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.