Last week saw the release of the weights for the ten Festival handicaps and there was the expected consternation among Irish connections about their UK marks and the increased marks they were given by the UK handicapper Phil Smith, writes Tony Keenan. So who were the real winners and losers from the announcement of the weights?
Loser: Gordon Elliott
If we learned nothing else from the release of the weights, it is that Phil Smith hates Gordon Elliott. The pair staged a cold war through the winter about the handicapping of the ex-Donald McCain-trained Diamond King and that set the tone for the Elliott entries being largely hard done by here. Take the relative handicapping of Elliott’s handicap hurdle entries compared to those of Willie Mullins; where the former’s runners received an average of 5.6 pounds on top of their home marks, the latter’s hurdlers were raised just 2.7 pounds. That discrepancy is a little too large to be coincidence and it might be that the UK handicappers are simply sick of Elliott plundering their races at summer gaffs like Perth and used this opportunity to punish the trainer. Elliott’s chasers don’t seem to be any better treated, particularly those that debuted early in the jumps season proper; Nickname Exit (9lbs higher), Lord Scoundrel (7lbs) and Unic De Bersy (5lbs) all seem to be paying a toll for winning their chases early. As to Diamond King, he might be one that Smith has got to grips with now. If his trainer didn’t think he was well-handicapped enough to win the Ladbroke at Ascot back in December, then why would he have so much in hand off a higher mark now?
Winner: Willie Mullins
Relative to Elliott, the Mullins handicappers seem to have got in relatively lightly. Not only did his hurdlers remain relatively untouched but both his entries (McKinley and Sambremont) for the novice handicap chase on Tuesday got into the race off a mark of 139 when the rating ceiling is 140. That was in contrast to last year when a number of his entries, notably Blood Cotil and Jarry D’Honneur, weren’t allowed into the race. The concern now for Mullins is whether his horses might be too well-treated. The likes of Townshend (133 in Ireland, 135 in UK) and Clondaw Warrior (132 in Ireland, 134 in UK) could face a struggle to get into a race, Townshend being number 64 on the ballot to get into the County and Clondaw Warrior 71 in the same race and 81 in the Martin Pipe.
Loser: Noble Endeavor
Noble Endeavor is nowhere near the worst handicapped horse at the meeting as he’s rated just a pound higher in the UK than Ireland, 141 as against 140. But that’s a small discrepancy that makes a big difference as it disqualifies him from getting in the novice handicap chase that has likely been his target all season. That was a race that made sense for him after such a good run off 140 in the Martin Pipe last year and instead punters are being asked to take a single-figure price about him for the National Hunt Chase, a test that seems wholly unsuitable for this strong traveller. He might be the chief sufferer of the fatal one pound rise but he’s not the only one. Spring Heeled is another example; he’s rated 146 and is thus disqualified from the Kim Muir he won in 2014.
There’s a long list of badly-handicapped Elliott runners at this meeting but one that might have slipped in light is Squouateur in the Martin Pipe, raised 4lbs from an Irish mark of 137 to a UK figure of 141 which guarantees him a run in the race. He won what looks the strongest handicap hurdle run over an intermediate trip in Ireland this season at Fairyhouse and wasn’t hard pressed to do so. The form of that race is already working out – the sixth won a similar race over the weekend at Naas – and he is bred to go on decent ground. With the top claimer Jack Kennedy likely to ride, he’s one whose price seems likely to collapse.
Loser: Tony Martin
Of the Irish trainers, only Willie Mullins has trained more handicap winners at the Festival since 2003 than Tony Martin, the Meath trainer sending out five in total including the likes of Xenophon and Dun Doire. That’s a tally he’s unlikely to add to this this year as his team of entries seems woefully thin with Guess Again (top price 16/1 for the Kim Muir) the shortest price of his possible runners. It’s not so much that the Martin runners have been hammered in the weights but rather that they are a mainly exposed bunch and it is difficult to see horses like Living Next Door, Mydor and The Plan Man having any secrets from the handicapper. The bigger issue may well be one of stable form as Martin has had a down season; since the start of September, his runners over jumps in Ireland and the UK are 8/148, a strikerate of 5.4% with an actual over expected of 0.41. There’s something wrong there.
