Graeme North analyses Little Big Bear's sparkling success in the Phoenix Stakes, plus highlights a horse of interest for the Sprint Cup.
Last week might have seen the return of the still-elitist Racing League (about which the less said the better) and the Shergar Cup, but the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes on Saturday at the Curragh showed that what will always maintain interest, as well as build interest, in the sport, so long as it is promoted properly, is not ‘celebrity’ racing managers acting as if they are the stars of the show or misguided team ‘competitions’ but the horses themselves.
We undoubtedly saw a top-class two-year-old on Saturday at the Curragh in the shape of Little Big Bear who is now the general 5/1 favourite for the 2000 Guineas
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Little Big Bear’s Timeform performance rating of 126 (with the small p retained, in anticipation of further improvement) is unsurprisingly the highest recorded by a two-year-old this year by a considerable margin, 16lb ahead of the 110 posted by Bradsell in the Coventry Stakes, Royal Scotsman in the Richmond, Dramatised in the Queen Mary and Naval Power in the listed Pat Eddery.
According to my research, there are only 65 two-year-old performance ratings on the Timeform database in Britain, Ireland and France this century 120 or higher, of which 41 were achieved over seven furlongs or more. Among those recorded at six furlongs in that period, Little Big Bear’s rating (which may, of course, go up or down depending on how the form works out) is second only to Dream Ahead’s 129 which came in the Middle Park and was accompanied by a 120 timefigure.
On the clock, Little Big Bear’s performance was no less impressive. A 112 timefigure isn’t the outright highest this season as Dramatised also posted 112 in the Queen Mary, but a 16lb upgrade on the back of a sizzling last three furlongs that nearly dipped under 33 seconds as measured by Timeform elevates his overall time rating to 128, which is probably enough already to ensure he will be the top two-year-old come the end of the season.
Certainly, there was very little to crab about the performance. For all that the Coventry winner Bradsell can have his running excused on account of a season-ending injury, there seemed little reason other than perhaps track position to think that July Stakes winner Persian Force or Railway Stakes winner Shartash weren’t pretty close to form and neither of them could live with the well-grown Little Big Bear as he powered away in the last furlong.
His winning time was second (but nearly two seconds slower) to Sudirman’s course-breaking 69.35 back in 2013, though given recent doubts about distances at the Curragh the assumption that that race took place over a full six furlongs is a rightly questionable one.
Little Big Bear’s ‘official’ winning distance of seven lengths is also second only to George Washington’s eight lengths the year before he won the 2000 Guineas. However, there appeared to be an inconsistency in the lengths per second used to determine winning distances at the Curragh on Saturday.
Little Big Bear ran his race 1.01 seconds faster than the runner-up and is credited with a seven-length win; yet in the following race over the same distance Gordon Bennett ran his race 0.56 seconds faster than the runner-up and has been credited with a three-and-a-half length win, which, even when allowing for the rounding up or down, suggests that the lengths per second used to determine Little Big Bear’s winning margin was not the same as that used to determine Gordon Bennett’s.
Old-fashioned methodology using a ruler and a static finishing print suggests that Gordon Bennett’s official winning distance was indeed correct while Little Big Bear’s was incorrect. Using the same lengths per second formula that prompted Gordon Bennett’s winning distance, Little Big Bear’s winning distance was six and a quarter lengths which is pretty much what I measured it as using my ruler.
Ratings that are calculated on the back of official winning distances require those distances (or more accurately, the scale that converts time to distance) to be correct. The solution - this is 2022 after all - would be for all official finishing times to be made widely and freely available for every runner, but Timeform currently don’t receive that information as part of its daily results feed. There isn’t a better illustration of the shortcomings of the system currently in use in Ireland than the half-length Toy was beaten officially in the Irish Oaks, where anyone studying the finish could see it was a head at most.
