Graeme North reviews a brilliant weekend with stopwatch in hand as he delivers his timefigure verdict on a host of top-class performances.
There was so much good action over jumps last weekend it’s hard to know where to begin for once, but I’ll start in Ireland, where Saturday’s Fairyhouse card might have been the less interesting of the newly-amalgamated two-day Festival but fascinating all the same given it featured the highly-awaited first appearance over hurdles of the latest Champion Bumper winner Facile Vega.
The 1/9 favourite quickly established an easy lead and was barely out of first gear as he came home unchallenged from two out with his rider sat motionless. His winning timefigure-sectional combination didn’t set the world alight at a lowly 108 but with so much in the tank it’s not a race to be judging him on and what he might have achieved is better estimated by analysing the efforts of Joyeux Machin and Landrake, who both also won on Saturday’s card and whom Facile Vega had beaten by seven lengths and twenty lengths respectively in a bumper at Leopardstown last Christmas.
Joyeux Machin posted a decent 126 timefigure, upgraded to 130 after finishing splits are incorporated, though that overall time rating might well be on the low side given that a small allowance for ground deterioration was made on the hurdles track; while Landrake posted a 125 timefigure (126 overall) after going through the middle of the race (final hurdle jumped on the penultimate circuit to three out) much faster than any of the other races on the card. All that would suggest that Facile Vega is easily capable of running a figure in 140s and he’s clearly a very exciting prospect.
Minella Crooner broke his duck in the opening beginners chase in a 139 timefigure, just short of his 146 performance rating, though was slightly fortunate to beat the latest Ballymore fourth I Am Maximus who didn’t jump fluently on his chase debut and first run since leaving Nicky Henderson. The first two look open to improvement but don’t strike me as potential Festival winners.
Sunday’s card was harder to analyse from a timefigure perspective with rain falling throughout the afternoon and a Hatton’s Grace Hurdle that was, officially at least, run over a new distance of an extended nineteen furlongs as opposed to the two and a half miles it has been in recent years. I wrote last week that while there were signs last season Honeysuckle wasn’t the quite the force she had been the previous one, I still hoped she would be able to extend her winning sequence and send out a message to Constitution Hill that the Champion Hurdle was still there to play for.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be and after travelling well enough into the race and trading at 1.13 she was unable to get the job done, despite leading after the second last, and she trailed in third behind Teahupoo and Klassical Dream. The race wasn’t run at a flat-out gallop – the field reached the second last from the final hurdle on the penultimate circuit over four seconds slower than the novices had in the Royal Bond – and it was disappointing in those circumstances that a dual Champion Hurdler should finish one place behind a horse who had finished fifth in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle.
Although he didn’t give his running in the last Champion Hurdle, a 144 timefigure here doesn’t suggest to me that Teahupoo is the real deal just yet, either. Nor do I draw the conclusion that some have that Honeysuckle is finished and should either be retired or switched to the Mares’ Hurdle. Her stable has had a good few run below-par recently – Telmesumthinggirl was another at Thurles in the week – so perhaps stable form should be taken into account.
As inferred, there was no hiding place in the Royal Bond, sponsored like all the races on the card by Bar One. Despite an unrelenting pace that saw three of the eight runners pulled up, there were still four in with a chance turning for home only for Marine Nationale to overcome a mistake at the last and get back up and collar Irish Point on the line. 148 timefigures for the first two and a minimal upgrade make for a good standard at this time of the year, and though the latter went off surprisingly big at 18/1, the bumper he won at Saint-Cloud last year looks a very strong piece of form now on the exploits of the runner-up that day, Il Est Francais, who is now trained by Tom George and has run to 157 in France according to Timeform.
Beaten favourite Champ Kiely might have lost some lustre in defeat, but Ashroe Diamond (135 timefigure) looked to advance her Mares’ Hurdle claims a little to me, with the uphill finish at Cheltenham on better ground also promising to suit her better.
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Lossiemouth showed a sparkling turn of foot before the rain got into the ground to land the juvenile hurdle in good fashion and cement her tall home reputation. A 104 timefigure is testament to a steadily-run race, but a 23lb upgrade takes her overall time performance to a more respectable 127, and she absolutely tore home from the last. I wouldn’t be giving up on the runner-up Zarak The Brave, who looks a strong stayer. He seemed inconvenienced by the much steadier pace here than he encountered first time up and that seemed to me to be the root cause of his errors at the last two hurdles. Merlin Giant, another winner for Emmett Mullins, had any amount in hand in the two-mile handicap (129 timefigure) and is presumably on target for the County Hurdle.
