The 2022 Cheltenham Festival Handicappers Blog

22 Mar 22


A Plus Tard and Rachael Blackmore 

The 2022 Boodles Gold Cup looked to be all about the Irish Challengers beforehand and so it proved, writes Martin Greenwood, though at least the GB contingent managed a third and a fifth from their five runners, Protektorat doing best of those despite ploughing through the last.

Last season’s first two again dominated this time around but the positions were swapped in no uncertain manner. Minella Indo had been very low key hitherto in 2021/22 but probably ran his best race of the season. Having kicked on off what looked only a reasonable gallop turning in, he had them all in trouble at that point, including briefly A Plus Tard who was boxed in behind a wall of horses. However, A Plus Tard responded magnificently and surged up to join the leader at the last having got a run and simply sprinted clear in devasting fashion to put fifteen lengths between himself and Minella Indo by the line, leaving the strong impression there was plenty still in the tank.

Minella Indo was probably better than the final result in that he pressed on and possibly did too much too soon, and he looked likely to beat the rest much further than he eventually managed. Galvin was the other major Irish fancy having beaten A Plus Tard at Leopardstown over Christmas but he was readily outpaced here and probably requires a better gallop and/or stronger test of stamina. Galvin’s pre-race rating of 168 remains, and it will be interesting to see if connections go down the Grand National route. Minella Indo’s rating is now 169, which is 6 lbs lower than his peak from a year ago.

A Plus Tard’s new rating will be in a different parish to those two, however. While it is very probable this is a clear personal best, it is worth remembering his rout in the Betfair at Haydock earlier in the season could have been rated higher, and those two emphatic wins are only slightly tainted by his defeat at the hands of Galvin at Leopardstown in between. Average historic standards on the winner suggest somewhere in the mid-170s, which means everything else has run to low-to-mid 160s at best. Add to that the ease of victory and we are talking a new figure of 180, which is the best in the Gold Cup since Bobs Worth in 2013. Having passed his big exam with flying colours, it almost goes without saying that A Plus Tard will be top of the class for some time to come.

L’Homme Presse and Charlie Deutsch

Earlier in the week the best UK and Irish staying novices mainly manged to miss each other with basically all-Irish affairs in the NH Chase and Golden Miller, while the UK appeared to have the upper hand going into the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase on Wednesday. The heavy rain ruled out leading fancy Bravemansgame as well as Irish challenger Fury Road, but it still looked an interesting race nonetheless. L’Homme Presse and Ahoy Senor now headed the ratings with some unexposed Irish challengers not far behind in the embryonic pecking order.

The GB-trained pair also headed the betting and they dominated for much of the race, duelling for the lead from the get-go. L’Homme Presse travelled powerfully throughout and jumped superbly, which is more than can be said about Ahoy Senor who continues to be let down by his jumping. The latter was shuffled a little down the pack due to fencing errors and it soon became apparent that L’Homme Presse’s main rival would be the equally strong-travelling Farouk D’Alene. However, while you can’t be certain as to what would definitely have happened, in my opinion the latter had just begun to come to the end of his tether when coming to grief at the second last.

L’Homme Presse was never in any danger afterwards even though, to his immense credit, Ahoy Senor stayed on most strongly again from the last. The latter remains on his pre-race 157 and looks capable of making his mark in big staying handicap chases next season at the very least, as long as the jumping issues are sorted out. L’Homme Presse is now rated 164 (from 159) and proved his stamina after being campaigned over shorter distances previously – that rating is broadly in line with the best performances in this race in recent years. His jumping will stand him in good stead and he looks a very exciting prospect for the remainder of this season and beyond. Personal bests were also achieved by Gaillard du Mesnil (155) and Farouk D’Alene (157), the latter rated as if finishing alongside Ahoy Senor.

Ryanair repeat for dominant Allaho

Allaho and Paul Townend

Allaho produced one of the performances of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival with a scintillating twelve-length success in the Ryanair Chase and there was a certain sense of déjà vu in his successful defence of the race this time around, writes Michael Harris…

In similar style to last year, it was a dominant front-running display and bar a minor error at the last fence, it was another superb performance to cement his place at the top of the two and a half mile chase division. In winning last year (174), Allaho produced the best performance in the history of this race, surpassing Vautour’s 173 figure from 2016. His 2022 effort looks every bit as good. In defeating Janidil (164) and Eldorado Allen (163 from 166), I have settled on a figure of 176 for Allaho. That currently makes him the joint-third highest-rated chaser in training, on a par with Chacun Pour Soi and behind only Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard (180) and Shishkin (177).

