Weights & Measures: Cheltenham
Ben Linfoot looks at how the handicapper has responded to the action at Cheltenham's International Meeting last weekend.
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Friday, December 13
1. King Massini>>>> Up 9lb to 123
2. Hit The Headlines>>>> Up ??? to ???
3. Max Bygraves>>>> Down 2lb to 120
Evan Williams' King Massini just got up in a thrilling climax to this 2m5f race at Cheltenham on Friday, gamely seeing off the strong challenge of Gordon Elliott's Hit The Headlines to prevail by a nose. This was just King Massini's third start over fences following a victory and a second at Ludlow and he clearly appreciated the stamina test that Cheltenham offers. A dual point-to-point winner over three miles, the son of Dr Massini won over that distance on his fencing debut at Ludlow and on this evidence he'll relish a return to the longer trip. Whether it will help him defy a 9lb rise in the weights remains to be seen. Hit The Headlines will surely be set for a similar hike once the Irish assessor has his say, as he came to win his race and lost out by the narrowest of margins from a very game rival. He appreciated the step back up in trip and was another example of Elliott's fine placing when he lays one out for a prize in the UK. Max Bygraves was hampered slightly four out and stayed on for third after the final fence, but was dropped 2lb after finishing 13 lengths off the front two. Considering this was his first run in two years it was a very good effort and, as long as you don't believe in 'the bounce factor', he could be of interest next time - especially if Kim Bailey steps him up in trip.
1. The Skyfarmer>>>> Up 11lb to 134
2. Lyvius>>>> Up 5lb to 132
3. Canadian Diamond>>>> Remains on 127
This was all about Philip Hobbs' The Skyfarmer who stepped out of novice company for the first time in fine style, defying a mark of 123 without fuss. He was introduced into the betting for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' at 25/1 by the sponsors in the aftermath, and, while he's still some way off the required standard to win that race at present, he could well develop into a contender. The 11lb rise could be considered enough seeing as he beat the second four lengths receiving 4lb, but taking into account Richard Johnson dropped his whip before the last and looking at how much he was on top at the line, it looks fair. In fact, Hobbs might be tempted to give him another go in a handicap instead of reverting back to novice company. The Minehead handler ran Village Vic in My Tent Or Yours' Betfair Hurdle last February off an identical mark of 134 and that could well be an option at this stage, though he's clearly going to appreciate a return to longer distances in due course and is ultimately seen as a steeplechasing prospect.
1. Monbeg Dude>>>> Up 8lb to 146
2. Theatre Guide>>>> Up 4lb to 151
3. Pigeon Island>>>> Down 2lb to 132
6. Duke Of Lucca>>>> Down 1lb to 134
Monbeg Dude didn't look particularly well-handicapped going into this race. Michael Scudamore's charge had been beaten twice off a chase mark of 138 in handicaps since his Welsh National win (achieved off a rating of 128), though he had run well at Cheltenham the last twice, firstly in a novice hurdle behind Kings Palace and then when fourth behind Alvarado at the Paddy Power meeting. However, he improved to record another lifetime best here with the notable aspect of his performance undoubtedly his slick jumping - a trait that hasn't come naturally to him but has been worked on by Zara Phillips according to his handler. Tom Scudamore gave him a lovely ride too, adopting the usual hold-up tactics that Paul Carberry and Jamie Moore employed on the horse in victories last season. It's going to be very tough up another 8lb for him now, though, with another Gold Cup tilt and the Grand National possible targets that were mentioned afterwards. A rating of 146 would have seen him carry 10st 12lb in the last year's Grand National and connections will be happy enough with something similar.
Theatre Guide travelled and jumped extremely well too and wasn't beaten far in second as he put in another fine run following his Hennessy third. Indeed, senior handicapper Phil Smith said afterwards that his franking of the Hennessy form might see him re-assess the horses that finished in front of him there - Triolo D'Alene and Rocky Creek. The front two pulled 16 lengths clear of Pigeon Island and up 4lb to 151, Colin Tizzard's charge isn't far off graded standard and he could be aimed at a top handicap such as the currently-unnamed contest most recently known as the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton in February. Another to take note of is Duke Of Lucca. He isn't a Cheltenham horse and made several mistakes, but he's well-handicapped on his best form now and will be of interest off 134 on a flatter track.
