Timeform's Nic Doggett looks at the best form race of the 2016/17 jumps season so far.
"The handicapper has kindly dropped Pobbles Bay by 1 lb and, with Williams nominating the Midlands Grand National back at Uttoxeter as his main target, he’s certainly not one to give up on just yet."
To some, form (as in how a race is working out) in horse racing is seen almost as an irrelevance. To some, it is everything. The reality is that the best balance is probably somewhere in-between, however there are times when you just have to sit up and take note of a race that is proving to be not just a reliable tool, but an essential one. The race in question challenges the oft-held notion that races held at the biggest racecourses provide the best form. Uttoxeter, for all its positives, is only the biggest or best racecourse in Staffordshire because, unlike in the 20th century, it is the only racecourse in Staffordshire. The course's most notable race is the Midlands Grand National, held the day after the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which is usually seen as a severe test of stamina, an attribute that is generally common for a lot of races held at the track, despite it being a relatively fair and galloping course. However, the race in question occurred in November, rather than March, and was the Wychwood Hobgoblin Chase (Novices' Limited Handicap).
Run over two and a half miles on soft ground, in a time of 5min 8.2sec, the class 3 novices' handicap didn't immediately appear to be anything largely out of the ordinary, as the comment from the Timeform race reporter reveals: "A few interesting profiles in this field and it's the sort of race that'll throw up some winners over the coming months, though on the day a strong pace seemed to expose some fitness deficiencies and only the first three were anywhere close to form." Subsequent performances have exposed that initial verdict to be the equivalent of a builder's (under)estimate.
1st - Pobbles Bay was a fairly useful hurdler for Evan Williams last season but the seven-year-old has improved to the tune of 20 lb over fences, making light of a 14 lb higher handicap mark when following up this win with an emphatic four and half-length success at Chepstow in December. Despite only going up 7 lb for that win, connections decided to chance their arm in listed company at Warwick last weekend. He made little impact, though it is doubtful that the sharp course - despite being second there over hurdles - plays to his strengths. The handicapper has kindly dropped Pobbles Bay by 1 lb and, with Williams nominating the Midlands Grand National back at Uttoxeter as his main target, he's certainly not one to give up on just yet.
2nd - Crosspark has been a rare 'let-down' for the form, failing to win in two subsequent starts, however he found the ground too quick when sixth of seven at Doncaster later in November and then produced a clear career-best when second to Hainan on soft ground at Wetherby in December, the only horse to give the lightly-weighted winner a race. Crosspark remains of interest at up to three miles.
3rd - Bun Doran was making his chasing debut at Uttoxeter and he was strong in the betting on his next start, when sent up to Newcastle, putting up a borderline smart effort to get off the mark over the larger obstacles. He is open to further improvement, with a graded novice a realistic target now; he is entered in such a race at Haydock on Saturday. Like Crosspark, soft ground appears to be key to him.
4th - Poker School was a fairly useful handicap hurdler, recording wins at Kempton and Sandown in recent seasons, however he has flourished over fences of late. Though much of his next start after Uttoxeter, in a competitive handicap at Ascot, was shrouded in fog, there was no disguising the horse's superiority as he surged to the front over the final fence. Raised 8 lb by the handicapper, he progressed again when winning back at his old haunt of Kempton on Boxing Day, despite not always jumping fluently.
5th - Roll The Dough was a dual hurdles winner last season and went to Uttoxeter with a run at Worcester - where he shaped as if needing the outing - under his belt. He shaped better than the distance beaten (29 lengths) when doing too much up with the pace but hasn't run since.
6th - Brandon Hill was returning from a 675-day absence at Uttoxeter, over a trip short of his best, and he has won two races since stepping back up to three miles. Tom Lacey's nine-year-old received a fine attacking ride on both occasions, fending off a well-backed favourite at Newbury on Wednesday, and he'll surely make a bold for the hat-trick.
7th - Champagne At Tara, who was a long way below form at Uttoxeter, has dropped in trip on his two starts since. The results have been second- and third-placed finishes, though his Timeform § suggests that he's not one to trust in a finish. However, granted a strong pace and the cards falling right, he is still one to note, especially if connections decide to reapply the hood (worn when winning at Catterick in December 2015).
8th - Hainan, mentioned above, immediately improved when second to the unbeaten Battle of Shiloh at Newcastle on his next start, and then went one place better when beating Crosspark at Wetherby. The handicapper has reacted severely to that all-the-way success, raising Sue Smith's six-year-old 15 lb to a clear career-high mark of 133.
9th - Batavir wasted no time getting back to form, returned to hurdles, when third at Haydock in December. He has since had another unenjoyable chasing experience at Newcastle, beating just one horse home, and connections will be scratching their heads as there wasn't much wrong with his jumping.
UR - Doitforthevillage was held in fifth when unseating his rider two out, but improved for that seasonal reappearance when winning under a patient ride at Lingfield the following month. He attracted support, but failed to repeat that effort when fifth next time out at Ludlow, let down by his jumping in the latter stages.
UR - Mr Grey, who has the build for chasing, got rid of his jockey at the second but completed (and ran well, matching his fairly useful hurdles form) when second to subsequent Sandown winner Mercian Prince on his next start at Southwell later in November.
PU - Dream Berry, a dual winner over hurdles in France last season, pulled up on this chasing debut and hasn't been seen since. He has reportedly bled in the past and is hard to get a handle on.
PU - Gino Trail dropped to two miles for his next two starts and it resulted in two handicap wins. He has since matched his best form in two novice chases, finishing second on each occasion (giving weight away each time) and the 10-year-old, despite the fact he hasn't stood much racing down the years, will still be of interest wherever he goes next.
To summarise, that's a remarkable 10 wins from 13 horses in just two months, six of which came on their very next start. Over the last decade, the highest number of next time out winners for a single race over fences is seven, shared by chases at Newbury (December 2012) and Cheltenham (March 2015), though each had more runners. Percentage-wise, the Uttoxeter race tops the tree, with 55% of those runners who have raced since winning on their next start. The lesson? Not to judge a (Uttoxeter-shaped) book by its cover.