Bob Olinger and Rachael Blackmore

Only four runners went to post for the Marsh Golden Miller Novices’ Chase, but it was one of the most intriguing clashes of the week with two of last year’s festival winners going head-to-head. Galopin des Champs had been very impressive on his two chase starts (already a Grade 1 winner) and went into the race as the highest rated novice chaser of the season on 164. Bob Olinger (160 from 161) looked his most formidable opponent to date but after a mistake four out he struggled to match Galopin des Champs and was well held before the unfortunate last fence incident for the leader. Even when left clear, it looked fairly hard work for Bob Olinger on the run to the line and all things considered I don’t think he was able to show his true form on the day. I have him running to 155 and have credited Galopin des Champs with a figure of 169. That cements the latter’s position as the leading novice chaser of the season, 5 lb clear of fellow Grade 1 winners L’Homme Presse and Bravemansgame (both 164). He’s clearly a very exciting prospect for the future.

Champion Chase anti-climax

Energumene (Paul Townend

The Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase was the feature race on day two of the Festival and it had the makings of being the race of the week with the three leading performers of the season at that stage all lining up – Shishkin headed the pecking order with an official rating of 177, followed by Chacun Pour Soi (176) and Energumene (175), writes Chris Nash…

However, it was a day of heavy rain and rapidly softening ground and those conditions seemingly took their toll on Shishkin as he never travelled with any fluency and was pulled up around halfway.  Shortly after his exit Chacun Pour Soi, who was lobbing along in front, departed, which left Energumene with a much easier task than looked likely three minutes earlier. He made absolutely no mistake, travelling into contention smoothly to lead jumping two out and coming clear up the hill for hands and heels only. At the line he was eight and a half lengths clear of Funambule Sivola, with a further four and a half lengths back to Envoi Allen in third.

The last ten winners of this race ran figures ranging from 167 to 188 and they averaged out at 172, and applying race standards to the contest also gave a figure of 172 for the winner. That looked a perfectly good fit, so I have Energumene running a bare figure of 172+ on the day with any upgrade for the style and ease of his victory catered for in his pre-race rating of 175, which remains unchanged. That has Funambule Sivola running a figure of 163 which rates a career best – he has been quietly progressive through the season so this further step forward is easily justifiable. Envoi Allen recorded a figure of 159 in third. He arrived here rated 161 in Ireland so has largely run his race. Connections of Shishkin reported that his performance was entirely ground related and that there is a chance of him running at Aintree, whilst Chacun Pour Soi and Energumene may well head to Punchestown, where both were successful last year.

Edwardstone and  Tom Cannon

The Sporting Life Arkle was run on the first day of the meeting, so on plenty quicker ground than the Champion Chase, a fact highlighted by the novices running a time fifteen seconds faster. The leader, Magic Daze, bowled along keenly and set a reasonable tempo – the race time dipped under standard and the contest looked a fair enough test. Edwardstone went into the race the top-rated at 159 and justified that position with a commanding victory, coming home four and a half lengths clear of Gabynako, with another three and a half lengths back to Blue Lord in third.

The last ten winners of this contest range from 159 to 169 and average out at 163, and race standards produced a figure of 160 for the winner. That looked a perfectly viable level for the race so I have Edwardstone running a figure of 160+ and the decisive nature of his victory meant I was happy to upgrade him slightly from that figure and allocate him a revised rating of 161. Gabynako ran a career best of 155 in second – he was supplemented for this race and fully justified that decision. Blue Lord records a figure of 152 – he’d won a Grade 1 novice at the Dublin Racing Festival last time out but failed to match that performance here. The 2m novice division might not be as deep as it has been in some years but there is absolutely no doubt that Edwardstone deserves his position at the top of the pile. He has been openly campaigned with this being his sixth run of the season and has won every time he has completed, the Arkle his fourth consecutive Graded race win.

A showdown for the ages?

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore

Honeysuckle retaining her Champion Hurdle crown was supposed to be the headline act on day one of the 2022 Festival but new kid on the block Constitution Hill did his best to steal her thunder with a top-class effort in the Supreme, whetting the appetite for a potential showdown between the pair at Punchestown in six weeks’ time, writes Andrew Mealor

The Unibet Champion Hurdle was largely about going over old ground for Honeysuckle, with last year’s Supreme winner Appreciate It the only new rival amongst her realistic challengers. She was more workmanlike then when storming home twelve months ago but still ran out a clear-cut winner and once again showed she is the dominant force amongst the established two milers.

