» Novice knocks

Novice knocks

By Rory King

There has been much written recently, both in the lead up to the Hennessy and after Saturday’s race, about the quality of last season’s crop of novice chasers, or the lack of quality to be precise.

I’m not really sure I buy into it to be honest. The problem I have is that I think it’s far too much of a generalisation to group the whole crop of novice chasers together and knock them as a whole. For me that’s a bit like saying a country’s under-21 football team is not very good and therefore none of the players will make it in the senior international team, or that because a school sports team is not great none of them are good enough to play professionally. There are always stand out performers and knocking the whole class of novice chasers is foolish.

The doubters point to the evidence thus far – the Paddy Power, perennially a race for second-season chasers, won in facile fashion by a horse in his third season chasing off a higher mark than when well beaten in the race last year, and the Hennessy, a race that has become almost the preserve of second-season chasers, in which the first four places were all filled by experienced campaigners.

However that alone is not enough to write off the whole cast of second-season chasers. Carruthers won the Hennessy off a mark 10lb lower than that off which he was sixth in last year’s race, having reportedly not been right for the whole of last season, Planet Of Sound, the runner-up, is a Grade 1 winner, while the third, Fair Along, was running off 142, 12lb below his highest chase mark and 24lb below his peak over hurdles.

Ok, so the second-season chasers may have been a little disappointing, you would have liked to think a Wymott or a Wayward Prince or an Aiteen Thirtythree would have had a fair bit in hand of the handicapper and be good enough to win, but it may just simply have been the case that the older brigade in this year’s Hennessy were far better handicapped than in most years, and, as it turned out, even better handicapped than the sophomores.

Ah, see, even I’ve done it now. Generalising is invariably not a good thing to do as a punter. Each horse’s chance in any race should be taken in isolation rather than as part of a sweeping statement about the general ability of his contemporaries. Take Wishfull Thinking for instance. Yes he rather disappointed in the Paddy Power, but there was a huge amount of money for him to win that day, and presumably all those who backed him were not too fussed about the quality of last season’s novice chasers beforehand. And even after the race when he was one of the five horses to have raced in novice company last season to fill the next five positions behind Great Endeavour, does that suddenly devalue all of last season’s novice chase form? Methinks not. Take out the winner and the first five home in the Paddy Power would all have been second-season chasers, and most likely the winner is just a much improved horse this season; if the Hennessy had been over a bare three miles he probably would have won that too. It is possible for a horse to improve after two years of chasing you know.

So back to Wishfull Thinking, the horse that is, not the activity. Take him on his own and you have a horse who didn’t stop improving last season, he found only Noble Prince, the current Ryanair favourite, too strong in the Jewson at Cheltenham, before going on to slam Medermit over two and a half miles at Aintree, having the race in the bag at the top of the home straight, and following that up by giving 21lb and a four-and-a-half-length beating to Blazing Tempo, who incidentally won the Galway Plate on her next start, at Punchestown. He had his breathing operated on over the summer, and according to his trainer he may just have needed the Paddy Power run to clear his wind. So you have a horse who was very close to the top of the novice tree last season, who should have come on for his seasonal return, possibly quite substantially, and who may well be favoured by dropping down to two miles in the Tingle Creek on Saturday at a track where his electric jumping will be a major weapon.

Take him as just a part of the crop of last season’s novice chasers however, and he can’t possibly win on Saturday.

By Rory King