Saturday, December 14
1. Eastlake>>>> Up 8lb to 148
2. French Opera>>>> Up 5lb to 155
3. Astracad>>>> Up 2lb to 144
10. Shooters Wood>>>> Down 2lb to 137
Eastlake is now 13lb higher than the mark from which he started the season after victories at Aintree and Cheltenham, though he was all out to see off the attentions of French Opera on Saturday. An 8lb rise is understandable and you would think connections will stick to what he likes - two miles around here - and that probably means the Grand Annual for him in March. He jumps well, loves a strongly-run two miles and clearly excels at the track. On this evidence he'll be well fancied for the race. French Opera was rated as high as 164 in his heyday but this good run makes one last hurrah all the more unlikely for him as he's gone back up another 5lb. Astracad was well punted and led from four out to the last, but couldn't quite go with the front two in the closing stages. This took his losing run to eight and once again he's a victim of his own consistency, his third good run in four seeing the handicapper bump him back up 2lb to 144. Shooters Wood might be one to keep an eye on if you're brave enough. On the face of it this was another bad run, but Paul Nicholls said beforehand he'd only had him back in three weeks and he expected him to come on for the run massively. He led until the 10th before weakening, but he's just 4lb higher than his last winning mark now and won't be one to dismiss too lightly wherever he turns up.
1. Double Ross>>>> Up 7lb to 140
2. Cantlow>>>> Up 3lb to 151
3. Colour Squadron>>>> Remains on 146
4. Sew On Target>>>> Remains on 130
5. Johns Spirit>>>> Remains on 148
Double Ross ran off a chase rating 9lb lower than his highest mark over timber and he took advantage in fine style, winning despite idling up the hill and racing on ground conditions that wouldn't be his optimum. All this after a mistake at the fourth last too, so a 7lb rise might not be so harsh. Indeed, after just four starts over fences, it wouldn't be a surprise were he to turn out a better chaser and he'll be of major interest in future handicaps, especially on softer conditions - though it's no bad thing he's proven himself on better ground too. Cantlow ran another fine race and he could achieve very good things over fences with a clear round. Unfortunately most of his chase runs have contained a jumping error, even in victory at Newbury, and maybe a step back up to three miles would help in that regard. Certainly, if he can put in an error-free round a rise of 3lb might not be enough to stop him. Colour Squadron made mistakes at the last two fences and there's just a feeling he's found his level now. But again, there is room for improvement with him too if he can jump better. Sew On Target was hassled for the lead by Easter Meteor and might've finished much closer but for those attentions. He is a very consistent horse around Cheltenham and I would still love to see him force it over two miles, though this trip is clearly not an issue. He remains of interest off 130. It's difficult to think of any excuses for Johns Spirit who ran another good race in fifth and stays on 148. Perhaps the handicapper has finally caught up with him.
Non handicap races - ratings to note
The stand-out performance of the weekend according to the handicapper was in the final race of the meeting, as Jonjo O'Neill's More Of That won the Osborne House Relkeel Hurdle with any amount in hand. Martin Greenwood put him up from 145 to 160 on the back of the performance, justifying general quotes of 10/1 for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle (the 14/1 quoted immediately after the race didn't last long). Last year's winner Solwhit had a British mark of just 154 going into Cheltenham and with Big Buck's to reappear after a long absence and doubts surrounding At Fishers Cross, More Of That could well develop into a serious contender.
In the StanJames.com International Hurdle The New One didn't have to improve to beat Zarkandar, but the interesting one from a handicapping point of view was the proximity of Jumps Road in third. Sent off at 100/1, he was beaten just 12 lengths despite having to switch when causing mild interference to Zarkandar and David Dickinson raised him just 4lb to 135. If you take the form literally he could be thrown in next time he runs in a handicap. But as Dickinson says in the BHA Handicapper's Blog: "The time is modest and I don't believe he improved anywhere near as much as the result suggests. In putting him to 135, I have raised his mark 4lb but not taken him out of a rating band. Is that lenient? We will see."
Finally, in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Kings Palace put up an excellent effort to string his field out and win by an impressive 14 lengths. Raised 10lb from 146 to 156 on the back of that, that new rating already puts him at a level good enough to have won every single renewal of the Albert Bartlett at the Festival (when looking at the ratings the winners achieved in that race.) His slick hurdling is an obvious asset, and though the Irish are bound to have a worthy challenger or three in the race, you would think it will take a very good one to beat David Pipe's charge if he can repeat, or even improve upon this form.