Matt Tombs / Friday 27th February 2015 / 21:33
The Mares Hurdle at the Festival has been a bit of betting non-event so far, with the top-class Quevega ducking the championship events to beat vastly inferior horses in every renewal bar the initial running. It looked like being a similar story this year with Annie Power (8/11) arguably having even more in hand.
However, she picked up an injury in the autumn and hasn’t run this season. Willie Mullins famously bought Quevega to win this regularly on her seasonal debut – and it’s easy to forget just how good a training performance that was.
Recently in the Racing Post, James Pyman pointed out that Quevega is the only hurdler this century to have won at the Festival off a break bigger than 150 days, (Annie Power will be attempting to defy a 311 day absence.) Strip Quevega out, and hurdlers returning off breaks of more than 150 days are 0/57.
The key difference is that Quevega was deliberately kept off the track, whereas Annie Power has been injured. Willie Mullins said this week that if Annie Power is to get to the Festival, she “needs things to continue to go right… as we’re making up for lost time.” That sounds to me as if she won’t be at her peak even if all goes well, and they are relying on her class getting her home.
Annie Power has 7lb in hand on official ratings and 12lb in hand on RPRs and so wouldn’t need to be at her best to win. But it also suggests that it’s not a penalty kick if she’s won’t be at her peak.
Given she’s won 11 out of 12, it’s not easy to assess how well she goes fresh. Literally she improved a fair bit last season for her seasonal debut. She had to be driven out to beat Zarkandar 5l on her first run of the season at Ascot, and then, on 4lb worse terms, beat him 8l on the bridle on her second run at Cheltenham. That Ascot run was her first in open company though, and she was taking on a high-class horse. I’d guess that the significant improvement was more down to learning, than coming on for the run – but it is a bigger question mark than its being credit for. I want to take her on in the circumstances.
Given the Quevega factor it’s a race that’s been largely ignored by punters and, unlike most of the better Festival races, there’s no common consensus over what sort of attributes are needed.
How good a horse do you need to be to win this, (in the absence of an Annie Power or Quevega)? The RPR given to inaugural winner Whiteaok was 143. The runners-up to Quevega earned the following RPRs – United (143), Carole’s Legacy (142), Sparky May (143), Kentford Grey Lady (131), Sirene D’Ainay (143) & Glens Melody 144.
Some of them benefited from not carrying the 5lb penalty, (race is level weights now,) but even allowing for that, you’re looking for no more than a useful performer here.
Another point to note about these horses is how much experience they had. 4 had very little experience. 3 were novices, Whiteoak, (5 runs over hurdles), Kentford Grey Lady (5) and Sparky May (4.) Carole’s Legacy had also had just 5 hurdles starts, (though had also run over fences.) Only 3 of the 7 were experienced horses - United (16 hurdles runs,) Glen’s Melody (10), and Sirene D’Ainay, (8 hurdles runs but had also run over fences).
The others near the front of the market are all relatively experienced campaigners. Glens Melody (9/2) is a really consistent type and bustled up a past-her-best Quevega in this last year. She’s been beaten less than 10l each time in four graded races against the geldings following that and, dropped back to mares company, bolted up at Warwick. She’s a solid 144 horse and sure to run her race, but after 17 hurdle races looks vulnerable to an improver.
Polly Peachum (10/1) has been hugely progressive in the last year – winning off 117, 135 and 147. In between those last two runs she got chinned by 150 rated Southfield Theatre, when getting only 3lb. Her 2m6f Wincanton handicap win off 147 was really impressive, (2nd and 4th have won since,) and I reckon it would have won the last two runnings of this. She’s up to 155 now and the only negative is she was pulled up seemingly amiss last time at Kempton, (dismounted immediately). It apparently wasn’t a serious problem though and whilst she hasn’t run since November she goes really well fresh, (that career best win at Wincanton was on her seasonal debut.)
149 rated Carole’s Spirit (20/1) is a real stayer and a doubtful runner. If it came up really testing she’d be of interest. She was just edged out by Bitofapuzzle, (who was receiving 5lb,) in a 3m Grade 2 at Ascot last time. Bitofapuzzle (25/1) is a novice and is rated 144 after only 3 hurdle races, so there should be plenty more to come. However, she looked to improve significantly for the step up to 3m last time and apparently only runs if the ground is soft.
Little King Robin (33/1) was only 9th last season but has improved a lot since and has won a lot of admirers with her catch-me-if-you-can style when rattling up 7 wins last year. She ran respectably when 17½l 3rd to Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana and it was probably one race too many, (17th run in less than 9 months,) when she was beaten 14l by Lieutenant Colonel in the Hatton’s Grace – though that form looks better than it did at the time. She likes good ground, looks to stay the trip and has decent claims on her autumn form, but she was very disappointing on her comeback recently.
Alan King does well with mares and has 2 with chances here. L’Unique (16/1) is rated 149 and seems best in the spring. She followed up a close 3rd in this last season with a fine 5l 2nd to Polly Peachum, (who received 6lb,) in a handicap at Cheltenham, before winning an open handicap off 142 at Sandown in April. She was a solid 8¼l 3rd to Carole’s Spirit at Kempton and is likely to improve in the spring on better ground. She looks over-priced. The Pirate’s Queen (25/1) edged out Bitofapuzzle at Haydock and remains unexposed. She’s only rated 135 though and, whilst the form has been boosted since, that still leaves her plenty to find.
I was hoping to be able to find a lightly raced novice at a fancy price to back for this and had thought Rock On The Moor (33/1) was it. She was a decent 14½l 4th to Douvan in a Grade 2 in January and was running really well behind top novice mare Morning Run when tipping up at Fairyhouse. She then beat a good field including Analifet and Little King Robin at Punchestown. I think she has a real each-way chance but she’s apparently unlikely to travel and is only 16/1 NRNB.
When you’re looking for ante-post value there’s an obvious incentive to over-complicate your analysis to try and find something at a big price. The reality is that this is a moderate race full of handicappers, the classic Grade 1 in name only. If Annie Power is anywhere near her best she wins, but that’s a big if given she’s been injured, hasn’t had a run and its been a race against time to get her here.
Of those who look likely to turn up, she has 13lb in hand of everything except Polly Peachum – who is rated only 7lb behind her. Polly Peachum’s form stands up to scrutiny – her run when just behind Southfield Theatre in the spring and her win off 147 in the autumn look more than what’s needed to beat the others. Nicky Henderson confirmed this week she’s on target for the race, she goes well fresh and looks the classic each-way bet.
1pt e/w Polly Peachum in the Mares Hurdle @ 10/1 NRNB