Their final standings
The latest National Hunt season could easily go down as one of the greatest in terms of the emergence of talent for the future, with stellar novice performances not only confined to that division but also on the biggest stage of all, and now the dust has settled on the big Spring Festivals we’ve taken the time to publish our end-of-year report. The stayer chasers are covered in Phil Smith’s Head of Handicapping blog, but everything else is right here in a comprehensive bulletin.
More Mullins magic
A complete domination of the 2m hurdle category by the Willie Mullins yard was only prevented by the yard’s lack of strength in the juvenile department, writes David Dickinson.
The yard fielded some decent juveniles notably Petite Parisienne, Kalkir, Dicosimo and Buiseness Sivola but come the Triumph Hurdle it was Nicky Henderson who held all the aces.
In the winner Peace and Co, Top Notch and possibly even the third home Hargam they have the makings of a team that ought to take very high rank next season given a fair wind. Peace And Co’s rating of 157 makes him an above-average winner of the race, behind only Katchit (who won the following season’s Champion Hurdle) and the ill-fated Our Conor since the advent of this Classification.
The one doubt about that Triumph form is the inability of Hargam to frank it at Aintree. I blogged after Cheltenham about just how hard the first three had gone from two out (seven lengths faster than Wicklow Brave in the following County Hurdle) and so for the moment I have taken the view that Hargam had simply failed to recover from what must have been a very hard race.
Faugheen’s undefeated progress towards the Champion Hurdle crown became more and more inevitable as the season wore on but putting a figure on it was somewhat more difficult. Hurricane Fly (166 in 2013-14 but 175 at his peak) and the defending champion Jezki (169 in 2013-14) had some pulsating duels through the winter but at Cheltenham found not only Faugheen in front of them but also the fast-finishing Arctic Fire, who was reversing form with them from earlier on.
In rating Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Arctic Fire on 169, account has been taken of the fact that they have all beaten each other during the season. The rating of Faugheen was the subject of much debate during our Handicappers’ meeting and the decision of 174 gives him credit for his unblemished record and that fact that for the vast majority of the Cheltenham race he travelled like a horse who was more superior than the final margin suggests. Indeed, he extended his margin over Champion runner-up Arctic Fire to eight lengths in a more tactical race at Punchestown.
Historically, it places Hurricane Fly and Istabraq above him at their very peak but he’s above the level of Hurricane Fly’s first Champion Hurdle.
There has to be a suspicion that 169 flatters Arctic Fire but the chance to resolve the matter at Aintree was missed following his last flight fall, when it looked all to play for between him and Jezki.
In the lead up to the Champion Hurdle there were lines of form that suggested Faugheen had an awful lot in hand. His superiority over Purple Bay in the Christmas Hurdle – that horse’s relative superiority over Irving, Irving’s success over Arctic Fire at Newcastle in November and that horse’s relative proximity to Hurricane Fly and Jezki in the Irish trials. I did suggest that at least one of these pieces of form would prove to be a red herring and it turned out to be the defeat of 169-rated Arctic Fire by the 154 rated Irving in the Fighting Fifth.
For all the good novices around in 2014-15, Douvan looked a class apart from the moment he put in the most astonishing Irish debut at Gowran Park in November. He was by no means all out in winning by 12 lengths and that effort looked ever more impressive as the runner-up Sizing John went on to land a Grade 1 and then finish third in the Supreme. His rating of 161, the same as both Faugheen and Jezki in their recent novice seasons, is thoroughly deserved and for all of the riches in the Mullins yard, this one could yet prove to be the best of the lot.
Aintree and Punchestown saved the season for the staying hurdle division, writes Martin Greenwood.
For most part the season seemed strictly second division with horses struggling to post figures above 160, including the then reigning champion stayer More of That, who hopefully will be back on track in 2015-16.
The wind operation given to Cole Harden worked a treat and his battling front-running performance in the World Hurdle briefly put him top of the pile (164), but he was comprehensively put to the sword by Whisper (167), who put an injury prone season behind him, at Aintree.
In turn Whisper was eclipsed by former champion hurdler Jezki (169) who was upped markedly in trips after failing to regain his crown behind Faugheen at the Festival. Firstly he landed the 2m4f Aintree Hurdle, benefitting, but not necessarily because of, Arctic Fire’s capitulation at the final flight. Jezki then proved he stays even further, which looked likely beforehand, by beating another former champ Hurricane Fly a couple of lengths in the World Series Hurdle at Punchestown. Jezki’s rating matches that of More of That the previous year and the former became the first Irish-trained stayer to top the ranks since Limestone Lad in the 1999-2000 season.
With Annie Power, who would have won the mares’ race at Cheltenham, included in the shorter distance list due to her win over 2m2f at Punchestown, the top honours for the fairer sex in the staying division go to stable companion and chief beneficiary of the Cheltenham fall, Glens Melody (153). She was only 142 last season but made tremendous strides in a fast improving category and just touched off Polly Peachum (152).
The Irish also took the staying novice division (the first time both categories have been claimed by the Irish in the same year) with Nichols Canyon earning 155, which made him the first Irish-trained horse to top that class since Mikael d’Haguenet in 2008-09.
The shorter distance and juveniles will quite rightly claim the highest novice ratings but there are several reasons to be optimistic about the staying talent. Nichols Canyon, smart on the Flat, proved his Cheltenham run to be all wrong by comprehensively scoring at Aintree and Punchestown.
Different tactics which resulted in him pulling far too hard scuppered his Cheltenham chance and fellow Irish raider Windsor Park (153) was the chief beneficiary. He was unraced over the jumps after but did win on the Flat in April. Both Nichols Canyon and Windsor Park look very likely to improve again next season.
