Handicappers' Blog

    The BHA Handicappers review the pick of the action from a memorable Cheltenham Festival 2017.
  • Wednesday 22 March 2017
  • Blog

GRAND CANYON

After a tepid first couple of days for the Mullins team they arrived with a bang on the Thursday with the undoubted highlight being NICHOLS CANYON’s success in the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, writes Martin Greenwood.

Mostly unraced beyond 20f (a 3m race in the USA notwithstanding), Nichols Canyon relished the true stamina test set by previous winner Cole Harden (nearly back to very best on 161).  He cut through the field to lead on the run in and deny the gallant Lil Rockerfeller with hot favourite Unowhatimeanharry, unbeaten for his new stable, in third.

Whichever way you cut this particular cake, personal bests have surely been achieved by the first two here. Five-year standards suggest anything from low to high 160s while the time comparison with the Pertemps suggest a mighty 192. Settling on 169 and 168 for the first two we have performances on a level with More Of That in 2014 which is the best since the Big Buck’s years other than Thistlecrack’s supreme effort last year.

With Aintree, Fairyhouse and Punchestown still to come, the picture could change again and Unowhatimeanharry is probably worth another chance to enhance his reputation. While only marginally below his pre-race rating of 167 here, he simply did not pick up in the usual manner after travelling into the race as well as any. Connections suggested the faster ground may have been a factor but he still looked a horse that was improving before the Festival and he has probably not flattened out just yet.

Both the novice races in my division look up to standard. It was nearly a great start ratings-wise, a 1-2-3 was only narrowly denied probably, but not definitely, by Neon Wolf’s (pre-race 148) sprawl at the last. This allowed pacemaker Willoughby Court (147) to gain an advantage before nearly throwing that away by hanging across the track. It seems logical to rate the pair the same at this point and I have settled on 150 which is only slightly below the average and median suggested by 5yr standards.

The time comparison with the Coral Cup only suggests 142; but that is surely down to the pace of this race. Messire des Obeaux (pre-race 146 and unchanged) ran a fine race in third especially given he did not get the same kind of smooth run through afforded to the first two. Another runner worth a mention is Keeper Hill who stayed on well after making a bad mid-race blunder.

Almost certainly showing better form was Penhill, who won the three miler on the Friday. Unusually this race was not run at the normal suicidal gallop; but even so the extra stamina found out hot favourite Death Duty who was cooked well before he came down at the last. He probably deserves another chance.

Penhill is now 153 with runner-up Monalee also achieving a personal best on 149 which puts Penhill number two in the novice stayers list with only West Approach (surprisingly targeted to the Stayers' Hurdle) in front of him in the division. Constantine Bay shaped very well considering he was badly hampered when The Worlds End came down at the second last.  The latter would almost certainly been involved in the finish had he stood up and looks to have a big future.


SCEAUX TAKES WINGS FOR THE RYANAIR

The Grade 1 Ryanair Chase was not a vintage renewal, writes Mark Olley, but it was hard not to be impressed by UN DE SCEAUX’s superb winning performance.

Ruby Walsh freely admits that Un de Sceaux ran away with him to take up the running at the fifth but he jumped superbly and was dominant, much more so than the winning margin of one and a half lengths suggests. Going into the race there were questions regarding both trip and ground but Willie Mullins’ gelding answered them in style.

Sub Lieutenant came into the race with an Anglo-Irish agreed provisional rating of 161 (a figure agreed with Irish handicapper Noel O’Brien at our meeting in February). However, his published handicap rating in Ireland is 162 and, as that fits with race standards, I am happy to have him running to that here.

I have settled on a figure of 5lb for the winning margin of one and a half lengths. Un de Sceaux was around five lengths clear at the last and, although kept up to his work on the run-in, he was eased close home. As I mentioned previously I thought his performance was dominant and I am not certain 5lb is a true reflection of how superior he was; but it is hard to justify more. It is currently academic as his official Irish rating is higher and will be finalised at the end of term Anglo-Irish meeting in May.