Winner: Sandra Hughes
At the other end of the trainer form spectrum is Sandra Hughes who has won two Grade 2’s and a valuable handicap in the past month after a quiet winter. Her six handicap entries next week seem to have snuck in quite lightly relative to their Irish marks; the biggest hike was 5lbs, two were risen 3lbs, another a pound while two were left alone. There is unlikely to be any real buzz behind her team – Mullins and Elliott understandably hoover up most of the attention afforded to Irish trainers ahead of the Festival – but the likes of Art Of Payroll (County Hurdle) and especially Guitar Pete (Grand Annual, if he gets in) could well outrun their odds.
Loser: Michael O’Leary
He may be winning at life but I wouldn’t like to be footing the bill for Michael O’Leary’s handicap entries at Cheltenham, the owner having 57 initial entries across the 10 handicaps which is a massive number considering he claims to be only interested in winning Grade 1s. The Martin Pipe (11 entries), Coral Cup (9) and Kim Muir (8) have particularly high Gigginstown representation at this early stage. Gordon Elliott has a lot to answer for as he holds a large percentage of those O’Leary entries and he might be getting a call from the famously penny-pinching owner post-Festival. (Mr Ryanair had a brilliant line in a Racing Post interview last Sunday about how an interior designer offered to do a Google-style job on the Ryanair offices for €2.5 million so O’Leary did it himself for €25,000!) In that same interview he went on to point out that his horses are distributed on performance-related criteria with the trainers that do best for him getting new stock. No one has sent out more winners for him than Elliott in the last five years though the entry fees may be eating into the prize money. However, O’Leary was declared a first time billionaire in a recent rich list so this is all ‘drop in the ocean’ stuff.
‘Winner’: Home Farm
If you compare Irish marks and UK marks, then Home Farm is officially the best-treated Irish runner at the Festival being rated 149 at home but 145 across the water. That’s something the market seems to have ignored – he’s 50/1 for the Ultima Handicap Chase on Tuesday – but the layers probably have him about right as he simply looks a badly-handicapped horse that is out of form too. That’s the thing about handicap marks next week: punters can get too hung up on them and if an Irish horse is badly-treated at home a pound or two here or there won’t make a major difference. Sometimes it can be much more sensible to find a horse that is on the up and thriving who will be suited by conditions and not worry about the fact that Phil Smith has loaded on a lumpy penalty. Blue Hell is one that fits this mould.
Loser: Space Cadet
As for the theoretically worst handicapped Irish horse among the Festival handicappers, that dubious honour falls to Space Cadet who is 12lbs higher in the UK on a mark of 133. It’s a meaningless figure in truth as he’s highly unlikely to get a run in any race though Gordon Elliott might be heartened to think that Phil Smith rates him so highly. Perhaps Smith believes he’s another Elliott plot and has thus proceeded with caution but anyone watching his recent Irish races will know the truth of it as he’s become increasingly ungenuine and connections will be glad to win a race, any race, with him, not to mention a Festival handicap.
Winner: Irish Entries in the Grand Annual
Irish horses have a poor record in the handicap chases at the Festival; we have won the novice handicap only once since its inception, have had one winner in the Festival Plate since 1951 and are poor in the Kim Muir albeit improving of late. The one exception to this rule is the Grand Annual where we are 4 wins from 44 runners since 2003 (actual over expected of 1.25) along with five runners-up. It’s surprising then that across all the handicap chases, it is the Grand Annual where the Irish horses appear best-treated; the average discrepancy between the Irish and UK marks is 2.3lbs which is marginally the lowest of five handicap chases when it should be the highest judged on past results. Of course there is no certainty that history will repeat itself but looking at entries from the respective countries, many of the UK runners looked quite exposed whereas the Irish entries appear on the up with the likes of Velvet Maker, Rock The World and Guitar Pete all interesting. It might even be worth doing some small perms with forecasts and tricasts on the day around the Irish horses.