Handicappers' Corner: Small is not always beautiful

Cheltenham was the focus of attention over the weekend.

Timeform's Phil Turner casts his eye back at the Cheltenham Open Meeting in the latest edition of Handicappers' Corner...

"Royal Irish Hussar (h139p) underlined his position as the highest-rated juvenile hurdler of 2013/14 so far with a convincing defeat of Irish raider Guitar Pete..."

At first glance, the eight handicaps staged at Cheltenham three-day Open meeting may appear the hardest races to assess, with an average field size of eighteen and five double-figure winning SPs - including 40/1, 20/1 and 16/1.

From a handicapping viewpoint, however, these contests are often relatively easy to assess (at least after the event). Indeed, valuable handicaps at the big tracks are invariably well-run affairs featuring largely in-form horses which throw up solid-looking results more often than not. By contrast, the better novice hurdles and chases held at this time of year regularly turn into small-field affairs run at a muddling pace, producing form which can yield wildly differing views when it comes to ratings. 

The four-runner novice chase over an extended two-and-a-half miles on Friday was a case in point, with a farcical gallop prompting plenty to dismiss the form as meaningless - which isn't the most helpful advice to the person charged with rating the race. Clearly, it is impossible to be 100% confident about the figure allotted to winner Taquin du Seuil (Timeform rating c142p), but it could be dangerous to mark the form down too much just because things developed into something of a sprint in the latter stages. For example, the early exploits of runner-up Oscar Whisky (not fluent) and The Cockney Macken (nearly refused) didn't prove at all costly due to the funereal early pace, so there must be some merit to the form when one considers Tarquin du Seuil was able to see off his three rivals after they'd all held every chance when the race finally began in earnest. He certainly appeals as a better chasing prospect than Oscar Whisky (c137p), even though the latter was rated some 30 lb higher over hurdles and is entitled to improve for this belated chasing debut.

Taquin du Seuil, of course, went into Friday's race boasting a Timeform large "P" and two more young chasers carrying this sparingly-used symbol fought out the finish at Prestbury Park some twenty-four hours later, when Le Bec (c148p) just got the better of Shutthefrontdoor (c147p) in the three-mile novice chase.

Admittedly this contest could also be viewed as a slightly unsatisfactory affair, with hot favourite African Gold (c119P) effectively losing all chance when hampered three out just as the pace was hotting up, but there does appear to be more substance to this result and a positive view of the form looks the way to go. Le Bec's rating is only 2 lb lower than that posted by Lord Windermere when winning last season's RSA Chase at Cheltenham, though that was a substandard renewal and the early signs suggest there could be a stronger crop of staying novice chasers this time around.

A more cautious view has been taken of the Arkle Trial Novices' Chase for the two-milers on Sunday, when Dodging Bullets (c138p) reversed last season's Christmas Hurdle form with Raya Star (c132p) to provide Paul Nicholls with his ninth win in this race, which is often one of the most important novice chases of the autumn. For now, however, we've rated Dodging Bullets nearly a stone below its most recent winners, with the proximity of fourth-placed The Cockney Mackem (having his second run in forty-eight hours) rather holding the form down.

There were no such qualms about the Triumph Hurdle Trial on Saturday, when Royal Irish Hussar (h139p) underlined his position as the highest-rated juvenile hurdler of 2013/14 so far with a convincing defeat of Irish raider Guitar Pete (h131p), the pair deserving plenty of credit for pulling so far clear of their rivals. The form looks well up to standard compared to recent renewals of this Grade 2 event and Royal Irish Hussar has already posted a figure which would have been good enough to see him reach the frame in last season's Triumph Hurdle.

The form of that race has been boosted several times this autumn, prompting a slight increase to the rating of runaway winner Our Conor (h169p), and two of last season's juveniles, Sametegal (h148) and Flaxen Flare (h138), showed up well in the Greatwood Hurdle on Sunday, finishing second and fourth respectively. Victory went to another four-year-old, with French import Dell' Arca (h133p) taking advantage of a lowly weight to make a winning debut on British soil, in the process providing the highlight of a lucrative four-timer on the final day of Cheltenham's Open meeting for his new trainer David Pipe.

Graded novices, as well as valuable handicaps, could be on the agenda for Dell' Arca from now on this winter, as he didn't graduate from the Flat in France until shortly after the 2013/14 British season started, winning once from three starts over hurdles in May (runner-up on other two) before a big-money move to his new connections.

If anything, however, Pipe looks to have an even more exciting novice hurdler on his hands in The Liquidator (h132P), who made very short work of three rivals in the Grade 2 Sharp Novices' Hurdle earlier on Sunday. Admittedly, this is another small-field affair which wasn't easy to assess, particularly as runner-up Sea Lord (h150) clearly ran well below his early-season form, but that shouldn't detract too much from the very favourable impression that The Liquidator has created on both starts to date over timber.

By comparison, the meeting's signature race, the twenty-runner Paddy Power Gold Cup, proved a doddle to rate, though a couple of incidents in the latter stages ensured even this race wasn't 100% straightforward to assess. The fall at the second last of the back-to-form Easter Meteor (c142) quite badly hampered eventual runner-up Colour Squadron (c145+), costing him several lengths which has been reflected in his new rating. That said, it may be overstating things to declare him an unlucky loser as the winner John's Spirit (c146+) threw away several lengths himself by dossing in front on the run-in, having arguably taken over the lead earlier than ideal, and this has been taken into account on his new rating too. 

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