Weights & Measures: Trials Day
Ben Linfoot looks at how the handicapper responded to the action at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day.
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Cheltenham, January 25
1. Le Rocher>>>> Up 8lb to 149
2. Kentucky Hyden>>>> Up 1lb to 139
3. Vicenzo Mio>>>> Down 5lb to 138
A really excellent performance from Le Rocher in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, who extended his superiority over Kentucky Hyden that had previously been displayed at Chepstow. The two-and-a-half length winning margin in Wales was 10 lengths in Gloucestershire and Nick Williams' charge is now rated fully 10lb better than Nicky Henderson's juvenile on 149. To put that into context, Zaynar and Our Conor were both rated 150 going into their Triumphs, while no other winner in the last decade had achieved a better rating pre-Cheltenham. Katchit (144), Celestial Halo (139), Soldatino (148) and Countrywide Flame (140) were all rated lower before they won the Grade One for juveniles and Le Rocher's form is the best we've seen in the UK, at least, in this division this campaign. The big question is will he be as good on better ground, if, indeed, it is better ground come the Triumph Hurdle? That is open to debate, but even taking such a factor into account, as well as the Irish challenge, his price looks big at 12s. Vicenzo Mio was heavily backed but was one of many disappointments for Paul Nicholls on the day. Dropped 5lb to 138, if connections did have Triumph Hurdle aspirations you would think they would now be thinking towards the Fred Winter instead.
1. Indian Castle>>>> Up 5lb to 140
2. Annacotty>>>> Up 2lb to 146
3. Renard D'Irlande>>>> Remains on 127
6. Dark Lover>>>> Down 2lb to 140
This was a proper stamina test thanks to a strong pace set by Annacotty and Super Villan. The latter was last of the finishers, beaten 61 lengths, which tells you what a good effort it was from Annacotty to hold off all challengers bar Indian Castle. Interestingly raised to 144 following a Grade One win at Kempton, the handicapper will be delighted as this shows he had him about right - and a further 2lb nudge up the ratings is fair following a commendable effort in defeat. Martin Keighley's horse has been transformed by blinkers and he's a natural pace angle wherever he lines up at the Festival - either in the JLT Novices' or the RSA. Indian Castle appreciated the emphasis on stamina and a return to three miles would hold no fears. Comparisons with Super Duty were quickly made due to the two horses profiles and same connections and it would be no surprise if Indian Castle lined up in the Kim Muir at the Festival. Super Duty was a narrow second in the race last year off 142 and Indian Castle is rated just 2lb inferior at this stage. Paul Nicholls' Dark Lover wasn't suited by the test of stamina over this trip in the conditions and was hampered three out to boot. Dropped 2lb to 140, that's 10lb below his best rating over hurdles and he'll remain of interest off such a mark in a race that plays more to his strengths.
1. Wishfull Thinking>>>> Up 6lb to 162
2. Double Ross>>>> Up 4lb to 152
3. Tap Night>>>> Up 3lb to 145
Wishfull Thinking was uneasy in the market back in handicap company but he was anything but on the track following an accomplished display that saw him beat the in-form Double Ross in good style. Racing off a mark of 156, he was rated 8lb below his best number over fences but is back up to 162 after the victory. The 11-year-old had never won over two miles and five furlongs in such testing conditions before, but he went some way to proving his stamina when finishing second to Unioniste over three miles at Aintree on his previous start and Saturday showed that the trip is ideal for him these days. He loves Cheltenham too, so it was a surprise to hear Philip Hobbs say he wasn't in the Ryanair post-race. Looking at the entries, he is in the Ryanair - and the 33s has disappeared in the past few days! It looks the ideal race for him and while he's obviously vulnerable to a younger, more progressive rival, a rating of 162 puts him right in the mix as you can see from the list of winners: Cue Card (165), Riverside Theatre (168), Albertas Run (166, 162), Imperial Commander (156), Our Vic (165), Taranis (152), Fondmort (157) and Thisthatandtother (155). Double Ross has improved with every race this season and this was another career-best effort; despite his hike in the weights he clearly loves Cheltenham and can go well in something like the Byrne Group Plate. I wouldn't rule Tap Night out of the equation in one of the big Festival handicaps either. It would be dangerous to assume the heavy ground was responsible for his improved form and it could be he's coming to himself in time for the spring. Back up 3lb to 145, he's still rated 7lb below the rating from which he started the season off.
1. The Giant Bolster>>>> Remains on 157
2. Rocky Creek>>>> Remains on 157
3. Harry Topper>>>> Up 3lb to 156
While The Giant Bolster took advantage of being best off at the weights and Rocky Creek hinted again that he'll be a force to be reckoned with over even further, it was Harry Topper's performance in third that caught the eye. Despite a series of jumping errors he came out of the race the best horse at the weights, running to a mark of 156, with The Giant Bolster running to 153 and Rocky Creek 151. While the first and second were left on their pre-race ratings, Harry Topper was raised 3lb and he will surely post a higher figure if he can sort out his jumping. Granted, that remains a big if, but he remains an interesting outsider for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup and he'll be no 50/1 chance if the ground is riding soft come the second Friday in March.
