 14

Like kids at Christmas, our NH team has gone to town on what’s always the longest blog of the year, with every one of the six-strong team having put pen to paper. Phil Smith leads off with his Gold Cup views in his separate Head of Handicapping piece and the rest of the best action is discussed at length below.

Big four floored

The 2014 Stan James Champion Hurdle was billed as the race of the meeting but only in part did it truly deliver, writes David Dickinson.

The tragic loss of Our Conor, who was setting a fast pace with the 13-year-old Captain Cee Bee, also put paid to the chance of another of the ‘big four’, The New One, who surely lost his chance at that fateful third hurdle. It might have been ground or age that found out defending champion Hurricane Fly or a combination of the two, though the fact remains that a truly-run Champion Hurdle is a mighty different test from those he faces through each winter.

So of the four horses talked about all winter only My Tent Or Yours was then in a position to truly give his running. However, he does take a fierce hold and in true Cheltenham tradition, the ultimate answer was none of the above! Fifth favourite Jezki (pictured) had been rejected by AP but thrived given the pace of the race. There can be no doubt he had looked a stayer rather than a speed horse in the small field trials over the winter but Barry Geraghty rode a brilliant race and always had him in position A.

Deciding how to rate the race was less than straightforward. However, My Tent Or Yours has now beaten The New One twice, so I took the view that he should be rated the higher. I have raised My Tent Or Yours 1lb to 168 and therefore have Jezki on 169. As I wrote in an earlier blog, Captain Cee Bee was going to be a challenge if entered for the County Hurdle. He was, and I settled on a mark of 154 for that race. Miraculously using five lengths a second, that is the mark he ran to last week. Back handicapping and now using him as the marker horse in the Irish races won by Hurricane Fly, I now don’t have the latter running better than 166 this season. That can all change come Punchestown of course.

The JCB Triumph Hurdle may have lacked Analifet and Le Rocher but that should not detract from the huge potential of the winner Tiger Roll, making just the third racecourse appearance of his life. The fact that between runs two and three he was able to so comprehensively turn the tables on his Leopardstown conqueror Guitar Pete is testament to his progress. He may get an unexceptional Triumph-winning rating of 150 but that does not change the fact that he’s an exciting prospect. The season is not yet over and going by Autueil’s Sunday action he may yet have a more than worthy rival in the French filly Polygona.

Another exciting prospect is the Sky Bet Supreme winner Vautour, who was 7lb clear on BHA ratings going into the race and won that way. Such was the manner of his victory that I have raised his rating 1lb to 156. As always with Irish horses, these are ultimately decided between ourselves and the Irish handicappers for the final Classifications.

Just champion

Sire De Grugy confirmed his position as the season’s champion 2m chaser by landing last week’s BetVictor Queen Mother Chase in the style the form book suggested he should, writes John de Moraville.

And by handsomely adding to his Grade 1 successes in the Tingle Creek at Sandown and Ascot’s Clarence House Chase the popular eight-year-old buried once and for all any pre-race fears of a Cheltenham hoodoo.

With Jamie Moore exuding confidence Sire De Grugy left old rival Somersby (164) standing when given the office, racing to a career-best mark of 171 with seemingly more left in the tank.

Okay, this may not have been a vintage Champion Chase – the great Sprinter Sacre (188 last year) was sadly absent – but take nothing away from this admirable chestnut, who can only defeat what is lined up against him…and he did so with aplomb.

Aside from superstars Sprinter Sacre and Master Minded, Sire De Grugy is rated, among recent winners, only marginally behind Big Zeb (174) and Finian’s Rainbow (173). But he never looked in danger of defeat and next month has the chance to boost his mark in Sandown’s Celebration Chase, the race in which a year ago he first stamped himself as something special.

While Sire De Grugy was sent off favourite, Western Warhorse, the Racing Post Arkle Chase winner, was impossible to fancy – even by his canny trainer David Pipe, who had been trying to persuade owner Roger Brookhouse not to run.

