For the third consecutive year, the Ladbrokes King George VI chase at Kempton produced more questions than answers, writes Martin Greenwood…
While this blog isn’t intended to downplay the achievements of Paul Nicholls, who has won all three and a dozen in total, or Bryony Frost, who is hand in glove with a fabulously game and sound-jumping Frodon, from a strictly handicapping perspective the race is proving a bit of a head-scratcher year on year.
Of course, most people involved in NH racing realise the King George offers a totally different sort of test to staying chasers than do other established races in the division, but so many horses in the last three runnings have failed to deliver on the day, that the merit of winning it seems to have very little consequence in the overall scheme of things, at least for now.
The 2018 and 2019 winner Clan des Obeaux seems no better than a high-160s performer away from Kempton, and could only manage a below-par third this year after a hard slog at Haydock the previous month, while both Cyrname and Lostintranslation disappointed badly in the race for the second year in a row. Add to these a laboured display from last season’s Gold Cup runner-up Santini and you have quite a list without even mentioning the disappointments from 2018.
There is always a winner, however, and Frodon is a great advertisement for NH racing. He has now won 14 races over fences, just under half at Cheltenham, and this win goes alongside his 2019 victory in the Ryanair as his two biggest achievements. It’s difficult to argue Frodon is any better than he was in 2019, however, and he’s now back to that peak 169 figure. With the time comparing poorly with the earlier novice chase (which suggests no more than sensible fractions had been set) and average historical standards only hinting at mid-to-high 160s, it’s hard to argue for a personal best here.
A positive mention goes to Saint Calvados, who ran very well for a long way and didn’t get home after racing keenly, and also the fragile Waiting Patiently (also very keen). After being around four lengths off the winner at the last on the far side, Waiting Patiently was left around eight lengths off the pace turning in and possibly hung fire a little temporarily before finishing with a rare rattle. Frodon wasn’t for catching by then and connections will have to hope that he comes out of the race in good fettle (this was only his fourth race since unseating in the 2018 King George). Hopefully he can reach the same heights as he did very early in 2018 (rated 170 then, 167 now).
I was hoping The Savills Chase at Leopardstown two days later would illuminate the very cloudy staying chase picture, but again we were left with a fractured event mainly due to favourite Minella Indo and Delta Work both departing around the halfway mark. Soon after that point it very quickly became a trio on the last circuit until that party was crashed very late, and the rest of the field were never seriously involved. Pacesetters Kemboy and Melon saw off the other prominent racer Tour Est Permis and then proceeded to have a good old ding-dong, with the race seemingly in the balance all the way to the line. While all this was occurring, A Plus Tard, conqueror of Chacun Pour Soi on this track and third in the Ryanair at Cheltenham last season, slowly but surely made inroads into the deficit. He still looked held at the last though until responding incredibly well to pressure to mug the other pair on the line. Historical standards suggest mid-to-high 160s, and with A Plus Tard 167 going in and Kemboy’s best effort of last season being 168 from his second in the Irish Gold Cup, that sort of level looks correct. It seems fair to assume that the latter has flatlined since the 2018/19 season, but the winner is at least unexposed over the trip, as is Melon who posted a clear personal best here (165).
In summary we have a plethora of staying chasers rated from the mid-160s to around 170 at the moment, with an ever revolving order of short-term merit, and Al Boum Photo’s wide-margin victory at Tramore really doesn’t illuminate things other than point to his current well-being.
The festive period saw several decent races in the 2m chase division with a pair of Grade 1 races at Leopardstown and a brace of Grade 2s at Kempton, writes Chris Nash…
The best performance amongst those was that of Chacun Pour Soi who won the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase by a comfortable six and a half lengths from Notebook, with Put The Kettle On a further one and three-quarter lengths back in third. Both the placed horses had won Grade 2 races on their seasonal returns last time out so the form looks to have plenty of substance. I have Chacun Pour Soi running a bare figure of 170+ and, factoring in the ease of his victory, I was happy to stick to his pre-race Irish rating of 172, although I did note that my Irish colleagues bumped him up to 174 after the race.
In the novice division the Grade 1 Racing Post Chase was won by Franco de Port who came home four and a half lengths clear of Darver Star, the pair nine lengths clear of Felix Desjy in third. The placed horses went into the race as the leading Irish novices in the division, so there are reasons to be positive about the effort of the winner who looks a strong stayer at the trip. I have given him a figure of 157 for the win, which has Darver Star at 152 and Felix Desjy below his best at 144.
In Britain there were two good winners of the Kempton races. Last year’s Supreme winner Shishkin confirmed himself as the leading 2m novice chaser so far this season by winning the Ladbrokes Wayward Lad Chase pretty much as he pleased, crossing the line thirteen lengths clear of Tamaroc du Mathan. It is never easy to assess the true worth of a performance when a horse wins as comfortably as he did, especially in a small field. Race standards suggested a figure of 155-157 for this effort but he looked to be worth more than that to me and I went with a figure of 162. That makes him the leading novice chaser of the season so far, with Franco de Port (157) and Allmankind (154) his nearest pursuers in the 2m division.
