Things We Learned » Hold your cards

Hold your cards

Cue Card took a few steps forward when he won the Betfair Chase at Haydock last Saturday. Firstly, the RPR of 180 that he set was the highest of his life. Secondly, he proved that he could put in a near-flawless round of jumping in a top class race. And thirdly, he proved that he could stay three miles and one furlong on easy ground when allowed to stride along out in front.

Much was made beforehand about the new distance of the race, three miles and a furlong as opposed to three miles, brought about because of the necessity to switch the race to the outside track due to remedial drainage work that hadn’t been completed on time on the inside track. The extra furlong was important. It could have added a point or two to Cue Card’s price, and it could have shaved a half a point or a quarter of a point of Bobs Worth’s price. Who knows? There’s nout as strange as markets. (Except folk, obviously.)

There have been queries since about whether or not the race really was run over three miles and a furlong. They are legitimate queries too, given that the winning time was over 13 seconds faster than the time that Silviniaco Conti clocked in winning the race last year over an official distance that was a furlong shorter, both races run on ground that was officially described as soft.

That’s the trouble with official things, they often don’t present the true or the full picture. Timeform estimated that the ground for the race last year was heavy, not soft. They also estimated that the ground for this year’s race was good to soft, not soft. So last year’s ground was probably softer than soft, this year’s ground was probably faster than soft. That’s a two-point swing.

Also, the official times don’t tell you the story of the races. They dawdled through the early stages of last year’s race. They even stood still for a few seconds (over seven, as it turns out) after the tapes went up. After they crossed the starting line, the field were five seconds longer in dawdling to the first fence in 2012 than they were in 2013, this despite the fact that they were racing on the inside track, saving ground around the first corner.

The sectional times show that they were far slower down the back straight first time in 2012 than in 2013, and that they didn’t pick up time (over four seconds) until they raced around the bottom bend, inevitably, on the inside track, covering a shorter distance.

A comparison between the 2013 race and the 2011 race provides a much more accurate picture, with both races run on similar ground and neither run at an early dawdle. The sectionals show that Cue Card went a little slower through the early stages last Saturday than Kauto Star did in 2011, and that the 2011 field unsurprisingly picked up significant ground on the 2013 field as they raced around the inside track at the four bends: 2.0secs, 5.9secs, 5.0secs and 4.9secs respectively. The 2011 race was run in a time that was 15.8secs faster than the 2013 race on official times, 15.6secs if you time the field from the point at which they crossed the starting line, and that is not surprising for a staying steeplechase run over a furlong shorter.

The other thing that the sectionals tell us is that Cue Card finished off his race really well. He was 1.4secs faster from the third last fence to the second last fence than Kauto Star was, 3.1secs faster to the last fence and 2.0secs faster to the winning line. Perhaps the slower pace that he was allowed set facilitated this, but it was impressive.

That said, Cue Card is going to have to push more boundaries now if he is going to win a King George or a Gold Cup. He is proven at Cheltenham, but the Gold Cup is run up and down stamina-taxing hills and over a furlong and a half further than last Saturday’s race. Bobs Worth’s winning time in the Gold Cup last March was almost 55 seconds slower than the time that Cue Card clocked on Saturday, and that is a whole lot more stamina than Cue Card has shown that he possesses thus far.

Also, the King George is run at right-handed Kempton. Cue Card won the Ascot Chase last February going right-handed, but he did jump to his left at Exeter on his debut this season, and the hypothesis that he is at his best going left has yet to be disproven. He is short enough now at no better than 11/4 for the King George, and the 8/1 that is currently available about him for the Gold Cup would be significantly extended if he did happen to disappoint at Kempton.

Bumper form

Apache Stronghold’s win in the Monksfield Hurdle at Navan last weekend was just another feather in the cap of last year’s top bumper races.

The form of the Grade 1 bumpers run at Cheltenham and Punchestown just gets stronger and stronger as time goes on. The 2013 Cheltenham Bumper form has been well-advertised and well-documented. The winner Briar Hill danced in in his maiden hurdle at Wexford last week. Runner-up Regal Encore got beaten in his maiden hurdle, but won a novice hurdle at Plumpton last week. Fifth-placed Purple Bay won his first two novice hurdles this season and eighth-placed Union Dues won a maiden over a mile and a half at the Galway Festival on his only run since, while even 12th-placed Doctor Harper has won his first two hurdle races easily. Other also-rans from Cheltenham, Sgt Reckless, Milo Man and I’m Fraam Govan have all come out and won, the last-named twice on the flat at Kempton.

