Sunday, 20 March 2011

A Fantastic Festival

A Festival that promised plenty, and delivered in style. The main four championship events all produced exciting races as well as decisive and deserving winners. Hurricane Fly laid to rest the theory that he wouldn’t get up the hill and but for injury, it could well have been his third win at the meeting. The Festival hasn’t always been kind to Sizing Europe, he had the 2008 Champion Hurdle at his mercy before going wrong after two out but his last two visits have been much more rewarding as he added the Champion Chase to his 2010 Arkle win. Much of the focus of that race centred on Master Minded and Big Zeb but Sizing Europe showed all the hallmarks of a top-class two-mile chaser, going with bags of enthusiasm close up and jumping superbly.

A pedestrian pace couldn’t prevent the two best horses coming to the fore in the World Hurdle and despite Ruby Walsh dropping his whip, the reigning champion Big Buck’s proved too strong for the young pretender Grands Crus. A rematch at Aintree will be worth seeing but surely of more interest would be Big Buck’s dropping to two and a half miles to take on the likes of Peddlers Cross and Solwhit over two and a half miles. Looking beyond that, am I the only one that thinks Big Buck’s would be a natural for the Ascot Gold Cup? We know he isn’t reliant on testing ground, he has stamina in abundance but equally is certainly no plodder and there is nothing at all among the Flat stayers who would have anything like his natural ability. If Rite Of Passage can come from the Festival to win a Gold Cup, then I’m sure Big Buck’s can. Andy Stewart comes across as a sporting man and surely has very little to lose by having a crack. Though yet to have a Flat runner, I believe Paul Nicholls now has a dual-purpose licence. Come on guys, you know it makes sense. The campaign starts here!

It’s possible that Big Buck’s could switch back to chasing, but even if he does, it’s hard to imagine next year’s Gold Cup being any more thrilling than Friday’s renewal. The run to the third last was one of those moments in sport that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and was captured perfectly by Richard Hoiles, ‘Imperial Commander, Kauto Star and Denman – A Who’s Who of Gold Cup history.’ One by one the old guard dropped away to be overtaken by Long Run who has confirmed he is top dog amongst the staying ranks now. Sam Waley-Cohen has had to endure plenty of criticism, some of it from me, and not all of it deserved, but no-one can deny now that he’s fully entitled to continue his association with Long Run. His graciousness in victory, without the need for ‘I told you so’s’ is a lesson some others in the sport could learn from.

Kauto Star and Denman both vindicated Paul Nicholls’ decision to keep them on the go rather than retire them and it’s likely they will run again. I have to say were either of them mine, the temptation would be there for them to bow out now, very close to the top. Denman will surely prove vulnerable to fresher legs in the Hennessy again, and victory for Kauto Star at either Punchestown in May or Down Royal in November will add little to his legacy.

Whilst Paul Nicholls deserves plenty of credit for bringing them out for one last stand, the training performance of the week should go to Jonjo O’Neill for what he managed with Get Me Out Of Here. Okay the horse was narrowly beaten in the closest finish of the week, but to get him back in the condition he was in considering how he’d performed earlier in the season was nothing short of wondrous. He was transformed from the hard-pulling, weak-finishing horse that needed kidding home to find plenty up the hill, going down only on the nod. A fine advert for the use of a tongue strap and a breathing operation.

Those who have read this blog before will know I was quite critical of the way that the Festival dominates the jumps season and how horses have missed large parts of it to be kept fresh. Looking at how those horses got on raises the question again as to whether those that hadn’t run since the turn of the year gained any advantage. Over the four days, of 487 declared horses 60 of them hadn’t run (including Flat races and point-to-points) since 31st December (12.3%). Of the 92 places available from the 27 races, 9 filled one of those positions (9.8%). I’m sure those with a greater knowledge of statistics could pick holes in such methodology, but to me this suggests there was very little to be gained from keeping horses fresh. Hopefully it will prove just a fad rather than a trend.

