THE BHA HANDICAPPERS
Weblog: View from the team behind the official ratings
Cheltenham pointers aplenty after weekend
A proper week of jumps racing at long last and there were a host of potential pointers towards Cheltenham. From the rescheduled Betfair day at Newbury on Friday to three top-classcards the following afternoon there was plenty to take in, and our team give their verdict.
BINOCULAR ZOOMS IN
In winning the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on Saturday, Binocular showed that he is the mainstay of a solid home defence for next month's Stan James Champion Hurdle, writes Dave Dickinson.
He ran right away from Celestial Halo (twice a handicap winner off 160, including here at Wincanton) and I have rated him 170, though he could have been higher still.
Saturday's Racing Post Spotlight writer Stuart Redding pointed out Binocular's finerecord on right-handed tracks, currently eight wins from ten starts. This does compare favourably with his left hand record of three wins from nine. Against this, surely Binocular's best ever performance was going left handed, the day two years ago that he won the big one, registering a figure of 172.
Binocular had beaten Overturn decisively in the Christmas Hurdle on his previous start and that form also looks top class considering Overturn, too, has won a handicap off 160 this season.
It should be remembered that Rock On Ruby ran him mighty close in that Kempton race and he is one of a mob hand of Champion contenders from Ditcheat.
On figures alone, Friday's Betfair Hurdle success by Zarkandar doesn't rank in the same class but there were significant excuses.
The horse had been off since Aintree in the spring and the slow pace favoured neither him nor his stablemate Brampour (and one or two others besides). He was apparently a big price in running on the sponsor's exchange, so to battle through to win as he did was a very fine effort.
Using Olofi from theGreatwood and Sailor's Warn from the Ladbroke as my benchmarks I have raised Zarkandar to 160 but that very probably underestimates his ability.
On the juvenile front Balder Succes goes to the top of the ratings with a new mark of 147 after a fine victory at Ascot. So it's an Alan King-trained horse top of the pile at present but not the one most people would have anticipated given the ante-post betting for the JCB Triumph!
SACRE SPRINTS TO TOP OF TREE
The Grade 2 Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Friday was undoubtedly the highlight of the week in the 2m to 2m5f chase division, although therewere a couple of other races that pushed it close, writes Mark Olley.
It's not often that you witness a novice treat older rivals with total contempt, especially in a Grade 2 contest, and in a new course recordtime but that's exactly what Sprinter Sacre did.
Nicky Henderson's hugely exciting novice never came off the bridle in beating stable-mate French Opera and gave me the same kind of tingle up the spine that Kauto Star did when winning the Lancashire Chase at Haydock back in 2006 prior to his first Gold Cup.
French Opera won this race last season, along with a Grade 2 at Sandown, and also ran a creditable sixth in the Champion Chase. He's just below the very top-class 2m chasers, but is a high-class 2-miler and seldom runs a poor race.
I based the race around French Opera (162) and the third placed I'm So Lucky (150) - who received 10lb and was beaten just over two lengths by French Opera - and have them both running to their pre-race marks.
This left me with the decision on what to call the facile six-length winning margin. In the end I settled on 12lb which puts Sprinter Sacre on a new mark of 169 and makes him the highest rated novice in years.
This compares favourably with recent winners of the Game Spirit - French Opera was 164in 2011, Master Minded was 173 in 2010 and 170 in 2008, while Well Chief was 169 in 2007 (the race was abandoned in 2009). It also puts Sprinter Sacre into second place in the 2m chase division, behind the 177-rated Sizing Europe.
Over at Ascot on Saturday Riverside Theatre won the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase for the second successive year. This was his first start since landing last year's contest and interestingly Nicky Henderson's gelding has won first time out for every season of his career.
The first two pulled twenty lengths clear of Gauvain in third and I have based the race around runner-up Medermit who was an excellent second in the Spinal Research Gold Cup Handicap at Cheltenham in December.
That race has worked out very well with Calgary Bay (fifth) and Tatenen (seventh) both winning next time out and I'msingingtheblues (fourth) finishing a close second in a valuable handicap here at Ascot.
Medermit moves to a new mark of 165 (+2) and this has Riverside Theatre running to 168 which is similar to several previous winners of the race - Riverside Theatre 168 (2011), Monet's Garden 165 (2010), Voy Por Ustedes 165 (2009), Kauto Star 176 (2008) and Monet's Garden 165 (2007).
The Ryanair is next on the agenda for Riverside Theatre and while he has yet to prove himself at Cheltenham - he was fifth in the Arkle on his sole visit to the course - he goes there as co-top-rated 2m4f chaser alongside Poquelin and the Irish trained Rubi Light.
BREEZY DOES IT
There were three hurdle races over 3m at Haydock on Saturday, writes Martin Greenwood.
The genuine Restless Harry (a new rating of 157 a personal best) thwarted a second consecutive success in the race for Cross Kennon in the Betfred Goals Galore Rendlesham Hurdle, while the fast-improving Grand Vision turned the Pertempsqualifier into something of a procession, and is now 14lb higher than the mark he won off.
Earlier in the afternoon it was the turn of the novices who lined up in the Albert Bartlett Prestige Novices' Hurdle. As you would expect, there were several promising and unexposed types and the market, with four 9-2 co-favourites, confirmed how competitive it looked on paper.
In the event however, it turned into a one horse romp with Brindisi Breeze keeping his unbeaten record over hurdles and putting himself firmly in the picture for the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival.
Brindisi Breeze made all when scooting home at Newcastle on his previous run (which earned him a rating of 140, the highest on show at Haydock), and the same tactics were used again to devastating effect. Turning for home for the final time, it was clear that Brindisi Breeze had the field in trouble and he continued to gallop on most strongly, pulling well clear after the last to score by twelve lengths with plenty left in the tank.
The standards for the race over the last five runnings suggested 143, as did the time comparison with handicap-winner Grand Vision (the time compared to Restless Harry worked out much higher).
Allied to this, the previous form of the horses who finished in the frame behind Brindisi Breeze also suggests a mark in the low to mid 140s. Given the style of his victory I have added 5lb to the 'bare' figure which makes Brindisi Breeze's new rating 148, just 3lb behind the joint best staying novices this season, Fingal Bay and Boston Bob.
Its highly likely that the ground at Cheltenham will be the quickest Brindisi Breeze has encountered over hurdles (interestingly the ground was good, good to firm when he ran in his sole bumper), but whatever his fate at Prestbury Park, there is no doubt he is a horse with future, and he should make a cracking chaser in time.