Handicappers' Blog (12 February)

The head handicappers at the BHA review the pick of the recent action from Newbury's Betfair Hurdle day which also featured the Denman Chase and the Game Spirit Chase.

  • Thursday 12 February
  • Blog
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CONEYGREE CONVINCES

When Coneygree beat Dell' Arca in November in the Grade 2 Berkshire Chase at Newbury, my colleague Mark Olley was impressed enough to allocate him a 147 performance figure, the same as his hurdle rating, writes Phil Smith.

It is very rare that a 140 hurdler can replicate that level in its first chase but the time was excellent and both Dell' Arca (over hurdles) and the third horse Horatio Hornblower subsequently confirmed the form.

After Coneygree's win in the Kauto Star (Feltham) Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, I wrote that I did not know what rating to give him as the race fell apart, but that the time compared well with that of Silviniaco Conti. I admitted that I might have been 9lb too low. The reality is that I was probably more like a stone too low.

After Saturday's win in the Betfair Denman Chase I am totally convinced. Both Houblon des Obeaux and Unioniste have solid handicap form against established mature 3m chasers and they were blown away in a stunning time. For me it was the best performance at 3m by a novice since Gloria Victis and I now have Coneygree on 166, which was the mark allocated to Gloria Victis after he won the Racing Post Chase in February 2000.

Yes, better than Denman as a novice, whose highest rating was 161 after he won the 2007 RSA Chase, which may well be Coneygree's next race.

So what can beat him if he does go there? Possibly King's Palace who remains on 156 after a marginally disappointing run at Newbury - he ran about 5lb below his best. He is clearly better than that. He has also run over fences at Cheltenham whereas Coneygree has not.

Apache Stronghold, Valseur Lido, The Young Master and Don Poli, who are all over 150, make this year's renewal of the RSA look a potentially vintage one at this stage. Should Coneygree head for the Gold Cup, however, the benchmark is set at 174, courtesy of Silviniaco Conti.


MR'S MANNING UP

Saturday's Game Spirit Chase lost its principal player when reigning champion two-miler Sire de Grugy, back from his injury-enforced absence, departed at the third fence from home, writes John de Moraville.

It was too far out to gauge how the 172-rated favourite, who had also clouted the previous obstacle, would have fared. But the race did confirm that the quirky but hugely talented winner, Mr Mole, remains firmly on the upgrade.

Despite shying away from the tape and losing ten lengths at the start, this thirteen-length defeat of Castleford Chase winner Upsilon Bleu represents another career-best performance from Mr Mole, promoting him to a new mark of 165.

By adding Newbury's Grade 2 feature to his victory in last month's Sandown handicap, Mr Mole was emulating the double achieved by his stable's former super-star Master Minded seven years ago.

Master Minded (who, incidentally, had earlier unseated in the same graduation chase that Mr Mole won at Exeter in December) went on to annex the 2008 Champion Chase by a blistering nineteen lengths. It's hard to envisage Saturday's winner basking in victory at Cheltenham come March 11th but ratings suggest that he has every chance of making the frame.

The top 2m performance of the season so far was recorded by Mr Mole's much-improved stable-mate Dodging Bullets, whose 171 in Ascot's Grade 1 Clarence House Chase last month was gained at the expense of the returning 2013 champion Sprinter Sacre (168).

Back from an even longer absence than Sire de Grugy, it would be unfair to expect Sprinter Sacre to ever match his record-breaking achievements (and rating of 188) of two years ago.

But with that Ascot race under his belt, the Henderson star is the bookmakers' favourite to emulate the mighty Moscow Flyer (2003 and 2005) by regaining the 2m chase crown in four weeks' time in what promises to be a captivating showdown.


VIOLET LEADS THEM A MERRY DANCE

Explaining all of the vagaries of our wonderful sport to a casual observer can be tricky, but the glorious uncertainty that is so addictive to those of us who love this game was typified by Saturday's events at Newbury, writes David Dickinson.

No sooner had our most successful ever jockey announced his retirement than his Betfair Hurdle mount Goodwood Mirage pulled like a train and then dumped the 19-time Champion on the turf at the very first flight. Such things might test the resolve of us normal mortals to carry on to the end of the season but that would be to judge AP McCoy by the standards that we would use for others.

With Sire de Grugy having fluffed his lines in the Game Spirit, the Gary Moore team were bound to be feeling a little deflated going into the Betfair Hurdle but Violet Dancer, in cheekpieces first time, probably courtesy of a long odds-on defeat on the all-weather in his preparation run for this, made the best of a standing start to give the yard a third success in the race.

Unlike the Greatwood earlier in the season where Garde La Victoire was able to wait in front as there was no pace in the race; there were any number of possible front runners on offer on Saturday. The guaranteed fast pace materialised but the perceived wisdom that this would help the hold-up horses on tacky ground did not. The clue from the earlier races was probably when Bygones Sovereign was allowed a clear passage at the head of affairs in the 3m handicap hurdle on the card and was never to be seen again.

Establishing a level for this race was not straightforward, the first three having finished some nine lengths in front of the fourth but with legitimate excuses for the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh in my view. Calipto got a far from trouble free passage; Jolly's Cracked It was last going down the back straight in a race with a prominent racing bias; Arzal was probably hoping to help set the pace but was never quite in a position to do, also almost brought down at the last flight in the back straight, where Forced Family Fun was also impeded. The last-named was still there with a place chance at least, when a serious error two from home saw him briefly on the chase course.

I used Cheltenian to establish the level of rises for the first three, leaving him still with a pull with his Aintree conqueror of last April, Clondaw Kaempfer, by raising him 5lb to 146. That sees the third Activial going up 4lb to 147, a mark he might easily have run to in the Ladbroke but for a crucial mistake at the second last. The winner Violet Dancer goes up 9lb to 141, as most of the way up the home straight he looked like winning by more than the eventual three-length margin.

Some of the training plaudits for the weekend must go to Richard Phillips, whose eleven-year-old Temlett defied a 1,100-day absence to win a Warwick handicap hurdle. However, there is a reason why most handicappers have a string of anoraks hanging up in their hallways. This is the same Temlett who made all in a Cork handicap in March 2011 having not previously run since 2008. He even made a mistake at the third last that day, a feat he repeated on Saturday. He was heavily backed at Cork but was seemingly sent off relatively unconsidered at Warwick.

Handicappers' Blog (12 February)
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