THE BHA HANDICAPPERS
Weblog: View from the team behind the official ratings
Argento victory a high point for Midnight Chase
Last weekend saw the last of Cheltenham's pre-festival fixtures in the shape of trials day. It was chiefly Midnight Chase and Big Buck's who hogged the majority of the limelight but they weren't the only noteworthy performers so far as the festival goes and our NH team do their best to cover all angles.
There was big-race action at Doncaster too and we could be hearing more of the first two from the Sky Bet Chase in the run up to the Grand National.
Some incredibly competitive and interesting chases fell under my workload on Saturday, with no fewer than three of them taking place at Cheltenham, writes Stephen Hindle.
The best performance, though not by as much as you may think, came courtesy of Midnight Chase, who continued his love affair with the course by taking the Grade 2 Argento Chase, gamely holding off Tidal Bay by two and three-quarter lengths.
It was Midnight Chase's fifth win at the trackfrom just eight starts and the only time he's finished out of the first three there was when a creditable fifth in last year's Gold Cup.
He came into this contest on the back of a third in the Rowland Meyrick, which has already been advertised by the follow-up success of According To Pete. That said, this effort not only represented a step up on that form, but Midnight Chase appears to have at least matched anything he's done in the past.
He went in to the race on a mark of 158 and given he was conceding 6lb to Tidal Bay, who has shown himself capable of form in the mid-160s in the past, I could have underestimated this effort even by putting Midnight Chase back up to his best rating of 163. The reason I didn't go higher was due to the proximity of Knockara Beau in third, who will be going up to 147 from 140. He has been slightly higher in the past but the fact he's been beaten twice this season off 143 tempered my view of this form slightly, while the race was also watered down somewhat by the absence of Grands Crus and the no show from Captain Chris, who jumped badly right and was pulled up at an early stage.
A couple of hotly contested handicap chases preceded the Argento.
Bless The Wings was a two-and-a-half length winner of the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase, which traditionally represents strong form. This year's renewal saw plenty of casualties, with no fewer than six of the sixteen runners either falling or unseating. I'm of the opinion the race is still likely to prove well worth following, however, and I raised the winner, Bless The Wings, by 8lb to 138, crediting him with 3lb extra for idling.
Just over half an hour later, last year's Timeform winner, The Giant Bolster, obliterated his rivals in the Grade 3 Murphy Group Handicap Chase,powering home by 17 lengths from Poquelin.
Nothing other than a hefty hike could be allotted to The Giant Bolster, who I raised 15lb to 160. Poquelin also ran with plenty of credit in justifying his mark of 168, which is unchanged.
In addition to Cheltenham, another good-quality handicap chase could be found in Britain on Saturday. Doncaster hosted the Sky Bet Chase, which actually dwarfed the prize-money in the similar events seen at Cheltenham, with Calgary Bay picking up the best part of £43,000 for his two-and-a-half length defeat of Shakalakaboomboom.
Calgary Bay doesn't go to Doncaster that often but he has arguably turned in his best two performances there. His win off 142 by seven lengths in December 2009 represented a career best at the time and there is little doubting this latest success bettered anything he's done in the past. He goes up from 151 to 159.
Shakalakaboomboom also ran really well in second and goes up 5lb to 149, which loosely fits in with the new mark of Knockara Beau, who finished second to him at Cheltenahm in December.
The next three home in the Sky Bet, Fruity O'Rooney, Galaxy Rock and Qianshan Leader, also ran with credit. Saddle problems were a real cause for concern for Fruity O'Rooney at the last. It slipped so far that rider Jamie Moore worked wonders to maintain the partnership to the finish having lost his irons. Galaxy Rock and Qianshan Leader didn't jump well and I felt all three of those horses should be kept on the same mark.
He may have lost the race in the stewards' room but Pearl Swan has gone to the top of the juvenile ratings thus far by passing the post first in Saturday's JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial Finesse Hurdle, writes Dave Dickinson. Ignoring the rights and wrongs of any stewarding decision Pearl Swan and Grumeti appeared very closely matched on Saturday's terms (Pearl Swan was giving his rival 3lb) and with Finale winner Hollow Tree appearing to run another fine race in third, he is used as the benchmark giving marks of 146 to Pearl Swan and 143 to Grumeti.
Such a race ought to make the Triumph picture much clearer but it doesn't. This year's juvenile form was tested in all-age handicap company in Cheltenham's closer on Saturday. Hinterland travelled well but merely plugged on when push came to shove and his 141 mark remains unchanged. He remains in the Triumph picture, and it is worth remembering that Ranjaan has alreadyrun to 141, when winning an all-age handicap at Taunton. So it looks a competitive race at this stage among the British juveniles and the form is taking some weighing up in Ireland too.
It was a tragedy when Sam Bass was lost over Christmas but Ut De Sivola looked the part, particularly when Burrenbridge Lodge and One Cool Shabra (third and fourth to him at Punchestown) defied the odds to fight out another controversial finish at Gowran in the week, beating three better-backed and less-exposed rivals. However, that form took a knock later in the week when Punchestown second Hisaabaat failed to cope with Darroun, who along with his debut conqueror Shadow Catcher, must also be in the mix.
I have no less than15 juveniles rated between 138 and the top of 146. Add to this the fact that the last five Triumph winners ran to marks between 148 and 159 in victory, and that the latest two were not seen on these shores before the February of their winning year, and the race looks even more of a minefield than usual.
Although most people know me as the handicapper for the two-year-olds, I have a fairly secret past, writes Matthew Tester. For six or seven years I used to help out the jumping team in the winter.
Perhaps my most versatile moment came some years ago. I had to come up with the ratings for a two-year-old seller at Wolverhampton on the same day that I was finalising the weights for the Scottish Grand National. Thanks entirely to the ratings I had inherited from Phil Smith, the race finished in a three way photo. Phil rang me on the way home to tell me to retire from handicapping chasers because I was never going to top that.
But I was back in the fray for a weekend to fill the gap between one of the jumping team going on holiday and another one returning. So this weekend I had to do a 6f seller from Lingfield and the Cheltenham win of Big Buck's. He certainly is the only 174-rated horse that I will deal with this year! It was a fascinating challenge looking after the staying hurdlers and I had Big Buck's running to 171 in beating Dynaste by seven lengths conceding 4lb, with the latter raised 2lb to 160.
My wife Amelia, a member at Cheltenham since she was in her pram, thinks that Flat racing is what you do while you are waiting to go hurdling. She would love me to do jumpers and it was a great honour. But it was so nervewracking that I am delighted to be able to pass them back to the specialists. Bring on the Brocklesby.
This blog appears courtesy of britishhorseracing.com