I have written before about how there is an undefined relationship between ability and precocity (well, at least I haven’t defined it) especially amongst two-year-olds that can’t be accommodated properly by the ‘one size fits all’ weight-for-age scale. In the first two weeks of August the official weight for age scale allows two-year-olds 26lb over 5f, 28lb over 6f, 32lb over 7f and 37lb over 1m. This is clearly nonsense as anyone dealing with timefigures daily will testify.
I made changes to Timeform’s weight-for-age scale several years ago and the current scale currently stands at 17lb at 5f and 22lb at 1m, for comparison. Results over the last few years have made me question whether I didn’t go far enough, and this is always at the back of my mind when returning timefigures in juvenile pattern races as the horses don’t require the full amount of the weight-for-age allowance they receive. All that said, I’m happy that I’ve got Little Big Bear’s overall timerating pretty much spot on, a scenario that was helped by all the races at the Curragh on Saturday for once being at a mile or shorter.
The biggest timefigure (119) last week came from Anmaat in the Group 3 Betfred Rose Of Lancaster Stakes at Haydock. There doesn’t seem any question about the merit of the performance given he had Grocer Jack, who had won by nine lengths at Newbury in a timefigure of 115 on his previous outing, four lengths back in second in a near repeat of his Newbury run on the clock. Anmaat’s progress through the ranks has been relentless, and on this evidence he could quite easily step up to Group 2 company without any problem.
The other winning timefigure last week of note (110) was posted by Manaccan in the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup Dash. The only three-year-old in the line-up and ridden by Hayley Turner – no disrespect to Joanna Mason or Nicola Currie but why headline act Rachael Blackmore was not riding for the women’s team must be one of the biggest mysteries of the year – Manaccan was fourth in the Cornwallis Stakes last autumn and has progressed with every run this year. There’s no doubt that the format of the meeting leads to form that is questionable at times, but Manaccan looks ready for another crack at minor pattern company.
The main action in France on Sunday came, as it always does in the month of August, at Deauville where the feature event, the Arc Prix Maurice de Gheest, went to John Quinn’s Highfield Princess. The Gheest is something of an oddity in that it is the only Group 1 race in the main European racing jurisdictions shorter than ten furlongs that is run over a ‘half-furlong’ distance and, as such, attracts a combination of sprinters and horses that have been plying their trade over seven furlongs.
Strong favourite at Deauville was the Commonwealth Cup winner Perfect Power, despite finishing only seventh in the July Cup subsequently where he had the re-opposing Naval Crown and Australian challenger Artorius well ahead of him, with the progressive Harry Three, winner of a listed race over course and distance the previous month, the only other runner to start shorter than 10/1.
Like so many Group races in France, the Gheest had a tactical element to it and far from taking the result at face value, I’d be inclined to the view that the best horse in the race didn’t even finish in the first three. That’s to take nothing away from Highland Princess, whose near three-length win in the Duke Of York Stakes in a 119 timefigure was a better reflection of her merit than her close sixth in the Platinum Jubilee where she was third in her group just behind Artorius, but she was able to dominate in a manner here that she could at York but couldn’t at Ascot and that to me had a big bearing on the result.
In pole position throughout - the race finishing speed was 102.2% - Highfield Princess ran only the sixth fastest last 600m according to the McLloyd tracking data and only the fourth last 200m. The horse who ran both those sections fastest was fourth-placed Rohaan, who seems to me unlucky not to have won either of his last two races.
Twice a winner of the Wokingham off BHA marks of 112 and 109, Rohaan ran the last 600m in 33.59 compared to the winner’s 34.02 and the last furlong in 11.63 compared to 11.96. Not only was he compromised by the relative lack of early pace but he was also drawn on the wing, much as he had been in the Hackwood Stakes at Newbury the previous month where he ran the third-last and penultimate furlongs combined in 21 seconds, easily the fastest of all the runners, only to find that rider error taking its toll in the last furlong.
When the cards drop right, I’m certain Rohaan has a pattern race in him and, with so little between the top sprinters, he looks decent value at the 11/1 still available for the Sprint Cup at Haydock at the start of September.
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