The Flip Side

Kevin Blake puts Festival favourites Envoi Allen and Champ under the microscope and highlights a horse to note for the Pertemps Final.

  • Wednesday 08 January
  • Blog
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Envoi Allen was grand... Just grand

There is a phenomenon in horse racing that I like to call Auto-Praise Syndrome. In this day and age of flagrant social media trumpeting, there seems to be a race every season to see who can be first aboard the bandwagon of the next big thing. 

Having secured big-price ante-post betting slips that the owner dreams of triumphantly posting on social media in the aftermath of subsequent Cheltenham Festival victories, the supporters of the horse in question will refuse to take anything but great encouragement from whatever the horse does on the track.

They want their chosen horse to be a superstar so much that they will automatically praise their winning performances regardless of the true substance of them. It’s almost as if they are trying to convince themselves of the horse’s superstar status as much as anyone else.

In the case of a horse such as the unbeaten Envoi Allen, this sort of behaviour has run riot and was very evident in the aftermath of his victory in the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle at Naas on Sunday. It wasn’t that Envoi Allen did anything wrong there as such, but for me he probably achieved less than he had when winning the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and the style of his victory certainly didn’t justify the rave reports he received in many quarters.

It is understandable why Envoi Allen has become as lauded as he has. A staying chaser on pedigree and in appearance, for him to do what he did in bumpers has raised hopes that he could be “one of the ones.” While he has gone unbeaten in all three of his starts over hurdles this season, it would be remiss not to point out that the style of his wins hasn’t necessarily compensated for what seems a slight lack of depth in behind him. There is of course a possibility, as his connections have suggested, that he isn’t the type to do too much in front, but this explanation tends to be ventured more times than it is justified. Often times there just isn’t as much in the tank as everyone would like there to be.

Envoi Allen wins the Lawlor's of Naas Novice Hurdle
Envoi Allen has yet to produce a performance that screams superstar.

Envoi Allen is now reportedly likely to go straight to the Cheltenham Festival, probably to the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, for which he seems sure to be sent off at a very short price. In these short-price scenarios, it pays to be picky and there are bits and pieces that can be picked at with Envoi Allen.

The most significant unknown with Envoi Allen is how he will cope with the rough and tumble of a more competitive environment such as what he could well meet in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. He has shown hints of temperament in the prelims of his races, can take a good grip once they get underway and we still don’t know how he will respond to racing in proper tight quarters.

Indeed, it is an interesting fact that throughout Envoi Allen’s entire eight-race career, he has never raced in any sort of traffic. He has consistently been given safety-first rides around the outside or in front, including when having to overcome a four-wide no-cover trip in the Champion Bumper at last season’s Cheltenham Festival. A very good horse can get away with such things in lesser company, but it is a rare horse that can consistently get away with such inefficient trips in top-class company.

Time will tell whether Envoi Allen proves to be the real deal. However, racing analysts owe it to their craft to assess what they saw and not what they hoped to see. To this pair of eyes, Envoi Allen has yet to produce a performance that screams superstar, yet he is priced up for the Ballymore as though he has.


Champ is a puzzle

AP McCoy is a straightforward type of character. What you see is what you get. So, when JP McManus decided to name a horse Champ in honour of McCoy a few years back, one imagines it would have been considered desirable to pick a horse that was as straightforward as the man himself. 

So, it wouldn’t be hindsight-ology to suggest McManus was taking a risk by picking a horse that was out of a half-sister to Best Mate. Of course, everyone remembers Best Mate and what a superstar he was, but they don’t always remember that he had a pair of full-brothers in Inca Trail and Cornish Rebel that were high-class quirkbags of the trickiest variety.

While it would be unfair to label Champ as tricky at this stage, he has certainly shown that he has a couple of quirks to go with his talent. As a result, he has been a fascinating character study thus far in his career. He overcame his free-going ways as a hurdler to win a Grade 1 novice last season and with it initially having seemed that fences might have settled him down a bit, there was great hope that he would prove even better as a chaser. 

However, he has hit a few notable potholes on his Road To Cheltenham™ since then, most recently when falling at the second-last fence when looking on his way to victory the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham last week.

