Donn's Articles » Cheltenham pictures still not in focus

Cheltenham pictures still not in focus

The more information you receive, the clearer a picture becomes.  That’s the received wisdom.  That’s the logic.  The more relevant data you gather, the easier it is to find the solution.

That logic applies to horse racing as much as it applies to other walks of life.  Races are run and winners are lauded, but every race also provides a piece of information, relevant data in the pursuit of further solutions.  That is why, in post-race winner’s enclosures all over the country, no matter how big the race, a common question endures: what’s next?

The Christmas racing festivals are hugely important.  The racing is top class and the races are destinations.  But the races are also stepping stones towards future targets.  The Savills Chase at Leopardstown and the King George VI Chase at Kempton, for example, traditionally provide Cheltenham Gold Cup pointers.  The Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton provide pointers to the Champion Hurdle.  But this year was unusual.  This year, they pointed in unexpected directions.  The data they provided was in conflict with general expectations.

It has been a while since the King George winner went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup the same season.  The last horse to complete the double is Long Run in 2011.  Even so, the King George usually provides key Gold Cup evidence.  Might Bite won the King George last December and finished second in the Gold Cup in March.  Don Cossack fell at the second last fence in the King George in December 2015 before going to Cheltenham the following March and winning the Gold Cup.   

They sent Might Bite off as favourite for this year’s King George, but he started to tire before the home turn and he faded to finish seventh of the seven finishers.  Second favourite Waiting Patiently was hampered and unseated his rider at the fence in front of the stands.  Third favourite, Native River, who was favourite or joint favourite for the Gold Cup in most lists before the King George, could only plug on for third.

It was left to Clan Des Obeaux, the youngest horse in the race, to come from left field and win the King George.  Paul Nicholls’ horse was an unconsidered 50/1 shot for the Gold Cup beforehand.  Now he is no better than 10/1, and you have to have him in the mix.

The Savills Chase at Leopardstown only served to cloud the Gold Cup picture further.  As with the King George, it has been a while since any horse has completed the Savills Chase/Cheltenham Gold Cup double in the same season (Denman, 2007/08) but, also as with the King George, there have been good pointers in recent years.  Road To Respect won the Savills Chase last year and finished fourth in the Gold Cup on unsuitably soft ground.  Don Poli won the Savills Chase in 2015 and finished third in the Gold Cup two and a half months later. 

Kemboy won the Savills Chase last week.  Willie Mullins’ horse didn’t exactly come from left field, but he wasn’t on top of many lists either.  The early pace in the Savills Chase was not fast, and David Mullins manoeuvred his horse into a nice position from early, at the head of the field.  That said, the Supreme Racing Club’s horse sprinted clear on the run-in, and he is a young horse – like Clan Des Obeaux in the King George, he was the only six-year-old in the race – who still has plenty of potential for progression.  You can understand why bookmakers cut his Gold Cup odds from 40/1 to 8/1.

Monalee kept on to finish second in the Savills Chase, Bellshill ran a good race on his seasonal debut to finish fourth, Road To Respect stumbled on the run out of the back straight, and did well to finish third in the circumstances.  All are still in the Gold Cup picture, but it is a picture that is out of focus for now, as evidenced by the fact that Presenting Percy is clear favourite now, and Philip Reynolds’ horse has not run yet this season.

The Champion Hurdle picture is no clearer either after the Christmas festivals.  Buveur D’Air was supposed to dance in in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and consolidate his position at the top of the Champion Hurdle market, but he didn’t.  Nicky Henderson’s horse was run down late on by his stable companion Verdana Blue, who was a 40/1 shot for the Champion Hurdle before the race.

It is difficult to find a valid explanation for Buveur D’Air’s defeat.  JP McManus’ horse, the reigning Champion Hurdler, the dual Champion Hurdler, hadn’t been beaten in 11 runs and two and a half years.  He was rated 20lb superior to Verdana Blue going into the race, and he was conceding just the 7lb mares’ allowance.  He had 13lb in hand on the book.

He made a significant mistake at the third last flight.  It didn’t appear to alter his momentum much, but it might have had an effect.  Perhaps that was it.  Or perhaps it was just an off day.  One of those things.  It’s horse racing.  It’s sport.  It’s not an exact science.  

It is also difficult to find an explanation for Samcro’s performance in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown.  Not that he was beaten – it was a hot race – but that he finished only fifth, two lengths behind his stable companion Tombstone, who was rated 21lb inferior.  It wasn’t the real Samcro.  Hopefully we will see the real Samcro real soon, but you couldn’t have him in your Champion Hurdle calculations on this evidence.

You have to have Sharjah in those calculations though.  Willie Mullins’ horse was seriously impressive in winning the Ryanair Hurdle.  He picked up well for Patrick Mullins on the run to the final flight, and he came clear of his rivals on the run-in.  That’s a Galway Hurdle, a Morgiana Hurdle and a Ryanair Hurdle that Susannah Ricci’s horse has bagged now in the last five months.  His Champion Hurdle odds have been cut from 33/1 to 10/1, and he is finally getting the recognition that he has been due.

Bookmakers eased Buveur D’Air’s odds for the Champion Hurdle after his defeat in the Christmas Hurdle, but not by a lot.  From a shade of odds-on to a shade of odds-against.  He is still the clear standard-setter in a cloudy Champion Hurdle picture.  It will be fascinating now to watch it develop.

© The Sunday Times, 6th January 2019