Matt Tombs / Monday 21st January 2013 / 13:00
The snow meant far fewer Festival clues than usual, which gave me time to reflect again on the Victor Chandler Chase. As a level weights race it’s much less competitive than as a limited handicap - in the 5 level weights renewals, Master Minded won 2 at odds-on and the enigmatic Twist Magic won at 11/8 but got beaten at 4/5. It’s been pretty uninspiring stuff as it doesn’t have the kudos of the Tingle Creek, which is regularly targeted by the top Irish 2 milers, (Sizing Europe and Moscow Flyer have both won in recent years and Big Zeb was a beaten favourite.) What was one of the highlights of the whole season is now often a canter round for a long odds-on favourite.
Those with long memories highlight Desert Orchid’s magnificent last gasp defeat of Panto Prince, giving him 22lb, but arguably the other two finest moments came in the last two runnings as a limited handicap. In 2004 Azertyuiop, running off 168, was chinned trying to give 19lb to the high class Isio. From a purists point of view the following year was even better with Well Chief winning off a mark of 176.
Why change such a great event into yet another level weights contest? The final running as a handicap was a poor renewal but that was a 26lb handicap on good to firm ground, so it’s not surprising. With the Festival dominating the season so much nowadays, most trainers don’t want to find out how good top horses are by running in 26lb handicaps, 7 weeks before Cheltenham.
I counted 34 Grade 1 races in Britain last season, (13 in the main season, 12 at Cheltenham & 9 at Aintree,) and 31 in Ireland, (20 in the main season and 11 at Punchestown). Ignoring some minor weight for age allowances and the mares allowance, all were at level weights. 15 years ago I counted 21 in Britain (8 in the main season, 10 at Cheltenham & 3 at Aintree,) and 16 in Ireland (9 in the main season and 7 at Punchestown.) Many of the Irish races were still conditions events with penalties and 3 were handicaps – there were only a handful of level weights races. Do we really have enough good horses for so many events to be at level weights or was the number 15 years ago right?
My suggestion is a compromise. Why not run the elite races as ‘very limited handicaps’ with a range of around 10-14lb? Some conditions events have 12lb penalties so the maximum weight to give away is similar, but there’s an important difference - it more fairly reflects the relative ability of the horses. We could have watched Sprinter Sacre (rated 179) trying to give 12lb to Sanctuaire (rated 167). Wouldn’t that have been a much better spectacle? Whilst trainers of outstanding horses love soft level weights races for their champions to hoover up, Azertyuiop won the Champion Chase after his gallant 2nd in this and Well Chief was 2l second to the great Moscow Flyer, so it’s hard to argue even a 20lb handicap spoiled their Cheltenham chances.
By making more of the top races competitive, it would lead to more Azertyuiop vs Isio classics which attract people to the sport much more than uncompetitive level weights events. Restricting each division to 1 level weights race before the Festival and having the other top events as very limited handicaps (already occurring in lower class races) would be a great initiative – but don’t hold your breath.
Un Atout took the 2m novice hurdle at Naas on Saturday, with his head in his chest, on bottomless ground. The opposition was only fair but he dismissed them easily and Willie Mullins made no secret at the start of the season that he considered him a top class novice prospect. There are 2 problems with backing him for the Festival. Firstly, he loves really testing conditions – he’s won all 3 of his races at longs odds-on on heavy ground. We’ve no idea how he’ll can handle a sound surface, (breeding is encouraging). The second is trip. Mullins previously described him as a stayer, but he’s run at 2m so far. Both owner (Gigginstown) and trainer have plenty of possibilities for the Neptune (16/1) and Albert Bartlett but not for the Supreme, (8/1) - the vibes are he’ll contest the 2m race. We’ll know more if he runs in the Deloitte next month.
In the Limestone Lad Hurdle (2m3f) Solwhit continued his rehabilitation after 2 years off by readily seeing off So Young (who gave 7lb) by 4l. This looked a smart effort and 16/1 for the World Hurdle looks about right. He’s never run over further than 2½m but has 6 Grade 1s under his belt and would be a fascinating contender. He paid a big compliment here to Bog Warrior (20/1) who beat him easily at Punchestown. Bog Warrior is entered for the Galmoy Hurdle on Thursday and over fences in the Hennessy next month – decision time beckons for connections.
The 3m novice chase was always going to be a real slog and it was surprising to see Aupcharlie as short as 1/2 given he looks better at shorter. Not for the first time, he didn’t find much at the business end, (although he might not have stayed here), and was beaten ½l by Tofino Bay. The winner is 10 and it’s hard to see him winning at the Festival, though he’d be interesting in the 4 miler on soft ground. The runner up is out to 25/1 for the RSA and the Jewson (12/1) looks the right target - he still has to prove himself a battler.
The Arkle looks desperately short of depth, so it was good to see Fago making a winning debut at Newbury in a decent novice chase (2m1f, soft.) This was his 8th chase start but first over the British obstacles and he fenced adequately, but he only had 3½l in hand from 134 rated hurdler Ohio Gold, who’d been beaten by a fair sort on his debut over fences last time. That looks a long way away from troubling the likes of Simonsig so 16/1 looks short enough, for all he was reported to need the race. We’ll know more about him after another run.
Ballycasey made it 3 out of 3 since joining Willie Mullins with an easy win in the novice hurdle at Thurles (2m6f, heavy.) He looks a stayer and had apparently been well backed for the Albert Bartlett (10/1) before the race, (will also be entered for the Neptune.) Good ground doesn’t look an issue for him. He’s owned by the Riccis like Pont Alexandre and Champagne Fever. None of the 3 look 2 milers so it’s going to be difficult to work out what will run where, with handicaps another option.
Quito De La Roque bounced back to form over a trip well short of ideal (2m4f) and thwarted Roi Du Mee’s (who received 2lb) attempt at a five-timer, running out a comfortable 6½l winner of the Grade 2 Kinloch Brae Chase, (heavy). With Foildubh taken out of the race by Oscar Time’s fall and Days Hotel’s chance ending when slithering on landing 3 out (going well at the time,) this was less informative than it might have been. The 2nd is a decent yardstick though and Quito De La Roque travelled much better here than he has in recent races. He’ll presumably go for the Irish Hennessy next which should tell us more about a potential renaissance. He’s 50/1 for the Gold Cup.
The hunter chase season in Britain is under way and Chapoturgeon won the race at Newbury in similarly impressive style as he did last year, (extended 2m6f, soft). His being favourite for the Foxhunter (5/1), where he was beaten last year by the younger and much less exposed Salsify, can only be attributed to his being in Paul Nicholls yard. The extended 3m2f trip doesn’t really suit and the Foxhunter at Aintree (2m5f) is probably a better target.
Finally, one punter asked me this week whether bookmakers should consider refunding ante-post Festival bets on the best horse in training (in this case Big Buck’s,) if they miss the race. Doing that by going non runner, no bet that one ‘best horse in training’ during the winter, sounds an innovative way to drum up business. As it’s for that single horse, there’s no risk of a slippery slope with punters asking for a refund on every ante-post non-runner. Refunding ante-post bets on Big Buck’s and announcing each year they’ll have that best horse in training offer going forward would be a great marketing splash. Sportingbet did go a top priced evens Sprinter Sacre with a run before the Tingle Creek, so let’s hope they or a competitor thinks it’s a good idea.