There was a packed house of 240 National Hunt racing fans squeezed into a large room in Kensington's Holiday Inn last night, to hear the views of an excellent panel of experts.
They were, from left to right, Phil Smith (PS), senior handicapper at the BHA, and arguably racing's most influential man (in betting terms at least); Kate Miller (KM), William Hill's glamorous and knowledgeable PR lass; Lee Mottershead (LM), senior writer at Racing Post, and former racing journalist of the year; Barry Faulkner, ATR presenter and chair for the night; Charlie Morlock (CM), assistant trainer to winning-most Festival trainer, Nicky Henderson; and, Declan Rix (DR), ATR writer, and keen Irish racing fan.
Phew! Good, eh?!
The assembled wisdom was invited to work through the championship races; then the key novice events; and finally, 'the rest'. And this is what they had to say:
Champion Hurdle 2013
LM - A messy race with a small field and they might go no pace. Against Hurricane Fly. Zarkandar has the best chance.
KM - Rock On Ruby on good ground; Zarkandar on soft.
CM - Grandouet has had a bad prep; Binocular is very well and head lad, Corky Browne, has placed "a substantial bet" each way.
DR - Likes Hurricane Fly, but not at his current price. Expected to be around 5/2 or 11/4 on the day.
PS - It's a very good Champion Hurdle. Hurricane Fly is not a likely winner on the form of his Irish runs this year. Binocular is being asked to regain the Champion Hurdle fully three years after winning it, which would be unprecedented. Loves Zarkandar, especially on soft. Likes Rock On Ruby too, which he thinks should be favourite on what he's done (i.e. current Champion Hurdler).
Champion Chase 2013
CM - Sprinter Sacre very well, and CM is extremely confident he will show again how good he is. Finian's Rainbow less so. Just seems out of form and hard to recommend based on his current well-being.
PS - SS currently rated 179, but we have no idea how good he is. His rating is based on historical context. Hope he wins by a big distance from reliable form horse, Sizing Europe, with a big distance to the rest, so that he can get a 'proper' rating.
DR - Mail de Bievre and Somersby are interesting each way.
Ryanair Chase 2013
CM - Riverside Theatre had problems, but has had a racecourse gallop and is in good nick. They don't want rain for his chance
DR - First Lieutenant is his nap of the meeting. Backed at all rates from 12/1 down and is very confident of a big run
LM - This race looks like cutting up. First Lieutenant has a good chance, and Ghizao could outrun 33/1 odds
KM - Albertas Run interesting at 20/1 or so, despite his age.
PS - Questions whether First Lieutenant has the speed for the Ryanair after running so well in three mile races (Hennessy, Lexus). Cue Card is not good enough on historical averages (you need a 170 horse, and he's currently 165). Albertas Run interesting at a big price.
World Hurdle 2013
LM - not sure Oscar Whisky will stay but he's the likeliest winner all the same. The Reve de Sivola vibes have not been great, despite trainer assurances that all is well. Celestial Halo and Get Me Out Of Here interesting.
CM - Oscar Whisky probably doesn't truly stay but he might get away with it on decent ground. Smad Place interesting.
DR - Bog Warrior is ground dependant and Smad Place is interesting each way.
KM - No money for Grands Crus with William Hill for this. Like Smad Place each way too.
PS - High 160's needed to win this. The form of the Oscar Whisky/Reve de Sivola race is not good. Bog Warrior has a nice imrovement profile (150/157/162). Grands Crus galloped the other day and looked fit, healthy and definitely still has four legs!
Cheltenham Gold Cup 2013
KM - Bobs Worth most likely winner, but she loves Sir Des Champs
PS - 182 was the sort of rating to win a Gold Cup when Denman and Kauto Star were dominant. 168 won it last year! Looking to 177ish to win it this time. Silviniaco Conti is top-rated on 175, but this will be very different from the flat track races he's been contesting in small fields. Bobs Worth is the most likely winner. Long Run fascinating, though he has to perform to around 182 to offset the five pound claiming jockey he has (who cannot claim in this Grade 1). He's rated 172 now, but was 182 when winning this two years ago. Cape Tribulation an interesting each way bet, as he'll be closing all the way up the run in.
CM - it's easy to get Bobs Worth fit, for instance his Hennessy win off an eight and a half month layoff. No issues with him, he's been in full training all year, and goes there with every chance. Long Run has his chance at a price.
DR - Sir Des Champs has been trained up to the race so you can ignore his early season form. Bobs Worth the one to beat. The Giant Bolster and Cape Tribulation might be of interest each way.
LM - Sir Des Champs on decent ground. Willie Mullins thinks he'll win. Captain Chris of interest each way.
Supreme Novices Hurdle 2013
PS - My Tent Or Yours is easily the most likely winner. There are three or four other possibles in a very high quality year. Jezki, Un Atout, or Dodging Bullets on ratings.
