It is inconceivable that the Olympics 800m Final would ever be run over 780m, or that a football referee would decide to blow his final whistle after just 87 minutes of a World Cup Final.
Alas, such anomalies are allowed to continue in National Hunt racing. Take last weekend's Betfair Chase, which was staged for a change on Haydock's Flat course due to drainage work at the track and, officially at least, run over a furlong longer than its usual distance of three miles. The stopwatch told a different story, however, with the 2013 renewal (admittedly on less testing ground) taking 11.2 seconds quicker to complete than 12 months earlier despite supposedly having an extra 200m to cover!
There were similar discrepancies throughout Haydock's two-day meeting, over both hurdles and fences, whilst the ground was also almost certainly less testing than the official description of soft (Timeform called it good to soft on both days). As Chasers & Hurdlers of 2012/13 recently argued, it is high time the BHA took a much firmer stance on both areas - races should always be staged over exactly the advertised trip, whilst there should be far greater pressure for courses to provide totally accurate going descriptions.
That's enough ranting for the time being, as there was plenty to celebrate about Saturday's showpiece event, which attracted a stellar field- the first to include five horses with Timeform ratings of 170 or above since the 1999 Cheltenham Gold Cup. It also produced a worthy winner in Cue Card (c180), who confirmed himself as the second-best horse in training with another tremendous display, proving his stamina for trips at around three miles in the process. Cue Card has now posted a Timeform rating in excess of 175 on four separate occasions (all over different trips) and fully deserves to be viewed as better than everyone bar his old rival Sprinter Sacre (c192p).
As for Cue Card's victims at Haydock, Dynaste (c171) stepped up on his novice form to prove himself a top-class chaser, whilst 2012 winner Silviniaco Conti (c171) emerged with credit on his reappearance. By contrast, Long Run (c170?) and Tidal Bay (c170) ran some way below their Timeform ratings, both seeming to find the emphasis too much on speed. Similar comments also apply to Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth (c179), though he probably has less to prove than the aforementioned pair given his hitherto very consistent record, particularly as Barry Geraghty was fairly quick to accept matters once it was clear the leaders weren't coming back to him.
Things were far less competitive for the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot, where Al Ferof (c169p) made a winning return from over 12 months off at the expense of his only rival French Opera (c149). In truth, this glorified schooling session told us nothing new in terms of form about Al Ferof, but it was enough to suggest he retains all of his ability despite that lengthy injury lay-off and remains unexposed tackling longer trips.
The Ascot Hurdle also attracted a disappointingly small field but, despite that, there does appear to be some substance to this form, with runner-up Zarkandar (h165) almost certainly running close to his best in chasing home the unbeaten Annie Power (h158p), who made the most an 11lb weight pull to win by five lengths. Ruby Walsh had to get quite serious on the winner, but she was well on top by the end and remains open to improvement.
Graded events are also likely to soon be on the agenda again for Rolling Star (h150p), who got back on track when winning an intermediate hurdle at Haydock. Admittedly, his two-and-three-quarter-length defeat of Doyly Carte (h138), albeit conceding that rival 7 lb, is unlikely to result in too many sleepless nights for the connections of leading Champion Hurdle contenders, but it did at least prove that Rolling Star's final two runs as a juvenile were all wrong and it remains possible that he'll prove up to justifying his lofty home reputation.
Further improvement is almost certainly still on the cards for More of That (h150p), who came out on top in a strong-looking handicap later on the Haydock card, winning with a bit more in hand than first impressions might imply- Tony McCoy had to flex his muscles in the latter stages, but that owed plenty to a steadyish pace and this unbeaten gelding was well on top by the line. He remains very much one to follow.
Gevrey Chambertin (h151) was another Haydock winner who looked value for a bit extra than the bare margins might suggest, though for differing reasons, as he was arguably sent for home too far out and did well to hang on. Betfair's valuable Fixed Brush Handicap Hurdle often has a bearing of future chasing events than hurdling ones and this year's renewal could well follow suit, with Gavrey Chambertin reportedly due to be sent over fences now. In addition, fifth-placed Gullinbursti (h139+, c147+) and fourth-placed Alfie Sherrin (h133, c138) both appeal as interesting horses once reverted to the larger obstacles, with the latter presumably having a campaign geared around a Grand National tilt. Let's hope they can at least run that race over the correct distance!