Aso ran the race of his life in third and his rating goes up from 152 to 156 while Empire Of Dirt found everything happening a little too quickly for him and a return to 3m looks sure to suit.

From an historical point of view four of the last five winners posted higher figures with last year’s winner Vautour the best on 173. Dynaste’s 164 in 2014 is the one that is lower.

The Grade 1 JLT Golden Miller Novices’ Chase was a thriller and produced a potential star of the future in Yorkhill. He is far from a straightforward ride but this is the type of horse on which Ruby Walsh excels.

Disko has an Anglo-Irish agreed rating of 154 and, as this fits in with race standards, I am happy to leave it unchanged. This ground was considerably faster than anything he has previously raced on but he appeared to handle it well enough.

Top Notch ran an excellent race but a mistake at the second last may well have cost him his winning chance. He came into the fence disputing the lead but lost around two lengths and, despite staying on strongly up the run-in, never quite looked like getting to the winner. He lost more ground than he was eventually beaten; but I think Yorkhill idled and the result was a fair reflection. Top Notch was a 158 hurdler at best and I have moved his chase rating to that figure, up 6lb from 152.

Yorkhill idled and I have him running to 160 but this figure has yet to be agreed with Irish handicapper Noel O’Brien so is open to change. Excluding Vautour’s stellar performance of 171 when winning in 2015 this is the next best performance of the last five years and eclipses the 159 figures of Black Hercules last year and Taquin du Seuil in 2014.


TIARA LIFTS THE CROWN

Douvan’s mishap meant it did not need a division-topping performance to lift the Betway Champion Chase but SPECIAL TIARA put up a fantastic one nevertheless as he made just about every yard, writes Graeme Smith.

Henry de Bromhead’s ten-year-old had been third in the last two runnings of the Champion and made no mistake with the favourite’s below-par showing having left the door ajar.

I’ll discuss sectional times in more depth when touching on Altior’s Arkle later in the piece, but their significance here is in showing that Special Tiara was anything but allowed an easy time in front. Indeed in seeing off early pressure from both Douvan and Garde La Victoire he set a really good gallop and, aided by some brilliantly fluent jumping, he held the late challenge of Fox Norton all out.

Special Tiara had been awarded 168 in each of the last two Anglo-Irish Classifications and looked very much back to his best here.  Basing the race around the form of others (including in handicaps) I feel he ran to 167 on the day. Going back to 2007 that figure is the joint lowest winning performance in recent history along with Dodging Bullets but that is unlikely to worry his connections one bit.

Fox Norton was back on song after a slight dip at Newbury and ran to his best of 166 – I’ve revised our level on the Shloer from 167. In an ideal world he’d have met the third last on a better stride which might have given him a better platform for his late surge; but I would stop short of calling him unlucky bearing in mind how hard Special Tiara had gone.

The Tom George pair of Sir Valentino and God’s Own looked Special Tiara’s main rivals going to the second last. Unfortunately God’s Own made his second major mistake at that fence and ended up fading into fifth.  Rated 165, he should still give a good account at Aintree and Punchestown having won at both fixtures last spring. Sir Valentino has really stepped up this season and now has three solid 160 performances to his name with this Grade 1 third representing his biggest achievement to date.

Top Gamble and Traffic Fluide ran with credit as they stayed on into fourth and sixth. Personally I feel their late progress may flatter them a shade, however, given they were unable to go with the principals from the top of the hill.

This time last year Douvan had just added the Racing Post Arkle to his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle success without having to show his best form, and now the very exciting Altior is in exactly the same boat. Some watchers were left deflated by the fact he was off the bridle in second when handed the race by Charbel’s departure at the second last; but study of the sectional times offers more than a little mitigation.

Going by my hand times, the Arkle was run in a time around half a second faster than the following day’s Champion Chase under very similar conditions. However, while Special Tiara’s race was run at a strong gallop, Charbel was very much allowed his own way in front and dictated a pace that saw him reach the third last fence some 4.5 seconds or 20L slower than Special Tiara had.

