The Cheltenham Festival | BHA Handicappers Blog

19 Mar 19

Photo Finish

Al Boum Photo provided training legend Willie Mullins with almost the final piece in his Cheltenham Festival jigsaw when scoring in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, writes Martin Greenwood.

The 2019 renewal looked particularly interesting with almost all of the field seemingly having some sort of chance going in. They didn’t hang about either and jumping errors soon put paid to several chances early on. Native River (who looks as though he needs a thorough test nowadays) and Might Bite (stopped quickly as though amiss again) set the fractions and they were joined by the strong-travelling trio of Al Boum Photo, Clan des Obeaux and Bristol de Mai as they approached the business end of the race.

Al Boum Photo & Paul Townend win the Grade 1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase

Al Boum Photo kicked on turning for home and outstayed both Clan des Obeaux and Bristol de Mai to score by two and a half lengths from the staying-on Anibale Fly, possibly dossing a little in front. This was clearly a personal best for Al Boum Photo who is a very unexposed stayer and I would suggest there is more to come from him. His new figure of 176 is a few pounds higher than race standards suggest and is at least comparable to the winning performances of both Don Cossack and Native River in recent years. It is also more in line with the time figure compared to the later Foxhunters.

Anibale Fly also posted his best ever performance and 172 betters his third in the same race twelve months previously. He will be 8 lb ‘well in’ should he take in the Grand National again (fourth last year) and shapes as though he needs an out and out test. Bristol de Mai will also be 4 lb in front if he also takes up the National challenge and he shaped as though confirming all of his ability from the Betfair Chase while seeming to not quite get home. That comment also applies to Clan des Obeaux, who you would imagine will always be ideally suited by a flatter track. That pair are both now 172. Favourite without jumping a fence in public this season, Presenting Percy was never involved and came back lame.

While several of those horses already discussed will undoubtedly be back in the 2020 Gold Cup, three horses who will probably also be lining up if their campaigns go to plan are the trio who pulled clear in the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase.

Tiger Roll & Keith Donoghue

Presenting Percy won a good renewal in 2018 and this year’s race also has a strong look to it. The market and pre-race ratings suggested it was probably between Delta Work, Santini and Topofthegame and so it proved, with the last-named always holding the rallying Santini after a fine waiting ride from Harry Cobden, who seemed to have learnt a lesson from the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and delayed his challenge a little. The strong-travelling Topofthegame is a fine stamp of a horse and surely has the look of a serious Gold Cup challenger. That’s not to say that Santini (a real stayer by the look of things) and Delta Work (who faded late) aren’t also going to be major players next season. Ratings wise this looks above the average and 163, 161 and 159 for the trio almost certainly underestimates their potential.

Back to the Grand National, as well as Anibale Fly and Bristol de Mai, several others produced good performances at Cheltenham that would seem to enhance their prospects for the big day.

Reigning champ Tiger Roll remarkably looks an even better horse this year, sluicing in over hurdles at Navan and then barely coming off the bridle in the Cross Country. I have increased his rating to 167 but that could be higher if anything and makes him 8 lb ‘well in’ for the National, the same as Anibale Fly and fellow Irish raider Rathvinden, the latter having landed the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse last month. Others able to run off their original National weight but due a rise after last week are Vintage Clouds (+5) and Lake View Lad (+3), who both ran very encouraging races in the Ultima Handicap, while Ramses de Teillee is now 5lb higher after his second in the National Trial at Haydock in February. Add Ms Parfois (+7) into the mix after her excellent second in the Midlands National on Saturday and Pairofbrowneyes (+10 after winning the Leinster National), and the already hot race gets even hotter.

Apple’s Jaded

In all my years assessing the Unibet Champion Hurdle, there has not been a renewal as difficult to interpret as this year’s, writes David Dickinson

A shock winner doesn’t necessarily lead to a problem in gauging a race level. A reasonable example of that came in the National Hunt Breeders Supported By Tattersalls Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle later at the meeting which was fought out by outsiders from the Mullins and Elliott yards. There were one or two below par efforts but also enough solid form to enable me to put a figure of 140 on the winner Eglantine du Seuil with a reasonable amount of confidence.

Espoir D’Allen and Mark Walsh winning The Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy

Not so the Champion Hurdle. Melon’s endeavours to force the pace didn’t do him any favours but it appeared to ruin any chance Apple’s Jade might have had. My stopwatch suggests that between flights two and three the field went roughly eleven lengths faster than the field in the Supreme; looking back to last year, they were five lengths faster than for Buveur d’Air’s second Champion success. And what happened at flight three? The dual champion came to grief. And so the stage was set for Laurina but, as I blogged at this time last year, I doubted she was purely a two mile horse – and she had tried to go with the pace.

The relative times in the closing stages also tell their tale. In 2018 the Champion Hurdle was two lengths faster from the third last then the Supreme, this year it was nine lengths slower. And which horses ran their races on the day? Espoir d’Allen and the talented former handicapper Silver Streak, though the latter made a mistake.

