Matt Tombs / Wednesday 25th February 2015 / 13:42
The Cross-country isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m in the camp that thinks it has no place at the Festival. However, taking my racegoer’s hat off and putting my punting hat on, I think it’s one of the best betting races at the Festival. Detractors describe the event as horses going round and round in circles very slowly, and then the same horse winning – which, if true, ought to make it an easy race to analyse!
To understand why the same horses keep winning, it’s worth looking at the history of the race. The cross-country course had to be fitted into the middle of the conventional tracks. The lack of space, (compared to courses where the cross-country track pre-dated the courses with conventional obstacles like Punchestown,) makes for a very different test.
The track is so tight, they go very slowly and it’s all about nimbleness over the obstacles and holding a position, ready for the sprint up the straight. It’s not a test of jumping. Whilst there have been some unseats, there hasn’t been a single faller since the inaugural running a decade ago.
Given how slowly they go, weight matters much less, (the extra burden of carrying more weight being increased when you have to run quickly.) That’s borne out in the results, as the normal handicapping system doesn’t work well in this – the need to handle the tight turns and then sprint means the specialists win almost regardless of the weights. The best example in this race was Garde Champetre who won off 129 in 2008 and then 150 the following year as a 10 year old – something almost unthinkable in any other Festival handicap.
Whilst favourites have an ordinary record in the race, (only 2 out of 10 have won,) I think that’s because specialists under big weights are underestimated – Balthazar King, Garde Champetre and Spot Thedifference all won off top weight. All should probably have been favourites but none were. Of the last 31 races over the track, only 4 have been won at longer than 8/1 – and only A New Story has won this race at a bigger price than that.
Given all that, it makes sense to keep it simple and focus on the course specialists – surprises are rare, but the specialists can be underestimated because it’s perceived they have too much weight.
The other key factor is the ground. Whilst some watering has occurred after two horses broke down on the flat and lost their lives on very firm ground in 2012, the track is not watered like the conventional courses. It also drains much more slowly, (as it doesn’t have the advantage of the artificial drainage,) and so there can be extremes of going. That 2012 renewal was run in 7m51s. All the other renewals have been run in times between 8m06s and 8m47s. A horse that is versatile as to ground conditions is at a big advantage if you’re betting ante-post.
Those race times are indicative of just how slowly they go. There are some years where you can’t compare the race time with times on the conventional track – eg 2012 where it was rattling fast on the cross country and heavily watered on the conventional tracks. However, to give it some context, in 6 of the last 8 years, the race has been run in a time between 5 and 22 seconds slower than the 4 miler, (ie a race over an extra furlong.)
Obviously every winner started running in cross-country races at some point, but no winner of this was making his cross-country debut. Native Jack (2006) and Big Shu (2013) are the only winners not to have run over the course before, and both had won over the Punchestown banks. Garde Champetre had fallen on his only run on the track before winning in 2008, but he’d also won over the Punchestown banks. He followed up in 2009.
The other winners had all shown good course form. 2005 winner Spot Thedifference had won twice over the course. 2007 victor Heads Onthe Ground had been 3rd earlier that season. 2010 scorer A New Story had been 4th and 3rd in the two previous renewals. In four previous runs over the course, 2011 winner Sizing Australia had been 2nd once and 3rd twice. 2012 winner Balthazar King had been carried out on his only other previous run when in 2nd place, (he won again in 2014.)
There are only 28 entries this year, (the lowest in the race’s 11 year history,) and 18 of those entries have no experience of either the course or the Punchestown banks. Most of those 18 are outsiders but it does include 2nd favourite Toutancarmont (8/1) who has won several cross-country chases in France. I’ve no idea what that form is worth but plenty of cross country specialists from France and Czech have run at Cheltenham’s very different course, with very little success. It also takes out fair hunter chaser Current Exchange (16/1) and smart chaser Roi Du Mee (16/1) who looks to be heading for the National.
Of the remaining 10 there are a few that are easy to oppose. Hey Big Spender (33/1) didn’t look to take to the course when a distant 11th last year. Ipsos Du Berlais (16/1) has had two tries over the Punchestown banks, finishing a well beaten 5th and 6th. Chicago Grey (16/1) was beaten over 10l in 5th last year and was a distant 7th in December. Unlike virtually all the Festival races, veterans have done well in this with three 12 year olds winning. However, even though he won over the course in 2011 and 2012 I can’t imagine Uncle Junior (20/1) can win aged 14, after being 8th, pulled up and 7th in the last 3 renewals.
I’m keen to oppose Quantitativeeasing (12/1). He was 13th last year and 12l 2nd to Any Currency in December, (26l clear of the 3rd in a race that seemed to fall apart.) He was odds-on when 4th in a weak banks race at Punchestown last time, looking to down tools.
The other five can all be given a realistic chance. Pasquini Rouge (20/1) ran a fine race as a five year old here in December 2013, when just 2¾l 3rd to Sire Collonges, (Any Currency splitting the pair,) on good ground. He was a disappointing 40l 4th in the same race last year, but the ground was unusually testing then. He might bounce back on a sounder surface.
In an era of pot-hunting trainers it’s great to see Philip Hobbs pass over a seeming penalty kick in this with Balthazar King. Instead he tries to improve on his 2nd in last year’s Grand National off a stiff looking, (in the context of the National), mark of 153. Hobbs has two good substitutes though in Imperial Circus and Duke Of Lucca.
Imperial Circus (20/1) was an eye-catching 3l 4th to Sire Collonges in the December 2013 handicap on his cross-country debut. A bit like Pasquini Rouge, he looked not to handle the soft ground in last December’s race. He likes genuinely quick ground and if it dries out he’ll be a danger.
Duke Of Lucca (10/1) was making his debut in cross-country races when 8l 4th to Balthazar King in this last year. He blundered away his chance at Punchestown and was then favourite for the December handicap this season when unseating shortly after midway. He’s another who likes a sound surface and has good prospects if he can avoid the mistakes that have blighted his last two cross-country runs. He’s also entered in the Grand National and that might be the priority.
It probably pays to concentrate on the two course specialists. Favourite Any Currency (6/1) made his cross-country debut in this two years ago when a distant 9th to Big Shu. Since then he’s been 3rd, 2nd, 2nd and 4th over the course, before getting a deserved victory in December. He was a close 2nd to Balthazar King last year and must have decent claims again.
Preference though is for Sire Collonges (10/1). He beat Any Currency by ½l in the December 2013 handicap. He was also 2¼l ahead of him when 3rd in first time blinkers in the conditions event won by Balthazar King in November. He was disappointing at the Festival last year, but stopped quickly there, (well behind Any Currency,) and that can probably be forgiven.
He was put away for this after his good 3rd in November and, freshened up, looks to have a great chance, especially if the ground is decent. As I’ve said, I don’t think weight plays too much of a part in these races, but he was giving Any Currency 12lb when beating him in the December 2013 handicap and 3lb when finishing ahead of him in the conditions event last November. After Any Currency’s runaway win off 140, they’ll be pretty close in the weights this time as Sire Collonges’ mark (145) has been protected. I’m expecting Sire Collonges, (who aged 9 is 3 years younger,) to come out on top again.
1pt Sire Collonges to win the Cross Country at 10/1