The Liquidator and Blackmail are the two horses who have carried on the form of both bumpers. Fourth at Cheltenham, The Liquidator stayed on well to land the Punchestown race, and David Pipe’s horse is now two for two over hurdles, his latest win achieved in emphatic style in a Grade 2 contest at Cheltenham’s November meeting. Blackmail didn’t run his race at Cheltenham, but he kept on well after leading for a long way at Punchestown to finish fourth, and he has won his two hurdle races since by a combined total of 29 lengths.

The horses who finished between The Liquidator and Blackmail at Punchestown, Gilt Shadow and Apache Stronghold, need no explaining. They have both been really impressive in their, respectively, one and two hurdle races to date, and the pair of them are among the most exciting novice hurdlers in training at present. And further down through the Punchestown field, Grecian Tiger won on the flat at Gowran Park in September, while Que Pasa has won three times over hurdles since.

The Cheltenham and Punchestown bumpers are fertile ground this term, and the return of Golantilla, third at Cheltenham, is eagerly awaited.

Troytown watch

Last Sunday’s Ladbrokes Troytown Chase at Navan could be a rich ground for future winners now. Unusually, the race was run on ground that was not attritional, it was run at a good pace, the time was good and the first five came clear. All five could be worth following.

The winner Cootamundra could improve again for the confidence-boost, now that he has managed to bag his first chase win at his 11th attempt, although a 10lb hike may make things difficult. Runner-up Mad Brian ran a cracker to finish a close-up second given that this was just his third race over fences. He is only seven and a 6lb hike is not harsh.

Third-placed Colbert Station also ran a cracker to finish a close-up third. Unseated when travelling well at The Chair last April, he will only be 10 next year, an ideal age for a Grand National, and you can be sure that Ted Walsh will gear his campaign around the race again this term. He is still feasibly handicapped on a mark of 150, just 1lb higher than the mark off which he raced in the National last term.

Rockyaboya, fourth, remains progressive, while Living Next Door almost certainly would have been at least placed had he not fallen at the last. Also, fifth-placed Goonyella (it’s goonie-ella, apparently, not go-on-yella) ran a fine trial for the Welsh National, up in the van throughout in a race in which it was probably an advantage to be held up, and racing on ground that was faster than ideal over a trip that was shorter than ideal.

No Hennessy

Strange, in one sense, that AP McCoy has never won the Hennessy Gold Cup. Today’s Newbury feature is just about the only race worth over £1,200 to the winner that he hasn’t won.

Not so strange, however, when you consider that the Hennessy is usually run on the same day as Newcastle’s showpiece, the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, and that the champ often has a Champion Hurdle contender for whom to travel north.

AP hasn’t had much luck in the Hennessy when he has made it to Newbury, his third place finish on Take Control in 2003 the closest that he has got of late. Snowy Morning fell in 2007, Albertas Run, unusually for him, didn’t run his race in 2008, and Neptune Collonges was brought down in 2010. That was the year that AP rode Binocular in the Fighting Fifth before high-tailing it down to Newbury. At least he did ride Big Buck’s to win the Long Distance Hurdle, so the trip was well worthwhile.

Not that Hennessy day has not been good to AP. It was in 2008 that he rode a four-timer for Nicky Henderson. Alas, he is not going to end his Hennessy drought today, as it is My Tent Or Yours who commands his attention in the Fighting Fifth this year. Hopefully a Hennessy win will be numbered among the next 1,000.

Hennessy trends

Speaking of the Hennessy, just in case you didn’t know, what you are looking for, according to the trends, is a six- or seven-year-old second-season chaser, who is rated 145 or higher, who is set to carry 11st or more, who has raced once or nunce this season and who is priced up between 4/1 and 14/1. That should narrow it down to about a dozen then.

© The Irish Field, 30th November 2013