Timeform’s Graeme North analyses the recent form with his timefigure hat on and he focuses mainly on the action from Newbury and Fairyhouse.
Anyone with a Racing TV subscription will be familiar with ‘The Road To Cheltenham’, a weekly analytical round-up between Flat seasons of the latest high-profile jumps action focusing on equine achievement as well as future potential and placement, not just at the Cheltenham Festival but other stops along the way. Assuming there will be further stops on the way, of course. A couple of comments made in the last few days hint at a disturbingly undesirable trend that is starting to take shape that will soon provide enough material for a sister programme if left unchecked, ‘Straight To Cheltenham’ featuring those horses whose connections are so blinded by four days in March that they are willing to forego interim Graded glory and good prize money in pursuit of a destination they might not even reach while subverting the core jumps season in the process.
Seeing as we won’t be seeing ‘Straight to the Stayers’ Teahupoo again until March by all accounts I might as well get him out of the way first. The Hatton’s Grace was one of three Grade 1 contests on a Bar One sponsored card at Fairyhouse on Sunday that also included a Grade 3 juvenile hurdle and a couple of listed handicaps.
It wasn’t his presence that made the Hatton’s Grace such a fascinating contest beforehand but that of the unbeaten Impaire Et Passe who’d won four races last season including the Ballymore at Cheltenham and was starting off on a Champion Hurdle route favoured by connections of dual winner Honeysuckle in recent years.
Teahupoo, of course, had won the 2022 Hatton’s Grace on route to third place in the Stayers’ by way of a win in the Galmoy Hurdle, and, as in 2022, he was making his reappearance. The ability to run well fresh was the reason quoted afterwards for his forthcoming winter hibernation and there would appear to be some logic in that, having won first time out for Gordon Elliot in all his four seasons in training with him, and lost only ever in either March or April, but equally that might be ground related having won all his races on ground Timeform called either soft or heavy and none on ground good to soft or faster.
Conditions were soft leaning towards heavy at Fairyhouse, and though the Hatton’s Grace wasn’t run at an out-and-out gallop – Teahupoo’s winning timefigure was 130, well below his 159 best – the race still ended up being something of a battle of attrition more of a help to him as a proven three-mile winner in heavy ground as opposed to the speedier Impaire Et Passe who tanked through the race and hit 1.18 in running only to pay for his exuberance after the last when his stride shortened noticeably and he changed his legs as he was collared.
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Losing his unbeaten record might be seen as a disappointment in some circles – indeed he was pushed out in the betting for the Champion hurdle – but in the circumstances getting outstayed by a horse who is favourite for the Stayers’ and has a solid back catalogue of 156+ Timeform performance ratings on a day when stamina was all important is nothing to feel defeatist about. Impaire Et Passe went through the race like the better horse – after sectionals are incorporated, the Hatton’s Grace could be rated in the high 150s by my calculations – and though he still needs to improve to rival Constitution Hill it’s hard not to see him doing exactly that dropped back to two miles on a better surface.
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The other two Grade 1 hurdle on the card was the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle over two miles.
The Royal Bond had been won by subsequent Supreme winner Marine Nationale in 2022 and the most recent renewal was not dissimilar in that it also didn’t look a vintage renewal beforehand, and plenty were in with a chance turning for home only for the winner – Farren Glory in this instance – to overcome the concession of first run to others after fluffing the last to score with something to spare.
His time from three out was the slowest of all the four hurdle winners but that’s largely a reflection of the good gallop – the winning timefigure was a healthy 137 – and it’s no surprise that he had stamina on his side having won a maiden over an extended nineteen furlongs on deep ground at Clonmel the previous month.
King Of Kingsfield ran very well in second, continuing his race-by-race improvement over hurdles, paying a big compliment in the process to Henry de Bromhead’s Slade Steel who beat him convincingly at Naas in November as well as Redstone who hadn’t been seen to anything like best advantage in a rated novice hurdle the day before.
Common Practice (timefigure 120) ran out a good winner of the listed handicap over the Royal Bond trip, showing a smart turn of foot in a first-time tongue strap, but a more impressive and relevant performance on the clock came from Nurburgring in the juvenile hurdle. His Listowel ‘win’, after which he was disqualified for interference, has been franked multiple times since by Wodhooh (won the listed juvenile hurdle at Newbury two days earlier) and the 137 timefigure he posted at Fairyhouse is far and away the best by a juvenile so far on top of which he ran the time from the last to the line only marginally slower than did Common Practice. Despite what the betting says, Both he and runner-up Kala Conti are bang in the Triumph Hurdle picture.
The other Grade 1 event, the Drinmore Novice Chase, went to one-time Nicky Henderson inmate I Am Maximus in a 147 timefigure which could be edged up to into the low 160s once taking sectionals into consideration (he came home over four seconds faster from three out than the Timeform 146 rated Brides Hill managed in the opening chase over the same trip). Last seen winning the Irish Grand National, his win was another reminder on the day that abundant stamina was a requisite on the day and that’s the backdrop I’m judging Impaire Et Passe’s run against.
