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Watch And Learn column

Watch & Learn: Timefigure analysis from Graeme North | We have lift-off


A bumper weekend of action and Graeme North provides his fascinating insight into the winners and losers on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In last week’s column I remarked that the National Hunt season seemed finally to be engaging top gear and you’d have to search long and hard to find someone who didn’t agree the weekend just gone was the best so far - and by a long way too - of the current campaign.

So, with so much to cover, I’ll crack on and, for a change, deal the meetings individually.

SANDOWN: SATURDAY

How much of a part Chacun Pour Soi’s presence played in Shishkin’s absence from the Grade 1 Betfair Tingle Creek we’ll probably never properly know, but for whatever reason the crack Irish two-miler (or should that title belong to Energumene now?) suffered a second dose of ‘Notebook syndrome’ and failed once again to give his running after travelling across from Ireland.

For me, it wasn’t the pace that he set that caused his downfall, as the fractions he set out in front were very similar at all points from the first fence jumped than those set by the inferior Third Time Lucki in the earlier Close Brothers Henry VIII Novices’ Chase, and it probably wasn’t lack of readiness either given the status of the race.

Perhaps the reason, or at least the reason as I see it, is that Chacun Pour Soi is more comfortable on tracks with more distance between fences than the rat-a-tat-tat scenario he has faced on both the Old Course at Cheltenham and Sandown on his visits here. If that theory is correct, then for all the mighty timefigures he has posted in Ireland – 171 or higher on four occasions, a record unequalled by any other chaser currently in training – his claims come Cheltenham next March (if he comes over) when he turns ten will be no more appealing.

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His no-show left the door open not for second favourite Nube Negra (one of three Dan Skelton high-profile chasers to run poorly over the weekend) to pick up the pieces as might have been expected but last year’s Champion Chase fourth Greanateen, who edged out his stable-companion Hitman in a rather ordinary timefigure of 150.

Indeed, the closing sectional from two out in the Tingle Creek was less than a second faster than the following three-and-a-half mile chase and around half a second slower than the Henry VIII despite the latter race being run in an overall time over two seconds faster than the Tingle Creek.

This all adds up to an underwhelming Tingle Creek and would seem to me far less of a Cheltenham pointer than Edwardstone’s well up-to-par effort (rating 159, timefigure 160) in the Henry VIII.

If there was a Festival-winning performance on the card, however, it might well have come from Constitution Hill in the opening novice hurdle.

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His trainer Nicky Henderson has another strong contender for the Sky Bet Supreme in Jonbon, of course, but while he has a ‘game in hand’ so to speak Constitution Hill already has the points in the bag and goal difference too on account of a 142 timefigure and a finishing sectional from two out that was over three seconds faster than any of the other later hurdles winners managed over the same trip (mindful the ground had probably deteriorated by the final race) and over two seconds quicker from the final flight despite his own race being run at a much faster pace and in a much faster overall time than either of those two contests.

I’m always slightly wary of horses pulling away up Sandown’s hill given the often cloying conditions there, but there was little to quibble about here running clean away from a horse to whom Timeform had awarded a large P after an impressive winning debut in a manner reminiscent of Shishkin’s win at Newbury ahead of his Supreme victory.

NAVAN: SATURDAY

Gordon Elliott trained ten winners over the weekend with seven of those coming at Navan on Saturday where his star mare Riviere d’Etel continued her spectacular progress over fences to land the Grade 3 Klairon Davis Novice Chase by 12 lengths in a 151 timefigure, her best yet and clearly putting her in frame for the Sporting Life Arkle where her free-running, solid-jumping style ought to stand her in good stead.

Easy winner Ginto, one of the best Irish pointers of his year group as I read his form, ran only to 119 when winning the two-and-a-half mile Grade 2 Navan Novice but the race turned into something of a dash for home and he still looked to me more an Albert Bartlett type than a Ballymore sort. I don’t doubt he’ll develop into one of the leading novice hurdlers.

Farouk D’Alene, last seen when getting the better of last season’s Albert Bartlett winner Vanillier at Limerick nearly a year ago, didn’t make much of a splash on the clock in the well-contested beginners chase (101 timefigure) but I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t leave this form well behind.

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AINTREE: SATURDAY

Protektorat put himself into the Gold Cup picture, if not impressing as the likely winner, on a punishing day weather wise, displaying hitherto unseen stamina on softening ground to get the better of former Gold Cup winner Native River in a timefigure of 160, the same as he posted in the Paddy Power Gold Cup last month.

Zambella won the Listed Mares’ Chase but a timefigure of 130 and a low-key effort from last year’s Paddy Power Mares’ second Elimay suggests there’s no reason yet to think she’s any better than last year.

