Handicappers' Blog (28 January)

A new blog to At The Races, the head handicappers from the BHA review the weekend's best action from Cheltenham, Doncaster and Leopardstown.

  • Tuesday 28 January
  • Blog
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KNOCK OUT BLEAU

A Saturday afternoon of high-class NH action very much centred on the return of champion Big Buck's only for his party to be crashed by an unheralded northern challenger as Knockara Beau delivered a knock-out blow on the climb to the line. It was a race that polarised opinions in anticipation of the World Hurdle in March and Martin Greenwood leads off a comprehensive bulletin with his in-depth take on that surprise result.


CZECH MATE

All eyes were focussed on Prestbury Park last Saturday, principally on returning superstar Big Buck's, writes Martin Greenwood.

Unbeaten since 2008, Big Buck's was ridden for the first time by young Twiston-Davies following a rather bizarre publicly-discussed change of jockey issue.

Absent for over a year, Big Buck's looked to have found a straightforward task in the Gilliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle even allowing for him conceding weight to all but one of his opponents - his nearest rival on ratings Reve de Sivola was rated 12lb inferior. Of course you have to factor in whether Buck's was a 100% or near 100% straight, and I think by the end of the Cleeve Hurdle one can only assume he most certainly was not.

Ridden boldly, Buck's looked like his old self for most of the contest, hurdling fluently and seemingly enjoying himself. However after looking the likely winner throughout he tired visibly on the run-in on the testing ground and was swallowed up by surprise winner Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross.

Opinion post-race seemed divided, some sections arguing he had 'gone' and others suggesting it was a decent effort after being on the sidelines, and a percentage of both camps arguing he was ridden too forcefully. There may have been a case that Buck's would have won ridden slightly more conservatively but equally there is a chance that the tactics would have made no difference.

I favour taking a positive slant on the comeback, my figures notwithstanding. I have him running to 'only' 160 compared to his long-standing 174 rating (first put on in 2009), but have dropped him to 170 to acknowledge the element of doubt following his absence. I think there was enough 'promise' to suggest that he is certainly no back number and feel he still merits being favourite for the World Hurdle, the only caveat there being the race options of super-mare Annie Power.

Back to Knockara Beau, who was ridden as usual by Czech-born Faltejsek. Nowhere near as good as the likes of Big Buck's, he's nonetheless been a star for his small yard and often runs well at Cheltenham, despite the very long journey from Northumberland. He had seemed exposed as a mid to high 140s hurdler and chaser but was rated in the low 150s over hurdles a while back and for now I have increased his rating to 154, with At Fishers Cross back to the 157 he showed in his novice season having produced a better round of jumping.

Knockara Beau was one of many horses to strike a blow for the North on Saturday. The BHA Handicapping team is constantly being told that Northern jumpers are up against it, despite several sets of stats proving otherwise….why let the facts spoil a good argument, eh? As well as Knockara, we had a Northern winner of a handicap at Cheltenham and placed horses in both the featured handicap chase and the concluding handicap hurdle. Allied to that, the Northern-trained pair of Urban Hymn (142) and Blakemore (140) fought out the finish of the River Don novice hurdle at Doncaster, beating several Southern-trained runners in the process. Maybe, just maybe, the doom mongers out there should concentrate on the roses rather than the manure!


COMING OF AGE EARLY

An innovative strategy seems to be paying dividends for the juvenile hurdlers trained by Nick Williams, writes David Dickinson.

By the time Akdam won the first juvenile hurdle in Britain at Hexham in June, the Williams stable was already having runners in juvenile races in France. Le Rocher broke his duck with victory at Dieppe the day after Akdam's initial success. This was not the first juvenile victory for the yard, Fox Norton having scored as early as April at Fontainebleau.

Fox Norton went to the top of my domestic juvenile figures by beating Royal Irish Hussar at Doncaster in December, the second time the pair had met, also the second time that Fox Norton had come out as the better horse at the weights.

In adding Saturday's Grade 2 to his Chepstow Grade 1 success, Le Rocher now goes to the top of the pile with a new rating of 149. Vicenzo Mio is the conundrum here - the form of his Kempton win is working out well but his two runs at Prestbury either side of that success do not stack up nearly as well.

