Investec Derby Festival | Handicappers Blog

05 Jun 18

Masterful Masar

Saxon Warrior may not have succeeded in his attempt to complete the second leg of a possible Triple Crown bid, but the 2000 Guineas form still came to the fore in this year’s Investec Derby, writes Adam Barnes.

Most people who say ‘the Guineas is the best trial for the Derby’ probably haven’t actually done the research to back up their assertion, and to be fair nor have I gone back in time to prove or disprove such a theory for this blog, but either way we can probably agree that this year’s 2000 Guineas did indeed turn out to be an informative Derby trial, with Saturday’s 1-2-4 at Epsom having been 3-5-1 at Newmarket.

The Derby can sometimes be a messy affair, but thankfully this year was pretty clean, and the form looks solid. Aided by the strong pace, the leaders reaching the path where they turn into the straight (over three furlongs out) around 2 seconds quicker than all-the-way winner Dash of Spice in the following course-and-distance handicap, the first four home came from midfield or rear, with Masar (121, from 117) always going well and full value for his length-and-a-half victory. Dee Ex Bee (118, from 110) had every chance, while Roaring Lion (117; stays on his Dante rating of 118), up in trip with stamina to prove, looked to just run out of petrol late on having looked like being runner-up at one stage, and connections’ plan to drop back in trip looks logical. That comment also applies to Hazapour, who was keen early racing close to the strong pace and still cruising when challenging after three furlongs out, but he got tired when it mattered, looking a non-stayer and shaping a good deal better than the bare form.

Saxon Warrior – Ryan Moore

As for Saxon Warrior, some talked about the tricky draw in stall 1 and his slight stumble from it, others said he just ran flat, while I tend to largely agree with those who identified his apparent discomfort on the track, looking unbalanced and reluctant to really let himself go coming down the camber, after also not enjoying the clearest run prior to that. He remains a horse to be excited about for the season ahead, appealing as likely to put this behind him in due course.

Masar’s new rating of 121 is informed by the solid time (around 30lb quicker than now 98-rated Dash of Spice in the handicap once weight carried/weight-for-age is accounted for, and a speed figure pushing towards 120 against other round-course races on the card), historical standards (five-year range of 119-122 pointed to by the shape of this year’s form), and the pre-race levels of most of the beaten horses, nothing from third down holding down the level decided on. That rating puts Masar higher than recent Derby winners such as Wings of Eagles and Ruler of the World, but a little way behind the likes of Golden Horn and Australia. It seems we may see him next in either the Irish Derby or back down in trip in the Eclipse at Sandown.

A ‘Golden Highway’ Oaks?

It’s probably fair to say this year’s Investec Oaks didn’t have the strongest feel to it beforehand, but post-race the form doesn’t look too shabby, the field coming home nicely strung out with the ‘right’ sort of horses filling the frame behind ready winner Forever Together, who built on her Chester promise in no uncertain terms.

The race was run at a fair pace, though Bye Bye Baby didn’t go as hard as it might have seemed visually, reaching the path as they turn into the straight nearly 2.5 seconds slower than Salouen in the Coronation Cup, with Forever Together ultimately passing the post 1.9 seconds slower than Cracksman just over an hour earlier. Once the weight-for-age allowance for three-year-olds is taken into account there was little between the two times, though it needs bearing in mind that the ground was drying out all time.

Forever Together – Donnacha O’Brien wins from the field.

A key moment in the Oaks came early in the straight, when Donnacha O’Brien shrewdly made a move for the apparently favoured ‘Golden Highway’ stands rail – a conclusion hard to avoid as the card went on. In making that move O’Brien ensured that he and his mount spent most of the straight racing close to the rail, and just as crucially prevented William Buick and Wild Illusion, who was stepping up half a mile in trip, from doing so. Forever Together proved much the strongest in the closing stages and came home four-and-a-half lengths clear, though there’s certainly a possibility that things would have been closer in different circumstances.

In terms of putting a number on Forever Together’s win, it might appear quite simple to look at the pre-race ratings of Wild Illusion (113), By Bye Baby (109) and Magic Wand (104) and come to a conclusion of around 119-120. However, with the impression that the winner enjoyed something of a tactical advantage over her rivals, the time relative to the Coronation Cup and other races nothing too special once drying conditions and the possible stands rail bias enjoyed by the winner are considered, as well as historical standards generally pointing towards a lower level (a range of 115-119 in the last five years, which an average/median of 117), I’ve rated Forever Together on 117 for now, which also happens to be in line with the 10-year average for an Oaks winner. That means I strictly have all the other horses in the first four performing slightly below their pre-race marks, though they arguably lose little or nothing in defeat given the circumstances. Hopefully we’ll see a rematch between the first two at some stage.

Cracksman Not So Cracking

What is to be done? A question posed by Chernyshevsky in 1863, Lenin in 1902, and also by horseracing handicappers when 130-rated Cracksman and 110-rated Salouen passed the post almost together in this year’s Investec Coronation Cup.

Upon the completion of Friday’s contest most racing fans would most likely have concluded something along the lines of: laboured Cracksman clearly wasn’t at anything like his best; Salouen seems to have run the race of his life but was he flattered? Windstoss ran alright; the rest flopped. Same here, pretty much. But where, oh where does the handicapping answer lie?

Cracksman – Frankie Dettori wins from Salouen -Silvestre De Sousa

As touched on above, the Coronation Cup time – partly aided by the sound pace set by Salouen – reads relatively well against the likes of the Oaks (rated at 117) and the good ten-furlong handicap won by up-and-comer Ajman King (now rated 108), particularly given it was run on slightly softer ground than those races (drying conditions) and there was also a relative lack of ‘Golden Highway’ action close to the stands rail here. Though what little action there was in that regard may well have been decisive, the evidence that mounted through the afternoon increasingly making it look crucial that Dettori switched Cracksman to the rail for the final furlong, before finally getting on top of Salouen close home.

Historical standards in the last five years point towards a range of 119-122 for this year’s winner. With the likes of Idaho and Hawkbill failing to fire, Cracksman clearly not himself (perhaps not in love with the track but, probably more crucially, also later reported to have banged his head in the stalls) and the overall muddling feel to the form, I came to a conclusion of 119 here for Cracksman (stays rated 130), with Salouen up 8lb to 118, those levels also happening to broadly tie in with what Windstoss achieved on his latest outing in Germany. Whether Salouen can repeat this level another time remains to be seen, though it’s worth remembering that this was only his second start as a four-year-old, and perhaps these new forcing tactics will prove the key to him, too.