Handicappers' Blog (15 July)

    The head handicappers at the British Horseracing Authority have a new blog covering the best of the action from Newmarket's July meeting - including Muhaarar's July Cup win - and more. Now live.
SUMMER SPARKLERS

A busy weekend for high-quality Flat racing, with Newmarket’s July Festival having also occupied two days on the run up to it, so there’s plenty for this week’s bulletin, leading off with the amalgamation of the top sprint form lines in the Darley July Cup, where the inaugural Commonwealth Cup received a major endorsement.

CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK

This year’s 6f Group 1 Darley July Cup was largely billed as a two horse race, with Muhaarar and the Australian-trained Brazen Beau dominating the headlines and betting – a racing version of the Ashes you could say, writes Stewart Copeland.

Both arrived at Newmarket on the back of an excellent performance at Royal Ascot; Muhaarar an impressive winner of the inaugural Commonwealth Cup and Brazen Beau a gallant runner-up in the Diamond Jubilee. On official ratings they couldn’t be split at 121, and that’s how it went in the betting too.

However, the rest of their 12 rivals hadn’t read that script and the race proved a much more open affair than that and provided a thrilling finish. For much of the contest it looked like the veteran Tropics was belatedly going to break his Group 1 duck, and go one better than he had last year. For him though it wasn’t to be, just.

Seizing the initiative from the off – on a day when prominent tactics were definitely a plus, courtesy of a fast surface/tailwind – Tropics thwarted all challengers, including the below-par Brazen Beau, until Muhaarar came up with a storming late finish to collar him literally on the post.

Muhaarar’s success seemed most unlikely shortly after halfway, under pressure and looking far from comfortable, tending to edge to his left. However once he hit the rising ground he found the extra gear he’d displayed at Royal Ascot and consigned Tropics to the bridesmaid spot again by the narrowest of margins. His jockey said immediately after the race how unbalanced Muhaarar was on the track, which visually looked the case and makes his performance all the more meritorious.

As for assessing the race, the view I’ve taken at present is that Muhaarar didn’t have to fully reproduce the form he showed at Ascot to win, and overall the level of his win is slightly below the average recent winning performance for the July Cup. I have him running to a figure of 118, but am still perfectly happily with his figure from the Commonwealth Cup so he remains at 121. As for Tropics, he arguably put up a marginal career best effort on Saturday, and for now has been credited with 117.

Now Muhaarar has matched his sire Oasis Dream and won the July Cup, more challenges await with the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville and Sprint Cup at Haydock on the agenda. Oasis Dream was rated 125 at his peak and it’ll be fascinating to see whether Muhaarar can emulate or even better his father on that score and establish himself as one of the best British-based sprinters of recent years.

AMAZING FINISH

It might not come as a great surprise to some in the game but my closest finish last week came not in some competitive, large field handicap but in the QIPCO Falmouth Stakes (Group 1) on Friday at Newmarket, writes Dominic Gardiner-Hill. It may seem strange to say of a non-handicap but I have had few more satisfying results during my career as five of the seven fillies ran smack to their current marks, one ran 1lb below and the other ran 2lb below!

In a very steadily-run contest (time was over 2 seconds above standard and 2.3 seconds slower than the 1m handicap run a couple of hours later) which turned into something of a sprint, Amazing Maria proved her Duke of Cambridge success at Royal Ascot was no fluke and I have her reproducing the same performance of 115 – in ratings terms this looks rock solid as it has Avenir Certain (third: 113), Bawina (fourth: 113), Fintry (fifth: 113) and Lucida (sixth: 112) all performing to their marks, runner-up Euro Charlene running to within 1lb of her 114 and even the keen-running Arabian Queen only 2lb off her current 109.

The fact that 0.24 seconds (just under 1.5 lengths) covered the first six probably highlights the way the race was run; the Duke of Cambridge was also a steadily-run affair and it will be interesting to see if Amazing Maria can be as effective coming off a faster pace should she encounter one in future engagements.

The best miling performance of the week however came from Arod in winning the Group 2 Fred Cowley MBE Memorial Summer Mile at Ascot on Saturday. As at Epsom on his previous start, front running tactics proved effective and once Andrea Atzeni had quickened the pace turning into the straight he was never going to be caught – using any of the third backwards as a guide to the level promotes Arod into the 120+ bracket but I think he needs to prove himself against the top milers in Europe before his rating reaches those exalted heights and have promoted him 1lb to 118 on the back of this win – still leaving him shy of Night of Thunder (121) and Toormore (119) amongst the top domestic older milers, both of whom beat him in the Lockinge.

Perhaps the most interesting horse in the Sumer Mile, however, was runner-up Lightning Spear. He looked a group horse in the making in winning his first four starts but his pre-race mark of 104 still left him with a bit to find to be competitive in this – held up as always, he probably wasn’t ideally suited by the way the race was run and also met trouble early in the straight when setting out after the winner. In closing Arod down to a length and a half at the line I have Olly Stevens’ charge improving 11lb to 115, with the promise of a bit more to come!