My race standards and the official winning margin both suggest that Espoir d’Allen is the best Champion Hurdle winner ever. He was very good but I have massive doubts that a strict interpretation of the finishing positions and relative margins of all the runners is the way to assess what happened. For the moment, I have put a ‘par rating’ of 170 on his performance. If I had used Silver Streak’s current mark to level the race I would be rating the winner around 172. That is the same as Buveur’ d’Air’s current mark and, no doubt, the word fudge would be used at some point. Hopefully the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals will give us more evidence to work with.

One thing that is not in doubt is the ability of the Sky bet Supreme winner Klassical Dream who has been a revelation this season. He proved his courage in Ireland last time out and at Cheltenham he proved his brilliance. In rating him 157 I have put him right on the heels of what the likes of Altior, Douvan and Vautour achieved in winning this race.

The complete tragedy that befell the Irish star Sir Erec marred the Triumph Hurdle but the fact remains that Nicky Henderson, once again, managed to unearth a very fine performer after just one impressive win at a minor track. Pentland Hills rating of 153 is within a pound of the recent average for the race.

Record-equalling success for Altior

Altior matched Big Buck’s record of eighteen consecutive jumps wins but was made to work harder than might have been expected in the feature race on day two. Chris Nash explains….

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase winners  Altior and Nico de Boinville

The Grade 1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase featured the shortest priced favourite of the meeting in the shape of 4/11-shot Altior. He got the job done but it was a long way from being the stroll in the park that his odds suggested that it would be. Altior went to the front after jumping three out but plenty were still on his tail turning for home and he had to dig very deep to hold them off.  He eventually passed the post one and three quarter lengths clear of Politologue with the same distance back to Sceau Royal in third. Although not wildly impressive, Altior showed real determination under pressure to keep his unbeaten record over obstacles intact.

He arrived here with a rating of 175 and there had been plenty of comment, and even some eyebrows raised, when Cyrname had been rated above him (at 178) after winning the Ascot Chase last month. The bare form of the Champion Chase is a long way from being able to justify any increase in the rating of Altior. The figures given to the last ten winners of this race range from 167 to 186 and average out at 174. Applying race standards has Altior running a figure in the range of 167 to 169. I have attached a figure of 168+ to his performance which has Politologue running to his pre-race rating of 166, Sceau Royal running a career best of 164 and Hell’s Kitchen also recording a marginal career best of 158 in finishing fourth. If anything, the form of Cyrname probably took a boost here via the performance of Politologue who had finished over 20 lengths behind him at level weights at Ascot.

The novices got their chance over the 2m trip in the Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle Trophy on day one, and the first three home were all Irish trained. We got a wide margin winner in the shape of Duc Des Genievres who passed the post thirteen lengths clear of Us And Them, with a further three and three quarter lengths back to Articulum in third. There were a few thrills and spills in the race and the failure of some fancied horses to get round probably leaves some question marks over the form. That said, the winner was undeniably impressive – he led going best three out and only needed hands and heels riding up the straight.

The figures given to the last ten winners of this race range from 158 to 169 and average out at 162. Applying race standards to this contest has the winner running a figure between 163 and 167 and I settled on the lower end of this range. That still has Duc Des Genievres recording a big career best of 163, Us And Them running very close to his recent figures in Ireland at 150 and Articulum running a marginal career best at 146. The three highest rated British runners in the race all failed to get round, so Lalor (151), Glen Forsa (150) and Kalashnikov (148) will retain their pre-race ratings.  That was a frustrating outcome from a handicapping point of view as this race usually provides an opportunity to assess the relative merits of the British and Irish trained novices but we were largely denied that chance.

Paisley Perfection

Paisley Park may not have needed to improve his form any further to land the Stayers’ Hurdle but he certainly enhanced his standing with a clear-cut success in the showpiece race in the division. Andrew Mealor assesses the performance…

Paisley Park & Aidan Coleman win the Gr.2 Cleeve Hurdle

Unbeaten in four races previously the season, Paisley Park came into the race with a lofty figure of 168 gained when running out a twelve-length winner of the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham’s Trials Meeting in January. Such a rating already marked him out as good enough to win a Stayers’ Hurdle – the average winning rating for the previous five renewals was 167 – and he didn’t let his supporters down.

Impressions on the day that the Stayers’ Hurdle was run at a flat-out gallop aren’t quite borne out by the evidence of the clock – the field reached the sixth hurdle (around halfway) over a second slower than they did in the Pertemps Final over the same trip 80 minutes earlier and the overall time comes out roughly similar – though the race still provided a fair enough test and certainly wasn’t a repeat of the tactical 2017 renewal.

Stamina is clearly Paisley Park’s strong suit, and having hit his customary flat spot down the hill he powered to the front between the last two flights and likely would have won by a bit further but for making a mistake at the last.

Runner-up Sam Spinner has been quiet since his success in last season’s Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, but he was rated 164 after that win and looks to have got back to that level here under an aggressive ride. His returning to form ties in nicely with Paisley Park more or less repeating the level he had achieved in the Cleeve (168+), and sits just above the level suggested by historical standards.

