Matt Tombs / Wednesday 19th February 2014 / 15:30
Every year about this time there’s much debate about the weather and it's impact on the Festival. It's almost always wetter, drier, colder or warmer than usual and the impact on the ground gets analysed to death. The reality is that if there's a dry week leading up to the Festival, there'll be a sound surface.
The autumn drought, winter monsoon weather has two main impacts on the ground. Firstly, it's natural irrigation rather than watering. That can lead to a better surface as watering isn't an exact science and there have been years when it's been overwatered.
Secondly, the water table is much higher than normal for the second year running. If we get that dry week or so before the meeting there might be the perfect surface, which is dry on top but with plenty of give due to the high water table - the so called trampoline effect which I talked about last season. The flip side is that a high water table means that relatively little rain during the Festival will turn the ground really soft.
Rather than focus on the (well trodden) ground I've been looking at other impacts that the weather may have on Festival results. Here are 4 to consider as the Festival approaches.
The first is not to do with rain but temperature. It's been an incredibly mild winter. In certain parts of the country there's hardly been a frost and one consequence is that the cold weather that usually kills bugs hasn't occurred. You'd need an expert in equine viruses etc to understand the detail - but for the rest of us, it makes looking at trainer form all the more important. If the mild weather continues there must be more chance of stables getting a virus just at the wrong time.
Alan King has already had to shut down his yard. He was less unlucky in that his yard was struck in December. He had the sense to shut down and get it sorted and looks now to be reaping the rewards. If other stables are struck down from now on, it’s probably too late to do anything about it for the Festival.
The yards that are in real trouble will be well known. The value is probably more in spotting stables that have lower grade virus issues. Nicky Henderson's yard had looked set to be all conquering in Britain this season. Even allowing for Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig being sidelined, it’s been a disappointing season for Seven Barrows. The yard clearly has had some issues at a relatively low level – Nicky’s said that he’s regularly had higher percentages of bad tracheal washes than usual etc.
Given in the last fortnight he’s had 6 winners from 16 runners, you could hardly call his stable out of form. However, unless they are in complete shut down, the mega-yards like Seven Barrows will still have winners even if some of their horses have a low grade virus. Once you get to the white-hot level of competition at the Festival, any yard with even a small problem will generally get found out.
A final point on stable form - it's important not to be dogmatic. Last season Nigel Twiston-Davies’ yard looked badly out of form going into the Festival and his horses ran brilliantly. The key is to be open minded and analyse events as they happen. During the mayhem of the Festival that's not easy as there are so many things to think about, but if you can notice significant movements in yard form before everyone else, you'll really have an edge. I’ll be keeping an eye out for stable form and vibes, Nicky Henderson’s yard being top of the list – given how much Nicky’s horses peak for the Festival it wouldn’t surprise if he had a glut of winners.
Secondly, the rainfall pattern this season has been unusual. A very dry autumn, not just in Britain but also in Ireland, preceded the monsoon. In the novice hurdle divisions in particular, ie where you know comparatively little about the horses’ ground requirements, you've often only got testing ground form to go on from decent races - especially for the Irish novices. If the ground does dry out for the Festival, there's plenty of good ground autumn form to look at this season.
For example, the Grade 1 Royal Bond is usually run on desperate ground but it was good to yielding when The Tullow Tank won, showing a sound surface hold no fears for him. Horses will often win small races on ground they don’t like because they outclass the opposition. If they can win good races on it, it’s much more of an indication that it will suit.
Thirdly, different trainers have different views about when to run their novice hurdlers and chasers. I’ve mentioned before that novices who have gained experience from a long campaign – starting before the end of October - have a strong record. There are 7 all-age, level weights, novice races at the Festival. In the last decade 43% have fallen to horses that had run over those obstacles by the end of October, (such horses have composed about 35% of runners.) Unsurprisingly, it’s the toughest races – the RSA and 4 miler, where such horses have done best.
With the dry autumn those who got their novices, (who enjoy the sort of decent ground that is likely at the Festival,) out early should be at even more of an advantage. Those who left it late have been stymied by 2 months of torrentially wet weather. Rock On Ruby is a good example – he’ll now go to the Festival with just a couple of schools round over fences under his belt. No matter how battle hardened you are on the flat or over hurdles - lack of experience of the discipline you're taking on the top novices in, is a real handicap.
No horse has won the RSA off just 2 chase runs since Florida Pearl in 1998. Classy types that had had only 1 or 2 chase runs but went off favourite in the last decade are Punchestowns (2/1), Time For Rupert (7/4), Commercial Flyer (9/2) and Our Vic (11/8), with only Our Vic making the frame when finishing 3rd to Rule Supreme. I suspect the issues with RSA favourite Ballycasey have been more physical than lack of opportunities because of the ground, but his lack of experience (2 runs) must be a real concern, even if it was his trainer Willie Mullins who saddled Florida Pearl.
Fourthly, there’s always discussion of how heavy ground form will play out at a Festival run on a sound surface. One impact that is much less discussed is the impact on predictability. This is a pretty nebulous concept so won’t be of interest to punters who like harder facts, but is worth considering if you’re more of a ‘feel’ punter.
Punters are armed with much more information now, (which is reflected by prices on the exchanges), so that, in theory, the market should be right more of the time and shocks should become rarer. By way of comparison, in 1996 one favourite in 20 races won, and in 1997 two favourites won. There are now 27 races and the dilution of quality means you’d expect more favourites to win because the top horses can avoid each other more easily. However, even allowing for that, the 9 winning favourites at the last 2 Festivals reflects a more predictable world.
Simplistically, the less interference there’s been from the weather, the more predictable results should be. All weather gallops play a big part in negating the training problems caused by bad weather, but they don’t solve them. The endless deluges of the last 2 months is one reason to factor in when analysing form – both of horses and stables. Generically, the bad weather ought to ensure there are more surprises, so there’s all the more reason to consider backing some long shots.
Finally, its worth remembering that if we do get a soft ground Festival, it doesn’t follow that form on testing ground over the winter will hold up - most of that form will be in steadily run races. Races run at Festival pace on genuinely soft ground become real stamina tests at the distance. If you can find form in good quality races that have been run at a strong gallop on soft ground, that’s worth following. Otherwise the basic approach is to look for horses that have the class for the race but will stay the trip after a strong gallop on bad ground.
I still think it’s unlikely. Simon Claisse reported yesterday that the ground is currently soft, with there already being some good to soft patches. That’s with 3 weeks to go and nothing more than showers forecast for the next 10 days – with mild weather and some strong breezes to dry the ground out. 4 of the last 10 Festivals, including 2 of the last 3, have started on officially good ground.
Crucially, the high water table means that if we get a fairly dry 3 weeks there’s much less likely to be watering required to prevent there being a jar in the ground. I can see the Festival starting on natural good ground rather than good to soft, which has been heavily watered to stop it drying out too much later in the week. Hills are going 10/1 on the ground being officially good for the Supreme, which is much too big.
1pt Official Going to be Good on Day 1 @ 10/1