Handicappers' Blog

The handicappers from the BHA review the action from the 2016 Cheltenham Festival where Annie Power, Sprinter Sacre, Vautour, Thistlecrack and Don Cossack were impressive in landing the Championship contests.

  • Thursday 24 March
  • Blog
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The best four days of the year bar none – that’s a given.

But what’s the significance of what happened on the undulations of Prestbury Park?

Here’s the verdicts from the BHA's handicappers.

THE DON CLAIMS GOLD CUP GLORY

A terrific performance from DON COASSACK (177) in the Timico Gold Cup took him to the top of the current Anglo-Irish Jumps Classifications, writes Phil Smith.

Owing to the ease of victory I called the four-and-a-half-length margin to Djakadam 7lb, with that one replicating his 170 performance from last year’s race. In turn he was seventeen lengths in front of fifth-placed Irish Cavalier (153) so the form has a solid look to it.

This makes him an above average top staying chaser.

Behind Kauto Star, Denman, Imperial Commander, Long Run and Bobs Worth but in front of Looks Like Trouble, See More Business, First Gold, Florida Pearl, Best Mate, Kicking King, Silviniaco Conti and the same owner’s War of Attrition (173). He is also 2lb clear of his own mark of 175 set last season.

UN TEMPS POUR TOUT (159) took himself to the top of the 3m novice chase category by virtue of a convincing victory in the Ultima Handicap Chase, clearly benefitting from the step back up in trip.

CAUSE OF CAUSES (155) put himself 13lb well in for the Crabbie’s Grand National when winning the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir impressively but is only 50/50 to get a run. More will be learned from the latest forfeit stage (Tuesday 22nd March).

BHA top-rated horses won nine of the eighteen non-handicaps.

All of our figures are published in the race card and included ANY CURRENCY, the 11/1 winner of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, run for the first time as a non-handicap.


GIRL POWER AS ANNIE WINS THE CHAMPION HURDLE

Any running of the Stan James Champion Hurdle is the centrepiece of the 2m hurdlers’ season and while 2016 might not have been the greatest renewals those that lined up still delivered a fine race, writes David Dickinson.

In Faugheen’s absence, it fell to his stable-companion ANNIE POWER to carry the day and her slick jumping meant there were very few worries as she strode clear from the last.

She received a 7lb mares’ allowance from both second and third, and I have rated all three on 162.

If agreed for the Anglo-Irish Classifications at the end of the season, this would rank Annie Power as an about average Champion Hurdle winner once her sex allowance is taken into account.

To put the 162 ratings accorded My Tent Or Yours and Nichols Canyon into context, a look at previous Champion Hurdle winners since the inception of the Classifications shows that Istabraq on 176 is the highest rated Champion Hurdle winner and Hors La Loi III on 164 is the lowest.

This would suggest neither of the placed horses would have won even the weakest running of the race.

As I said in the Betfair Hurdle blog, this has been a stellar season for the 2m novices and the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle came right up to scratch, even if the Willie Mullins team was mighty hard to predict, with the Tolworth winner Yorkhill waiting for the Neptune.

The much vaunted Min ran a fine race for the yard despite a couple of jumping errors but he was simply not quite good enough to deal with the form pick ALTIOR, who simply doesn’t seem able to drop the bit and fairly tanked down to the start.

The fact he still has so much to offer at the end of his races is most impressive, and with the Henderson yard also having the third Buveur d’Air this was the start of a memorable week for the stable.

I went into the race with Tombstone and Charbel rated 147 and with just a head between them in fourth and fifth, I used this to rate Altior 160.

LIMINI ran away with the inaugural Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Novice’ Hurdle.

She earned a rating of 151, which makes her Min’s superior once her sex allowance is taken into account - no wonder there was such stable confidence behind her.

Such has been the topsy turvy world of juvenile hurdling this winter, the JCB Triumph Hurdle fell to a horse who had finished outside the first three on his latest outing AND he started favourite!