MAKIN IT COUNT

Not only did the 56th John Smith’s Cup on the Knavesmire provide the highlight of a significant four-timer for local rider Philip Makin it also underlined just what a huge draw it is to the best middle-distance handicappers in training, writes Graeme Smith. It’s pretty much expected a handicap of such value will be oversubscribed in terms of numbers but when no fewer than six of the first eight home had improved their rating since the publication of the weights (and therefore ran well in) that’s pretty remarkable in underlining the strength of the form.

In a race where the first two were always relatively handy, albeit not necessarily advantaged given the pace, Master Carpenter gave his stable the fillip it had been waiting for as he edged a sustained duel with the front-running Kelinni.

Rod Millman’s four-year-old was one of those who’d improved his form in recent weeks but stepped up further on his current mark of 107 (ran off 104) tried beyond 1m for the first time this season, posting a performance of 110 – some 3lb in advance of what he’d needed to win a French Group 3 last summer. His stable nominated the Cambridgeshire as a possible future target but a return to Pattern company could also be tempting.

Kelinni proved something of a surprise package as he outran his odds of 25/1 but hindsight suggests he perhaps shouldn’t have been that big. He’d been rated around 115 when trained in Australia and, whilst he’d recently been dropped to 2lb below the 97 he ran off it turns out his Newmarket fifth two runs back is one of the strongest pieces of handicap form of the entire season – Astronereus’ success earlier on the York card meant that all four who’d beaten him had won at least one good-quality handicap since then. Needless to say, that form has now been revised upwards, and quite significantly so. For his part, Kelinni now moves to 102 and there may even be further mileage in him considering the gallop he forced.

Further back, Mount Logan improved on his Royal Ascot third with a clearer run and will race in future from 2lb higher at 102 (he’d been raised to 101 after Ascot), and whilst Ajman Bridge and Arab Dawn failed to fully confirm their Royal Ascot figures that form has nevertheless had several ringing endorsements and they remain set to race from 5lb and 3lb higher than here in the future.

The Bet365 Bunbury Cup at Newmarket also played out largely amongst those ridden handily, with a tailwind almost certainly playing a part in that. Rene Mathis managed to set himself apart from a well-bunched quintet on the final climb to the line and earned himself a rise to 102 (ran off 99, was actually rated 97 on the day) in scoring by a length. It was a finish of heads that separated the next four home and One More Word not only edged that battle, but probably also put himself into a few notebooks around the land having been the only horse to land a blow from the second half of the field – he goes up 1lb to 103 whilst the trio tight up behind him will all stay put.

The Bunbury Cup consolation race the previous afternoon saw a really tight finish where the first nine were covered by less than two lengths. That’s primarily down to a steady pace that led to a bun-fight finish rather than any great work on the Handicapper’s part though. Nevertheless, I’m sure the connections of Mr Win will be thrilled to go up only 3lb (he actually improved his rating only 1lb as he was already due to be 2lb higher next time) for winning over £18,000.

JUVENILE UPDATE

The second two-year-old handicap of the year was run last Tuesday and this Tuesday we have published the ratings, writes Matthew Tester. It is those first few nurseries which give me the chance to firm up the numbers.

The figures this year are holding together pretty well. Each week I produce distribution graphs of the handicap ratings. There are stats on average ratings and average performance figures plus a few other indicators. All of those are well within expected parameters although there will, of course, still be plenty of horses that turn out to be too low or too high.

I was on duty at Newmarket’s July meeting which features three Group races for two-year-olds. The QIPCO Duchess of Cambridge produced a thrilling three-way finish, but it gave no reason to change the 108 rating earned by Illuminate at Royal Ascot. 

Birchwood put his disappointing run on easy ground in Ireland behind him when landing the Bet 365 Superlative Stakes. He is now on 108, up 9lb from his previous form. I was particularly taken with the third horse, Tony Curtis. He has come on plenty from his debut win in a maiden, and there are good reasons to think he’ll improve again. He’s pencilled in at 105 but appeals to me as a future 110+ performer.

And I think that Shalaa was an above-average winner of the July Stakes at 113. Although he won by a length, he was further clear when he started to hang. Because he was clear, Rab Havlin wisely sat still and decided not to force him to go straight. Therefore the horse must be considered to be value for more than the bare margin. 

The jockeys reported the ground as being pretty fast and Areen, in particular, did not seem happy on it. Fast ground running uphill at Ascot is a different matter from fast ground downhill into the dip here.

The other two-year-old to take out of the July meeting was definitely the filly Lumiere. She quickened clear in a heartbeat to win her maiden by six lengths eased down. Her dam won a Redcar maiden by 11 lengths on her debut, although that turned out to be her only start. 

I am hoping to see Lumiere run at Ascot in the Princess Margaret Stakes at the end of next week. That will give her 16 days between races and she should not have taken much out of herself at Newmarket. It typically takes a 106 performance to land the Ascot race and she’ll almost certainly prove a popular selection if she turns up.

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