Rated 165 after last year’s Champion Hurdle, Honeysuckle hadn’t needed to match that level for her two wins in Ireland earlier in the campaign, latterly a six-and-a-half length defeat of Zanahiyr in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and it was a similar story at Cheltenham. Zanahiyr finished a bit closer to the mare this time, four a half lengths back in third, with the pair split by Epatante, the 2020 winner who went one better than when third last year.

Given those rivals finished closer to Honeysuckle than in previous meetings, allied to a relatively bunched finish overall with just over nine lengths covering the first seven home, it’s hard to rate the Champion Hurdle form highly, and in truth the race wasn’t run in a manner conducive to achieving a high rating.

A winning figure of 158+ for Honeysuckle ties in with the ratings awarded to Epatante (154) and fifth-place Saint Roi (156) in last season’s Anglo-Irish Classification, and also has Zanahiyr (159) running up to his best – with both Honeysuckle and Epatante in receipt of the 7 lb mares allowance, Zanahiyr actually comes out as narrowly the best horse at the weights in the Champion Hurdle, though Honeysuckle retains her higher handicap mark of 165.

Though Honeysuckle hasn’t needed to reproduce her very best form so far in 2021/22, that’s not to say she still doesn’t have that sort of performance in her locker, and she may well need that form and potentially more if the clash with Constitution Hill does materialise, such was the impression Nicky Henderson’s charge made in the Sky Bet Supreme.

A twenty-two length win on its own in what looked a strong renewal beforehand would get the pulse racing, but the evidence on the clock further underlines the merit of Constitution Hill’s performance, albeit in a race that was set up perfectly for a top horse to run a fast time.

With the free-going Dysart Dynamo pressed by Jonbon in front, the pace was strong from the outset, and as early as the second hurdle the Supreme field were already around 18 lengths ahead of their counterparts in the Champion Hurdle. That gap increased to around 26 lengths at the fourth before understandably starting to narrow in the second half of the race. Despite those early exertions, Constitution Hill was still able to run from two out to the line 1.2 seconds quicker than Honeysuckle managed off a steadier pace, and the overall time for the Supreme ended up 5.8 seconds quicker (around twenty-six lengths).

Constitution Hill and Nico de Boinville

Judged on time alone compared to the other races on the card, Constitution Hill could be rated in the mid-170s, so a form rating of 170 – underpinned by the previous form of the placed horses and historical standards applied to the result – may prove to be conservative. As it is, 170 is the highest rating for a novice over hurdles since the Anglo-Irish Jump Classifications were founded in 1999/2000, eclipsing the 168 rating awarded to Iris’s Gift after he finished second to Baracouda as a novice in the 2003 Stayers’ Hurdle.

As things stand, Honeysuckle’s figure of 165 plus her 7 lb mares allowance gives her the edge on ratings over Constitution Hill, though that doesn’t factor in the latter’s scope for further improvement after just three starts, and I for one certainly wouldn’t back against him ending the mare’s unbeaten record if the clash does take place.

A quick word for Supreme runner-up Jonbon who ran a good race in the circumstances on his first try in Grade 1 company. He’s been nudged up 2 lb to 147, though I fully expect him to better than rating under more favourable circumstances. The 2m Grade 1 novice at Aintree looks the logical next step for him provided the race doesn’t come too soon (finished tired).

Vauban and Paul Townend 

Another to put himself potentially in the frame for next year’s Champion Hurdle was Vauban who put his Flat background to good use in what turned into a speed test in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. An Irish whitewash was no great surprise with the GB juveniles looking a very average crop at best this season, and Vauban (151) proved much the best of the visiting party. The winning margin was only two and a half lengths, but the manner in which he picked up on the run-in having given Fil Dor and Pied Piper (both 145) a chance with a slow jump at the last was impressive and he looked to have a good bit in reserve.

Vauban clearly has a lot of potential (both Flat and jumps), though his rating marks him down as only an average Triumph winner at this stage and the principals will have to progress significantly to become genuine Champion Hurdle contenders next season, especially with the likes of Honeysuckle and Constitution Hill around.