Matt Tombs / Friday 17th January 2014 / 16:00
When looking at a top race for chasers around the minimum trip, the starting point is that the Champion Chase division is the most specialist in jump racing. There are very few horses that can go the gallop required, and fewer still that can jump effectively at that pace. It’s about speed. Horses need to stay the trip well, but stayers almost never win the two established top races in Britain, the Champion Chase and the Tingle Creek.
Given that the requirement is to jump at real speed, the outcomes are also relatively predictable. One of the fast horses is almost bound to jump well enough to win, so shocks are rare. In the last 20 years only one horse has won the Champion Chase at bigger than 10/1, (Newmill who won at 16/1). Since the Tingle Creek became a level weights contest 20 years ago, Cenkos (7/1) has been the longest priced winner. These aren’t the sorts of races that have rewarded backing long shots.
Because 2m is the shortest trip over jumps, it’s easy to assume that every national hunt bred horse stays that trip, and it’s a question of which stay further. (You get plenty of horses off the flat that try their hand at hurdling, which don’t stay 2m.) Horses generally stay further as they get older and graduate from hurdles to fences – so when looking at a top class chase in open company at around the minimum trip, it’s unusual to be questioning whether a horse will get the trip. There have been good horses like Get Real and Latalomne who didn’t really see it out in a true run race, but it’s uncommon.
Comparing race times, the Tingle Creek is run at Sandown in early December and the ground on the chase course is normally not too bad, with the winning time usually around 4 minutes, the slowest being 4m6s. The Champion Chase, run in the middle of March, usually gets decent ground and only a couple of times in the last 20 years has the winning time been materially over 4m, (4m7s being the slowest.)
Last year the Clarence House was postponed and run at Cheltenham, but ignoring that we have 5 level weights renewals at Ascot to consider. It’s over a furlong further than the other 2 races, and the winning times have been 4m13s, 4m16s, 4m16s, 4m5s & 4m9s, none of which has been on going officially worse than soft. The going at Ascot is heavy, soft in places with more rain forecast so we’re probably going to get the most stamina sapping renewal so far.
Looking at those 5 renewals, a couple have fallen to horses outclassing the opposition – Master Minded in his pomp won at 1/4 and an 8 year old Twist Magic bolted up by 12l. However, it’s arguable that stamina was crucial to the outcome of the other 3 renewals. 2 years ago Finian’s Rainbow looked all over the winner 2 out but fell in a hole and got nabbed by Somersby – a few weeks later Finian’s Rainbow won the Champion Chase. Nicky Henderson wouldn’t have had him at concert pitch for this but Somersby wasn’t thought quick enough even to run in that Champion Chase, (he contested the Ryanair instead.)
The brilliant Master Minded’s powers were fading by 2011, and he only just held on from a fast finishing Somersby, looking to run out of stamina after the last. In 2008, Twist Magic was a 6 year old who looked a suspect stayer and could never land a blow against front running Tamarinbleu, who stayed 3m.
All that suggests that this race might be unique in Britain in being a race for top horses around the minimum trip that places the emphasis on stamina – especially in real January going like we have this year.
If this race were being run on good ground, at Sandown over 2m, Sire De Grugy would be a confident selection at 5/4. However, he looks one of those rare horses who is a high class chaser, but a suspect stayer at 2m. Much has been made of his aversion to Cheltenham, but it might just be that he’s been struggling to get up the hill.
It may only be a furlong further, but with Sire De Grugy winning a good ground Tingle Creek in 3m51s, he could be running for an extra half minute here, which will be a completely different challenge. He had quite a hard race at Kempton on soft ground last time, (reported by Gary Moore to have finished tired, stamina perhaps ebbing away,) and if Oiseau De Nuit ran similar races at Kempton and in the Tingle Creek, Sire De Grugy was about 8lb better in the good ground Tingle Creek. Sire De Grugy has had only 3 weeks to recover from Kempton and I think he’s well worth taking on.
There look to be only 2 realistic opponents. Days Hotel (12/1) has been disappointing in his last few runs, especially behind Twinlight last time. Kauto Stone (20/1) has been out of sorts and has a poor record since joining Paul Nicholls, except first time out. Oiseau De Nuit (28/1) has been a cracking handicapper, winning a handicap chase in each of the last 6 years. He’s 0/12 in conditions events though, finishing 37l behind Somersby in this 2 years ago. Lancetto (33/1) is a less good handicapper than Oiseau De Nuit. He was a narrow winner, off 135, last time out, leaving him a mountain to climb.
So if Sire De Grugy is vulnerable, there are only two realistic challengers to take him on with. Somersby (7/2) loves Ascot, having won this 2 years ago and bustled up Master Minded the previous year. He was out of sorts last season but bounced back this autumn to win the Haldon off 155 before a decent 4l 2nd to Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek.
The issue for Somersby is the ground. His 2 fine performances in this race have come on good to soft, (the two quickest times set out above,) and he’s been campaigned largely on a sound surface. In 17 chases in open company, 14 have been on good to soft or quicker and he’s been well beaten in the other 3. On his one run on heavy, in the re-arranged renewal of this at Cheltenham last year, when 16¼l 3rd to Sprinter Sacre, he finished behind 138 rated Mad Moose. Whilst that was his first run of the season, it was still very disappointing and I want to take him on on the ground.
Hidden Cyclone (7/2) was being talked up as a top class horse a couple of seasons ago. Shark Hanlon’s yard was out of form last season, and Hidden Cyclone was a frustrating type, but he’s bounced back this term, winning a conditions event at Listowel, and then being 2¼l 3rd in the Paddy Power off 152, (where he was keen), before settling better when ¾l 2nd to Benefficient in a Grade 1 over 2m1f at Leopardstown.
There’s never been any doubt that Hidden Cyclone has an engine, the issue has been jumping – he’d taken plenty of time to get from one side of a fence to another. However, equipped with cheekpieces for his last 2 runs, he’s been much quicker, first in the very competitive handicap at Cheltenham and then going that much faster dropped back to 2m1f in the Grade 1, over the stiff Leopardstown fences.
He stays 2½m, acts on heavy ground and can make his own running if needed. Hanlon had a winner last weekend and everything looks set up for Hidden Cyclone. With his main two rivals having question marks about stamina and going respectively, he should be shorter than 7/2 and is worth a bet.
1pt Hidden Cyclone to win the Clarence House Chase @ 7/2