Nicholls by Cyrname, Nicholls by nature
It’s official, then, CYRNAME is the best National Hunt horse in training. Or he’s the highest-rated National Hunt horse in training. The two aren’t necessarily the same.
If you want to be the best, and you want to beat the rest, hefty rating’s what you need. But it’s not all you need, hence the difference, and the question, between a freakish performance and a freakish horse.
There was a period, towards the end of 2017, when Bristol De Mai was the “best” chaser, his rating realigned thereafter until his return to Haydock last November. There was a formula, or a fudge, earlier this year when Cracksman was declared the “joint-best” Flat horse with Winx. Give Cracksman Ascot and autumn ground and he was unparalleled. Give Bristol De Mai Haydock and Haydock ground and he’s unstoppable. Give Cyrname Ascot and an aggressive ride and he can run to - according to the BHA Handicapper – 178.
Think of it as the Mastermind of competitions, in that the specialist subject only partly determines the series champion, which dilutes the description of “the best”. It’s the conditional strings attached to an unconditional statement.
The unease about the proclamation seems not so much about the number itself, because beating those horses by that margin in the Ascot Chase is a heavyweight performance, from any angle and any appraisal. No, the apprehension is more around who didn’t do it, and where they didn’t do it, as in it wasn’t Altior and, less so, it wasn’t at the Cheltenham Festival, where the “best” do battle.
That Cyrname as leap-frogged to the top of the table says something about handicapping, something about Altior and something about Cheltenham. For context, though, Timeform has reassessed Cyrname at 173, which is still shy of their figure for Altior of 180. The widest margin Altior has won a Grade 1 is 8 lengths, though equally it’s hard to believe that any of Waiting Patiently, Fox Norton or Politologue were near their peak when Cyrname blitzed them by 17 on Saturday.
Ratings are a bit like referees in that we only really notice them when a contentious decision is given or some offence is taken, but if there’s any offence to be taken in this instance then it may be Cheltenham’s. Personifying it, you’d forgive Cheltenham for feeling slightly aggrieved, because the build-up to its flagship Festival is less intense this season with everything that has gone on (see last week’s column); because the “best” chaser hasn’t got it on his agenda, the week designed for horses like Cyrname, but Cyrname not designed for it; and because man of the moment Paul Nicholls isn’t preoccupied with Cheltenham like other top trainers.
In last five Festivals, comprising 138 races, Nicholls has won ten, including three each in 2015 and 2016, with a single winner on three other occasions. Only one of the ten was in a championship event (Dodging Bullets in the 2015 Champion Chase), the rest coming in handicaps, bar Pacha Du Polder in last year’s Foxhunter. Some of that, by his own admission, is to do with the transition period, when several of the presidential suites at Ditcheat – immortalised by Kauto Star, Denman and Big Buck’s amongst many others – were available on Wowcher due to a lack of appropriate lodgers.
But it also reflects Nicholls’s MO, possibly reinvented during the refurbishments, of not putting all of his eggs into one week-long basket. Nicholls sees the season for what it is rather than a Festival for what it could be and regularly reaps the benefit of running away from Cheltenham – literally and figuratively – rather than running towards it. Look at his campaigning of not just Cyrname but also the likes of Frodon, Grand Sancy and Dynamite Dollars, the last-named now sidelined by injury but having already earnt almost as much as the Arkle winner will.
A fractional factor in the big run by Cyrname at Ascot is that he was there to run big, his Gold Cup to all intents and purposes. And therein lies the brilliance of Paul Nicholls, beyond the actual art and craft of training, of finding the right races for his horses, whenever and wherever that may be, as opposed to finding the horses for the ‘right’ races, the Festival races. Cheltenham refines a season, but it doesn’t define a trainer, nor should it.
The Cheltenham Festival will look after itself, the way it always has and always will, but it’s refreshing and reassuring that it’s not the be all and end all, as viewed through the prism of Nicholls, as valued through the power of Cyrname, whether or not his “best” is bested by Altior in a couple of weeks.