There are a number of different ways that his runs over fences thus far can be interpreted, but this isn’t a place for beating around the bush. Champ’s connections have spent his career doing their best to get him to relax better with a view to him being what he’s bred to be, a staying chaser. While he is settling a bit better over fences than he did over hurdles, to me he still always looks as though he wants to be going faster and ridden more aggressively. 

His jumping was at its best at Cheltenham last week when rider Barry Geraghty gave him a kick in the guts and fired him at fences. Every time he asked him to shorten into one, Champ had problems organising himself and made mistakes. This has been a regular occurrence in his novice chasing career thus far and it was ultimately what put him on the deck last week.

Champ falls in the Dipper Chase
Every time he was asked him to shorten into a fence, Champ made mistakes.

If he were mine, I’d be inclined to abort the mission to try and make him into a staying chaser. I’d let him do what he has always seemed so keen to do, be let loose. An aggressive ride over two-and-a-half miles - be that making the running or taking a lead off something going a proper gallop - could well be the key to him. If his connections were feeling particularly adventurous, they could even try him over two miles in a division that doesn’t look too intimidating at the minute.

Time will disclose all, but wouldn’t there be a wonderful symmetry to the whole thing if the key to Champ proved to be an aggressive style of riding that was so synonymous with the jockey he was named after.


Pertemps Qualifier shenanigans

Followers of racing love nothing more than getting riled up and qualifiers for the Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival can usually be relied upon to get the pot bubbling nicely.

For those that aren’t fully familiar with how it works, there are a series of 20 handicaps hurdles run as Pertemps qualifiers between Britain, Ireland and France every season. To qualify for the Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival, a horse has to finish in the first six in one of the qualifiers earlier that season.

Unsurprisingly, this sort of structure invites and often rewards a type of cute hoor (if you aren’t Irish, look it up) campaigning that is otherwise discouraged. Sneaking into a qualifying position whilst not going so close as to attract a rise in the ratings is often the goal for those that are rated high enough to get into the Final. That just two horses in this century (Ballyfitz in 2008 and Fingal Bay in 2014) have won the Pertemps Final having also won a qualifier illustrates that it has paid to box clever in the qualifiers over the years.

With three of the last four winners of the Final having contested the qualifier at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, there was always going to be a lot of focus on it as form students looked a spot a potential improver. The previous year had seen Sire De Berlais slip into a sneaky sixth under Davy Russell prior to him going on to win the Final in March. This time it was another Russell-ridden contender, the Gordon Elliott-trained The Storyteller, that slipped into sixth in the shadows of the post -some six lengths behind the winner Treacyenniscorthy - in a manner that delighted those that had the former Cheltenham Festival winner in mind for the Final.

It was a performance that prompted a wide range of reactions. Many lauded it, while others fairly questioned whether The Storyteller might have finished closer under a more forceful ride.

My view is that what we tend to see in Pertemps Qualifiers is a product of the way the qualifying system is set up. If people want to throw stones at the connections of horses that catch the eye, so be it, but personally I would be much more inclined to ask questions of the stewards who are there to police what plays out on the track and take action if the rules are broken. 

One would imagine they would be particularly vigilant in races such as this where everyone knows the craic and the perception of deception will be even stronger than usual. Yet, in the case of the aforementioned qualifier at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, they didn’t see fit to ask questions of the connections of any of the runners. This failure to at least ask questions of rides that have caught everybody’s eyes but their own doesn’t help things from a perception point of view.

For what it’s worth, while much of the focus on The Storyteller led to him being cut into the 8/1 favourite for the Final, I was even more taken with the run of Ronald Pump in second. He came from even further back than The Storyteller and finished off with a right rattle having had to wait for a clear run approaching the final flight.

Now, his penalty for finishing so close has come in the form of a 5lb rise which brings him up to an Irish handicap mark of 150. Thus, he will almost certainly carry close to if not top-weight in the Pertemps Final assuming the British handicapper gives him a rating that is a few pounds higher than his Irish mark as is the norm. 

The highest mark that the Pertemps Final has been won off this century is 148, so the task ahead of Ronald Pump is far from easy. Even considering that, he appeals as being a big player and is overpriced at 16/1 at this stage.

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