The last racing week was bookended by top-class performances, and all the more notable for the fact the two horses who produced them were announcing their return after spells in the wilderness. The question is obvious – how do their reincarnations compare to the forces they’d been in the past? Here’s our answer.
CUE CARD BACK TO HIS BEST
Anyone who watched Cue Card’s superlative round of jumping and facile victory at Haydock on Saturday must have realised immediately that Colin Tizzard’s nine-year-old was back to his best, writes Phil Smith. Unfortunately with neither Dynaste, Holywell nor Ballynagour running any sort of race, in effect, Cue Card beat one horse.
The most sensible thing to do in the circumstances was to put him back to his highest end of season figure which was 172 in 2013-2014. That season had also seen him win a Betfair Chase when he finished just under six lengths ahead of Silviniaco Conti. On Saturday it was a comfortable seven lengths.
Because of that I was tempted to put him higher, especially when I did a time comparison with the 3m handicap chase won by Vieux Lion Rouge who is now on 146. The Betfair Chase was run 8.5 seconds faster than the closing handicap, which equates to 34lb on that ground. As Cue Card carried 1lb more I could justify 181 on that basis. I am just not confident of putting Cue Card to such a high figure from a race where none of his opponents ran to their rating.
Silviniaco Conti has run below his best on 159. I deemed the very easy victory to be worth 13lb. As a result I have dropped his rating to 168 as he has failed to achieve his 172 in any of his runs since last year’s King George victory. However he still jumped well and would be a very interesting entry in the Crabbie’s Grand National.
If Cue Card can win the King George in such emphatic style I would have no hesitation in promoting him into the 180s, a rating that very few chasers manage to achieve..
THE BLACK AEROPLANE SOARS AGAIN
Is he back? Sprinter Sacre certainly looked more like his old self when demolishing five high-class rivals in last Sunday’s Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, writes Graeme Smith.
It’s a while since Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old last travelled with such verve. He was clearly enjoying himself as the field started down the back straight and then locked hard on to the bridle jumping the ninth of thirteen fences, from which point he tanked past the front-running Mr Mole and soon had the field on the stretch. It briefly looked as though there was the potential for him to deflate as the field got to within three and a half lengths when he was tight into the second last, but he ran away again for pressure to pass the line an ever-increasing fourteen lengths to the good.
Taking a strict line through the pre-race mark of Somersby (164) would bring Sprinter Sacre out at 178, but the proximity of third-placed Savello put something of a dampener on that. Savello came to the race rated just 154, so had the potential to really rain on Sprinter’s parade, more so having conceded him weight.
I take the view that Savello’s proximity has to play a part in my assessment of the form but it shouldn’t be the central theme for several reasons: firstly we considered he’d run as high as 157 when winning at Punchestown in June, secondly it’s not impossible improvement could be forthcoming for the recent switch to the excellent Dan Skelton, and thirdly and perhaps most importantly was the ride he came in for. In a well-run race – every individual section I clocked was run at a faster percentage of the final time than the smart novice chase earlier on the card but for the last one from three out – Savello didn’t really go with the principals. When the pace was really turned on and seemed ridden to some extent to pick up the pieces – hence still having something to give as his rivals tired in the closing stages.
I took the view that raising Savello to 157 to match his Irish form was a fair thing to do but treated him as having run to 160 (with an element of doubt) for the purposes of my overall assessment of the form. I chose that figure as that’s the current rating of the fourth-placed Simply Ned – it’s a reasonably solid one with him having won a handicap recently – and it split the difference between Savello potentially being flattered to beat Simply Ned due to the relative tactics employed and Simply Ned’s mistakes, but also gave him some credit for defeating that horse.
The shakedown meant Sprinter Sacre returned a figure of 173. That’s his best since he won at Punchestown in spring 2013 yet still some way shy of his finest hour. Obviously, there’s the potential for that figure to be tweaked as the horses from Sunday’s race run again but to put it into context as things stand, last season’s Champion two-miler was Dodging Bullets at 171, while the ever-impressive Un de Sceaux signed off his novice season at 168. The question of how much more any of the exalted trio find for stiffer competition as the season develops will certainly keep me hooked!
OLD PLAN WORKS FOR GUARD
There was more than a hint of deja vu about the success of Old Guard in the StanJames.com Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, centrepiece of the final day of the Open Meeting, at the magnificently revamped Prestbury venue, writes David Dickinson.
Trainer Paul Nicholls had won the race with another four-year-old Brampour in 2011, a second ride on that horse for teenage amateur Harry Derham, the pair having scored at Ascot prior to their Greatwood success. Old Guard has been ridden in his two wins this season by another highly promising teenager well worth his claim, in Harry Cobden.
For a young man riding in the biggest race of his life so far, Cobden was notably cool and delivered Old Guard at the right moment. His new rating of 157 will put him on the premises in Grade 1 company, acknowledging it will probably take further improvement for him to win such a race. For instance, the five day declarations for the Stanjames.com Fighting Fifth include five horses with higher ratings.
The Sunday card started with a terrific set-to in the opening novice hurdle between the hard pulling but gradually learning Altior and Maputo. It could have gone either way but Altior got on top near the line. Sadly, Maputo was lame afterwards and seems unlikely to reappear.
Unlike Old Guard, Saturday’s Haydock winner Irving holds a five day entry for the aforementioned Fighting Fifth. The Nicky Henderson-yard has only Top Notch entered and Willie Mullins has Arctic Fire (a victim of Irving in the race last year) and Wicklow Brave, who would be the form horses were either to travel over.
With Cheltenham’s International mentioned as a possible next target for Old Guard, just how far could he go? A glance at Brampour’s record might offer a clue. It shows that Derham rode him to finish seventh in Rock On Ruby’s Champion Hurdle. The pairing started at 50/1 that day, which amply demonstrates the strides that Old Guard still needs to make to become a serious challenger for the Blue Riband event.