Kevin Blake

    In his latest column Kevin analyses Yorkhill’s victory at Leopardstown on Sunday and looks at what impact the new non-trier rules that came into play at Navan on Saturday had on the stewards’ behaviour.
  • Monday 23 January 2017
  • Blog

Yorkhill far more impressive than given credit for

Horse racing is a wonderful sport. It is rare to find universal agreement on the merit of any performance and often, opinions can vary wildly amongst those that have watched the same race. This was the case on Sunday when YORKHILL won the Grade 3 novice chase at Leopardstown and with this in mind, it is a performance worth discussing in detail.

Before dealing with the performance itself, it is important to establish what the expectations were. Yorkhill was one of the leading novice hurdlers in training last season. Many, including his trainer Willie Mullins, felt he was talented enough to make up into a Champion Hurdle contender this season, but the decision was taken to send him novice chasing instead.

He duly made what seemed to be widely considered an impressive winning chasing debut at Fairyhouse in December and was immediately shortened into clear favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

It was in that context that Yorkhill was being assessed at Leopardstown on Sunday. Given that he was sent off at 1/5, the combined wisdom of the market suggested he wasn’t facing a rival likely to trouble him on merit, so many observers would understandably have been hoping for an impressive performance to consolidate his lofty reputation. However, what transpired was not considered impressive by most.

Having raced freely under restraint, he jumped and pulled his way to the front at the fourth fence. He had jumped solidly and straight up to that point and while he continued to jump quite fluently thereafter, he did start to jump noticeably out to his left.

Clearly travelling best from some way out, he was allowed to get in close to the last and was only given light encouragement with hands and heels to see off the challenge of the 25/1 shot Jett by 1¼ lengths.

In the immediate aftermath of the race, most of the vocal response on social media was one of dissatisfaction, with many focusing on how much he was considered to have done wrong and that he didn’t really stamp his authority over his seemingly overmatched rivals in the closing stages.

Once a few hours had passed and the dust had settled, I conducted a survey on Twitter to gauge the general opinion of the run. The results of the near 1,500 votes suggest that some of the initially frosty reception the performance had received had thawed, but they showed that few considered the performance anything more than satisfactory:

However, I am happy to put myself in amongst the minority that considered his performance as being impressive. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but I can’t help but feel that much of the negative post-race comment on Sunday ignores what has come before with Yorkhill, as he did a lot less wrong that he often has in his racing life.

Throughout his novice hurdle campaign he regularly pulled too hard, jumped both clumsily and out to his left and idled notably in front. Yet, none of those tendencies held him back from becoming one of the best of his generation.

For me, he has already shown that he jumps a fence more fluently than a hurdle. The jumping out to the left has always been there to one extent or another since his first start over hurdles, but as was the case on his chasing debut, it only became meaningfully pronounced on Sunday when he was left in front.

The hope will be that in a stronger contest there will be something pacey enough to give him a lead for longer to help with this, but the tendency doesn’t appeal as being so pronounced as to hold him back to any great extent either way, particularly around a left-handed track.

While some cribbed that Yorkhill didn’t extend away from his rivals in the closing stages given his presumed superiority, it cannot be emphasised enough that he is habitually idle when in front. It is well worth watching the closing stages of his victories at Cheltenham and Aintree last year to remind yourself just how pronounced this tendency can be with him.

Interestingly, while the visual impression of Yorkhill’s finishing effort didn’t blow too many people away, the clock does provide evidence that it was better than it looked. While the runners in the Leopardstown Handicap Chase may have had two furlongs further and two more fences to negotiate than those in Yorkhill’s race, time comparisons between the two are very interesting indeed.

If one timed the Leopardstown Handicap Chase from the third fence, which was the first fence jumped in Yorkhill’s race, one would find that the leader in the handicap reached the third-last fence approximately half a second quicker than Yorkhill did.

However, from there to the line Yorkhill was approximately 2.6 seconds (13 lengths) faster than the leader in the handicap. Given that he was clearly idling and not subjected to anything like maximum pressure, this would certainly seem to add extra value to Yorkhill’s performance.

All told, I was certainly more impressed than most and wouldn’t have any great concerns about Yorkhill with a view to winning the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Mind, one thing I would say is that while his pedigree is chock-full of stamina, I have long held the view that he will be at least as effective if not even better at the shorter trip of two miles.

The assumed stronger pace at that trip would likely help him to settle better, focus his jumping and allow him to be held onto for longer in his races, all which as appeal as being likely to show him to best effect. Barring Min has a setback, it seems unlikely that we will see him at that trip at the highest level in the near future, but it is a thought that will remain until it is tested.

Finally, given the split in public reaction, some will have considered it surprising that so many bookmakers choose to take the opportunity to cut Yorkhill into as short as 6/5 for that race. However, it won’t have come as a surprise to those that monitor such markets, as the risk-averse nature of modern bookmaking has long spread into the ante-post markets.

Rather embarrassingly, the PR race for free coverage amongst bookmakers has got to stage where some seem keen to cut a high-profile horse to the shortest price in the market in the often-rewarded hope that their price will be quoted in the media as a means to illustrate the “strength” of the positive reaction to the performance.

Unsurprisingly, once the cheap name checks had been achieved on Sunday, those bookmakers that cut him into 6/5 lengthened him back out to a more competitive price on Monday.

Disappointing start For new non-trier rules at Navan

Those that had hoped the new non-trier rules that were introduced to Irish racing on January 20th would herald a new dawn in the enforcement of integrity will not have taken all that much encouragement from their first weekend in action.

The first National Hunt meeting under the new rules came at Navan on Saturday and there was precious little evidence of an immediate change in behaviour from the stewards.

While they did rightfully conduct a running-and-riding enquiry into the performance of Pack Your Bags in the handicap hurdle, their failure to ask questions in a number of other cases was notable. Indeed, it was particularly surprising that they didn’t ask any questions about the performance of Blackwater Bridge in the closing handicap chase.

Now, the horse almost certainly isn’t much good and history may well show that Denis O’Regan’s very quiet ride served to nurse him into a finishing position that he may not have achieved under a more forceful ride, but if the stewards are to do their job in ensuring that horses are seen to have been given a full opportunity of obtaining the best possible place, they simply have to officially enquire into cases such as this where a horse is ridden with such exaggerated patience and tenderness.

Not only does the lack of official questioning do the racing public a disservice, it also does the connections of Blackwater Bridge a disservice, as they were not given the opportunity to put what may well be very reasonable explanations on the record to counter the aspersions that some will cast on them for the run.

There is no suggestion that any rules were broken in this case, but perception is everything and leaving such eye-catching rides unquestioned only serves to reinforce the views that many have on the lack of willingness of the Turf Club stewards to police the sport.

One can only hope that Saturday proves to be a false start rather than a sign of things to come.

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