ON THE RADAR
Meydan racecourse in Dubai plays host this Saturday, 25 March, to the horse with the highest official Flat rating in the world - Arrogate - and, though betting on Bob Baffert's charge is virtually out of the question, thanks to his short price, connoisseurs of quality will surely want to watch his performance. The son of Unbridled's Song has won six of his seven races, with his last three victories registered at Grade One level, and only a monstrous flop can stop him landing the Dubai World Cup this weekend.
High Noon suggested he has a worthwhile future when finishing on his first appearance in the closing bumper at Stratford on 13 March. The Emma Lavelle-trained five-year-old could not quite muster the speed to trouble the first two, Clondaw Castle and Hatcher, losing out by a total of three and a quarter lengths, but that is not surprising, given his pedigree. By Westerner, and from a mare who has already produced a staying hurdler, High Noon ought to appreciate farther than two miles when sent jumping.
Connections of Giant's Treasure have entered him in the Derby and, while Classic success still seems a pipedream following his debut victory at Wolverhampton on 17 March, there is no doubt the son of Shamardal was an impressive scorer. Richard Hannon's colt collected by four and a half lengths from the more experienced Trenchard, quickening decisively at the end of a seven-furlong maiden, and will be of interest in a higher grade. Whether he is middle-distance Pattern class is another matter entirely.
Fixe Le Kap posted a tremendously encouraging performance to take second in the two-mile Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle at Sandown on 11 March. Nicky Henderson's five-year-old had been sidelined for almost a year prior to this outing at the Esher course - he required surgery to assist his breathing - but went down by just a length to London Prize, despite carrying top weight of 11st 12lb. Fix Le Kap needs soft ground to run up to his best, but I suspect he will be contesting Graded chases next season.
Stubbornness had blighted the career of Labaik leading up to this year's Cheltenham Festival - he had shown a frustrating reluctance to start in three consecutive races - but the six-year-old was on his best behaviour in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle on 14 March. Gordon Elliott's gelding broke with the rest of the field in that two-mile event and, after leading approaching the final flight, collected by two and a quarter lengths from Melon. If continuing in this vein, he can take further prizes at the highest level.
Presenting Percy registered an emphatic victory two days later in the Pertemps Network Final Hurdle, landing the Prestbury Park Listed event over just shy of three miles by three and three-quarter lengths, and appears certain to be campaigned over fences next season. His Cheltenham success was achieved from an official rating of 146 and, given the comprehensive style in which he beat Barney Dawn, it is not difficult to envisage him developing into a very smart novice over fences for trainer Patrick Kelly.
DIGGING THE DIRT
Nobody could realistically argue that Royal Request needed to show outstanding form to take second in Wolverhampton's six-furlong maiden on 14 March - the fourth horse to finish had an official mark of only 47 - but there are grounds for believing she will improve for this debut run. James Tate's filly was slow to break and appeared to lack concentration in the closing stages, but still stayed on gamely to be beaten just a head by the more experienced Magic Approach. Being by Royal Applause and out of mare who won over seven furlongs, Royal Request is also entitled to benefit from a step up in trip.
NOTED ON THE GALLOPS
However Jack Hobbs fares in the Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan, Dubai, this Saturday, 25 March - and he faces a daunting test against the likes of Postponed and Highland Reel - I expect him to have a productive 2017. John Gosden's five-year-old, whose campaign last term was truncated by injury, has worked nicely this spring and appears back to the form that enabled him to land the 2015 Irish Derby.
I am reliably informed that Richard Hannon plans to make his usual early start with his two-year-olds and among those my sources suggest are worth noting for the first few weeks of the Flat season is the filly Popsicle. A £60,000 buy, this daughter of Acclamation is out of a fast mare, Katchy Lady, whose best results came on easy ground. It will be a surprise if Popsicle does not start out over five furlongs.
STATS THE WAY TO DO IT
Lincoln Handicap (Doncaster, Saturday, 1 April)
With the 2017 Cheltenham Festival completed - and the Grand National just over two weeks away - many punters must now be contemplating the opening of a new British Flat season on turf.
Doncaster's Lincoln Handicap is the traditional curtain-raiser, of course, and, as that contest will be staged a week on Saturday, 1 April, I reckon this is an ideal time to study its ten-year trends.
Such statistics strongly suggest - first and foremost - that the winner will carry 9st 4lb or less.
All the successful candidates in the past decade - Very Wise (8st 11lb in 2007), Smokey Oakey (8st 9lb in 2008), Expresso Star (8st 12lb in 2009), Penitent (9st 2lb), Sweet Lightning (9st 4lb 9lb in 2011), Brae Hill (9st 1lb in 2012), Levitate (8st 4lb in 2013), Ocean Tempest (9st 3lb in 2014), Gabrial (9st in 2015) and Secret Brief (9st 4lb) - fulfilled this difficult-to-ignore criterion.
Punters who attempt to assess races via official figures might also like to consider the fact that six of those winners - Sweet Lightning (rated 104), Ocean Tempest (102), Gabrial (100) and Secret Brief (100) were the exceptions - had handicap marks - in chronological order - of 91, 95, 97, 98, 95 and 90, each thereby falling into a range covering just 8lb.
Six winners in the past ten years - Expresso Star, Sweet Lightning, Brae Hill and Secret Brief were the odd ones out in this category - had already notched a success over the Lincoln trip of one mile.
Earlier course victories at Doncaster are arguably less relevant, not least because the 2007 edition was staged at Newcastle while Town Moor was closed for redevelopment.
