Timeform Jumps Editor Dan Barber discusses the factors at play behind Britain's Cheltenham Festival performance - with a stark warning it could be the sign of things to come.
A disclaimer, first off. Writing a column of any sort is something that doesn’t come easily. To say I appear on Racing TV a few times every month, I hold an inherent racing politico shyness-cum-apathy – plus a general desire to avoid confrontation – that means this probably won’t be the place to satisfy a craving for polarising hot-takes on all those matters in racing that extend beyond the formalities of ‘who may be overpriced in this novice handicap at Ludlow, Dan?’. Anyone who follows my Twitter output can vouch I’d prefer to summon a banal pun than a doctrine on racing’s failings.
And, you never know, some may feel a semi-regular column that doesn’t call for heads, address issues investigated by Feds, or, imagine this, appreciate retweets in Twitter threads, might offer something semi-refreshing.
So those writing yips, in part, explain why this Cheltenham reflections column has taken so long, since bona fide racing good-egg Dave Ord first floated the idea when a handful of us convened at arm’s length in the shadow of Doncaster racecourse for the Sporting Life Festival Preview the preceding Wednesday.
Under a week later, the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle hadn’t so much set the tone for the rest of the meeting as left it ringing in the ears interminably, until Galopin des Champs brought the twelve-round beating to a close in the Martin Pipe, fittingly at the chief expense of the obvious handicap standout of the week from a British perspective, well-in Imperial Cup winner Langer Dan. 23-5 was the tally on a judge’s scorecard that not even home advantage could skew more positively.
Appreciate It (oops) hardened in the betting pretty much right until the off for the Supreme and decided to add a 0 and some more besides to the usual two-metre social distancing rule, leaving such as the unbeaten Metier and Betfair Hurdle winner Soaring Glory trailing in his wake, only Blue Lord’s last-flight fall preventing the first Irish clean sweep of the placings that, perhaps surprisingly looking back, had to wait until Allaho (phew and whoosh) had brutalised his way to the performance of the week in the Ryanair, seeing him rise to the top of a Timeform Top Jumpers’ List that never fails to get Twitter’s knickers in a twist.
Were the Shakespearean sentiments of ‘All the world’s a stage; and all the men and women merely players’ applied to the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, then Mullins, de Bromhead and Cromwell would have been headline acts and their British counterparts reduced to roles as extras, craning their necks to get their name onto the closing credits of the four-day drama.
Naturally, everyone will have their own subconscious ranking of trainers, be it shaped by a response to the success or otherwise backing their runners, or a more nuanced statistical analysis of performance versus market expectation. But, regardless of preferred method, the Cheltenham results make for grim reading. As recently as 2015, Britain clung to its ‘Prestbury Cup’ advantage, edging out Ireland by an odd-race in twenty-seven verdict. But that outcome was turned into a 13-15 loss the following season and has been thoroughly one-sided since. Pressedandburied Cup may be a more fitting title from 2022 onwards.
Not many were happier than I when Vintage Clouds (cue Barry Horowitz backslap) made his fifth start in the Ultima a winning one, yet final trainer standings that saw traditional Cheltenham powerhouse Nicky Henderson edge out by only one names such as Sue Smith and, thanks to Porlock Bay’s last-gasp Festival Challenge Cup, Will Biddick, both with their only runner that week, hardly feels sustainable.
Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls, for example, threw twenty darts of differing quality yet a few outer bulls courtesy of Next Destination, Shantou Flyer and the admittedly very promising Hous Grix, rather than any prized ‘fifties’, were the best he could muster, following on from a 2020 Festival that had yielded Politologue’s Champion Chase victory and not much else.
And top-ten Trainers’ Championship mainstays such as Philip Hobbs, Alan King, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Colin Tizzard also fired blanks in the face of Ireland’s overwhelming strength in depth, the last-named’s quartet of placings salvaging some consolation prizes.
Yet a critical analysis of the British ‘failings’ needs the context of the Irish success.
After I posited a theory or two in a Cheltenham performance debrief, Timeform’s R&D guru (we used to call them geeks at school but ours, Tom Heslop, even has a football team in his Twitter handle, suggesting times have changed) did his thing and found some numbers to back up my brainstormed conclusions.
Now, it’s accepted that Irish Point To Points have become the main source of the best stock, exceeding even France in a race that has seen the British scene tail off. It is mostly from this pool that current big-spending owners Cheveley Park, Brian Acheson and the Morans have amassed strings of such intense quality, all of it trained in Ireland. If the British are having to accept the apparent ‘second-raters’, as agents understandably seek to keep the gems for their most loyal patrons, then the void – in the hurdling division anyway, in which Britain drew a blank across the week - needs to be filled elsewhere, primarily, logically, via the Flat.
Except that’s where Tom’s numbers – displayed below - come in handy. For clarity, the columns, moving from left-to-right, indicate: year, number of qualifying horses, horses sent jumping with BHA Flat mark of at least 100; horses sent jumping with BHA mark of at least 90; horses sent jumping with BHA Flat mark of at least 80.
In short, the quality of Flat recruit to jumping, faced with competition for the best middle-distance material from buyers in Australia and Hong Kong, has been in steady decline. And this doesn’t just impact in graded races – it has a profound effect on handicaps as well, as the BHA use race standardisation (in essence ‘what does it normally take to win this sort of race?’) – as Timeform do, too - in helping to rate races throughout the season.
Standardisation is of most use in non-handicaps, but if the ability of those running in those races is down due to the supply-line having been hit hard or choked off, then it follows that the ratings afforded to those many novice hurdles should have dropped as well, doesn’t it? Whereas a mark of 140 for winning a good novice hurdle in Britain in the past might have been handed to a sparkling point winner or highly-rated Flat horse, it is now being given to material of perceived inferior ability, which has the potential knock-on effect of inflating the ratings undeservingly on the handicap population as one.
In truth, only the County Hurdle on the final day provided any cheer for handicap hurdlers in the British ranks – three of the first six home, including the pair who arguably shaped best, Milkwood and Third Time Lucki, were home-trained, while, in a further twist, the winner Belfast Banter had twice run in handicaps on these shores earlier in the season. But the Pertemps earlier in the week had painted a far starker picture, providing Ireland as it did with its sixth successive win in the race following a fifteen-year stretch to start the century that had seen all bar two editions stay in Britain.
TBA board member, and breeder of Gold Cup winner Sizing John, Bryan Mayoh, observed recently on Nick Luck’s podcast how twenty of the forty-eight horses placed in Cheltenham’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 races at the Festival had all started life in Irish point to points. And if sourcing from the Flat isn’t taking the strain required to alleviate the clear deficit among the leading Irish points purchases, or if Britain’s big training and owning names can’t force their way into the bidding for the best point stock, then Festivals like the latest one will become normal. The new normal, if you will.