IVANOVICH GORBATOV lived up to his reputation, with the better ground seemingly suiting this diminutive but smart recruit from the Flat. His rating of 154 sets him at the head of his generation but no more than an average winner of the race.

Best of the home team was Leoncavallo, who gained the last of his five wins in the listed Wensleydale Hurdle at Wetherby at the end of October.

The fact juvenile hurdling is changing is shown by the finish of the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, a good one with a three way photo and two other promising challengers falling at the last. To qualify for the handicap, those five horses had collectively run seven times in Britain, twice in Ireland and fourteen times in France. 

The first horse home with purely British form was the hitherto-unbeaten Doubly Clever, who completed his hat-trick of wins at Newton Abbot on 22nd August.

Does this say something about the wetness of last winter or does it question the strength of our winter juvenile form?


SPRINTER SOARS ONCE MORE IN THE QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE

While we’re told the neutrals are supporting Leicester City there’ll have been a fair few who took ten minutes off to shout SPRINTER SACRE home in Wednesday’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, writes Graeme Smith.

It’s rare that a clash between three former champions can be overshadowed in the build up to the extent it was with the Champion Chase was this year, but even though the talk was all about the coronation of the pretender Un de Sceaux The Black Aeroplane wasn’t having any of it.

In a strongly-run race that was always likely to sort the men from the boys, it was all change as Sprinter Sacre moved up to and straight past the pace-setting Un de Sceaux and Special Tiara going down the hill, storming six and a half lengths clear after flying the last before coming back to them a shade up the hill.

Whether he was tiring, idling or something else, I’m strongly of the view the six-and-a-half-length margin was the best measure of Sprinter Sacre’s superiority on the day and rounded that up to 7lb.

He now tops the division at 175, a 5lb improvement on his pre-race figure. We all know that’s shy of his career-defining 188 performances from the spring of 2013 but let’s not quibble!

Special Tiara is a likeable gelding and he retains his rating of 168, which he achieved when winning last spring’s Celebration Chase as well as when finishing second in the Tingle Creek and third here. He was probably unlucky not to hold on to second, having been edged out only on the nod.

Un De Sceaux’s best performance comes from the Clarence House in January where he ran to 172, and I’m still happy with that figure for all he measured up only to 168 here.

His connections were of the opinion a more testing surface would have seen him in a better light. Even if that does prove the case, he’s got to improve again at Punchestown if he’s to finish the season on top.

The only notable improver further down the field was God’s Own in fourth. He’d been runner-up in Grade 1 novices at both Cheltenham and Aintree last spring, and his Arkle form behind Un De Sceaux and in front of several other improvers certainly supports this 2lb increase from his previous best of 160.

So what about the influx of talent for next season from the current novice crop? Surely it’s all about DOUVAN.

He frightened off most of the opposition in the Arkle and dismissed those who dared turn up.

The way he galloped and jumped was poetry in motion for the most part, and he’d seen Vaniteux off when that one crashed out two fences from home and all but took The Game Changer out of things in the process.

I’ve no doubt Douvan is a top-class prospect, but the gallop he set meant they didn’t really race until after the third last and as such he was unable to hand out the beatings he might otherwise have done.

He beat Sizing John seven lengths when the pair were first and third in last year’s Supreme and it was the same margin between them again, albeit with Sizing John’s rider putting up 1lb overweight when he returned to weigh in.

Sizing John remains on the 151 he’s been rated for more than a year, and Douvan works out as 157+, with the + denoting that he’d have won more easily under different circumstances – he travelled much more easily than anything else turning in.

Douvan’s pre-race rating was 161, which is what he’d been given as a hurdler in last season’s Classification, and that’s where he’ll stay for the time being.

Here’s hoping he shows us more at Punchestown. 

It was a case of estimating where Vaniteux and The Game Changer would have finished. I’ve kept Vaniteux on 152, which filters into this result two lengths ahead of Sizing John (remembering the 1lb overweight) – about where he was when he fell.

