Matt Tombs / Monday 4th March 2013 / 10:00
With the vast majority of Festival bound horses having had their prep runs, there were inevitably few Festival clues in this week’s racing. In years gone by, there might have been more clues in the post racing workouts at Leopardstown on Sunday, but the era of seeing the likes of Total Enjoyment and Sky’s The Limit sparkling in real pieces of work seem to be past.
Possibly the most interesting clues were from Tony Martin’s group where the horse who was apparently Champion Bumper favourite Golantilla looked to work poorly, (out to 15/2). It was probably a more serious bit of work than the other trainers’ groups did and I was more confident of identifying the horse who led them home – Benefficient. I doubt he’d be competitive in the Arkle, but he’d be an interesting contender for the Jewson, (25/1 for both).
I was initially buoyed by the ATR commentary saying it was the portfolio horse for the County Hurdle, Ted Veale, who was cruising past Golantilla and upsides Benefficient. Sadly, I think they called the wrong horse – I’m far from sure but it looked like Tony Martin’s other Bumper horse, Blackmail. He was backed into 20/1 on Sunday evening.
In the racing itself at Leopardstown, it felt like stepping back into a different era as Aidan O’Brien’s Shield won the bumper. He seems likely to go for the Bumper at the Festival now (25/1) and whilst he has little chance on form, you can’t help but wonder why Aidan’s doing this. He packed up training jumpers after Istabraq - perhaps son Joseph is going to switch codes with weight issues in mind. With John Ferguson training ex-Godolphin horses, if Aidan started training Coolmore ex-flat horses over jumps, it would add a fantastic extra dimension to the sport.
Earlier in the afternoon, Savello ended up a cosy winner of the novice chase (2m1f, yielding) when favourite Rupert Lamb fell early on. He’s on 131 and with a 5lb penalty would be off 136 if connections decided to go to the Festival. That penalty would probably get him a run in the novice handicap chase (25/1) or Grand Annual (20/1). The hood seems to be working and he’s peaking at just the right time so shouldn’t be underestimated.
Aaim To Prosper had been disappointing on his first 3 starts over hurdles and looked well handicapped off 124 (rated 112 on the flat) and the step up to an extended 3m looked sure to suit. He edged out veteran Cockney Trucker (who received 6lb) in a good finish at Doncaster. The winner isn’t good enough to get into the handicaps at the Festival and the Albert Bartlett looks a bit fanciful, (33/1). He shouldn’t get hammered for this by the handicapper and might be well suited by the 3m handicap hurdle on the opening day of the Grand National meeting (130 got a run last season so he may just make the cut).
Bright New Dawn is still in the Neptune (33/1) though is more likely to go to Fairyhouse or Punchestown after winning a Grade 2 at Thurles on Thursday, (2m4f, soft.) He looked in control at one stage but had been headed by Venture Capital who fell at the last. Davy Russell thought Bright New Dawn had a bit left but he’s unlikely to be good enough if taking his chance at Cheltenham. He looks a good prospect for chasing next season.
One horse I would consider backing if he lined up at Cheltenham is Toubab in the Grand Annual. He’s very ground dependent and with the word ‘firm’ appearing in the ground description at Doncaster, he won cosily off 140. Connections believe he’ll be better suited to Aintree, which may well be right. He shouldn’t go up too much for this and would have a 5lb penalty in the Grand Annual so I imagine he’ll bypass the Festival - but 16/1 non runner, no bet is a big price as I should think he’ll be a single figure price if he lines up.
The ground at Cheltenham is drying slowly and, after a pretty dry week, is good to soft, (soft in places). The forecast is for the next few days to be dry with the possibility of up to half an inch of rain later in the week. It’s due to warm up which should help the top dry out and assuming the forecast is fairly accurate, Simon Claisse has said there’ll be no watering.
In many ways it’s a bit early to be guessing what’s going to happen but here’s one feasible scenario to consider. The ground dries out to good / good to soft and then rain Thursday / Friday puts it to good to soft. There’s then no more material rainfall before the end of the Festival. How will the ground ride then?
I mentioned last week that there might be a parallel to the 2000 Festival. That was the last time the water table was so high, and having had rain in early March there was an expectation of a soft ground Festival with a week or so to go. A dry and warm few days led to the ground drying out on top but being very moist below the surface.
After a stack of course records were smashed on the first two days there was much debate about why the times were so fast, especially given horses who’d thrived on soft ground over the winter were still winning. It was suggested there was a problem with the course measurements and that the full distances weren’t being run.
However, an alternative suggestion was the so called ‘trampoline effect.’ The theory was that when the ground is wet it slows horse down, and when its very firm, most horses can’t let themselves down on it and so don’t gallop as fast as they can because it hurts to do so. Therefore there is a sweet spot in between where the top is dry so there’s no moisture slowing horses down, but the underneath is wet so it gives when the horses gallop on it – the trampoline effect. Given the very fast times it was notable that there were so few horses who picked up injuries, which might support that theory.
Interestingly, the times weren’t as quick on the new course in 2000 – there were course records but none by more than 2 seconds. On the old course records were tumbling by much bigger margins with several being lowered by 7 seconds or more. If there was a problem with dolling out, which reduced the race distances, then it may be as simple as the process being more inaccurate on the old course. However, the new course often rides a bit quicker and it may have been that by the Thursday the ground had dried out sufficiently for there to be less give and so less trampoline effect.
This is all speculation and the weather could mean it’s irrelevant by next week anyway, but it’s worth keeping in mind. If we do get the trampoline effect it means horses who need ‘give’ in the ground will get it, but the horses will be running very fast. The speed horses at the trip rather than the stayers will be advantaged, but it won’t necessarily be fast ground horses that are winning.
Finally, it’s often pointed out how many good flat horses don’t take to hurdles but there’s equally often an assumption that bumper horses will do, as they’re largely National Hunt bred. At the start of the season Waaheb and Don Cossack were the two hype horses for the Supreme and, having seemingly had clear runs during the season, they’ve both been very disappointing. Waaheb is admittedly flat bred and his jumping has been the worse of the two - he was turned over at 1/4 at Fairyhouse on Wednesday, whilst Don Cossack couldn’t get competitive with Annie Power and Defy Logic last week. It’s back to the drawing board with both and a reminder that better Festival ante-post value can be available after a first hurdles run, especially if that run is early season – Jezki was 40/1 for the Supreme after winning a maiden at Naas in late October.