Our original plan to quantify the various successes of Team GB at the Breeders' Cup needed something of a rethink after our raiding party drew a blank - although Toast of New York produced a colossal effort for Jamie Osborne when going so close in the Classic (and increased his rating from 116 to 124) - but fortunately there was also a host of high-class National Hunt racing over the weekend and our Jumps team have stepped in to bail us out.
Last weekend saw the return of several potential Cheltenham Gold Cup horses on both sides of the Irish Sea, writes Chris Nash.
The Grade 2 Bet365 Charlie Hall Chase was the chosen race for the seasonal return of the third and fourth from last year's Gold Cup (The Giant Bolster and Silviniaco Conti) although neither managed to match their efforts of last March. The 3m1f contest was run at only an even tempo (the later three-runner course and distance novice was more strongly run and resulted in only a slightly slower time) and five of the seven had every chance down the straight.
Victory went to Menorah, who enjoys decent underfoot conditions and also probably appreciated the speed test at the trip. He gave 5lb and a four-lengths beating to Taquin du Seuil, with Double Ross just a short-head behind in third. Silviniaco Conti was beaten a shade over eight lengths in fifth with The Giant Bolster showing little enthusiasm in the contest and trailing home last of the seven beaten almost 50 lengths.
Menorah arrived with a rating of 165 and had been as high as 169 in the past and I was happy this performance lay somewhere in between those parameters. Taquin du Seuil arrived here rated 159 having won the JLT Novice Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last year and his 9lb beating by Menorah has the winner running to 168. That has Double Ross running to a career-best 160 and Medermit close to his pre-race 156 at 153 in fourth. Silviniaco Conti returned a figure of 160 and The Giant Bolster managed only 123.
As mentioned earlier the emphasis here was on speed not stamina and several of these were returning from breaks so drawing hard and fast conclusions for the season ahead is somewhat perilous. Suffice to say that the Philip Hobbs horses are in great form and Menorah will be a worthy participant in all the big 2m4f to 3m chases coming up. And as both Taquin du Seuil and Double Ross were novices last year they are likely to have the scope to progress further this season.
The big race in Ireland on Saturday was the Grade 1 JNWine.com Chase which saw the return of last season's Gold Cup runner-up On His Own; although after a series of fiddly jumping mistakes he trailed home a well-beaten sixth. The race went to the highly-progressive Road To Riches who had comfortably won the Galway Plate off a mark of 149 in July before being beaten just a head by Sizing Europe last time.
Road To Riches had won over 3m in his hurdling career but this was his first try at the trip chasing. He was ridden like stamina was not going to be an issue and so it proved as he made every yard of the running and jumped well to come home 11 lengths clear of the Paul Nicholls-trained Rocky Creek. There was a further 18 lengths back to Boston Bob in third and elongated distances between the remaining finishers.
Assessing the worth of the form of any race when the participants finish at intervals is never easy and this time I settled on basing the level around the consistent runner-up. A line through his pre-race mark of 156 has Road To Riches running to 167 which equates to a career best. Needless to say all the other participants ran some way below their best form but the majority were having their first run of the season. We are likely to next see the winner in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Finally it would be remiss of me not to give a quick mention to Wishfull Thinking who won the Betfred Old Roan Handicap Chase at Aintree on the previous Saturday. He lined up off a mark of 162 and streaked away to win by 12 lengths. It was a terrific weight carrying performance in a competitive handicap and resulted in his rating being raised to 169. This is a new career-high mark which is a fine achievement for any 11-year-old and it's fair to assume that this performance will place him amongst the leading 2m4f chasers come the end of season classifications.
COLES TO WETHERBY
Small fields are not a new phenomenon in Jump racing, writes Martin Greenwood. It seems that every recent season has been blighted by certain races with only a small turnout.
Northern Jump trainers constantly tell me their various theories on why this is and they include not enough good quality races, too many good quality races, southern runners scaring them off, and last but not least the handicappers reaction 'if' any of their runners finish too close to the 'good thing from down South'. Despite my best efforts to assure them that I and the team aren't robotic in our assessments when it comes to listed and graded races they remain unmoved and decide to let large pots of prize money go to raiders from other parts of the country while complaining there aren't any races for them to run in!
Any handicapper worth his salt will only react when he feels it is justifiable, i.e. a thoroughly exposed sort who has appeared to run exceptionally well in a non-handicap will almost certainly be ignored. Conversely, an unexposed progressive type should be viewed differently, because by their very nature the extent of their ability is not yet known.
The Bet365 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby is a good case in point. Shamefully only attracting three runners, needless to say all trained 'down South', the front-running Cole Harden put his higher rated opponents to bed, including the odds-on favourite At Fishers Cross who hasn't won since April 2013 despite running several good races in defeat.
Cole Harden seemed to be treading water around the mid-130s in mid-distance novices last season but a step up to 3m at Aintree showed him in a new light and he was the only one to give the very promising Beat That a race. I raised Cole Harden a mammoth 15lb to 150 for that effort but had no qualms because he was unexposed.
The Wetherby race almost certainly proved another stepping stone, even allowing for the fact that early season fitness often plays a major part in this and other races at this time of year. I was amazed to be told by those who should know better that I would be rating the race around the backmarker At Fishers Cross, a perfect example of a misconception that exists amongst some trainers when it comes to handicapping. The five-year average of the winner of this race is 154, with a high of 158. With the 151-rated Medinas comfortably beaten eight lengths I decided to go 158 for now on Cole Harden with further improvement likely. This compares with the 172 that I would have used if the ludicrous assertion of using At Fishers Cross as the 'marker' stood!
LIN'S THE MAN
Please! Never again accuse yours truly of failing to drop a horse that looks to have badly lost his form, writes John de Moraville.
Ulck du Lin, one of the best-backed jumpers of the weekend, duly collected Ascot's Byrne Group Handicap Chase on Saturday having plummeted in the ratings by 19 lb.
It was also at Ascot two winters ago that the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding, then only a four-year-old, gained his previous success. Then, by justifying even-money favouritism and running to a mark of 146, he became a leading contender for the 2013 Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham.
Pulled up at the Festival, he unseated at Newton Abbot next time and underperformed badly last term which ended in defeat at Plumpton in April off 127.
Though disappointing at the time, in retrospect, with his Plumpton conqueror Fair Dilemma progressing to land a Class 2 chase at Stratford, that was a decent enough effort.
And off the same mark on Saturday, Ulck du Lin conclusively showed he had turned the corner by resolutely refusing to let persistent top-weight Claret Cloak get by him on the Ascot run-in.
In a race that had seemed highly competitive with three 9/2 joint-favourites (including the winner), the pair pulled eight lengths clear of the third, with Ulck du Lin running to a revised mark of 135 while the gallant runner-up registered a career-best 153.