Later on the card saw the return of Altior but he had to settle for second place in the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase, three and a half lengths behind surprise winner Nube Negra. The latter went into the race with one of the lowest ratings in the field at 152 and was sent off at 20/1, but he travelled best for longest and won entirely on merit, albeit in a race that was very difficult to assess. Race standards suggested a figure of 156-158 for the winner and the time comparisons with the novice race only get his performance to around 150. However, the presence of Altior (172 pre-race), Duc des Genievres (160) and Rouge Vif (163) in the frame meant that this looked a stronger renewal than is often the case, and I eventually settled on a figure of 165 for Nube Negra. That had Altior also running to 165 as he had to concede 6 lb to the winner. He came into the race rated 172 but he last ran to that figure in 2019 and, having been beaten on two of his last three starts, I felt it was time to drop him back a touch. His revised mark will be 169.
The current pecking order amongst the 2m chasers is Chacun Pour Soi (172), Altior (169), Politologue (169), Defi du Seuil (168), with Nube Negra slotting in behind them. Those ratings confirm what an exciting prospect Shishkin (162) is given he’s not far off those established chasers already and remains open to a fair bit of improvement after just two runs over fences.
Silver Streaks home in Christmas Hurdle
There were contrasting fortunes for last year’s Champion Hurdle one-two who were both in action in key races over the festive period. Andrew Mealor assesses the current state of play in the 2m division…
First up was reigning champion Epatante (161) who met with a surprise defeat in her bid to land a second successive Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She looked to have a straightforward task on paper following her very smooth reappearance win in the Fighting Fifth but the finishing burst she produced that day was absent and she couldn’t reel in the front-running Silver Streak from two out, ultimately eased off and going down by six and a half lengths. The small field and wide margins (Epatante was eight and a half lengths clear of third-placed Ballyandy) left some wide parameters of what this race could be rated, but the strong likelihood is that Nicky Henderson’s mare wasn’t at her best, which is also backed up the proximity of her 143-rated stablemate Floressa in fifth.
That said, Silver Streak still looks to have run a career best in gaining a first Grade 1 success, with more positive tactics around a track he has a good record at clearly paying dividends. Historical standards as well as the time compared to the novice hurdle earlier on the card won by Third Time Lucki (144) point towards a performance in the low-to-mid 160s, and his new rating of 163 is 5 lb above his previous best. Although Silver Streak seems to have been around for a long time, it’s worth bearing in mind that he has only just turned eight.
Epatante’s air of invincibility might have gone but her Champion Hurdle winning performance still looks the best form on offer with Cheltenham in mind (factoring in her 7 lb mares’ allowance), and that form was well advertised a couple of days later by runner-up Sharjah (164) who landed Leopardstown’s Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle for the third year in a row. With Ireland’s up-and-coming two milers Aspire Tower (second), Saint Roi (fourth) and Abacadabras (fifth, scoped dirty) all behind him, he once again appears to be Ireland’s principal Champion Hurdle hope at this stage.
A Champion Hurdle market that is generally 16/1 bar Epatante, Sharjah and Silver Streak shows that last year’s novices so far haven’t made the breakthrough that might have been hoped for against the established two-milers, with Goshen’s (156) poor run in the International at Cheltenham a particular disappointment in that regard (though he was found to be suffering from a fibrillating heart). The winner of that race, Song For Someone (158), does deserve a mention as a young hurdler who is on the up, however. He was arguably fortunate to hold off Silver Streak in a tight finish to a race with three omitted hurdles due to low sun (and a very long run-in) but is clearly progressive and will be worth his place in the big one.
The busy Christmas period also saw a couple distinguish themselves from the pack in the 2m novice division. Willie Mullins’ Appreciate It has been provisionally pencilled in at 152 after a nine-length success in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice at Leopardstown. It was no surprise to see him chalked up a short price favourite for the Supreme on the back of that, though he could well meet an opponent of similar calibre in Metier who was equally impressive in running out a twelve-length winner of the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown. The bare form of the Tolworth arguably isn’t the strongest by Grade 1 standards, with runner-up Shakem Up’Arry rated only 130 coming in – and beaten in a handicap off that mark on his previous start – but the second and third from his earlier novice win at Ffos Las (both subsequent winners) support a level 5 or 6 lb higher for him (now up to 136), and the overall time compared favourably to the other 2m races on the card, notably the concluding 0-145 handicap. Metier’s new mark of 149 rates him as an average Tolworth winner at this stage rather than anything more, but he has the potential to go higher in the face of sterner tests down the line.