CM - My Tent Or Yours settled very well in the Betfair, and his only worry is the track as all form so far is on flat tracks. Hendo yard LOVE this horse. (CM blamed the jockey quite clearly for when he was beaten by Chatterbox, a nice horse in his own right for the same stable)
DR - Against Jezki. Champagne Fever worked well this week. Un Atout is the unknown.
LM - My Tent Or Yours will probably win.
KM - odds compilers are interested in Pique Sous and Champagne Fever each way.
Neptune Novices Hurdle 2013
DR - It's a more competitive race than the betting implies.
CM - Chatterbox has very pleasantly surprised. He's dodging My Tent Or Yours, and has improved a lot recently.
LM - The New One would have been very interesting, but there's concern about any Twiston-Davies horse currently due to the bug in the yard.
PS - Couldn't be interested in The New One with the bug. Tacquin de Seuil has bad stats to overcome, though form is fair. Pont Alexandre the most likely winner.
Triumph Hurdle 2013
DR - Our Conor much the best of the Irish. Dessie Hughes says he's "the best we've had since [dual Champion Hurdler] Hardy Eustace".
CM - No negatives for Rolling Star. Slight lack of experience but the team are very hopeful. Ground will be no problem whatever it is.
LM - It's between the top three. Nicholls yard have been really surprised by how quick Far West is. No strong opinion on the race from LM
PS - Need a 151 or so to win this. Our Conor currently rated 150. Diakali might have been a little unlucky behind him last time and is a big price each way, at around 16/1.
Arkle Trophy 2013
CM - Simonsig is very fast, but he won't have his own way up front here with Overturn and Arvika Ligeonniere in the field too. Simonsig is the quickest horse they have! So much so that they're worried about the fences with him... If he stands up, he wins.
PS - Takes a low 160 performance to win generally. This year's winner looks sure to be rated higher. Hopes Overturn wins, though not confident.
KM - Two horse race, though Baily Green at 33/1 may be interesting for third.
LM - Simonsig
DR - Simonsig, maybe by a big margin.
National Hunt Chase 2013
DR - Back In Focus a good bet as he won't mind any ground.
PS - historically a race from which lots of winners come. Watch, and take notes. (Editor: I checked this in my database, and there were six, four and nine winners respectively within a year of each race, from a fair number of runners. This was not a profitable angle to follow)
RSA Chase 2013
KM - Unioniste has been very popular. Dynaste may well go for the Jewson.
LM - Dynaste probably too quick for an RSA, which is normally won by a scrapper. Boston Bob may not be quick enough. Unioniste the one, and Hadrian's Approach may chase him home.
DR - Ruby Walsh rides Unioniste rather than Boston Bob, who will be partnered by Paul Townend. (Editor: Townend two from two on him, including that last gasp win in a Grade 1 last time). Houblon Des Obeaux is an out and out stayer who might reward each way support. Hadrian's Approach also of interest each way.
CM - Hadrian's Approach has a good each way chance. Has had a lot of schooling to improve his jumping.
PS - Houblon Des Obeaux interesting each way.
Jewson Chase 2013
PS - Dynaste wins if he runs in this.
Mares Hurdle 2013
All - Quevega at the quintuple.
Foxhunters Chase 2013
PS - Salsify the most likely winner, but Dante's Storm, trained by Alan Hill, is an interesting runner at 20/1
PS - In the novice handicaps, look at horses which have only run three times, which is the minimum qualification to get a rating. Attaglance looks interesting, despite having had four runs (pulled up on first chase start).
Novices also have a great record in the Grand Annual.
In the Kim Muir, it's almost always a very compressed handicap (small range from top to bottom), so weight is not really an issue.
JLT is a race Smith handicaps, so he said sell the winning distance!
Plenty of winners have come from Haydock's trial days recently so maybe mark up runners who competed there.
CM - when asked what the 'Hendo hotpot' was, replied that they were hopeful for Anquetta in the Grand Annual (didn't seem confident)
DR - Close House in the Pertemps
LM - Alderwood (Grand Annual), Sam Winner (Pertemps, made a compelling case for it, based on ratings and lightly raced since)
Regarding Ballynagour, suspicion it might have burst blood vessels in the past, and may either win or pull up.
As if that wasn't enough excitement for one evening, I got a chance to speak to Phil Smith at half time, and I asked him how the handicap ratings were produced for Irish runners over here. He explained that the BHA keep their own rolling handicap of all Irish form throughout the year, and allocate weights according to that, for jump racing.
With the flat racing, the British and Irish handicapping methodologies are largely aligned, so BHA takes Irish flat ratings exactly as they are. However, there are differences in the jumps rating methodologies and, although the method has converged to a greater degree in recent years ("they do it more like us now"), there is still a differential.
It was a very thought-provoking evening, and my thanks to Kate Austin and the London Racing Club board for organising.