People who know me, or know of me, largely think I am a cynical, sarcastic and repetitive bore, and they are correct, writes Martin Greenwood…
This time last year I was bemoaning the fact that the staying chase division was very hard to read, with an ever revolving order of merit due to constant upsets and below-par performances. Fast forward twelve months and the picture looks remarkably similar, with the two big races over the Christmas period doing little to clarify matters at the top of the division.
Let’s start at home in what looked a very open Ladbrokes King George at Kempton in which the betting didn’t really reflect previous achievements/ratings. Not for the first time in this race numerous horses failed to give their running, notably the early pacesetters Minella Indo and Frodon, and the gambled- on Chantry House. The first two almost certainly paid for going hard early, while Chantry House didn’t jump anywhere near well enough. Dual winner Clan des Obeaux came out of the race with some credit but was a still long way below his best, while Saint Calvados (making his debut for Paul Nicholls) shaped really well for the second year running in this race but again surely had too much use made of him after travelling strongly.
Tornado Flyer and Danny Mullins winning The Ladbrokes King George VI Chase
That left the two Irish challengers, Tornado Flyer and Asterion Forlonge, to fight out the finish, though the latter failed to complete for the second start running having been three lengths down (and probably held) when falling at the last. With the race providing more questions than answers, I have taken a conservative view for now but even so Tornado Flyer has achieved his highest ever rating on 167, with Asterion Forlonge on 164+. The maths and standards suggest a few lbs higher which may prove to be the case down the line, as both horses are very unexposed over three miles plus.
Over at Leopardstown, A Plus Tard looked the obvious answer to the Savills Chase and he was sent off at odds on. Second in last season’s Gold Cup and a highly impressive winner of the Betfair Chase at Haydock on his reappearance, A Plus Tard was largely untroubled through the race and looked likely to win when taking over the lead from the game Kemboy approaching the last. However, the warning signs were quickly evident as he struggled to fend off the rallying Kemboy and was then chinned close home by the strong-staying Galvin who had briefly looked tapped for toe. With Kemboy, Melon and Janidil all running somewhere close to their recent best, it’s hard to get Galvin above his new rating of 168 but this represents further progress and his record at Cheltenham will likely make him a popular choice when he lines up for the Gold Cup in March. A Plus Tard, meanwhile, is deemed to have run a few lbs below his best form despite going so close to gaining a second successive victory in the race.
Bravemansgame and Harry Cobden winning The Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices Chase
A quick summary of the two staying races in the novice division. Ahoy Senor and Bravemansgame were the obvious pair from the four runners in the Kauto Star at Kempton but the result was very one-sided with the latter trouncing the former. Ahoy Senor, like at Newbury, didn’t always impress with his jumping and certainly needs to brush up in that department. Bravemansgame was largely much better in that regard and was always in control after taking over the lead. The time comparison compared to the King George comes out in the low-to-mid 150s, and a new mark of 156+ for Bravemansgame is slightly higher than he was rated going in. Ahoy Senor is back down to his hurdle mark of 152.
While it is obvious that Bravemansgame is open to further improvement, at the minute I have the front two from Leopardstown’s equivalent Grade 1, Fury Road and Run Wild Fred, rated higher. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean I believe that this is the ‘true picture’ of events. What it
does mean is that I believe their performances so far are evidentially stronger taking all things into account. Bravemansgame or others may well progress through the ranks to be top dog by seasons end. Run Wild Fred was already 158 following his runaway handicap success at Navan in November but had to play second best and was quite a few pounds below that at Leopardstown. Fury Road was having only his third fencing start and has quickly found a high level of form. He came through smoothly to take the lead from his stable companion and forged well clear to post a figure of 160+.
Festive cheer once more for Epatante A second success for Epatante in Kempton’s Grade 1 Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle didn’t tell us a great deal more as regards her claims of reclaiming the Champion Hurdle, and if anything the race was a further demonstration that the cupboard is pretty bare at the top of the 2m hurdling division on this side of the Irish Sea, writes Andrew Mealor…
Five went to post for Christmas Hurdle, but only Epatante and Not So Sleepy (the pair who had dead-heated in the Fighting Fifth last month) were rated 150 or above pre-race, and with the latter clearly not in the same form as at Newcastle (in trouble turning in and finished last of the quintet), Epatante had a pretty simple task as it turned out in beating handicappers Glory and Fortune and Soaring Glory. The margin of victory was only a couple of lengths but she did was what needed and was four lengths clear for much of the run-in before probably idling late on.
Historical standards suggest a figure around 150 for Epatante’s performance but this very much looks a below-par renewal, especially considering the proximity of Glory And Fortune who was the lowest rated of the quintet on 140 coming in. As such, I have taken a more conservative view of proceedings and have Epatante running to a figure of just 141+ in winning. That means a rise to 143 for Glory And Fortune, and he could be on that sort of figure on the form of his Welsh Champion Hurdle win back in October, when he beat subsequent Haydock winner Dans le Vent.
Epatante and Aidan Coleman (green) and Not So Sleepy and Jonathan Burke (blue) Dead Heating The Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle
A level a few lbs higher for the race could have been justified through third Soaring Glory (147), but defeats for Glory And Fortune off marks of 142 and 141 in handicaps on his previous couple of starts (albeit with possible excuses) suggest a lower view of his performance and the race as a whole is more realistic for the time being.
Epatante remains on her pre-race rating of 153 (160 in effect in races against the males). Her Champion Hurdle claims were covered in the Fighting Fifth blog and the Christmas Hurdle didn’t alter the view that she’ll need to step up on the form she’s shown in the past two seasons if she’s to regain her crown.
The Christmas Hurdle didn’t even produce the best performance in the 2m division domestically over the festive period. That honour went to Musselburgh’s Betway Hogmaneigh Handicap in which Tommy’s Oscar defied top weight and a mark of 150 pretty readily in scoring by six lengths from southern raider Christopher Wood, earning himself a rise to 156. Small-field graded events will present him with a different test (and opposition), with connections indicating Haydock’s Champion Hurdle Trial will be next, but he’s been very progressive so far this season and has more than earned his place.
The other big race in the division over the festive period was the Grade 1 Coral Finale Hurdle for juveniles at Chepstow on Welsh National day.
Porticello and Jamie Moore winning The Coral Finale Juvenile Hurdle
The Finale perhaps wasn’t as informative as might have been the case with the fancied pair of Forever Blessed (badly hampered) and Skycutter (keen in front and made a mistake three out) both ending up well beaten, plus they only jumped six of the usual eight hurdles with final flight in the home straight omitted on both circuits. However, it’s hard to knock Porticello who relished the emphasis on stamina in the conditions in running out an eight-and-a-half length winner from Saint Segal (keen and shaped well) and Forever William. He moves up 3 lb to 135, the same mark as his Summit Hurdle conqueror Knight Supreme. That’s a fairly conservative view of the race historically so there is scope for the level to move up in time if the form works out.
In truth, this season’s juveniles haven’t looked a strong bunch thus far with the best of them domestically clustered in the mid-to-low 130s, and the clear standard setter in the division at this stage looks to be Gordon Elliott’s Fil Dor who maintained his unbeaten record over timber with a seven-length success in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown on Boxing Day. He doesn’t have a published mark in Ireland as yet but I have him on a provisional 142 as things stand.