The final thing I wanted to comment on refers to the non-runner no bet policy offered in the weeks leading up to the race by many bookmakers. I’ve come round to thinking that it’s a good idea to get involved in the handicaps where 10/1 the field races when they are priced up at the entry stage are inevitably 5/1 the field at declaration time. If you are well on top of the jumps form (I’m not) then there’s certainly value to be had by finding those that will shorten dramatically, but in the graded races, I’m just not sure it’s worthwhile. Throughout the week, there was excellent value to be had at best morning prices, with bookmakers desperate to compete for business. Horses like Cue Card and Time For Rupert which had been around the 9/4 mark for most of the six weeks before Cheltenham were suddenly knocked out to 3/1, there were even bigger prices about for horses like Master Minded and Grands Crus compared to what they had been at the non-runner no bet stage. The vast majority of the races were priced at less than 0.5% a runner and in many cases the books were overbroke.

Unsurprisingly this caused some issue with some people not being able to have as much as they wanted on these horses, but given that the prices were available in the shops in most cases, I think the majority of people were probably accommodated to satisfactory levels. These offers are well worth bearing in mind in twelve months time when mulling over whether to take short odds on your banker at the non-runner no bet stage.

Monday, 14 March 2011


So Binocular, the reigning Champion and ante-post favourite to retain his crown, misses the Champion Hurdle as a result of the fact that had he been required to take a dope test, it is likely that he would have shown traces of a prohibited substance. No-one is suggesting that his trainer has committed any offence like in the Moonlight Path case, but the incident that led us to where we found ourselves on Sunday morning leave us with a sour taste.

It was apparent to the Henderson yard as early as Thursday evening that Binocular was in a state that threatened his participation in the Champion Hurdle. It is the course of action since then that leaves racing fans with cause for complaint. Henderson has a history of being one of the more media-friendly trainers. It is to his credit that he hosted a media open-day weeks ago, and, as most people are aware he writes a column in the Racing Post where he is happy to share his views on his horses. Any reader of that column on Saturday morning must surely feel extremely let down that Henderson chose not to make a statement on the possibility of Binocular not lining up. There seems little point to me in the existence of such column if Henderson isn’t going to share such vital information with Racing Post readers.

Having called in the BHA for assistance, it is to be hoped that the governing body will reflect on their actions and learn from them. Nobody would suggest that BHA’s actions weren’t well intended. As they say in their statement, ‘we wanted to give Binocular every chance to run in the Champion Hurdle’. In instances like this, I can’t help but feel that the more transparency the better for everyone. The BHA and/or Henderson could and probably should have made an announcement much sooner that Binocular’s Champion Hurdle participation was in doubt. That way anyone looking to bet on the Champion Hurdle market would have been able to do so knowing the full facts. That many bookmakers were non-runner no bet is a big red herring. There were still a number who weren’t, and whilst few are sympathetic to bookmakers, it was unfair to leave them in effect with overbroke books given the prices of other horses were longer than they would have been should Binocular not be able to line up.

It was a difficult position for the BHA to be in, and perhaps there is something about them being damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Their regulation of integrity is probably stronger now than it has been at any other time but on this one, I think they got it wrong.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

A Rare Delicacy at 3.35 in the Morning

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent most of the winter watching 0-60 handicaps worth less than £2,000 to the winner or maybe it’s because she really is very, very good, have a look at the video of her in action to see for yourselves, but I haven’t looked forward to seeing a horse in action as much as I am looking forward to seeing Black Caviar on Saturday morning for a long time.

Hopefully most of you are up to speed with her, but if not, I’ll give a quick synopsis of her career so far. She’s won all of her nine starts, including four Group 2s and two Group 1s. The latest of those is the Lightning Stakes at Flemington over 5f last month. The video will do that run more justice than I’ll ever manage with my vocabulary, but we’re simply not used to seeing top-class sprint races won in such fashion, duck-egg coups around Southwell by the likes of Michael Wigham yes, but not top-class sprints.

Black Caviar is bidding to create history in the Newmarket handicap, no mare in the last hundred years has carried more than the 58 kilograms that she is burdened in the race, whilst she is also bidding to break the record for an unbeaten start to a career in Australia. Her Lightning Stakes win equalled the record of nine, joining Mollison, Rancher, Eye Liner and the 1880 Melbourne Cup winner Grand Flaneur. The last-named retired unbeaten but Black Caviar is strongly fancy to claim the record outright. Despite the race being a handicap, Black Caviar is likely to start around the 1/3 mark. The good news is that the race will be shown live on ATR at 3.35am Saturday morning UK time, so make sure you set the Sky+ folks.