However, despite lacking experience and possessing a far from equable temperament, the six-year-old showed admirable courage to touch off Champagne Fever on the line, dramatically stepping up on his winning chasing debut at Doncaster.

There might have been an air of post-race disbelief but the Arkle form stands up with third-placed Trifolium (156), the fourth Dodging Bullets (155) and fifth Valdez (153) all running virtually to their pre-Festival marks.

Which adds up to Western Warhorse returning a rating of 161, 1lb below that of the much-missed Simonsig, who took this event last year despite running significantly below his best.

Take that

Billed as a two horse race, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle was turned on its head with the emergence of a new star, writes Martin Greenwood.

Perennial Champ Big Buck’s and wonder-mare Annie Power were expected to fight out the finish but although one of those ran well enough More of That, the dark horse of the field, was too strong, and being only a six-year-old, an unbeaten one at that, he looks likely to be a major force in staying events for seasons to come.

I cannot presume to know the thoughts of Jonjo O’Neill but I would hazard a guess that he and AP (who rode At Fishers Cross on Thursday) didn’t expect this horse to be so far up the ladder when he won a bog standard maiden at Folkestone in 2012, or even when he scored off marks off 130 and 137 last November. Certainly I began to take notice when I increased his mark radically to 160 after he won the Relkeel at Cheltenham before Christmas, though even then the small field there posed as many questions as answers.

A further increase of 9lb has followed since his defeat of Annie Power and At Fishers Cross (career best of 162) last week, and, apart from a brief period before and after the last, he never seriously looked in danger of defeat. My five-year standards for the race suggest a figure in the mid-160s but I have taken a more positive view by going 169, and if anything I may be on the low side. Of course Aintree and Punchestown will help me assess the level before the season is out.

I had Annie Power on 165 (equivalent to 172 with the mares allowance) going in but it could have been anything to be honest given her vast superiority in her previous races. Here she ran ‘only’ to a minimum of 160; however I have reasons to suggest she is better than that. My only fear going in was whether she would truly get the trip given her very exuberant racing style, and while I accept she ‘stayed’ the World Hurdle trip I am still inclined to think she’ll prove ideally suited by shorter. Subsequent events will tell of course and there is no doubting she is a mare of outstanding ability, but, on my figures, she’s not as outstanding as Quevega (167) at this stage, who has much more solid form at a higher level.

Finally a word for Big Buck’s, who was a tip top hurdler who reached a peak of 174. His injury has clearly dented his ability, and that allied to his age has seen him return figures over a stone below his very best on both his starts back. I am a fairly unsentimental soul but on this occasion I genuinely wish him a happy and safe retirement.

The other races that fell into my division included the Coral Cup and Pertemps Final, both of which provided competitive finishes and personal bests by Whisper (progressive throughout the season and now 159) and Fingal Bay (excellently trained to regain the thread of a promising novice career and now 153).

I also assessed the Neptune and Albert Bartlett, which helped strengthen my opinion about the staying novices. ‘Faugheen The Machine’ duly backed up my and most other form experts view that he’s something special by bounding away with the Neptune, and lord only knows what he’ll be capable of when he learns to jump. Seldom do you see horses crash through hurdles and instantly come back on the steel.

I reckon the overall strength of the race is a bit below average, and indeed I have downgraded Rathvinden (and the disappointing Red Sherlock) despite the fact the former finished third. In fact I felt Faugheen didn’t have to run to his pre-race rating of 152, though I’m convinced the only way that rating will move will be upwards.

As to be expected, the Albert Bartlett provided much more a test of stamina and it threw up a surprise winner to boot. They went a decent clip throughout and the majority of those up with the gallop paid the price, including the very tired last-flight faller and top-rated Kings Palace (now 150). Deputy Dan therefore deserves bags of credit for finishing second having been up there all the way.

