Things We Learned » Early clues

Early clues

If you were looking for early clues for the 2015 Aintree Grand National, the two to take out of last Saturday’s Becher Chase were probably Mendip Express and Saint Are. But there are caveats.

Mendip Express ran a fine race to finish second to the evergreen Oscar Time. He was held up in the early stages of the race in a race in which it was probably an advantage to race handily. He jumped the big fences well on his first attempt at them, he made his ground nicely on the run down the side of the track, and he was the one who presented the greatest challenge to the winner, staying on well and going down by just three parts of a length in the end.

Saint Are was handy early on. Tom George’s horse was also good at these fences, even better than he had been when he finished ninth behind Aurora’s Encore in the 2013 Grand National, but he got a little out-paced on the run around the home turn before staying on again on the run-in to take third place.

There are notes of caution concerning each horse, however, in the context of next April’s race. On Mendip Express, trainer Harry Fry said afterwards that he may not target the Grand National, that the Mendip Syndicate’s horse did not stay in the Scottish National last year and that they were not yet certain about the Grand National this year.

Saint Are loves Aintree, and there is a big chance that he will stay the trip, but the main worry with the Network gelding centres on getting into the race. The handicapper raised him just 1lb for Saturday’s effort, which leaves him on a handicap mark of 128. That would not be high enough to get him into the Grand National in a normal year these days. In 2014, the lowest-rated horse was rated 138. In 2013, the lowest-rated horse was rated 131. In 2012, the lowest rating was 137. In 2011 it was 138.

Saint Are will have to run well enough between now and the publication of the weights in February to be raised 12lb or thereabouts in order to more or less guarantee himself a place in the Grand National line-up. Not only is that not going to be easy, but it also means that, even if he does get into the race, he would not be as well handicapped as he is now.

Good Expression

It is interesting that the exciting Gordon Elliott-trained Free Expression is set to by-pass the Christmas festivals, and instead target the Lawlors Hotel Novice Hurdle at Naas on 4th January, which will be the first Grade 1 race to be staged at the County Kildare track.

JP McManus’ unbeaten Germany gelding just looks better and better as time goes on, even without the need for him to set foot outside of his own yard. When he won his maiden hurdle at Naas in early November, he beat On Impulse into second place, and that horse was most impressive in landing his own maiden at Punchestown on Sunday on his debut for Ted Walsh.

On his only subsequent run, Free Expression won the Grade 2 Monksfield Hurdle at Navan. Only one horse has come out from that race and run since: the Jessica Harrington-trained Rock The World, who finished third in the Monksfield Hurdle and who ran out a comfortable winner of a decent good novices’ hurdle also at Punchestown on Sunday. Elliott says that he is training Free Expression like a good horse, and that might just be the way to train him.

God’s unknown

Interesting that the bookmakers did not appear to know what to do with God’s Own’s ante post odds for the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival after he finished seventh in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on Saturday.

One firm cut him from 14/1 to 8/1 initially, then pushed him back out to 14/1 the following day. Another extended him from 12/1 to 20/1 for the Arkle after the Tingle Creek, then suspended betting on him the following day. Most of the other firms extended his Arkle odds, 8/1 to 12/1, 12/1 to 16/1, 10/1 to 14/1, that type of thing, while a few left him unchanged.

Perhaps Tom George’s horse’s odds for the Arkle should have been universally shortened. It may be that he has to go right-handed, and Cheltenham may not be his track, but if you thought he was an 8/1 shot for the Arkle before Saturday, you cannot think that he is a 16/1 shot for it now. On the contrary, you can easily argue that his chance of (running in and therefore) winning the novices’ race was actually enhanced by his defeat in the Tingle Creek.

Paddy Power pointer

It is not that surprising that the Weatherbys Ireland GSB Handicap Chase, run at Punchestown last Sunday, can be a really good pointer to the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.

Both races are for staying handicap chasers. The Punchestown race is run over just two miles and six furlongs, while the Leopardstown race is run over three miles, but stamina is usually at a premium in both, and they can attract similar types of horses. Also, the Punchestown race is run on John Durkan Chase day in early December, usually about three weeks before the Paddy Power, so the timing is perfect.

The Weatherbys Ireland race was won in 2012 by Glenquest, and Glenquest went on to finish fourth in the Paddy Power off a mark that was 6lb higher than his Punchestown mark. In Great Form finished third in the Weatherbys race in 2012, and he finished fifth in the Paddy Power, one place and five lengths behind Glenquest.

Last year, Daring Article won the Punchestown race, and he was travelling well in the Paddy Power under an 8lb penalty when he came down at the sixth last fence. Of course, that was too early to know for sure how he would have fared, but he had done everything right up to that point. Similarly, O’Muircheartaigh, winner of the Punchestown race in 2007, was making nice progress just behind the leaders in the Paddy Power three weeks later when he came down at the second last fence.

Last Sunday’s race was won by Grand Jesture, and there is every reason to expect that Henry de Bromhead’s horse can be a big player in the Paddy Power Chase on 27th December, if he takes his chance in the race. The handicapper has raised him 7lb for Sunday’s win, but he appeared to win with plenty in hand, ears pricked. Also, he is only six, Sunday’s race was just his fifth chase, and he has a lovely progressive profile now. He stayed three miles last season, and the Paddy Power is a legitimate target for him now.

Of equal interest for the Paddy Power is Foxrock. The performance that Barry Connell’s horse put up in finishing a staying-on third in Sunday’s race was made all the more meritorious when it emerged afterwards that he pulled his two front shoes off when he stumbled going around the bend past the stands.

Rider Adrian Heskin said afterwards that he was never really happy with him thereafter, and the Ted Walsh-trained gelding appeared to just get a little out-paced as they rounded the home turn before staying on again. Sent off the 3/1 favourite for the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham last March, he should be well suited by the slight step up in trip.

Because he didn’t win the race, the Flemensfirth gelding would get to race in the Paddy Power off his old handicap rating of 142, despite the fact that the handicapper has raised him to a mark of 145. Also, the step up to three miles should be in his favour, and his owner Barry Connell loves to have winners at his local track over Christmas, so you know that his trainer will have him primed to run for his life at Leopardstown.

Cheekpieces check

Why, when a horse wears blinkers or a visor or a hood for the first time, he gets a b1 or a v1 or a h1 in the form book, but when he wears cheekpieces for the first time, he just gets a p? No little 1? Are first-time cheekpieces less significant than first-time blinkers or visor or hood?

© The Irish Field, 13th December 2014