For the record, though, just two Doncaster Lincoln winners within the period under scrutiny - those being Levitate and Gabrial - had already registered a success at the event's usual venue.
Four-year-olds have the best strike-rate over past decade, collecting the Betway-sponsored contest on four occasions, thanks to Smokey Oakey, Expresso Star, Penitent and Secret Brief.
Five-year-olds and six-year-olds share second spot in the generational pecking-order, each taking the race three times, the former via Very Wise, Levitate and Ocean Tempest, the latter courtesy of Sweet Lightning, Brae Hill and Gabrial.
No horse of any other vintage has scored since the eight-year-old Hunters Of Brora back in 1998.
Last-time-out victories seem worth noting - though hardly vital - as Smokey Oakey, Expresso Star and Gabrial proved successful directly after a victory achieved elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, however, given the Lincoln's early position in the Flat-racing programme on turf, six of the last ten winners - Very Wise, Sweet Lightning, Ocean Tempest and Secret Brief are the quartet who did not qualify on this score - were making their seasonal reappearance.
Favourites have just an ordinary recent record, with two outright market-leaders - Expresso Star (at 100-30) and Penitent (3-1) - justifying their short odds in the last ten years.
Backing second-favourites for the Betway-sponsored event has proved expensive, meanwhile, with not one collecting.
Three of the last ten winners - Brae Hill (25-1), Levitate (20-1) and Ocean Tempest (20-1) - started at odds of 20-1 or bigger.
Evidence relating to the draw is undoubtedly worth considering, even if not necessarily conclusive.
Four of the last nine winners in Lincolns staged at Doncaster - Expresso Star (drawn 9), Penitent (1), Levitate (3) and Ocean Tempest (6) - raced from a single-figure stall number.
Three - Sweet Lightning (16), Gabrial (15) and Secret Brief (22) - were berthed far closer to the stands' side rails.
The two remaining Town Moor Lincoln winners within the period under discussion - Smokey Oakey and Brae Hill - were respectively drawn 12 of 21 and 12 of 22.
Two trainers have registered more than one victory in the past decade, that duo being Richard Fahey (thanks to Brae Hill and Gabrial) and William Haggas (through Very Wise and Penitent).
BIG RACE FOCUS
Altior remains this season's top novice chaser, according to my figures (see table set out below), even though he was not at his best when taking Cheltenham's Arkle Challenge Trophy on 14 March.
Nicky Henderson's enormously-exciting seven-year-old went into that contest with a rating of 166 on my scale and did not need to match it to beat Cloudy Dream (147) by six lengths at Prestbury Park.
Thistlecrack (165), forced to miss the Festival and the rest of the campaign due to injury, holds on to second spot in my rankings, followed by two other possible contenders for next year's Gold Cup.`
That pair are Might Bite (157) and Yorkhill (155), both of whom will need to progress in order to win the 2018 Cheltenham showpiece, but they are still young - eight and seven - and could well do so.
Leading British/Irish novice chasers of 2016/17
(ranked in order of ratings achieved by 21 March)
|Rank||Name (age) (gender)||Trainer (country)||Rating|
|1)||Altior (7) (gelding)||N Henderson (GB)||166|
|2)||Thistlecrack (9) (gelding)||C Tizzard (GB)||165|
|3)||Might Bite (8) (gelding)||N Henderson (GB)||157|
|4)||Yorkhill (7) (gelding)||W Mullins (Ireland)||155|
|5)||Top Notch (6) (gelding)||N Henderson (GB)||154|
|6)||Whisper (9) (gelding)||N Henderson (GB)||153|
|7)||American (7) (gelding)||H Fry (GB)||152|
|8)||Disko (6) (gelding)||N Meade (Ireland)||151|
|9)||Road To Respect (6) (gelding)||N Meade (Ireland)||150|
|10=)||O O Seven (7) (gelding)||N Henderson (GB)||148|
|10=)||Our Duke (6) (gelding)||J Harrington (Ireland)||148|
Cheltenham's 2017 events for novice hurdlers resulted in Labaik achieving the highest rating on my scale (152), his mark earned in landing the 'Supreme' by two and a quarter lengths on 14 March.
This is not an outstanding figure in historical terms, though, and my overall impression of last week's Festival was that the hurdle events for relative newcomers were no better than the last-ten-year par.
For readers wanting to put the rankings below into perspective, therefore, it may be worth noting that, according to my maths, Buveur D'Air registered a rating of 165 when taking the Champion Hurdle.
Leading British/Irish novice hurdlers of 2016/17
(ranked in order of ratings achieved by 21 March)
|Rank||Name (age) (gender)||Trainer (country)||Rating|
|1)||Labaik (6) (gelding)||G Elliott (Ireland)||152|
|2=)||Defu Du Seuil (4) (gelding)||P Hobbs (GB)||150|
|2=)||Melon (5) (gelding)||W Mullins (Ireland)||150|
|4)||Presenting Percy (6) (gelding)||P Kelly (Ireland)||149|
|5=)||Penhill (6) (gelding)||W Mullins (Ireland)||148|
|5=)||West Approach (7) (gelding)||C Tizzard (GB)||148|
|7)||Willoughby Court (6) (gelding)||B Pauling (GB)||147|
|8=)||Death Duty (6) (gelding)||G Elliott (Ireland)||146|
|8=)||Finian's Oscar (5) (gelding)||C Tizzard (GB)||146|
|8=)||Mega Fortune (4) (gelding)||G Elliott (Ireland)||146|
|8=)||Neon Wolf (6) (gelding)||H Fry (GB)||146|