Unfortunately for him he had no extra to give after looking the probable winner and was passed by the more patiently ridden Very Wood, a 33/1 surprise, with Apache Jack, who had finished in front of the winner when they were second and third in a three-runner race at Naas the time before filling the places in third. My standards suggest something in the low 150s, and by not increasing Deputy Dan’s pre-race 145 (though he could well prove better than this under different tactics) I have settled for 150 for the winner, with Apache Jack also sharing 145 with the runner-up.

Briar Hill went off the strong favourite but he unfortunately fell before the race began in earnest. The very good news for his connections is that he is now joint top staying novice with Seeyouatmidnight (rated 155). How so you may ask, given his pre-race rating was only 147. The answer is very simple. The three-runner race at Naas was won by Briar Hill, who gave Apache Jack 7lb and a two and a quarter length beating, and gave Very Wood 10lb and a three length beating. The only obvious handicapping decision to be made was to increase the level of the race from my original assessment, and my already positive view of the potential of Briar Hill is significantly enhanced.

First class Dynaste

The Grade 1 Ryanair Festival Chase at Cheltenham was a fairly straightforward race to handicap this year, writes Mark Olley.

From a ratings point of view the race centred around the 155-rated Hunt Ball. Nicky Henderson’s gelding has a decent record at the Festival having won the 0-140 Novice Handicap in 2012 and then finished a good fourth in the Byrne Group Plate last season. Whilst his US venture didn’t go to plan there’s every reason to think he bounced back to his 155 rating back under ideal conditions – that’s the figure he produced when winning at the Festival two years ago and also won from at Taunton this time last year.

Rajdhani Express won the Rewards4Racing Novice Handicap at last year’s Festival and has continued on an upward curve. He’d been fifth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November on his sole previous start this season and I have him running a career-high 158 in third this time, in a week where the three who finished directly in front of him in November (Attaglance, Hidden Cyclone and Colour Squadron) also produced fine performances in defeat.

Irish challenger Hidden Cyclone did everything right but just lost out over a trip that possibly just stretches his stamina. He certainly stays 2m5f, but having finished second to Sire De Grugy over 2m1f at Ascot in January I wonder if slightly shorter than 2m5f will prove his optimum. That may seem harsh for a horse that achieved a career-high 160 here!

All of the above has Dynaste running to a figure of 163. That is some way below his current rating of 169 which he achieved when finishing second to Cue Card over 3m1f at Haydock in November, though that form still looks solid. David Pipe’s gelding reportedly pulled some muscles when disappointing in the King George but is clearly over that now and reports suggest a return to 3m may well be on the cards.

Last year Cue Card achieved 172 when winning the Ryanair and was the highest rated winner of the race. Dynaste’s 163, on the other hand, is the lowest since the race was upgraded to a Grade 1 back in 2008.

The queen of Cheltenham

History was made in the OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle when Quevega won the race for the sixth consecutive year, writes Chris Nash.

Willie Mullins’ 10-year-old has always been capable of winning this race by running some way below her best and I have assessed this year’s renewal as being no different. In beating the rock-solid Glens Melody (rated 142) by three quarters of a length at level weights she had only to run to a figure of 143+. She took a while to pick up, with 2½m on quickish ground now looking a bare minimum for her, but ended up winning a shade cosily despite the narrow margin.

This performance fits in closely with her figures from the last two renewals, which were 144+ and 143+ respectively.

Glens Melody arrived in form having won two listed races at Warwick this year and she looks a solid marker. A further three quarters of a length behind her was L’Unique, who went into the race on 135 but had got as high as 142 when winning a Grade 1 novice at Aintree last spring, and she’s back to 141.

In each of the previous four years Quevega has followed up victory here by winning the 3m Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival in April. She has to take on her male counterparts there and in each year she has had to surpass her Cheltenham figure in order to prevail. Her current rating of 167 is based on her performance in that race last year when beating Reve de Sivola by a comfortable five lengths. Another outing in that contest should tell us much more about her current ability level.