Mighty Potter took the honours over fences in the Drinmore Chase in a 138 timefigure. I’m not convinced the opposition behind him was proper Grade 1 winter quality and the runner-up Gaillard Du Mesnil patently needs further, but I’ve no doubt he himself is top class even if he did have things more his own way than some and his jumping still needs some attention.
The previous day at Sandown, both Jonbon and Edwardstone advanced their Cheltenham credentials for the Arkle and Champion Chase respectively in the Henry VIII and Tingle Creek, though the former – slightly surprisingly – barely budged in a market still waiting on Willie Mullins releasing one of his big guns.
Only three rivals turned up to take on Jonbon and though the gallant high-level handicapper Boothill got within three lengths jumping the second last, Jonbon was already toying with him at that stage and once his rider asked him, he scooted clean away to win impressively. A winning timefigure of 148 might have been 4lb lower than he had recorded at Warwick but his finishing kick at Sandown (around 3 seconds faster than Edwardstone from 2 out and 2 seconds faster from the last) was sufficiently fast to elevate his overall timerating into the high 160’s.
To put that rating into context, since Sprinter Sacre won the Arkle in 2012, when he posted a 184-performance, Timeform have only Un De Sceaux (167) in 2015 and Shishkin (170) in 2021 running to a higher winning figure in the race than 164.
Shishkin made his first appearance since pulling up in last season’s Champion Chase later on the card in the Tingle Creek but could only finish third behind last season’s Arkle winner Edwardstone. The race was strongly run with Gentleman De Mee, who had ended Edwardstone’s winning run over fences at Aintree last season, doing too much in front (got to the first fence down the far side nearly 3 seconds faster than Jonbon) and though Shishkin was still in contention approaching the Pond fence, a bad error there ended his chances. Benefitting from a patient ride, Edwardstone picked off Greaneteen after the second last, though a 155 timefigure (upgraded to 157 after sectionals are incorporated) has me questioning whether his performance was all it seemed on paper.
Whatever, his career path going forward seems quite well defined, even if he has a bit to do in my book to challenge Energumene; Shishkin’s is less so with his next run sure to reveal much more about his current standing.
Across at Aintree, Watch And Learn column favourite Noble Yeats enhanced Gold Cup claims in the Grade 2 Many Clouds Chase, sponsored by Boylesports. At least all the fences were jumped on this occasion - unlike the 2020 edition when all the fences were omitted in the home straight and the official handicapper took Lake View Lad’s victory at face value and effectively ended his career – and Noble Yeats undoubtedly took his form to a new level with a three-and-a-quarter length defeat of Dashel Drasher, to whom he was conceding 4lb in a career-high 154 timefigure.
A finishing time from three fences out, three seconds quicker than Brave Seasca posted in the later handicap over five furlongs shorter, raises his overall time rating to a lofty 168 and unquestionably puts him in the Gold Cup picture. The National might be on his agenda but I wouldn’t advise anyone to back him to repeat his 2022 feat until the weights are revealed, as the over-the-top treatment meted out to the 2021 Grand National winner Minella Times (raised 15lb) in his bid to win back-to-back Nationals suggests he’s almost certainly going to be set a crippling task.
Back in third was Ahoy Senor, who, depending on your take, continues to be either a disappointment or a work in progress. Looking on the positive side, a 150 timefigure is the best he has achieved since his win in the 2021 Sefton Hurdle, but against that he’s an awkward jumper of fences and seemingly not getting any more fluent.
There’s always at least one ‘high-profile’ staying chaser each year about whom connections finally call time on fences ahead of the Stayers’ Hurdle, and it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise if Ahoy Senor goes down that route given an average Stayer’s Hurdle takes 14lb or so less winning than a Gold Cup. His odds for the Stayers’ have shortened in the last couple of weeks, but the widely-available 33/1 still looks a risk worth taking, not least given the division, Flooring Porter aside, is heavy with horses much older than Ahoy Senor with no scope for improvement.
Earlier in the week at Punchestown the Champion Bumper runner-up Sandor Clegane paid another compliment to Facile Vega with a victory at Punchestown in a novice that burst Demandrivingdouvan’s bubble.
He pulled away stylishly off a steady pace (timefigure just 98) but the horse who impressed me most on the card, and more than most winners all week, was Intranet, a French import for Willie Mullins who posted a 121 timefigure and still scorched home from the last over five lengths faster than any of the other hurdles winners. He might not turn out to be as good as Facile Vega but looks to have a very bright future.
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