Best of the British stayers in the novice arena was Aqalim (152) who was a very late developer, storming home in a handicap at Cheltenham’s April fixture and then just failing to give weight to the aforementioned Polly Peachum at Sandown on the last day of the season. Other novices also worth a mention include the fast-improving pair Killultagh Vic and Theinval (who progressed rapidly through handicaps) and big Festival winners Martello Tower and Thistlecrack, while the best novice mare was the domestically trained Bitofapuzzle.
The 2m4f chase division, which covers races run between 2m3f and 2m6.5f, has had some strong performances in recent years and this season was no different, writes Mark Olley.
Looking back this century Sprinter Sacre is the standout performer. We rated his Melling Chase win in 2012-13 at 188 and that is 10lb above the next best effort. That happens to be Master Minded who achieved 178 when also winning the Melling Chase in 2010-11. The top three performances this century are rounded off by none other than Kauto Star, who recorded 176 winning the Ascot Chase. A rather stellar trio, I think you’ll agree.
I have mentioned the above to put some context to this year’s Champion, Don Cossack who rated 175 when winning, yes you have guessed it, the Melling Chase at Aintree in April. This is the fourth highest (joint fourth to be precise as Kauto Star also recorded a figure of 175 in 2006-07) figure this century.
This year’s Melling was tricky to rate accurately and, having won by 26 lengths, Don Cossack could have been rated even higher. The reason I didn’t go higher was that the second Cue Card was returning from six months off and Johns Spirit (third) has yet to prove himself outside of top handicap company. Five year race averages for the winner of the Melling suggest a figure of around 173 and I have no problem believing him an above average one.
Don Cossack’s only subsequent run this season was in winning at Punchestown, where he beat Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam and Cue Card again, but this time by “only” 15½ lengths. You will read elsewhere that Phil Smith and Noel O’Brien rated him 175 for that effort and that is the figure I also settled on as I am not certain his Aintree effort was better.
Uxizandre recorded the second highest 2m5f rating. He achieved a figure of 169 when winning the Ryanair at the Cheltenham Festival in breath-taking style under AP McCoy. Alan King’s gelding inflicted the only defeat of the season on Don Cossack, who was hampered two fences from home and lost crucial ground, and is clearly a top-class performer when he is able to dominate.
Al Ferof (winner of the Grade 2 Amlin Chase at Ascot) and the evergreen 13-year-old Sizing Europe (winner of the Grade 2 Champion Chase at Punchestown) were next best with ratings of 165.
The novice division provided a true Champion in Vautour. Noel O’Brien (Head of Handicapping in Ireland) and I agreed a figure of 171 for his demolition of his rivals in the Golden Miller at the Festival. This is the highest figure this century for a novice in the 2m4f category, and for a day until Coneygree (172) won the Gold Cup, of any novice.
Unfortunately we didn’t see Willie Mullins’ gelding again, but the Cheltenham form wasn’t done any harm by the third that day, Valseur Lido, winning the Grade 1 novice at Punchestown.
Clarcam (159) won the Grade 1 Manifesto Chase at Aintree and recorded the second highest novice rating. This was Gordon Elliott’s gelding’s first run over 2m4f and he looks an exciting prospect for next season.
Lower down the list a couple of interesting horses for next season are Irish Saint (152) and Dell’ Arca (145). Irish Saint ran with credit in Grade 1 novices at both Cheltenham and Aintree but was found wanting at that highest level. However, he was still travelling well when belting four out at Cheltenham and possibly found the 3m1f trip too far at Aintree. Paul Nicholls’ gelding could easily be rated higher than 152 on bits of his novice form and looks the type to progress in his second season over fences.
Dell’ Arca only raced twice over fences and as he didn’t win he remains a novice. The second of those efforts was a length-and-a-half defeat by Coneygree in a Grade 2 novice at Newbury, form which doesn’t look too shabby now! David Pipe’s gelding reverted to hurdles and ran with credit in handicap company after that and I can see him developing into a top novice in 2015-16.
For the third season in a row the top 2m chaser scooped the Grade 1 treble of Tingle Creek, Clarence House and Queen Mother Champion Chase, writes John de Moraville.
But, although Dodging Bullets proved a revelation and comprehensively upstaged his two predecessors Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham in March, his end-of-term rating of 171 is the lowest in this category since 2002-03.
That is down to the calibre of opposition as both the two previous champions explicitly failed to reignite their former brilliance winning just one race between them all season. And that was Sire de Grugy’s victory – albeit stylishly under top-weight – in a muddling four-runner Chepstow handicap.
The pair dominated the market for the Queen Mother Chase but Sire de Grugy finished a laboured fourth, running over a stone below his best, while Sprinter Sacre pulled up.
Sprinter at least managed second place in the Clarence House, running Dodging Bullets to three lengths on return from a long absence, and again filled the runner-up spot in Sandown’s Celebration Chase behind progressive Irish raider Special Tiara (168). But, after his string of well-documented training troubles, he now operates at 21lb below his stellar mark (188) of two seasons ago.
Dodging Bullets at Cheltenham was left to account by just over a length for the admirable veteran Somersby, who 12 months previously had bravely succumbed to an on-song Sire de Grugy by almost six times that margin.
The new champion will have plenty on his plate next March with the emergence of the exhilarating Un de Sceaux, in a class of his own among the 2m novices.
The trail-blazing seven-year-old fully lived up to his sky-high reputation by running away with Cheltenham’s Arkle Chase, recording a mark of 168 – a figure bettered in that race only by Sprinter Sacre three years ago.
Who could possibly have guessed after that scintillating performance that by the end of the week two novices would be rated even higher than Un de Sceaux, albeit over longer distances.