Handicappers' Corner: Christmas Special

Which Christmas winners will prevail at Cheltenham?
Which Christmas winners will prevail at Cheltenham?

Jumps Handicapper Phil Turner provides the latest Timeform rating updates for the top performers over the festive period.

"they (My Tent Or Yours and The New One) are clearly the two best British-trained two-mile hurdlers around at present and will form a strong challenge to dual champion Hurricane Fly"

"There are more questions than answers," opined reggae singer Johnny Nash in his 1972 hit of the same name.

Admittedly, it is most unlikely Nash will have given much thought to National Hunt's busy festive programme this winter - that's a relatively easy question to answer! - but the sentiment of his hit's catchy chorus could accurately describe the pick of the action on both sides of the Irish Sea over the past few days.

The biggest head-scratcher, of course, came when National Hunt's superstar performer Sprinter Sacre (Timeform rating c192p) lost his unbeaten record over fences in puzzling fashion, when pulled up sharply due to an irregular heartbeat (which was quickly diagnosed post race) in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. This was clearly a valid excuse and, given that Sprinter Sacre's form has been franked by others this season, it seems prudent to retain his rating (and accompanying "p") for the time being.

That said, there must be a question mark about Sprinter Sacre's short-term prospects (despite relatively upbeat bulletins from the vets) and it shouldn't be taken as read that he'll bounce back as good as ever. Indeed, as the latest edition of Chasers & Hurdlers pointed out, the great Irish two-mile chaser of the 1960s Flyingbolt was plagued by injuries and illnesses of one sort of another - notably the blood disease brucellosis - and never recaptured his best after racking up an unbeaten sequence of eleven (one more than Sprinter Sacre) during his first two campaigns over fences.

The chief beneficiary of Sprinter Sacre's problems this winter has been Sire de Grugy (c166+), who supplemented his Tingle Creek win at Sandown earlier in the month with victory against Sprinter Sacre and four other rivals at Kempton. In truth, a four-length defeat of veteran handicapper Oiseau de Nuit (c156), to whom he was conceding 4 lb, wouldn't usually be considering Champion Chase-winning form, but Sire de Grugy is clearly thriving at present and appeals as a solid option in what could prove a substandard season for the division. After all, there are serious doubts about the current well-being of the last two Champion Chase winners, Finian's Rainbow (c166?) and Sprinter Sacre, whilst their stable-companion Simonsig (c166P) has already been ruled out for the campaign. In addition, Ireland's highest-rated chaser Flemenstar (c174) is also on the easy list at present having missed two possible December engagements.

One possible spanner in the works for Sire de Grugy's connections could be Cue Card (c180), who would be an interesting runner in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and could be rerouted to that shorter race should Sprinter Sacre fail to make the line-up. As things stand, however, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Ryanair Chase (in that order) seem to be Cue Card's more likely Festival targets after his heart-breaking second to Silviniaco Conti (c176) in the King George VI Chase on Kempton's Boxing Day card twenty-four hours earlier. As their respective ratings suggest, we've taken the view that Cue Card shaped like the best horse for most of the way at Kempton only to wilt between the final two fences, which is when Silviniaco Conti rallied most strongly, eventually prevailing by three-and-a-half lengths, with a further eleven lengths back to third-placed Al Ferof (c167). 

That view could be a bit harsh on Silviniaco Conti, who is a top-class chaser in his own right and would arguably have had a Cheltenham Gold Cup win on his CV, to add to this King George success, but for falling at the third last there back in March when seemingly going best. However, the fact this was the first time in four attempts he's managed to get his head in front of Cue Card implies we've got the pecking order about right, though his connections will probably be confident of reducing that deficit further come the Cheltenham Festival - the Gold Cup trip certainly play to the strengths of Silviniaco Conti more than Cue Card.

Speaking of the Gold Cup, reigning title-holder Bobs Worth (c179) bounced back from his flop behind Cue Card in the Betfair Chase to resume winning ways in the Lexus Chase with a typically battling display, rallying splendidly on the run-in to defeat 2012 runner-up First Lieutenant (c170) by a length and a half. That doesn't tell the whole story, though, as it was a messy affair thanks to Ruby Walsh dictating a steady pace on third-placed Rubi Ball (c160), and Bobs Worth actually didn't need to run within a stone of peak Timeform rating to win, though the manner in which he went through the race strongly suggests he's every bit as good as ever. By contrast, Gold Cup runner-up Sir des Champs (c173) looked a bit rusty back in fourth on what was effectively his reappearance and would definitely have appreciated a stronger emphasis on stamina.

The latter point was used by fans of The New One (h171) following his narrow defeat to My Tent Or Yours (h172) in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, when a final-flight error also didn't help the runner-up. Although it's true that a well-run Champion Hurdle will play to the strengths of The New One far more than the Boxing Day race, similar comments also apply to My Tent Or Yours, whose keen-going antics under restraint would certainly have been better served by an end-to-end gallop - indeed, we feel My Tent Or Yours deserves to be rated highest of the pair even accounting for The New One's late mistake.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, they are clearly the two best British-trained two-mile hurdlers around at present and will form a strong challenge to dual champion Hurricane Fly (h173), who cemented his position at the head of the two-mile standings with an eighteenth Grade 1 success in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday. Admittedly, runner-up Jezki (h169) met trouble in running at a vital stage, whilst third-placed Our Conor (h169) shaped as if just in need of the outing, but there is little doubt Hurricane Fly was the best horse on the day and continues to set a very high standard in this division. 

Whether all of this form holds up at Cheltenham in March is another matter, of course. After all, coming out on top at Christmas doesn't necessarily translate to success in the big prizes later in the season - just ask any supporter of Liverpool FC!

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