Handicappers' Corner: What's in a name?

Oscar Whisky was a top-class hurdler, and he won his first Grade 1 over fences on Saturday
Oscar Whisky was a top-class hurdler, and he won his first Grade 1 over fences on Saturday

The Royal College of Surgeons once got so vexed on the subject of trumped-up job titles that it lobbied Whitehall to prevent people using the tag "surgeon" unless they had actually completed a medical degree - bad news potentially for chiropodists, cosmetic practitioners and, presumably, arborists!

Although his jumping lacked fluency, it would probably be harsh to crab Oscar Whisky too much on that score given the barely raceable ground and he remains essentially one to be positive about...

Jump racing isn't beyond adopting such grandiose naming tactics, with no fewer than twenty-five chases (a list which is growing!) dubbed a "National" in Britain or Ireland in 2012/13, the vast majority of which bore little similarity to the Aintree original - both in terms of quality or prize money. Regional "Champion Hurdles" might not be so widespread by comparison, though similar concerns about their authenticity also apply.

A prime example is the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las, which has endured a troubled existence since being resurrected by the Principality's newest racecourse in 2009/10 (it had previously been staged at Chepstow from 1969 to 2002). Bad weather claimed two of the first three intended renewals, whilst the one which did go ahead proved to be something of a non-event, which prompted officials to radically alter the race - it was changed from a conditions event over two miles to a limited handicap over two-and-a-half miles, which could hardly be viewed as a "Champion Hurdle" in the traditional sense.

Indeed, none of the six runners in the latest renewal on Saturday hold an entry for Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle, whilst the fact half the field were racing from out of the weights also weakened the argument that these new race conditions will always produce a better betting heat than the original format did. Despite these gripes, it should be noted that 2013 winner Medinas (Timeform rating h151) went on to taste Festival success in the Coral Cup, whilst 2014 winner Saphir du Rheu (h162+) appeals as an even brighter prospect who looks well worth his place in a higher grade now having made tremendous strides in handicap company this winter - this hat-trick success came off a 28 lb higher mark than for the first one, whilst further improvement cannot be ruled out.    

As things stand at present, Saphir du Rheu won't get the chance to emulate Medinas with a follow-up Festival victory, as connections report he's unlikely to take up his entry in the World Hurdle - his owner is already represented by four-times winner Big Buck's (h176) and 2013 runner-up Celestial Halo (h163) in that race, plus possibly the outsider Salubrious (h157). Instead, Aintree and Auteuil have been mooted as possible venues for him to make his Grade 1 debut this spring, and he'll be an interesting runner in that company even though this latest success was a close-run thing.

Admittedly there was only a head back to runner-up Whisper (h151) on Saturday and the latter didn't help his cause with a final-flight blunder, but it should be remembered Saphir du Rheu was conceding 11 lb to that rival and was always holding him having been handed the initiative again at the last. In addition, it probably reflects well on the pair that they could pull so far clear of the remainder in what was a steadily-run affair.

In truth, conditions at Ffos Las and Sandown on Saturday could be described as "borderline" at best (both meetings had to pass morning inspections), so caution is advised when assessing most of the form at these venues this weekend. Results on the all-chase card at Sandown, in particular, seemed to get influenced by a very bad patch of ground between the final two fences, with plenty of horses dropping away further than might have been expected in the latter stages having held every chance entering the straight - this could have serious ramifications, in the short term at least, for the likes of Saroque (c124p), Toby Lerone (c126), Grey Gold (c143) and Desert Cry (c151) if the the BHA handicapper takes a literal view of the finishing margins in the two races they contested. 

The conditions also played their part in Sandown's big race, the three-runner Grade 2 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, with 6/1-on favourite - and former Welsh Champion Hurdle winner! - Oscar Whisky (c147p) making rather heavy weather of things for most of the way before eventually overhauling runner-up Manyriverstocross (c138+) in the straight, having nine lengths to spare over that rival come the line. Although his jumping lacked fluency, it would probably be harsh to crab Oscar Whisky too much on that score given the barely raceable ground and he remains essentially one to be positive about.

Unfortunately, the other graded novice chase to take place on Saturday, Wetherby's Towton Chase, also proved to be something of a damp squib, with likely favourite Shutthefrontdoor (c147) a late absentee and Green Flag (c140) unseated in a freakish incident a circuit out when hampered by the ill-fated Coverholder. As a result, Ely Brown (c139+) was left with a simple task and told us little new despite running out a clear-cut winner.

If anything, the most informative jumps card on British soil this weekend was staged at Musselburgh on Sunday, where the ground wasn't anything like so testing as has been the norm in recent weeks. In addition, the course was rewarded with some good quality racing, with Messrs Henderson and Nicholls sending up several runners. It was a couple of up-and-coming novice hurdlers from much smaller yards, however, who caught the eye most.

Clever Cookie (h139p) looked an above-average prospect for trainer Peter Niven when winning both of his bumper starts and has fully backed up that view by claiming back-to-back wins over hurdles since graduating to handicap company. This latest success in the Scottish County Hurdle suggests he's still firmly on the upgrade too, particularly as he was just about the only horse coming from well off the pace on the hurdles track to figure prominently on Sunday - which makes his eight-length defeat of Local Hero (h138) all the more impressive.

By contrast, front-running tactics have been very much the order of the day on both starts under Rules for winning Irish pointer Seeyouatmidnight (h137p), who supplemented his surprise 66/1 win at Hexham in December with a nine-length defeat of the highly-touted Racing Pulse (h131+) in the Albert Bartlett Scottish Trial over three miles. Much more will be required if they're to make a mark in their respective Cheltenham equivalent races, but at least such an eventuality isn't the most far-fetched theory out there - which is more than can be said for many regional championship trials!

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