The Game Changer was 155 pre-race but that came from small-field races in Ireland. He’d just jumped upsides Sizing John when hampered, and while there’s a fair dollop of estimation here I felt a reducing his figure to 151 (behind Vaniteux) was fair for the time being. 


TIZZ THE SEASON AS THISLECRACK IS BRILLAINT IN THE WORLD HURDLE

What an incredible performance from THISTLECRACK in the Ryanair World Hurdle, writes Martin Greenwood.

I’d been one of plenty to wax lyrical about his chances leading up to the race, and by golly he was as impressive as one could have wished for.

There was no messing about and one by one they dropped away, including big Festival winners from 2015, Cole Harden and Whisper, who have been very disappointing this season.

Even if they were at their very best it would be hard to imagine them holding a candle to Thistlecrack, who simply powered clear from Alpha des Obeaux (now 165), who in turn demolished the rest of the field and is a good quality stayer in his own right after this.

Now to the crux of the matter, just how good is Thistlecrack?

Since the start of the Anglo-Irish Classification in 1999/2000, before my time at the BHB/BHA, the best staying hurdlers have ranged from 163 to 174 and included the likes of Baracouda (172), Inglis Drever (172) and the mighty Big Bucks (174 on 5 occasions, though ironically he was usually less impressive in the World Hurdle than on other courses).

Where do I fit Thistlecrack into this list of hurdling titans? 

The five-year standards are suggesting an average of 173 and a median of 171 for the winner, though that doesn’t include any extra added for ease of victory, and a time comparison with the Pertemps Handicap suggests a higher figure of 178.

Of course the season is far from over with Aintree and Punchestown looming, so any short term decision can be reviewed after those Festivals and at our annual Anglo-Irish meeting in early May.

I was so visually impressed with Thistlecrack that I feel he deserves to be above both Baracouda and Inglis Drever, but have not yet propelled him beyond Big Bucks, whom I am happy to share the 174.

What about potential World Hurdlers in 2016/17?

The Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle featured two of the best pre-Festival novices of the season in Yanworth (158) and YORKHILL (156), and in a messy sort of race, they both came out of it with their lofty reputations more or less intact.

With the pace steadying there was a host of chances two out, and I am sure this is the main reason why the pair pulled only seven lengths clear of the third.

While Yorkhill, whose Tolworth Hurdle win at Sandown had been well advertised by subsequent efforts of those he beat, got a dream run on the inner and quickened into a race-winning lead, Yanworth, who raced wide throughout and made a mistake three out, was forced even wider turning in and found himself around four lengths down at the last.

A combination of Yorkhill dossing and Yanworth’s stamina kicking in reduced that margin to under two lengths at the line. The five-year standards suggest an average winner of 152, and with Its’afreebee and Welsh Shadow both posting a personal best, it is hard to get the overall standard of the race much higher at this point.

Given the reasons explained above however, I am keen to suggest the front two are better than the official margin, and Yorkhill remains on 156.

Given Yanworth can be possibly counted a bit unlucky not to have made more of a fist of it, I have pulled him back a couple to share the same rating in the short term.

However it would be wrong of me to suggest he would have won if everything fell into place.

The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle two days later didn’t feature quite the quality of the Neptune but, nevertheless, it takes a tough sort to come out on top in a stamina-sapping event and in UNOWHATIMEANHARRY they don’t come much tougher.

I had mentioned in my pre-Festival blog that he was my top rated staying novice of the season (152) and was amazed when he was as high as 20/1 in the week leading up to the race.

His price probably reflected the fact that most of his wins ‘only’ came in handicap company, but in my experience good quality handicap form is often as solid as it gets, and the way he walloped a decent field in a Pertemps qualifier at Exeter off 138 seemed to me a high-class effort for a novice.

It’s not as though there was any other outstanding candidates in the field, with Barters Hill (150) heading the rest on ratings.

Unowhatimeanharry is always held up and well handled by Noel Fehily, and those tactics were well suited to the way the race panned out at Cheltenham. There was no let up from the pacesetters, which included Barters Hill and Champers On Ice (personal best of 148), both of whom did very well in the circumstances.

