As Paul Nicholls put it after training yet another King George VI Chase winner at Kempton on Boxing Day “hindsight is a wonderful thing”. Tell me about it!
Nicholls was attempting to make sense of why his Clan des Obeaux and Cyrname had lost, while his Frodon had won, but most of the rest of us were simply left trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong, not just some of it.
High up on the list of hindsight is that Frodon is a top-class performer on his day, that his day had happened more than occasionally, and that it had happened pretty recently, too.
It was only in October that he won at Cheltenham off a mark of 164, the kind of thing a King George winner might do. With hindsight, we should have paid more attention to that and less to his subsequent flop at Aintree when the unexpected appearance of the sun led to the omission of several obstacles.
At Cheltenham, Frodon had run a time over a furlong quicker than the winner of a handicap chase at the same distance on the same card. When he needs to run fast, he is capable of running fast.
But running fast proved not to be necessary at Kempton, as it happens, or not until late on. One of the big take-homes of this year’s King George is that it was run in a time slower than Shan Blue posted in winning the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase – like the main event, sponsored by Ladbrokes – just over an hour earlier.
Different sources have different figures, but mine, using video analysis, make it 3.3s in favour of the novice over the champ, or about 15 lengths. Shan Blue is smart, and a tremendous jumper of a fence for one with such limited experience, but he is not 15 lengths better than a King George winner.
We need to look at how those final times came about. We need sectionals.
Fortunately, we have some: on-screen times looked pretty reliable (more so than on occasions in the past). Less fortunately, we have little with which to compare those furlong-by-furlong splits, so I will revert to my own obstacle-by-obstacle ones, which have a longer history.
These are the sectional for Shan Blue and Frodon themselves, compared to the average splits of winners of the King George in the last decade, with those pars adjusted to Shan Blue’s winning time of 5m 57.5s. The two winners’ sectionals are also expressed in graphical form as the lengths behind or ahead of par.
Shan Blue ran very close to par throughout. Frodon did not and was over 25 lengths behind it from the start of the back straight, which is about a mile from the finish, until after the third-last.
Thereafter, Frodon made up some of the leeway, but far from all of it, nonetheless covering the 550 yards (2.5f) from three out to the line in 36.6s, markedly faster than any King George winner in the previous decade (Long Run at 37.4s in 2010 and Silviniaco Conti at 37.7s in 2014 got closest).
It was a masterful “steady/steady/fast” front-running ride by Bryony Frost, and it may well have made the difference between victory and defeat. The runner-up Waiting Patiently flew home by staying chaser standards, running 35.1s for the same closing sectional against that pace bias.
This year’s King George was not the race some of us expected – for it was a test of late speed much more than of stamina – and produced a winner few foresaw. But, if we are to turn 2020 hindsight into better foresight, we need to be as clear as possible about exactly what went on.
It was something of a heist, with Frost and Frodon making off with the swag like Bonnie and Clyde. Top marks to jockey and horse alike.
Silver streaks to Christmas glory
By-obstacle sectionals are handy for chases, but by-furlong ones are more valid for hurdles, for the simple reason that the obstacles in the latter code may move around over the years.
While Frodon was about 12lb slower in the King George than Shan Blue was in the Kauto Star, there was a more predictable swing the other way between the winners of the opening novice hurdle and the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle, amounting to about 26lb in favour of the latter.
That was where the predictability ended for many with regards to the Christmas Hurdle, for it was not the long odds-on Epatante who won it but the much less fancied Silver Streak under another well-judged front-running ride, this time from Adam Wedge.
It is likely that Epatante was below her very best, given that she made mistakes and that Floressa was comfortably held rather than well held in fourth. But perhaps not by much, and the time and sectionals add plenty of substance to the idea that Silver Streak ran the race of his life.
Individual splits can be calculated for both race winners from those on-screen figures.
In summary, Silver Streak was faster than Third Time Lucki in all but one of those quarters, and very much so mid-race, where he turned on the heat, got Epatante and the others in trouble, and powered roughly 15 lengths clear of Third Time Lucki himself.
Two of Silver Streak’s individual furlongs – from 5f out to 4f out and from 4f out to 3f out – were comfortably under 13.0s. A 14.30s final split, bettered by two other winners on the card at further, was something he could get away with comfortably.
Those finishing speed %s – speed in last 4f as a % of a horse’s average speed in the race overall – suggest neither Third Time Lucki nor Silver Streak went flat out, but they did not hang around either. Par is probably in the 102%-103% region judged by closing splits using obstacles previously.
It may take a little swallowing, but it does rather look as if Silver Streak is better than ever, despite rising eight and having many miles on the clock, and that he is a legitimate Champion Hurdle contender at a time when there are not many around.
It is perhaps understandable that connections have taken until now to ride Silver Streak in such a forceful manner: the horse they took on at the end of 2016 had been a modest sprinter/miler on the flat and looked as if he needed his stamina rationing. Top marks again.