The fact the Arkle field had enough left to make up that deficit and more underlines how the race developed at a much later stage than the Champion. Altior had to be driven to respond to Charbel’s kick initially but he had closed the gap to half a length when Charbel departed and, realistically, was only just beginning to get going. The formbook suggests Altior would have been too strong for Charbel and the nature in which he increased his margin over the second-placed Cloudy Dream from two lengths at the last to six lengths at the line further convinces me.

Had Charbel stood up I think he’d have finished second. In that instance, with six lengths covering the first three home. In a falsely-run race Altior was always going to struggle to justify his lofty rating. That figure has still been adjusted, however, from 170 to 168 and there are several strands to why.

Firstly, Fox Norton endorsed the Newbury race in which Altior got his figure when touched off in the Champion; but there was a suspicion he had not enjoyed the ideal preparation for that contest following an injury. More pertinently, the third-placed Dodging Bullets ran poorly in the Grand Annual later in the week suggesting the chink of light from Newbury had merely been a false dawn.

I could have dropped Altior lower than 168 but I still definitely believe in him. Further to that, he had slammed the Champion Hurdle winner Buveur d’Air in last year’s Supreme.  I feel with that one going to 167 Altior (still unbeaten over jumps) deserves to be higher. At 168 he sits 1lb below where Sprinter Sacre and Douvan were at the end of their novice seasons.  I still think he’ll surpass 170 when the opportunity presents itself. Maybe a clash with Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown on the final day of the season could materialise.

As for the other principals from the Arkle, Charbel can of course have his rating raised having got as far as the second last and I moved him from 147 to 154. His pre-race 147 was made to look on the low side by both Max Ward’s win last Saturday and his earlier defeat of Top Notch. Cloudy Dream was also raised, from 147 to 153. Averaging out the performances for second and third in the Arkle over the last 10 years returns a figure of around 153. Basing Charbel and Cloudy Dream around that level should ensure I am in the ‘right’ area until further evidence emerges.

The third 2m chase of the week was the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase and it went the way of Jessica Harrington’s Rock The World. The nine-year-old showed the benefit of a breathing operation as he made light of a mark 1lb higher than when third last year.  Should he come back for the Red Rum at Aintree he’ll be up 5lb to 152.


SOLID AIR

In a season when the two mile hurdle division had looked anything but clear cut, the decision to return BUVEUR D'AIR to hurdles in the run up to the Stan James Champion Hurdle proved the decisive move, writes David Dickinson.

Whatever history might suggest about the merit of the Class of 2017, Buveur d’Air does jump like a top class hurdler. In lowering the colours of his stable companion My Tent Or Yours, who returned to form on this better ground, he showed that fluent jumping is all important in Championship races. My Tent Or Yours’ rating of 162 for finishing second in the race to Annie Power fits fairly closely with the Irish Champion Hurdle ratings of 161 and 157 recorded by Petit Mouchoir and Footpad in that race.

I could have gone a pound or maybe two higher but the last time I have the ten year old My Tent Or Yours running above 162 was in the 2014 Scottish Champion Hurdle and he has not won a race since. This gives Buveur d’Air a perfectly respectable Champion Hurdle winning rating of 167, below the level his Supreme conqueror of 2016, Altior, has achieved over fences.

The Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle did not look a vintage renewal either and fell to Labaik whose reluctance to start, rather than any perceived lack of ability, ensured that he went off at a fancy price. The Supreme was the slower race by some two and a half seconds this year and Labaik’s rating of 155 is somewhere around a par figure for the race. How often in future he will jump off at the start of a race is anyone’s guess, however.

Friday’s decisive victory of the favourite Defi Du Seuil in the JCB Triumph Hurdle showed him to be a step ahead of his contemporaries – a position he has enjoyed for much of the season. Any worries about quicker ground or doubts about his jumping were dispelled with a fine display and his 155 winning rating has only been bettered in this race by Our Conor, Peace And Co and Katchit since 2000.

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