However Fehily was quietly stalking the pace. Even though he wasn’t swinging away on the bridle you just knew he would find plenty, a trait he had shown all season, and sure enough he doggedly fought off the attentions of the fast-finishing Fagan (now 149), who also looks a thorough stayer.

An average winner of this race is around the 150 mark, and this year’s renewal looks about right based on the winner performing to 151, though his pre-race rating remains, as does that of Barters Hill.

A quick note on my two handicaps, which both went to Irish-trained horses. The Coral Cup was a bunched finish but in truth the ex-British-trained DIAMOND KING was impressive, extracting himself from a pocket with a good turn of foot and value more than the winning distance.

His rating is now 158p from 149. There was much more fortune for the Irish in the Pertemps Network Final, because surely If In Doubt would have won but for being hampered and stumbling, presenting the prize to MALL DINI, who is now 143 from 139.


VAUTOUR TOUR DE FORCE IN LANDING RYANAIR

The Grade 1 Ryanair Chase a real puzzle in the days/weeks leading up to the race but that all changed when VAUTOUR was rerouted, writes Mark Olley.

From being a wide open race, we now had an odds-on favourite who was 11lb clear of his rivals on BHA official ratings. Plenty has been written about the circumstances of the above, but from my point of view I was delighted to see a real star in the race.

There were quotes prior to the race that Vautour was only 90% right, but given what I watched in the race itself I can’t believe that was true.

When he landed the JLT Novices’ Chase at the meeting last year it was a performance that really took my breath away.

That didn’t happen this time but he was certainly impressive in dismantling a smart field. Last year he beat Valseur Lido by fifteen lengths, this year it wasn’t quite so impressive at six lengths, albeit value for further.

The race was not easy to level from a ratings point of view with horses like Gilgamboa (156) and Taquin du Seuil (157) finishing close to the placed horses, but after a discussion with the Irish Head Handicapper Noel O’Brien (the first three finishers were all Irish-trained) we came up with the following:

Valseur Lido was a likely looking winner when unseating at the last at Leopardstown last month and we have him repeating that provisional figure of 162.

We have the same 162 figure for Road To Riches, although his official would be slightly higher with last season’s form in mind.

Al Ferof came into the race rated 165, but that is a figure the eleven-year-old has carried over from last season. We have him running to 162 when winning the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase by a wide margin at Huntingdon in December and that will be his new rating.

Gilgamboa moves up 3lb to a new rating of 159.

The above figures fit in pretty well with the race standards for the placed horses – 163 for the second and 162 for the third.

All of the above means a figure of 173 for Vautour, after calling the six length winning margin 11lb.

This is 3lb below the figure he achieved when a thrilling second to Cue Card in the King George at Christmas, but then Cue Card is a stronger rival than any he met here. He also beat Al Ferof by thirteen lengths at Kempton, but just under eight lengths here.

The Grade 1 JLT Novices’ Chase was as open a contest as you care to see. There was only 2lb between the top five rated horses on BHA ratings pre-race and the betting settled on three 4/1 co-favourites.

The front-running Bristol de Mai took them along at a fair pace and although he made some spectacular leaps he also made some errors.

L’Ami Serge took it up three from home and for a brief moment before the last looked the likely winner, but he was not as strong a stayer as the first two home and this left BLACK HERCULES to power home from a rallying Bristol de Mai.

Both Outlander and Garde La Victoire fell when still in with a chance and I’m sure one, or both, would have played some part in the finish.

From a ratings point of view Black Hercules moves from 152 to 158, while Bristol de Mai is 154, L’Ami Serge 153 (up 5lb from 148) and Three Musketeers unchanged on 152.
 
Benefficient on 157 is the lowest rated of the past six winners and with Taquin du Seuil (159 in 2014) and Noble Prince (160 in 2011) there is not much to choose between them all. They all certainly fall some way short of the spectacular 171 achieved by Vautour last year.

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