Fairyhouse’s Saturday card hadn’t been quite so high on quality but there were some interesting animals on show including Ballyburn who Willie Mullins had been talking up in his stable tours as one of (if not his best) novice hurdling prospect. As it was the Punchestown Champion Bumper winner with a pedigree top heavy with stamina was done for toe by three-time winner Firefox whose bumper scalps included Ile Atlantique with no excuse it seemed to me in a steadily-run race (timefigure just 78) other than the two-mile trip was on the short side.
Risk Belle won a similarly steadily-run Grade 2 hurdle easily without needing to show anything like the same turn of foot but the rated novice hurdle was run at a strong gallop (timefigure 128) and Waterford Whispers put himself in the Albert Bartlett picture with a stout staying performance. The 2023 Albert Bartlett favourite and a favourite of this column Corbetts Cross had been in action earlier in the day and took a well-contested beginners chase in decent enough style without breaking the clock (timefigure 132) while leaving the impression he’s still got plenty of improvement left in him.
Over at Newbury, the two-day Coral Gold Cup meeting got off to an interesting start with the first appearance of the hyped-up Jeriko Du Reponet who won a four-finisher Irish point on his only previous start and had barely more than an exercise canter in a lowly 88 timefigure to win a weak maiden hurdle as he liked.
Even taking sectionals into consideration I couldn’t have his performance any higher than 113 and while his point win has hardly worked out (runner-up The Other Mozzie is no better than 92 according to Timeform in three runs for Gavin Cromwell) he’s clearly open to plenty of improvement if undeserving right now of his position in the Supreme betting.
Ten-year-old Dashel Drasher won the feature event over the smaller obstacles, the Coral Long Distance Hurdle, but with the even older Paisley Park just a head behind in second and rallying at the end of a race in which the leader was ignored (timefigure just 128 and slow sectional from three out very underwhelming) the race only served to show how weak the domestic staying division is and if I owned any part of him, not that I’m keen to go into racehorse ownership again any time soon, I’d be targeting Ahoy Senor at the race.
2022 Challow winner Hermes Allen made a perfectly good start over fences in the John Francome Novices’ Chase. The opposition wasn’t the strongest – runner-up Nickel Back came into the race on the back of a handicap win at Stratford off a BHA mark of 135 – and the tame end to his 2023 novice hurdling season is still fresh in the mind, but a 151 timefigure on the back of a breathing operation is a smart start over fences and like his stablemate Stage Star, another whose novice hurdling season fizzled out feebly, he already looks a different prospect over fences.
The Coral Gold Cup (formerly known as the Hennessey) provided the best timefigure of the week with Datsalrightgino returning a 151, the same as the runner-up Mahler Mission who reportedly lost both front shoes during the race. Second to Stage Star back in the Timeform Novices’ Handicap back in January when in receipt of just 4lb, Datsalrightgino had never run beyond an extended two and a half miles before but proved a revelation over this staying trip in a well-run race and looks open to further progress, as does Mahler Mission over even longer trips given the impression he created in the National Hunt Chase when well clear when coming down two out.
The Gerry Feilden was the feature race over hurdles and drew a smart 141 timefigure from the winner Hansard, last seen chasing home Rubaud in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, but with an eye to the future I was more impressed by Jingko Blue in the novice hurdle. He might only have returned a 107 timefigure when beating the impressive Chepstow winner Masaccio a nose with the third horse Emailandy two lengths back and eighteen lengths clear of the fourth but that doesn’t tell the whole story with sectionals (over two seconds faster from the last than any of the other three hurdle winners) suggesting that figure could go as high as 132. Both he and Masaccio are worth keeping onside, and his Warwick conqueror Personal Ambition is also worth edging higher up the notebook.
Earlier in the week Thurles had staged an interesting card that saw Willie Mullins register a five-timer, including with Classic Getaway in a listed chase that would have put most Grade 2s in Britain to shame.
Timeform don’t return timefigures from Thurles for reasons I’ve written about numerous times before, but inter-fence and finishing sectionals tell me he probably didn’t achieve anything near as much as it might have looked on paper beating Haut En Couleurs (kept to handicaps at the spring festivals) having been allowed a very soft lead and the fact he didn’t go on last season further tempers enthusiasm.
Supreme fifth Il Etait Temps not unexpectedly ran a faster final circuit in the beginners chase over a four-furlong shorter trip but runner-up Ho My Lord looks a better long-term prospect especially when returned to longer trips. Fun Fun Fun looked promising in her maiden hurdle but her final circuit time was slow for all she was in second gear and horses her trainer have started out in bumpers at Sligo as she did haven’t turned out to be special.
Daddy Long Legs ran a three-second faster final circuit but even then it doesn’t compare particularly favourably with the Timeform 96-rated Woodstream Lad who won a very modest handicap over the same trip and it might turn out that impressive though both looked neither had anything to beat.
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