Sadly it seems Black Caviar is unlikely to head over to the UK anytime soon. Considering she’s already rated higher than the likes of Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast and Starspangledbanner, and will probably post another career-best on Saturday, it’s difficult to think that an appearance at Royal Ascot would be anything other than a procession. Still Flat racing is very much a global sport these days and hopefully another victory this weekend can help her to get the wider recognition she deserves. It won’t be for lack of trying from me anyway.

Once we get this weekend out of the way it is virtually upon us. You’ll see back in one of my older blogs that I’m no fan of how the entire jumps season seems to revolve around the Festival these days, but now it’s so close I’m certainly looking forward to it. I’ve got a mixed-bag of ante-post vouchers, nice prices on For Non Stop in the Coral Cup and something I’d never heard of in the Fred Winter until I went out for a drink with some friends and colleagues last Monday. Although a trixie involving Big Buck’s at 4/7 and a less-than-sparkling Imperial Commander (if you believe the whispers coming from the preview nights) hardly has the layer trembling at present. Hopefully the NR No Bet guarantee will become Best Odds Guaranteed once he’s got there safely, but I won’t hold my breath.

Good luck to all over the next week and whilst the punting is always going to be vital to most of us, try and remember whilst your doing your brains why we all love this sport. We’re all looking to spot the next Black Caviar before anyone else.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Michael Jarvis and a look to the Lincoln

The names still trip off the tongue, Anak Pekan, Pinchbeck, St Andrews, Pulau Tioman, Putra Pekan, Ofaraby, Putra Kuantan, Peak of Perfection. Every racing fan has a favourite Michael Jarvis horse, a go to option when the betting gods had been unkind that would put you right. Iffraaj was mine, a horse that benefitted from a patient approach to eventually reach his peak in Group company after landing valuable handicaps along the way. Though the Jarvis/Robinson axis will perhaps be best remembered for the rapidly-improving 3-y-o that would make hay in handicaps throughout May and June, usually not seeing another rival as it made all around the Roodeye and the like. Sadly, it’s been a force that hasn’t been so potent over the last couple of seasons and it’s with some sadness that news reaches us that Michael Jarvis is to retire because of his ill-health.

Jarvis trained some top-class horses throughout his forty-three year career, winning the Arc with Carroll House and the One Thousand Guineas and Oaks with Ameerat and Eswarah, whilst surely only inexperience cost him a Derby with Hala Bek. If there was one horse which truly showcased Jarvis’ skills it was perhaps Rakti. A very difficult horse to harness, but anyone who remembers his front-running demolition in the 2005 Lockinge will testify what a top-class horse he was. I wish Michael, and the team at Kremlin House to be headed by his former assistant Roger Varian all the best for the future.

One of Varian’s first runners could well be Eton Forever who is prominent in bookmakers ante-post lists for the Lincoln. With the weights revealed, now is as good a time as any to look at the race and I don’t believe it’s anything like the pin-sticking cavalry charge many would have us believe. I’m not a stats punter by any means, particularly ones that rely on small and unreliable sample sizes, but I do note the record of horses towards the head of the market in this race of late. Of the last twelve renewals, six have been won by the favourite or joint-favourite. This isn’t significant in itself but it does point to the fact that the race is solvable these days whilst a recent trend tends to favour four-year-olds.

That is logical when you think about it. The vast majority of handicaps are won by well-handicapped horses. The vast majority of horses that run in valuable Heritage Handicaps these days are not well handicapped. The prize money which is much higher in these races than listed events continues to tempt connections to chance their arm but from a betting perspective, all they are doing is helping the ante-post prices of horses like Penitent and Expresso Star hold up. By virtue of being more lightly raced than their elders, the four year olds are less exposed and have more scope for improvement.

A look at the BHA handicappers response to the Lincoln in previous years is a guide to what type of improvement the winner of this year’s race is going to need to find. Smokey Oakey and Blythe Knight went up only 6 lb for their wins, but more impressive winners like Penitent and Expresso Star went up 11 lb and 10 lb respectively. Does the horse you fancy have half a stone of improvement in him?

