ABSURDE (Paul Townend) wins The Betmgm County Handicap Hurdle Cheltenham 15 Mar 2024 - Pic Steven Cargill / Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: Some Absurde Numbers

There was plenty of talk last week about what a numbers game racing has become, writes Tony Stafford. Cheltenham became hostage once more to Irish stables, Willie Mullins leading the way of course. I have come to enjoy his successes if only that it gives me another chance to show that in his constant interviews, he is the most polite, unassuming man you could get for all that success. Then again there was plenty of excitement going around after Ballyburn.

Dan and Harry Skelton were second only to Willie, and if Dan could usurp his long-time mentor Paul Nicholls and win a first trainers’ championship that would also be nice, joining brother Harry who was champion jockey a few years ago.

No, but it’s two other different numbers that have taken my fancy: 11 (and a little bit) and 3,000. One concerning race times – the other an auction price that shows even modest investments can sometimes buy into some exceedingly desirable bloodlines at a time when everyone is there to have a crack.

First the race times. I think last week provided some of the most testing ground ever to have been seen, certainly since before the days of racecourse drainage systems.

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I can now reveal that one race last week was run in a slower time than any of the Grand Nationals since 1883. So, what could it be? The ground was certainly heavy for the running of the 4m2f Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter on Saturday, with Irish-style water on the course in places.

The winner went round in 9 minutes 43.10 seconds, slower than any of the Aintree showpieces since Red Marauder and Richard Guest led home three surviving rivals in a funereal 11 minutes, 0.1 seconds 23 years ago.

But it wasn’t that time that stands supreme. Hexham operated last week with a going stick figure of 3.2 - I cannot remember one of those. It was heavy at the corresponding meeting in 2023, when the four-mile handicap chase was completed in 9 minutes 57.57 seconds. Last week it took Breeze Of Wind a mind-numbing 11 minutes 0.20 seconds, equivalent to between three and four furlongs extra in distance.

If you think he must have been left all alone in that race – far from it. Five of the six runners were still in contention coming to the final fence as the rather unlikely distances over the line reveal: 1.25 lengths, short head, neck and then 3.75 lengths to the final finisher.

You might also expect any horse to have undertaken the gruelling examination of Hexham that day to need to stay at home for a few weeks of R and R. Not a bit of it. Philip Kirby’s Heritier De Sivola galloped clear of his rivals to win Thursday’s three-mile handicap chase eased down by 32 lengths. Two days later at Newcastle, carrying a 7lb penalty for the Hexham win, he bolted up by more than five lengths, again on heavy ground on one of the country’s most demanding tracks.

Reverting to the time question, it took Breeze Of Wind and chums one-tenth of a second more to complete the four miles of the BK Racing Hexham Marathon Handicap even than Red Marauder to win his Grand National in the days when the big race was a full 4m4f. His time had not been exceeded since 1883 when owner-rider Count Karel Kinsky won on Zoedone in 11 minutes 39 seconds flat.

With the ground everywhere – except the amazing track that is Kempton – susceptible to the slightest shower, so high is the water table, fears for the prospective going for the Lincoln this week and the Grand National next month are realistic.

Now for the other number. Imagine you are at a bloodstock sale and have your eye on a two-year-old filly – in this case from the remaining dispersal of the late Sir Robert Ogden’s horses - and are waiting for lot 618, a filly by Showcasing.

But you’ve also looked at lot 617, a daughter of Kingman – stud fee 125k – and accept she will be way out of your price range. There was a negative about her, though, as she had scarred knees and the white obviously scared everyone off risking the unraced two-year-old.

But Julia Feilden had done her research and found out that before he died in March 2022, Sir Robert sanctioned a £20,000 operation to help correct a serious physical problem with the filly’s forelegs, the impact of the splints leaving unsightly (to some) white hairs on her knees as a consequence.

While wanting to wait for her number one pick, Julia watched in amazement as the bidding stalled on the Kingman filly, and after she stepped in, stopped, to her amazement, at her bid of 3,000gns.

The following lot was knocked down to Sam Sangster for 50k – “miles beyond my limit”, recalls Julia, but that filly has won already, second time out in a novice for the Brian Meehan stable at Southwell and looks set for a decent career as a three-year-old.

