Published 25th February
Sectional times are more valuable in jumps racing than is widely appreciated, but perhaps nowhere do they come into their own as much as with novice chasers. Wide-margin winners in small fields can be particularly difficult to assess without reference to the clock and to fence-to-fence fractions.
Which novice chaser will run in which race at the Cheltenham Festival in a couple of weeks’ time may still be unclear, but the tale of the stopwatch can at least help to sort the wheat from the chaff overall.
A few races have been run which are crucial to an understanding of the novice chase scene, and perhaps none more so than the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Overall times tell you that the race was just 1.8s (about nine lengths) slower than the King George VI Chase over the same course and distance on the same card. The winner of the novice – La Bague Au Roi, who will miss the Festival – carried 10lb less than Clan Des Obeaux, but her rivals carried just 3lb less.
That in itself is highly respectable, given that Clan Des Obeaux is second-favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, no less. But the two races’ respective sectionals suggest the difference in ability between the two sets of horses is smaller still than that.
While the King George was pretty well-run, with a race finishing speed of a close-to-par 99.2% of the average race speed, the Kauto Star was not. The principals in the latter ran from three out (2.5f from home) several lengths quicker than their more renowned rivals, managing a race finishing speed of 104.1%.
That figure is for the leader three out and at the line, which was the enterprisingly-ridden La Bague Au Roi herself, but the two geldings who followed her home in the Kauto Star ran even faster, and one of them – third-placed SANTINI – can be regarded her superior.
Santini is a staying type, as he showed each time as a classy novice hurdler, and a tactical affair at three miles on good to soft going round Kempton was never likely to show him to best effect. But he still managed to run the sectional in a remarkably fast 35.6s and was closing all the way to the line.
It was a performance which suggests the Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old would win the RSA Chase on the Wednesday of the Festival more often than not. His defeat of the useful and consistent pair Rocky’s Treasure and Le Breuil at Newbury earlier in December was good enough to put him in with a serious shout, also.
Indeed, Santini’s main rival at Cheltenham could prove to be the runner-up at Kempton, Topofthegame, though that one’s closing sectional of 36.35s was somewhat less spectacular and puts him on 157 compared to Santini’s 162. Topofthegame is also in the JLT Novice Chase on the Thursday, in which he would have a major chance.
Sectional analysis also speaks highly of BALLYWARD in the National Hunt Chase on the opening day of the Festival, and slightly more so than OK Corral who is ante-post favourite for the race.Ballyward’s win in a Grade 3 Novice Chase at Naas at the end of January came with smart late sectionals and by a wide margin from Chris’s Dream and Champagne Classic, who did the form no harm whatsoever by finishing first and second at an even higher level at Navan next time.
Ballyward finished three lengths behind OK Corral when they were fourth and second respectively in last year’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the 2018 Festival (split by Santini as it happens), but events and times since suggest the pecking order is now different.
Times helped in assessing what Glen Forsa achieved when winning a three-runner race at Sandown last time, and the answer is “plenty, but not as much as one or two others in the Arkle field”.
Chief of those was Le Richebourg, but the Joseph O’Brien-trained gelding was unexpectedly ruled out on Monday morning, leaving the ante-post market for the Arkle in some turmoil.
The race may be best tackled closer to the time: besides anything else, Glen Forsa is also in the JLT and there is another in the Arkle field who may be better than both of them but who is also not a definite runner.
That is DUC DES GENIEVRES, who slaughtered his rivals in a hot Beginners Chase at Gowran on his latest start, running the race overall in a time 1.8s (roughly nine lengths) quicker than Ryanair Chase hope Monalee managed in the Red Mills Chase on the same card, with almost identical sectionals in the closing stages.
I do not hold an especially high view of Monalee in the wider scheme of things, but a mere novice should not be managing that while carrying 2lb more and being allowed to coast in the closing stages.
Duc Des Genievres is also in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase later on Arkle day, and I suspect will go for that at a half-mile longer trip. He could easily be one of the very best novice chasers around.
See Duc Des Genievres's chasing debut here
The JLT Novice Chase on the Thursday is perhaps the most difficult novice chase of all at the Festival to figure out at this stage, with several of those quoted prominently in the betting holding alternative engagements.
Defi Du Seuil is likely to have the measure of Lostintranslation again (should he run in the JLT – the late defection of Le Richebourg could mean a possible switch to the Arkle) if this turns into a relative test of speed, as did their last meeting at Sandown, but he looks far from unbeatable more widely.
The likes of Vinndication (who threatens to take off faced with more of a test of stamina), Winter Escape (who reportedly burst a blood vessel last time) and the aforementioned Topofthegame could all prove every bit as good as is Defi Du Seuil, and yet they are currently quoted at much bigger odds. The JLT is another race probably best tackled nearer the time.
Verdicts: win SANTINI in RSA Chase, win BALLYWARD in National Hunt Chase and win DUC DES GENIEVRES in the Close Brothers Handicap Chase (All non-runner, no bet).