Handicappers' Corner: Cheltenham Festival edition

Lord Windermere achieved a low rating for a Gold Cup winner
Lord Windermere achieved a low rating for a Gold Cup winner

Unflattering odds can be deceiving when it comes to the Cheltenham Festival, where horses often go off at much larger prices than their form entitles them to be due to the competitiveness of the racing...

"As a result, Lord Windermere has been awarded the lowest Timeform rating for a Gold Cup winner since 1980."

For example, the legendary L'Escargot was a largely unconsidered 33/1 shot when winning the first of his two Cheltenham Gold Cups in 1970, whilst Hardy Eustace was returned at the same odds when claiming the first of his two Champion Hurdle wins in 2004 - despite the fact both of these horses had already won novice championship events at the Cheltenham Festival previously!

Therefore fans of Lord Windermere (c163) will point to the fact that his shock 20/1 win in the latest Gold Cup shouldn't be dismissed on account of his odds (the placed horses were 16/1 and 14/1!), particularly as it came twelve months after the gelding had won the RSA Chase at the meeting. However, there are far more solid grounds than those SPs to suggest that a low view should be taken of the form. It was a muddling race which resulted in a bunched finish - less than seven lengths covered the first six home - and the time comparison with the same day's Foxhunter over that course and distance didn't read well by Gold Cup standards. As a result, Lord Windermere has been awarded the lowest Timeform rating for a Gold Cup winner since 1980.

Time may show that we've taken an overly cautious view of the form, though it's worth stressing that runner-up On His Own (c163) had raced (unsuccessfully) off a BHA mark of just 144 when last seen on British soil three months earlier, whilst the proximity of the fully-exposed Knockara Beau (c149x) in seventh actually suggests this is a maximum figure the winner could have been rated.  

Third-placed The Giant Bolster (c165), of course, is a prime example of how it can be dangerous to dismiss prominent displays by outsiders in championship events, having now made the frame in both Gold Cups since finishing a shock 50/1 second to Synchronised in 2012. He arguably should have won this year too, having compromised his chance with a mixed round of jumping and then being hampered at a vital stage when bumped into at the second last.

The highest-rated runners in the field, though, remain the next two home Silviniaco Conti (c176) and Bobs Worth (c176?), who clearly didn't give their running on the day and possibly paid for pressing on too soon off what was a muddling pace. 

By contrast, the 33/1 success by Western Warhorse (c158) in the Arkle on Tuesday looks a far more solid piece of form (for all it was unexpected!) as the result makes plenty of sense in behind him. That said, runner-up Champagne Fever (c158p) appeals as by far the best prospect in this field and seems certain to develop into a top-class Grade 1 performer over the next few years, with longer trips likely to suit him better than the two miles of the Arkle.

The extended three miles of Wednesday's RSA Chase seemed to stretch the same connections' Ballycasey (c154), who shaped like the best horse for most of the way until his stamina ran dry. That left the way for the home-trained pair O'Faolains Boy (c152p) and Smad Place (c152) to pull clear in what a well-contested renewal which placed the emphasis on stamina and jumping, with the likes of Don Cossack (c151) and Le Bec (c149) failing on the latter score when in contention.

Jonjo O'Neill had a fine four days and saddled two of the best novice chasers seen at the meeting, with Holywell (c153p) claiming his second Festival success in as many years in the Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase and then Taquin du Seuil (c155p) winning the JLT Novices' Chase in more convincing fashion than the bare margins might suggest.

Both look open to further improvement and it's not out of the question we've seen the very best yet from Sire de Grugy (c172+), who took advantage of a substandard field to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase in pretty smooth fashion, in the process taking his tally over fences to nine wins from twelve starts. The Ryanair Chase was another poor contest by Grade 1 standards but, like Sire de Grugy, it had a good winner in Dynaste (c171) and he didn't need to run to his very best in order to resume winning ways.