If the juveniles left a few questions to be answered, Annie Power's fluent Doncaster success told us precious little about her that we did not already know. She is good, very good and almost certainly deserving of the 165 rating given to her when beating Zarkandar so well on New Year's Day. The only thing we don't know about her is which Cheltenham Championship race she will end up in. In receipt of the mares allowance she would be Hurricane Fly's biggest threat, on our current figures at least.
 

HURRICANE ON TOP AGAIN

And so to Hurricane Fly. His was an extraordinary achievement on Sunday in winning his 19th Grade 1. Here again we were left with questions to be answered but this is no time to criticise the winner - he was set a task and he prevailed, end of story. Whether finishing less than three lengths in front of the thirteen-year-old Captain Cee Bee can be interpreted as the most solid championship form, I very much doubt.

When Our Conor moved up alongside the great horse and out-jumped him at the last, the Fly had to knuckle down and knuckle down he did, and he was pulling away at the line. The race was again not run to suit Jezki and he will likely need a strong pace throughout to play a part in the main event come March. From a handicapping point of view, what am I supposed to make of Captain Cee Bee's last two runs, career bests at his age? I can see getting him in the right place in the County Hurdle weights (assuming he is entered) as one of next month's challenges!


VALDEZ BRINGS KING IN FROM THE COLD

The withdrawal of 2012 Champion Hurdle-winner Rock On Ruby stripped much of the interest from Doncaster's Racing Post Lightning Novices' Chase, writes John de Moraville.

But that will not have bothered trainer Alan King, for whom hat-trick scorer Valdez ensured the return of the good times after his stable's untimely mid-season shut-down.

King stated that Saturday's Grade 2 event would determine whether Valdez was up to Arkle standard or would be better off focussing his Cheltenham sights on the less exalted Grand Annual Handicap.

This latest success, with Valdez running to a mark of 153, confirms that the Arkle remains a realistic target. And, since the gelding is unbeaten over fences and hails from a yard that has been under a cloud, there should be every chance of better things to come.

When last seen two months earlier, Valdez had romped away with a novices' handicap chase at Newbury that proved very difficult to rate, so it is pleasing to reflect that raising the chestnut 17lb for that success to 152+ has not proved to be an overreaction.

Front-running Irish raider Arnaud (up 6lb to 148) maintained his progression with a valiant second on Saturday just ahead of the staying-on Fox Appeal (remains on 152), who appeared to find the drop back to 2m (all his twelve previous jump starts had been over at least 2m3f) against him.
 

GIANT WINS BUT HARRY'S TOPPER THE LOT

My big Grade 2 of the weekend was the Argento Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, writes Phil Smith. Going into the race, at the weights, there was only 6lb between the top top-rated The Giant Bolster (157 carrying 11-00) and the fourth best Champion Court (157 and 11-06).

Coming to the last there were five in a line but The Giant Bolster, wearing a variety of headgear for the first time, strode up his beloved Cheltenham hill to win at this meeting for the third time in four years.

The time was 1.92 seconds per furlong slower than standard and compares badly with the two 2m5f chase handicaps which returned figures that were 1.32 and 1.36 seconds off standard. I decided to base the race through Restless Harry on 141 as he had won a handicap at Newbury only ten days earlier and was clearly in form. As such, Houblon Des Obeaux ran to 148 finishing seven lengths in front of him.

Harry Topper (156) therefore comes out as the best horse on the day as he was four lengths in front of Houblon Des Obeaux and gave that horse 4lb. This was a remarkable effort as he made numerous jumping errors and clearly has the potential to rate much higher if he can ever polish up in that department.

Rocky Creek, although just holding on to second spot, was exhausted at the end of the race and I have him running 6lb below his rating of 157 in receipt of 5lb from Harry Topper. However I have left him on 157 as I don't believe he replicated his Hennessy second here.

The winner I have performing 2lb below his rating of 155. I felt that in winning by seven lengths going away he was value for nine, but he was also getting 5lb from Rocky Creek. Although my top rated won the race it was a confusing contest as you don't often get the first two in a Grade 2 running below their ratings. Perhaps I should have rated the race a couple of pounds higher but there would have been a knock on effect on Harry Topper and I didn't want to have him going up more than 3lb after such a poor round of jumping.

It was a confusing race caused almost certainly by the heavy ground and the slow pace. If they were all to meet again in the Gold Cup I would expect Rocky Creek to come out on top of this group as to my eyes he ran as if needing the run after an eight week break since his second at Newbury. On better ground he would be an interesting Crabbie's Grand National contender.

Handicappers' Blog (28 January)
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