Handicappers' Corner: Novice mistakes in Sprinter's absence?

Have some connections missed a trick following Sprinter Sacre's withdrawal?
Have some connections missed a trick following Sprinter Sacre's withdrawal?
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"Be Prepared" is the oft-quoted motto of the Boy Scout Movement in Britain, though it would appear not many of our current leading jumps trainers were disciples of Robert Baden-Powell...

"Only sixteen horses remain entered for the two-mile showpiece in Sprinter Sacre’s absence, whilst Timeform’s next highest-rated chaser Cue Card (c180) will need to be supplemented at great cost if connections decide to explore the shorter-trip option with him now..."

Take next month's Queen Mother Champion Chase, for example. The recent defection of Sprinter Sacre (c192p) from this race might have been a shock, but it certainly wasn't a surprise given that much-publicised heart scare on his reappearance, so a bit of foresight could have predicted the 2014 renewal had the potential to be much weaker than usual. As it is, only sixteen horses remain entered for the two-mile showpiece in Sprinter Sacre's absence, whilst Timeform's next highest-rated chaser Cue Card(c180) will need to be supplemented at great cost if connections decide to explore the shorter-trip option with him now.

In addition, the Paul Nicholls-trained Hinterland (c148) is the only novice entered at this stage, and it wouldn't be a surprise if several of his fellow trainers aren't kicking themselves now having failed to make a speculative entry for one of their leading novice chasers. These include Alan King, who can boast a particularly strong crop of novice chasers this season and has three horses entered for the Arkle Challenge Trophy, yet none in the Queen Mother. One of King's Arkle trio is Balder Succes (c155), who cemented his position as Timeform's highest-rated British-trained novice chaser with another Grade 2 victory at Kempton on Saturday, though is likely to miss next month's jamboree at Cheltenham altogether in favour of Aintree and/or Punchestown.

Admittedly, Balder Succes still has plenty to find at the figures for a race such as the Queen Mother - at least compared to current top-rated entrant Sire de Grugy (c170+) - but his jumping already looks well up to Grade 1 standard, whilst the fact Saturday's win came over an extended two-and-a-half miles means connections now have more options with regards to trip. The placed pair God's Own (c143) and Fox Appeal (c149) also deserve credit for their performances in a race which posted a very good time, with the latter gelding a consistent performer whose form ties in with several other of the leading home-trained novices this winter.

Another Kempton winner who could sit out the Cheltenham Festival is Activial (h131p), who made light of a three-month absence when winning the Grade 2 Adonis, which is traditionally one of the strongest trials for the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham. In truth, this latest renewal possibly isn't so strong as some of its recent predecessors, but there was plenty to like about the way Activial went about things on just his third career start - in the process paying a big compliment to his Newbury conqueror Calipto (h137p), who is still 9lb below current leading juvenile Le Rocher (h146).

By contrast, the Grade 2 Dovecote Novices' Hurdle hasn't been anything like such a fertile source of Cheltenham Festival winners as the Adonis, but that could change with its latest victor Irving (h147p), who maintained his 100% record over hurdles with a very smooth success that puts him very much in the reckoning_both in terms of form shown and future potential -  for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Indeed, the Willie Mullins-trained pair Vautour (h149p) and Wicklow Brave (h149p) are the only market leaders currently rated ahead of him on Timeform ratings.

Saturday's big race at Kempton, of course, was the BetBright Handicap Chase, which saw the hugely likeable Bally Legend (c141) spring a 28/1 surprise, though several of those in behind him arguably make more short-term appeal. These include Bury Parade (c156), who emerged as the best at the weights and might well have won with a clearer passage in the latter stages, though his tendency to hang right (not for the first time) suggests he may be best kept to right-handed tracks for the time being. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the Kempton race had nearly double the number of Grand National entrants compared to the Eider Chase, Newcastle's marathon contest which took place earlier on the same afternoon and saw a return to form by Wyck Hill (c141), who held off another JP McManus-owned runner in Smoking Aces (c127x) by three-quarters of a length in what may prove to be a more competitive renewal than in recent years.

Wyck Hill is probably a shade too far down the Grand National weights to get a run at Aintree, but there are no such concerns for On His Own (c158+), who showed himself to be better than ever with an impressive success in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse on Saturday.  A disappointing record from three previous visits to Aintree is an issue, though, and connections are now toying with the idea of stepping him up into a Grade 1 company - alas, he won't get the chance to do this at the Cheltenham Festival as he wasn't entered in the Gold Cup...

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