By contrast, the main hurdle races at the meeting provided strong form, notably the World Hurdle on Thursday, which was fought out by the hitherto unbeaten pair More of That (h173p) and Annie Power (h165p), who pulled clear of the back-to-form At Fishers Cross (h161) in third, with Zarkandar (h162) adding further substance to the form in a never-nearer fourth even if old age had clearly caught up with the now-retired Big Buck's (h156+) in fifth. As the retention of a "p" on each of the first two would suggest, we feel that both More Of That and Annie Power could well go on to even better things, particularly as the former has achieved his lofty rating after just five career starts (having had no previous experience in points or on the Flat).

Tuesday's Champion Hurdle had been widely billed (including by Timeform) as the "race of the week" beforehand, but sadly it didn't fully live up to expectations due to a frustrating set of circumstances. That's not to say Jezki (h170) isn't a worthy winner. Indeed, he has been crying out for a well-run race all season and was reunited with Barry Geraghty, who has now won on all five rides aboard the gelding, so this career-best effort almost certainly doesn't flatter him. He was closely matched, of course, with My Tent Or Yours (h170) from last season's Supreme Novices', so there arguably shouldn't have been so big a difference in their respective odds. That said, there is an argument that My Tent Or Yours would have won had he not pulled so hard during the race, which contributed to a less fluent round of jumping than usual, particularly when one considers he was beaten just a neck in the end.

The real hard luck story from this year's Champion Hurdle, however, was The New One (h169+), who flew home on the run-in having lost plenty of ground and momentum when hampered by the fall of the ill-fated Our Conor (h164+) before halfway. Whether that makes him an unlucky loser is another matter, though, as the chances are he'd have still been outpaced by the first two turning in even if ideally positioned without that interference. Hopefully the rematch between all three principals will provide conclusive proof one way or another. 

Whether Hurricane Fly (h168+) will be involved in that race must be open to question now, as old age might be catching with him judging by his below-form fourth. It should be remembered, though, that he'd beaten Jezki on both previous meetings this season and possibly wasn't suited by more prominent tactics than usual at Cheltenham, so it could be premature to totally write him off from adding to his record-breaking haul of Grade 1 wins just yet.

Willie Mullins might have been out of luck with his favourites in the World and Champion Hurdles, but he very much ruled the roost in the Grade 1 novice hurdles, with both Vautour (h154p) and Faugheen (h155p) looking tremendous prospects when landing the Supreme and Baring Bingham respectively. There is more to come from both over hurdles - Faugheen would be an interesting World Hurdle candidate if kept to them - but it seems likely that novice chasing will be on their agenda for 2014/15, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see these connections exert a similar vice-like grip on the top novice prizes in this sphere too next March.

Briar Hill (h151p) proved a costly flop when bidding for a Mullins novice hurdle hat-trick in the Spa Hurdle on Friday, falling at the seventh (fracturing his cheekbone in the process) whilst travelling strongly, but he actually emerged from that race with his reputation enhanced as surprise winner Very Wood (h146) and third-placed Apache Jack (h142) had both been comprehensively beaten by him on Irish soil. Hopefully Briar Hill won't be sidelined for too long and he remains the best prospect in this field, though runner-up Deputy Dan (h147p) is also worthy of a mention having shaped best of those who did complete before getting tired late on after pressing on a bit too soon.

Friday proved a red letter day for those wearing the Gigginstown House Stud colours, with Very Wood one of four winners for the big-spending owners. The ball was set rolling by Tiger Roll (h147p), who has already proved a very shrewd purchase by Gordon Elliott (having been bought out of Nigel Hawke's stable after a winning debut last autumn) and ran to a very smart level in winning the Triumph Hurdle, even allowing for the fact the overall quality of this year's renewal was below standard.

Don Poli (h150p) has made similarly rapid strides since joining his Irish connections from France and helped Willie Mullins claim the meeting's training honours with victory in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle. He ran to a 10lb higher rating than that achieved by the 2011 winner of this race Sir des Champs (c171), who represents the same connections and, of course, has developed into a top-notch staying chaser since then. Don Poli will hopefully follow a similar path now and, if so, it's most unlikely he'll be allowed to go off at double-figure odds again at future Cheltenham Festivals

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