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...

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Our Cheltenham Obsession Makes For A Disjointed Season

I used to love the Festival as much as the next man, more so probably. When it was cancelled in 2001 because of Foot and Mouth, it was basically akin to telling a seven-year-old on Christmas Eve that Christmas had been cancelled. What’s changed? Well firstly because of my job (I’m a Flat handicapper and reporter at Timeform), I spend far more time on Flat racing and find that a more fascinating discipline. But the main problem is that National Hunt racing has an obsession with the Festival that is to the detriment of the rest of the season.

This season, big pre-Christmas targets like the Hennessy are being turned into Gold Cup trials fully four months before the big day. Both Diamond Harry and Denman, first and third in this season’s renewal will go straight to the Gold Cup, in fact of the first six home at Newbury that day, only the fourth, The Tother One has been seen subsequently. Races like the Lexus and Cotswold Chase have come and gone, as will the AON and Irish Hennessy this weekend and all have been poorer for the absence of such names. It’s not like this is unique problem with staying chasers. No sooner had Menorah confirmed himself as a serious Champion Hurdle contender with wins in the Greatwood and International Hurdles at Cheltenham’s big winter meetings, the cotton wool was being applied and races like the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial, Welsh Champion Hurdle and Kingwell were all off the agenda with connections favouring a trip straight back to Cheltenham.

Big Buck’s’ (I’ve no idea if that is grammatically correct!) season has been perhaps the most frustrating. Two canters around Newbury and victories over Duc de Regniere and Lough Derg have told us little about him. How good a race could the Cleeve have been had Big Buck’s attempted to concede his Grade 1 penalty to Grands Crus?

With so many of the contenders wrapped up in cotton wool it’s giving us little new to talk about, forums are rehashing the same tired arguments and we're still six weeks from getting any answers. Features in pullouts in the media tell us that these horses are bouncing and better than ever. Run the damn things then! Sadly I don’t really have a solution to a problem that has crept up on us over the last few seasons. Whilst the top horses aren’t owned by billionaire Arabs, the might of a handful of big stables fighting out for virtually all the big prizes means that most of the top horses are owned by the same faces, none of whom are short of a few bob, and prize money isn’t a factor at this level. Experiments like the Betfair Million and the Order Of Merit had only minor short term success, in fact, despite it’s good intentions, the Order Of Merit in reality became more an Order of Toughness and Durability.

I don’t want this to be a tired and predictable ‘Jump racing is boring, Flat racing is great’ piece as it’s certainly not the way I see racing, but I do think Flat racing currently enjoys an advantage in the way it’s season pans out. I’m doing my best here not to use that word ‘narrative.’ Throughout the turf season there is the build up to the Guineas, the Guineas itself, quickly onto Derby Trials and then the Derby, Royal Ascot, The July Meeting, Glorious Goodwood, York , the St Leger and abroad we have the Arc and Breeders’ Cup meetings. Of course too, in 2011, comes the revamped Champions’ Day meeting. In between all those dates there’s a plethora of busy weekends that feature competitive and high quality big-field handicaps and pattern races.

I remain with an open mind as to how the new Champions Day is going to pan out. I certainly can’t say I am worried about the long term future of the breed because of the switch of a ten-furlong Group 1 race to a track with a bend, equally the Middle Park on the same card as the Dewhurst doesn’t strike me as an unsurmountable issue. I just hope that we don’t end up with a situation where there is an attempt to oversignify events from that weekend. The meeting won’t be any less of a success should the winner of either the QEII or Champion Stakes be deemed inferior to that of say, the Sussex or Juddmonte International winner.

Still, no sooner will we have Cheltenham behind us that we can look forward to the Lincoln for which the entries came out today. I like having a go at these races ante-post nowadays as so few unexposed, improving types get in and it’s pretty easy to work out where the cut off point is likely to come. I may post a few thoughts once we see what the weights are.