CORK: SUNDAY

‘It was easy enough in the end’ said a straight-faced Keith Donoghue in a post-race interview with Racing TV’s Kevin O’Ryan after Largy Debut (timfefigure 141) had put last year’s Champion Bumper winner Kilcruit to the sword in the second race at Cork on Sunday.

Largy Debut’s race was easily the fastest of the four hurdles run on the card, and the strongest-run of the quartet too, two and a half seconds faster from the first hurdle jumped in the straight to the fourth last, and there’s no doubt he’s a very smart horse as his easy defeat (still on the bridle 2 out with his rider looking round before scorching clear) of the now 130-rated Onagatheringstorm in a maiden point at Oldtown in February 2020 made clear.

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That said, Kilcruit (129) looked rusty, a bit awkward over some of his hurdles, and it may be that over the minimum trip his stable-companion Dysart Dynamo, who, in a first-time tongue tie, came home in a timefigure of 127 and in a time nearly a second and a half faster from the second last to maintain his unbeaten record, might well be the speedier of the pair at two miles.

Nell’s Well (97) relished her first try at three miles to spring a surprise in the Grade 3 Stayers but there looked no fluke about it, full of running approaching the second last and coming home from there faster even than Largy Debut had managed earlier in the day.

Over the larger obstacles, Energumene and Concertista both advertised their Cheltenham credentials with emphatic victories over what might have been advertised as 2m 160y but ended up considerably less as the first fence past the stands was omitted meaning the runners in both races took a shorter circuit on the hurdles track.

In the event, Energumene in the Hilly Way recorded a time only 19lb faster than Concertista in the Grade 2 Mares novice, but that was because, after running the distance to the fourth fence in a broadly similar time, Energumene (and Notebook, who matched strides with him but ultimately finished exhausted) reached the fourth last around 7 seconds faster than the mares took to get to the same point before the mares closed the gap notably late on as Energumene slowed right down.

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For me, Concertista ran an excellent trial for the Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase. A winner once and second twice on three previous visits to Cheltenham, her jumping wasn’t fluent over the first few fences when the pace was fast, but she improved as the race went on and had loads in hand at the line over some mares who had already shown smart form at the minimum trip. She’s open to plenty of improvement over a more suitable two and a half miles.

PUNCHESTOWN: SUNDAY

The John Durkan Memorial attracted a high-quality filed, but with many of Willie Mullins’ seven runners having their seasonal pipeopener, including last years’ Ryanair winner Allaho, it probably wasn’t quite as representative as the collective face value of its participants might have suggested.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating tactical contest in which both Envoi Allen, taking on Grade 1 Open company for the first time in his life, and 2021 Melling Chase winner Fakir D’Oudairies started shorter in the betting than Allaho but ended up with both sent home with their tails between their legs after being put to the sword in a 155 timefigure by the thoroughly dominant winner.

Admittedly, the three fences that were missed out on account of low sun might have played to a degree into the hands of those ridden prominently given there was virtually no space to manoeuvre until that section had been completed, but that ignores the fact that the pace set by Allaho was unrelenting, particularly in the middle of the race.

There, despite already having covered the distance from the first fence in the straight to the sixth fence two and a half seconds faster than Ferny Hollow managed in the later beginners chase, he ran the distance to the second last a further five seconds faster than Ferny Hollow’s lot did in their race.

That strong pace led to a finish from the second last four seconds slower than the one posted by Ferny Hollow and almost certainly contributed in part to the departure 3 out of Asterion Forlonge, whose jumping or finishing efforts have always been slightly questionable anyway. Envoi Allen seemed to have no excuses and it’s hard to see him cutting any mustard at Cheltenham on the back of this.

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Ferny Hollow (timefigure 139) made a satisfactory start to his chasing career, well on top ultimately having been headed going to the last by Coeur Sublime in a quality beginners chase that National Hunt fans this side of the water can only dream about. He’s not the easiest to keep fit sound seemingly, but scalps of Bob Olinger and Appreciate It in his previous two races suggests he is the right favourite at the minute for the Arkle.

HUNTINGDON: SUNDAY

First Flow got back to his very best in the Peterborough Chase on ground his connections have long thought too quick for him, stamina winning him the day and his 161 timefigure just eclipsing the 160 he managed last year when beating Politologue in the Clarence House at Ascot suggesting he might yet improve a bit more over an even longer trip.

The fixture seemed to me to signal the end of Cheltenham aspirations for Allmakind and Oscar Elite, as Boothill’s Exeter defeat earlier in the week had for him too on a day his trainer Harry Fry oddly chose to be at Sandown instead.

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