The Cheltenham Festival in March may seem a long way off but the betting on many of the races there is already taking shape.
Easysland at 2/1 for the Cross Country Chase is the shortest-priced favourite that I can see, followed by Envoi Allen (9/4, Marsh Novices’ Chase), Shishkin (7/2, Arkle Chase) and Honeysuckle (7/2, Mares’ Hurdle).
Not quite in that bracket, but still notably short for the time of year, is SIR GERHARD at 6/1 for the Champion Bumper.
The Gordon Elliott-trained five-year-old has run once since graduating from points, winning easily at Down Royal on 31 October, on what was a red (white sash, blue cap) letter day for owners Cheveley Park Stud.
Earlier on, their Quilixios won the Three-Year-Old Hurdle (and is now 14/1 favourite for the Triumph Hurdle) and their Ballyadam won a maiden hurdle. The latter is now 14/1 joint-favourite for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and 20/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Most of those need no introduction, but Sir Gerhard possibly does. There is good reason to think that we will be hearing a great deal more of him hereafter.
His was one of four races at two miles and 100 yards on that Down Royal card, but with the other three taking place over hurdles, and every timing-based comparison makes him look good.
First, let’s look at the overall times themselves, throwing in the well-run Grade B handicap hurdle won by Cayd Boy for good measure. To make the necessary comparisons, we need to know how much hurdles slow down a horse, or the absence of hurdles in a bumper speeds it up if you like.
This estimated value has changed with me over the years, since the bumper ratings I invented were first published by Timeform in 1992. An extensive study I did in 2017 suggests it should be 0.40s for single flights in isolation but about 0.63s per flight otherwise. Please let me know if you think differently!
Given that the two-mile hurdlers jumped nine flights on that Down Royal card, Sir Gerhard would need to run 5.7s quicker to achieve the same time-based performance figure if carrying the same weight.
He was about that much quicker than Cayd Boy (who won off a mark of 134) and much quicker than the other two, carrying more weight than all of them into the bargain.
The important column in that table is the “as lbs” one, which converts the times recorded compared to (my) standard time, and adjusted for weights carried, into a relative poundage difference.
Using my methodology, Sir Gerhard was 6 lb, 13 lb and 41 lb quicker than a trio of hurdlers whose performance ratings were around the 140 mark. A timefigure of “just” 138 on him could be considered to be conservative but still has him as easily the best bumper horse seen this season and good enough to win or nearly win the Champion Bumper in an ordinary year.
I should point out that my bumper ratings are markedly higher than some other sources’. One of the original purposes of bumper ratings was as a guide to what could be expected when a horse first ventured over jumps and they were deliberately pitched low with the expectation of thereafter rising.
Time comparisons and subsequent hurdling performances suggest the top bumper horses should be rated around 140, if not more: leading novice hurdlers (often the same horses just a year or so further down the line) tend to be in the 150s.
So I looked at the sectional comparisons. Usually, this would be taken from when a horse clears an obstacle or passes the same juncture in a bumper, but the latter was not possible at Down Royal.
Fortunately, the course had put up extensive furlong markers. This is what the figures for the winners themselves say.
It can be seen that Ballyadam was particularly slow in the opening section, then faster in the next mile. Meanwhile, Quilixios got away quickly enough then slammed on the brakes mid-race before finishing quickest – but only just quickest – of the hurdlers. Cayd Boy looks to have distributed his energy more evenly, which is what you would expect given his overall time.
Down Royal is a long track with sweeping bends which drops 5m approaching the 2f marker, hence those faster-than-normal finishing speed %s.
But look at those figures for Sir Gerhard: pretty quick to begin with (the 12f marker coincides with the third flight), solid mid-race, and impressively fast in the final quarter of a mile (in which two flights were jumped by the hurdlers). He banged in 13.6s for each of the last two furlongs on what was heavy going.
If that is not the mark of a good bumper horse, then I don’t know what is.
That hurdlers of the calibre of Quilixios,Ballyadam and Cayd Boy could be shown a clean pair of heels by a bumper debutant might have seemed disappointing on the day, but it may seem nothing of the sort in the fullness of time.
I have backed Sir Gerhard at 6/1 for the Champion Bumper, £20 of which (i.e. £140) will be donated to Racing Welfare if it cops. Wish me luck!