The 2011 renewal will be the fifth since the maximum field size has been reduced to twenty. At Newcastle in 2007, the lowest official rating to get into the race was 88 and in 2010 it was 91. However in the two intervening years it was as high as 94. Looking at the entries, I think it’s going to be difficult for those rated below 91 to get a run.

Unfortunately, having identified the need to find an improving 4-y-o rated higher than 91, I find all of those horses right at the top of bookmakers ante-post lists. Horses like Our Joe Mac, Brick Red, Kalk Bay, Gunner Lindley are all entitled to go well and are likely to be shorter prices on the day than they are at present. The one that interests me most though is Suited And Booted. He didn’t get off the mark until his sixth start but he’s proven most progressive since and has won his last two starts in handicaps. A strong traveller with a potent turn of foot, he is sure to be suited by the demands of a race like the Lincoln. The downside is he hasn’t been seen since July which suggests a problem of some sort and I’d want to see some positive comments from the stable regarding his participation before getting too involved.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

I Don’t Like Sundays

Firstly, all credit should go to the relevant parties involved in putting together a revamped programme to replace the lost races at Newbury from last weekend, chiefly in this instance it seems, the racecourse, the BHA and Channel 4. Although attendance and viewing figures, as well as betting turnover will likely be significantly reduced, it’s a pity that the value of the main races have fallen quite so much from what they would have been run for on Saturday, but in a season that has been blighted by abandonments, something is better than nothing.

When suggestions of a replacement meeting were first mooted, it seemed either a Sunday or Friday date were the two options, Friday getting the nod, possibly because of the possibility of terrestrial television coverage. This got me thinking as to how at present, the fixture list with regards Sundays could be improved.

The premier races in Ireland and France are usually run on Sundays, races like the Prix Ganay, Jacques Le Marois, Irish Derby, and of course the Arc and it’s supporting card are all on the seventh day. Compare this to Britain where we have a very different system. In 2010 on the Flat, there were just five pattern races contested on a Sunday, namely the One Thousand Guineas and Dahlia Stakes at Newmarket, the Supreme Stakes at Goodwood and the Diadem and Cumberland Lodge at Ascot. I’m not suggesting that we need to be switching all of our pattern races to Sundays, however, there are a number of busy Saturdays where it looks common sense to me split these meetings over two days to maximise the opportunities for the general public to enjoy them.

For example in 2011 on Saturday July 9th, there are six Flat meetings, including afternoon fixtures at Ascot, Newmarket, York and Chester. The following day there isn’t a single Flat meeting but three Jumps cards at Perth, Southwell and Stratford. Wouldn’t it make sense to switch one of those Saturday afternoon Flat fixtures to Sunday and replace it with Stratford’s Sunday meeting? Not only would this allow racing fans/punters to follow the Flat action in more detail, but there has to be a good chance that would increase attendances at both Southwell and Stratford as, given their proximity, they are competing for some of the same customers.

This is by no means an isolated incident. Epsom on Derby Day is forced to compete against four other afternoon meetings, including Musselburgh’s most valuable day of the year. Wouldn’t it be better to switch one of the supporting cards to Sunday to back up Perth and Worcester’s jumps meetings?

Obviously it isn’t as straightforward a case of simply being able to switch the fixtures at the drop of hat. The reason courses can offer the best racing on Saturdays is probably linked to terrestrial television coverage and being able to attract higher contributions from sponsors as a result. There’s no quick-fix answer to increasing racings television coverage back up to the levels it was achieving 10/15 years ago, and I’m sure Racing For Change have enough on their plate at present without me suggesting more them to do. However I do think this is an area that should be looked at.

The BBC have shown with their commitment to the initial Champions Day contract that they aren’t ready to turn their back on racing totally just yet. I’d like to see a stronger programme of racing provided on Sundays that could encourage terrestrial broadcasters to forego repeats of black and white films and Hollyoaks (okay thats a lie, we need to keep the repeats of Hollyoaks, but you get the point). By switching some of the current Saturday cards, I do think we can provide higher quality racing to attract a television audience, by putting on races with significance for the rest of the year rather than the current levy fodder that can’t be distinguished from the racing we see virtually every day of the week.

There are people better placed within the sport that can probably list numerous reasons as to why such suggestions are far-fetched pie in the sky. Still, if you don’t ask...