Matt Tombs / Monday 4th November 2013 / 13:10
There are lots of reasons why I love the Haldon Gold Cup. It’s often the first race of the season where you get to see top class chasers. It’s run at a non Grade 1 track (Exeter,) which provides a refreshing change. It’s one of the few big races still run during the week, which gives racing fans something to look forward to other than at the weekends. Most of all though, its an open, limited handicap.
So many things have improved since I started following racing, but one of the biggest steps backwards has been to make so many races for top horses level weights contests. When looking at the Victor Chandler Chase last season I suggested [here] that ‘very limited’ handicaps rather than level weights races would be a huge improvement.
I could have added another reason – horses running in handicaps off marks of 170+ have a really good record, so they wouldn’t be unfairly prejudiced by having to run in them rather than at level weights. In the last 10 seasons I’ve counted 13 horses that have run off a mark of 170 or more, in 11 races. 5 have won giving a level stakes profit of around 2.5 points, (the returns being similar for limited 20lb, and full 26lb handicaps.)
Baracouda (170 - the only hurdler of the 13), Azertyuiop (174), Well Chief (176), Denman (174) and Poquelin (170) have won over a wide range of trips and conditions. Interestingly, the Old Roan Chase has been a graveyard for 170+ horses (0/5), elsewhere they are 5/8. 2 of the 13 ran in the Haldon. Azertyuiop won off 174 and Twist Magic (by then on the downgrade) was 2nd off 173 at 16/1.
All that suggests that horses running from such lofty marks tend to be underestimated – so why is this? It may be that people take a simplistic approach that the further you go up the handicap the harder it is to win one. For day to day races where there are hundreds of horses in training capable of running in the handicap proper, it’s true that the further you go up the handicap the harder it is - as there will inevitably be plenty of unexposed and well handicapped horses.
By contrast, towards the top of the handicap there are relatively few unexposed horses – most have run in several top events giving the handicapper a better indication of their ability. Of course some will improve and so be well handicapped, but it’s frequently the winners of those top events, (ie the horses who are often rated 170+), that are the hardest for handicappers to assess.
Handicappers seem reluctant to rate such horses higher than via the bare margin of victory, even if they win on the bridle – possibly for fear of being accused of hyping up the current top horses, (and disrespecting greats of bygone eras!) If a horse wins a championship event an easy 5l, they are often rated little, if any, more than 5lb ahead of the runner up. In stark contrast, winners lower down the scale are often given 15lb hikes for winning 5l on the bridle. That could lead to the odd conclusion that some of the best handicapped horses are those at the top of the handicap.
Additionally, I’ve talked before [here – 2nd article from Road 2012] about the handicapper’s propensity to underrate horses who’ve run at intermediate distances, compared to those running at the Championship distances of 2m and 3m+. There are few better examples of this than Cue Card who is rated only 172 despite running away with the Ryanair, (9l 2nd First Lieutenant is rated 170 despite Cue Card looking to achieve more subsequently when a fair 2nd to Sprinter Sacre than First Lieutenant did subsequently when beating Menorah and finishing 3rd to Sir Des Champs.) Literal lines of form with First Lieutenant, Long Run and Sir Des Champs (solid yardsticks) suggest Cue Card should be rated higher than Gold Cup winner Bob’s Worth (180).
The other factor is that top class chases at or around the minimum trip are often the easiest races for horses to give weight away. So much depends on jumping at speed, that the top horses can put the lesser horses under more pressure than in other jumps races. Since the Haldon became a limited handicap in 1996, horses rated 170+ are 2/5 with a profit of over 7pts, (Viking Flagship being the other winner off 170 at 9/1).
All this suggests that Cue Card (11/8) is the classic sort of horse to be underestimated in trying to win the Haldon off 172. He goes well fresh having won first time out in all four seasons – including demolishing Edgardo Sol and Menorah by 26l and 8l in this last year off 157. Many will look at a 15lb higher mark and suggest it could be a stronger race, so think he has a much tougher task - but if anything I think he’s better handicapped now based on his exploits of the previous season.
The great conundrum with Cue Card has been working out his ideal trip. His dam ran in the National and he’s bred to want a real test of stamina but he has been the horse who has come closest to giving Sprinter Sacre a race (over 2m & 2m4f.) Just as handicappers seem reluctant to classify form at intermediate trips as top class, there may be a general reluctance to classify a top class chaser as ideally suited by intermediate trips. Perhaps around 2½m is Cue Card’s ideal trip. At this stage of the season, a trip just short of 2¼m with a stiff finish may be ideal.
It looked a weak Arkle last season so perhaps it’s not surprising that there don’t appear to be many unexposed types who are dangers. The obvious one is William’s Wishes (9/2) who is 5/5 over fences and gets in nicely off 10-5. Those 5 wins started more than 3 years ago though and he’s been really fragile. His two handicap wins (latter off 144) don’t read that well and he then broke down again. 153 doesn’t look an obviously lenient mark and he’ll be racing at championship pace chasing Cue Card here. Despite the 19lb he’s getting, this is a big ask.
Of last year’s novices, either Fago or Module could line up. Fago (5/1) is the more interesting. He’d had already had 9 runs in France last season before joining Paul Nicholls. The crawl-sprint way many French races are run might mean that wasn’t as arduous a season as it might appear, but with the additional need to acclimatise as well it wouldn’t be a surprise if he improved significantly this season. Plenty will be needed though as on form he looks badly handicapped.
Module (7/1) is another who doesn’t look well handicapped. He won two novice chases last season, (beaten horses are 1/26 since). He ran a sound race in the Jewson but in the manner of a horse who’d be a 3 miler not a Haldon horse. His chance on form is similar to Fago’s, without so much obvious scope for improvement.
Cue Card is an intended runner and is a well handicapped, 172 rated top weight, used to running at championship pace. By making his own running he can make it really hard for the lesser horses he’s up against to get into this. He’s a class act and should be odds-on. You’ll rarely get a better value bet at short odds in a big race this season so I’d get stuck in – Cue Card is a top class horse, taking on handicappers, and is well capable of giving the weight away.
2pts Cue Card to win the Haldon Gold Cup @ 11/8