Festival stalwart Faugheen was rated 169 in last season’s Anglo-Irish classification after his win over three miles at Punchestown. Eleven years old now, he couldn’t quite repeat those heroics but this was a perfectly good run all things considered (161), especially as he was coming in off a heavy fall on his previous start in December. He just held off stablemate Bapaume (160) who made up plenty of ground from rear and looks to have produced a career best.

A figure of 168 puts Paisley Park a bit behind the best recent winners of the Stayers’ Hurdle, Thistlecrack and Big Buck’s both having reached a peak of 174, but he’s got time on his side as a seven-year-old and may well have a bigger performance in him given his rate of progress so far.

Both of the Festival novice events for the younger stayers over hurdles looked well up to scratch.

Minella Indo & Rachael Blackmore wins the Gr.1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle

Favourite Battleoverdoyen (reported as never travelling by his jockey) may have disappointed in the Ballymore Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle but we still got a good finish courtesy of City Island and Champ, the former coming out on top by two lengths.

A figure in the mid-to-low 150s is customary for a Ballymore winner, and with Champ coming in at 152 after wins in a well-contested handicap and the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle, it seems logical to place the unbeaten City Island at the upper end of that range (154). They both look good prospects going forward. There was also plenty of promise from Bright Forecast (149) and Brewin’upastorm (148) who finished well clear of the rest in filling the places, the former in particular who improved markedly on his previous form up in trip and came home well after a patient ride.

Following the 33/1 success of Kilbricken Storm last season, the Albert Bartlett Spa Novices’ Hurdle again produced a shock winner in 50/1-outsider Minella Indo. He’d been placed on his two previous runs at home in Ireland, but the latter of those was a second in a Grade 3 (behind Albert Bartlett third Allaho) and he produced another big chunk of improvement in beating fellow Irish contender (and Grade 1 winner) Commander of Fleet by two lengths, the win all the more impressive given he didn’t really settle for much of the race.

That pair finished clear of a couple who had already produced ratings in the 140s and the first two have both been credited with 150+ performances, Minella Indo sitting just behind the Ballymore winner on 153. Historical standards for the race also provide further confidence in that sort of level.

The level of the novice events in particular could well be influenced by events at Aintree and Punchestown, and the final ratings will be ratified in the end-of-season Anglo-Irish Classification.

Ryanair joy for Frodon

A thrilling renewal of the Ryanair Chase saw a game front-running Frodon come out on top after a brilliant round of jumping, writes Michael Harris

Frodon & Bryony Frost

The Ryanair looked very competitive beforehand and Frodon was top-rated going into the race on 169, having achieved that figure when winning a handicap at Cheltenham in December. With plenty of possible pace angles in the field a strong gallop could have been expected, but with Un de Sceaux and Monalee happy to track the leaders on this occasion, Frodon was able to control the race from the front. His jumping under pressure is a real asset, and with stamina assured he battled on strongly all the way up the hill.

Historically, the last ten winner’s average out at 169 and I am happy that Frodon has replicated his 169 here – he remains second only to stablemate Cyrname in the 2m4f Anglo-Irish rankings so far this season. Aso (+6 to 168), another Cheltenham handicap winner this season and last seen when behind the aforementioned Cyrname at Ascot, bettered his third place finish in this race two years ago and produced a career best despite not being able to dominate, tactics which had seen him to best effect previously. Road to Respect travelled well dropped back in trip but a mistake three out cost him momentum at a crucial stage of the race and he ran a little below his best at 166.

In the novice division, The JLT saw two old rivals fight out a great finish in what developed into a tactical affair. Only 3 lb covered the principles pre-race in what looked an open renewal and Lostintranslation was able to dictate from the front with a good round of jumping. The field was still well bunched three out before the sprint for home began and Defi du Seuil had the best turn of foot, confirming his superiority with Lostintranslation from their meeting in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles at Sandown in February.

A Plus Tard and Rachael Blackmore (blue cap) winning The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase

Vautour produced an outstanding performance in landing this in 2015 (171) but the other winners of the race have ranged from 157 to 162, with an eight-year average of 161. Pre-race standards suggested a mark of around 160 and I have settled on 159 for Defi Du Seuil (+8 from 151), which is the same rating Yorkhill and Taquin du Seuil were given after winning this in recent years. Shattered Love, factoring in her mares’ allowance, was 1lb higher at 160 last year.

Lostintranslation (+7 to 157) lost little in defeat and he should show further improvement once his stamina is drawn out. Mengli Khan (151) finished third for the second successive festival and a drop back to 2 miles looks the way forward for him having not quite seen his race out.

The best novice performance in the 2m4f division, however, came in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap, with A Plus Tard running out an extremely impressive winner of what had looked a wide-open handicap. He ran off a mark of 144 which is the highest rating won off in this race since its inception in 2005. Only a five-year-old, A Plus Tard travelled easily throughout before sprinting clear up the straight. I have him performing to 163, 4 lb ahead of Defi du Seuil. That makes him the joint-leading novice so far this season, alongside RSA chase winner Topofthegame and Arkle winner Duc Des Genievres.