1. Red Sherlock>>>> Introduced at 151
2. Rathvinden>>>> Introduced at 152
It occurred to me that we've not really discussed the Neptune too much in this column over the past few months, but we get a chance to put that right now after the best British trial for the race so far this season. And Red Sherlock is the best of British, rated at 151 after a fine effort to hold off the challenge of Irish raider Rathvinden, the pair 29-lengths clear of the now 139-rated Aubusson in third. Rathvinden came out the best horse at the weights, handicapper Martin Greenwood explaining that he called the winning distance 2lb rather than 3lb given that Willie Mullins' horse was eased down in the final yards, and his rating of 152 puts him on a par with stablemate and Neptune favourite Faugheen. Gauging how much more there is to come from the likes of Faugheen is difficult, but we can expect improvement to come from the front two in this trial too, Greenwood describing the efforts of Red Sherlock and Rathvinden as 'very good' with both having a 'plethora of potential'. Red Sherlock's rating puts him at the top of the UK pile looking at the Neptune possibles, with Royal Boy (149), Captain Cutter (147) and Deputy Dan (145) those directly in behind. This, of course, is assuming that Red Sherlock's stablemate Kings Palace goes for the Albert Bartlett, as his rating of 156 is the highest achieved by a novice hurdler so far this campaign. We do assume that Red Sherlock will go for the Neptune and Kings Palace the three-miler, but, it should be noted that Saturday's Neptune trial has produced three winners of the Albert Bartlett in the past (Wichita Lineman, Bobs Worth and At Fishers Cross). However, there was a slowish early pace on Saturday with the whole field keen early on and there is no doubting the speed that Red Sherlock has in his locker, given his profile. He knuckled down well to see off a high-class rival at the weekend and looks to have a very bright future indeed.
1. Knockara Beau>>>> Up 9lb to 154
2. At Fishers Cross>>>>Down 3lb to 157
3. Big Buck's>>>> Down 4lb to 170
The most eagerly anticipated trial of the weekend was the Cleeve Hurdle and the return of staying hurdling behemoth Big Buck's. In running third behind Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross the four-time World Hurdle winner ran exactly a stone below the mark of 174 that he was rated between 2009 and Saturday. Running to a mark of 160 in the Cleeve, he still came out the best horse at the weights with Knockara Beau running to a career-best 154 and At Fishers Cross finally attaining a figure of 157 - his best novice rating - in his second season over timber. Handicapper Martin Greenwood dropped Big Buck's to a master rating of 170 following the race, a number likely good enough to win him another World Hurdle (depending on whether Annie Power turns up or not) and he was positive regarding his chances of regaining his crown. "He went through the race superbly, travelled well, jumped fluently and he remains a worthy favourite," said Greenwood. "There were differing opinions in the aftermath, but I would definitely take a positive slant." Interestingly, Greenwood explained that the guidelines for a horse who has been off the track for a year is a drop of 4lb, which is exactly what was shorn off Big Buck's' rating despite him running to 160. Whether he can justify a rating of 170 in the World Hurdle remains to be seen, but with likely better ground and this run under his belt he probably won't be far off. Whether that will be good enough depends on the opposition. Annie Power (163) tested the waters over two miles for the first time this season on Saturday at Doncaster, but we learned nothing about her Cheltenham target following the race. The way she beat Zarkandar over two miles and five in testing conditions at Cheltenham on New Year's Day suggests stamina won't be an issue, though that is the furthest she has ever been. A perfect ten from ten now, we've still no idea how good she could be. If she does turn up in the World Hurdle, even a top-of-his-game Big Buck's would have one hell of a fight to regain his crown. It's fascinating.
1. Lac Fontana>>>> Up 12lb to 139
2. Totalize>>>> Up 5lb to 134
3. Amore Alato>>>> Remains on 135
4. Nesterenko>>>> Down 1lb to 125
Lac Fontana made a mockery of a mark of 127 in his first go in a handicap and was subsequently raised 12lb to 139. He won with so much in hand that such a hike may even be conservative and he's not one to oppose lightly next time - possibly in the County Hurdle. It seems his no show behind The Liquidator earlier in the season can be put down to the stomach ulcers he was treated for, while softer ground might bring out the best in him too. His win was the final leg of a high-profile hat-trick for sire Shirocco following the earlier victories of Red Sherlock and Annie Power. Totalize was a bit unlucky to bump into a rival that was thrown in, pulling six lengths clear of the third himself. He goes up 5lb, but this was much better after his Ascot flop with the hood back on. Nesterenko was just having his fifth British start and was slightly short of room a couple of times early on. Down 1lb to 125, he can do better when tackling a handicap on better ground.
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