Delight and surprise as Many Clouds crowned top staying chaser
Many Clouds has delivered trainer Oliver Sherwood one final treat after being named the champion three-mile chaser in the Anglo-Irish jumps classifications, courtesy of what was to prove his final outing when downing Thistlecrack in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January.
The popular Grand National winner's victory against the King George hero lifted the roof off the Cheltenham grandstand but delight was to turn to despair within minutes as Many Clouds collapsed and subsequently died.
Many Clouds' heroic effort saw him handed a mark of 171, a rating no rival was able to better before the end of the season, but Sherwood was left momentarily stunned when contacted by the Racing Post with the news of the official handicappers' accolade.
"You're joking?" inquired a genuinely shocked Sherwood, before offering a more considered appraisal of his late star, who also earlier won 65 per cent of the votes in the Racing Post poll for Jumps Horse of the Year.
He said: "We always rated the horse. You never dreamed he could do what he did but you always hope. It's a great honour and I'm just sorry he's not there to carry on. I'm sure the wind op he had in the autumn made a difference and hence the improvement in his form.
"You could see from the ratings he had improved from the season before. We're just very honoured. I've had one or two good ones like The West Awake and Large Action, but he's definitely the best horse I've trained."
'Champion by default'
Sherwood's surprise was mirrored by the BHA's head of handicapping Phil Smith, who admitted he had fully expected a three-mile chaser to emerge from one of the spring festivals with a mark higher than 171, the joint-lowest rating to top the three mile division in the 18 years of the classifications being published.
"When Many Clouds won the race at Cheltenham in January and at that stage became the top-rated three mile chaser, if somebody had asked me then would he end up the champion three-mile chaser, I'd have thought probably not," said Smith.
"I thought something would come out of the various three-mile chases at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown to go above him."
Timico Gold Cup hero Sizing John was judged to be 2lb inferior to Many Clouds on 169, with Thistlecrack splitting the pair on 170, and Smith said the handicappers had been unable to make a case for that win being better than Many Clouds'.
"There were certain limiting horses in the Gold Cup that made it impossible for us to get him any higher," Smith explained.
"That isn't to say Sizing John does not have the potential to do so but we found it hard to get him any higher than his figure of 169.
"Thistlecrack was the second coming at one time and just because he ended up injured doesn't mean we should denigrate what he had done prior to that, being a novice winning the King George."
Smith also rejected the suggestion there had been any sentimentality in having Many Clouds come out on top, and added: "I hate to say it like this, but almost by default Many Clouds has ended up as the top three-mile chaser and it's due to the shortcomings of some other horses who haven't stepped up to the plate.
"We have great strength in depth to the division, but no real stars."
Sizing John draws Best Mate comparison
Reflecting on the performance of Sizing John, the Irish Turf Club's Andrew Shaw agreed Jessica Harrington's star is yet to prove himself up to the standard of the likes of Don Cossack but expressed optimism he eventually could.
Shaw highlighted Best Mate as an example, with the three-time Gold Cup winner having also been rated 169 for the first of his successes which, like Sizing John, came when he was aged seven.
"At 169, he's one of only four Gold Cup winners rated less than 170," said Shaw. "One of those was Best Mate and there are a lot of similarities between the two.
"We believe Sizing John is probably better than 169 and I feel he's achieved more than Best Mate had at the same time. Best Mate went on to be rated 175, but Sizing John can be better than that."
Shaw also heaped praise on Irish National hero Our Duke, who was rated 168, and said: "He could be anything and, for me, the best performance by a chaser this year was his win at Fairyhouse."