Already named when she bought her, Julia formed a syndicate of which she is a ten-per-cent shareholder. On Saturday night at Southwell, having learnt her trade on turf in the summer/autumn, she brought her all-weather form figures to 3211, adding to a recent Chelmsford success.

Dylan Hogan – “either he or my daughter Shelley ride her every day – she’s very buzzy” came from a long way back to get up near the line, Notre Dame showing lots of speed. Rated only 60, Julia reckons she needs to win on the turf to maximise future financial potential. But whatever the truth of that, it does prove that for the professionals, there’s always one that defies logic and slips though the net.

**

The thorny question of how the Irish do so well at Cheltenham was broached upon by the BHA’s Julie Harrington in an earnest publication even as the one-sided (though not quite as much as in some years) battle continued. I think a good proportion of the blame falls to the issue of how our handicappers treat the Irish and then our own horses.

To illustrate my point, you get the feeling that the BHA team hate horses winning races. It seems their brief is to allow one win, maybe two and then to put the handbrake on.

Last week I felt so sorry for Sophie Leech and family and their owners for the treatment of their Madara after he won at the Dublin Racing Festival. Only one of three runners from the UK to go over there in early February he added to a nice win at Cheltenham by collecting a valuable 2m1f chase at Leopardstown.

Just a five-year-old, the ex-French gelding came with a flying run that day under James Reveley, beating Henry de Bromhead’s Path d’Oroux by 2.5 lengths. The BHA handicapper’s response was to raise his mark from 133 to 143. Meanwhile the runner-up went up by only 3lb!

In the end neither enjoyed the Grand Annual at the Festival, possibly because of the ground, Madara fading away and the de Bromhead horse always at the back.

Another ridiculous piece of handicapping was the mark allotted to Ebor winner and Melbourne Cup seventh Absurde, a 110 flat-racer. From spring last year, this six-year-old was given a programme that suggested just how highly he was regarded in the Willie Mullins stable targeting big prizes under both codes.

Phase one jumping – aimed at getting a handicap mark – as lenient as possible, so he wins his novice at Killarney in May first-time out very easily at 2/7. Phase one flat – Royal Ascot where he was second to stable-companion Vauban in the Copper Horse Handicap, but 7.5 lengths behind the winner.

Phase two jumping – Listed race at Galway, sixth of nine. Phase two flat, wins Ebor off 104 under Frankie Dettori.

Phase three flat, 7th in Melbourne Cup off new flat mark of 110.

Phases three and four jumping, pulled up behind Coldwell Potter, the 740k buy from the Elliott stable; then 4th at levels and 33/1 behind Ballyburn. Now he’s eligible for a mark.

Phase five, with 138 jumping compared to 110 flat – so with probably at least 12lb and likely a bit more to spare, he shows brilliant speed to stop yet another well-laid-out Skelton fancy going up the hill. Too easy – if you’re Willie Mullins and you have an Ebor winner to work with!

As if that wasn’t enough, ten of the only 13 finishers in the Boodles Handicap Hurdle for four-year-olds were Irish-trained. The Noel George team – with a McManus horse the handicappers dropped 10lb off one run of evidence, Milan Tino – and I’m not sure if he counts as training in France, was 6th; Jack Jones with an ex-Joseph O’Brien horse (he trained the winner) An Bradan Feasa was 8th; and Fergal O’Brien with the Jim Bolger capture Teorie was 10th.

In the old days trainers aiming at Cheltenham used to try to buy from the October HIT sale when there was just the Triumph Hurdle and its field of up to 30 runners to aim at. Now with this handicap to target, the Irish get going well before that. There needs to be a much better co-ordinated programme of worthwhile juvenile contests from August onwards as horses need at least three runs to get a handicap mark.

- TS

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1 reply
  1. samcarsonps
    samcarsonps says:

    Great stuff Tony with the exception of the Skelton remark. He should have been banned, economical with the truth throughout the enquiry.
    I was at Hexham on Thursday and couldn’t believe Heritier de Sivola was back out on Saturday. Just shows how much some trainers actually know their horses.

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