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Green and Gold – A dependable route to Grand National Profit

The hugely competitive nature off the Grand National ensures that no single trainer or owner can boast an outstanding record in the race.

Nigel Twiston-Davies is the only handler to have captured more than a single Grand National victory in the past 30 years. In the same period jockeys Carl Llewellyn, Ruby Walsh and Leighton Aspell landed a pair apiece.

As far as successful owners are concerned, there’s no doubting that Trevor Hemmings stands alone at the head of the field. Finding Grand National contenders has become a serious hobby for the wealthy businessman. And he’s proved particularly adept, with an impressive three victories in the past 13 years. Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and Many Clouds were the successful trio and he’ll be looking for a fourth on Saturday.

Irish racehorse owner JP McManus stands at just one victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase, though his recent record suggests that he is the one to keep onside if you’re looking to have a punt on Saturday.

Cause Of Causes was the latest to carry those famous green and gold silks to a prominent finish, when runner-up to One For Arthur last year. It was announced yesterday that the Gordon Elliott-trained chaser has been retired due to a recent injury picked up at Prestbury Park. Though not the biggest, the gutsy stayer was at his best on spring ground, adapting well to the unique national fences. He was also talented enough to land a hat-trick of victories at the Cheltenham Festival.

In 2016 the McManus colours were carried to fourth-place by the Enda Bolger-trained Gilgamboa. A year earlier Shutthefrontdoor managed a fifth-place finish, whilst in 2014 Double Seven came close to giving AP McCoy another win, before fading to third after the elbow.

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Neptune Collonges landed a dramatic victory in the Grand National of 2012, chinning the McManus owned Sunnyhillboy on the line. It was a heart-breaking day all-round for the Irishman, as not only did he miss out on victory by a nose, but he saw his Gold Cup hero, Synchronised, fatally injured just a month after that glorious success at Cheltenham.

In 2010 the McManus/McCoy combination had one of their greatest days, with the Grand National victory of Don’t Push It. The 10-year-old travelled beautifully throughout and cruised into contention two fences from home. When McCoy asked for an effort the horse gave an emphatic response. The pair returned a year later and ran a cracker off top-weight to finish third behind Ballabriggs.

Anibale Fly and Minella Rocco appear to be JP’s leading contenders for Saturday’s renewal. Both have placed in a Gold Cup, though will be asked to carry plenty of weight as a consequence. There’s a doubt, as the rain continues to fall, of Minella Rocco making the start-line. Jonjo O’Neill has remained adamant that his chaser needs decent ground, and that certainly won’t be the case at Aintree this weekend. Nevertheless, the eight-year-old has undergone a wind operation and connections may decide to take their chance.

Anibale Fly stayed on strongly to finish third in last month’s Gold Cup. That run suggested that a marathon trip such as the national would prove ideal. Tony Martin’s eight-year-old is by French stallion Assessor, and ought to therefore cope admirably with testing conditions. The concern is, of course, the 11-7 that he’ll need to haul over the 30 fences, though there’s no doubting his class.

Anthony Honeyball has had an outstanding season and has a decent contender in Regal Encore. Sporting the famous green and gold, this fella finished a respectable eighth in the race 12 months ago and ran a cracker when a staying-on third in the Ladbroke Trophy (formerly the Hennessy). He arrives here off the same handicap mark as 12 months ago and at 33s looks to have a great each-way chance.

A couple of weeks back I wrote of the potential contenders for Trevor Hemmings. He has a cracking national record and though the weather may rule out the Paul Nicholls-trained Vicente, he still has a pair of decent each-way propositions in Vintage Clouds and Warriors Tale. Both will appreciate testing ground, and in Sean Bowen, the latter has a jockey that excels in these marathon events.

This pair of wealthy businessmen share a common passion for our wonderful sport. And their continued success in the world’s most famous race, gives hope to punters, as they search for potential winners in this ultra-competitive event.

Monday Musings: Being AP

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

Funnily enough, I never really fancied seeing “Being AP”, the documentary film about the period leading up to the 2015 retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy, which had its limited cinema opening and DVD release later that year, but was screened late last night on BBC2, writes Tony Stafford.

It was rather inconveniently placed if you were caught up with the competing snooker final on Eurosport which ended halfway through the McCoy film, but I compromised and saw the bulk of what proved compelling watching.

We knew for many years all about the almost manic drive which characterised 20 consecutive jump jockey championships, but saw here first-hand his total unwillingness to allow such trifles as injury to prevent it happening for the final time.

The domestic trappings of success and his high-level income as J P McManus’ retained jockey were evident as he forced himself through the various periods of rehabilitation onto yet another 200-plus seasonal tally.

This was the season (2014-15) of his fastest ever first 50 winners, designed, as he graphically says: “to sicken everyone else” and make them see the inevitability of the eventual outcome.

But McCoy admits to a glass half-empty mentality. Dave Roberts, his equally-driven agent, who slipped out of the shadows for a rare public appearance throughout the piece, tells him that it will be impossible for anyone to match his 4,000 winners.

“To get 2,000”, says Roberts, “Someone will need to get 100 winners for 20 years.” McCoy has doubled that, yet his slant on that is “yes, I have had more winners than anyone else, but more losers and more falls.” Always, for Sir Anthony, it has been a case of fearing not becoming champion. In this final season, the early dominance led to hopes of a first-ever 300-winner campaign, but when injury ruled that out, the eventual decision was to announce imminent retirement on reaching 200, as he did on Mr Mole on February 7 2015 at Newbury.

Roberts was on hand to escort him back to the paddock, presumably to make sure he would stick by the planned announcement, and sure enough, as Rishi Persad moved in, microphone pushed into the rider’s face for the first interview, remarking on “yet another 200”, AP said: “That’s the last one, I’m retiring at the end of the season”.

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For once the press corps was stunned. It was a big enough event – Betfair Hurdle Day – for the bulk of the media to be on hand, and the news was self-perpetuating, with wife Chanelle later fielding umpteen messages from friends as the couple drove home.

Clearly, Lady McCoy has had a serious challenge to compete with her husband’s riding and admitted selfishness – you have to be selfish as a sportsman, he maintains - but she has come through as an equally strong character.

Many of the nicest images are the way in which she supported him as he rode in races. “Come on Honey” was the usual exhortation from the missus as she watched races like the last Grand National on fourth-placed Shutthefrontdoor. On the day he received his 20th championship title at Sandown, she had both their children with her. In the midst of great emotion all around, the lasting image for me was her ginger-haired infant son Archie oblivious to it all in his mother’s arms, nonchalantly munching endless soft sweets.

Naturally JP McManus and Jonjo O’Neill were equal participants in this unique story and I expect they both approved of the outcome of what could have ended up an embarrassing sequence of wins and self-satisfaction. Sir Anthony McCoy’s character meant that could never be the case, and indeed the fact he was so worried about what retirement would mean for him also proves he does have some human frailties.

There were plenty of JP stars around over the weekend, with Yanworth not exactly stressing his almost-favourite status for the Champion Hurdle with a narrow win in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, but eight years ago Punjabi failed to win that race before beating Celestial Halo and McCoy on Binocular at Cheltenham.

Maybe more worrying for the owner was Jezki’s odds-on defeat by Tombstone at Gowran Park, the latter horse overturning previous form between the pair. Still, Forthefonofit, Dream Berry and Sutton Place, the last-named in a Grade 2 at Navan, kept the green and yellow colours to the fore. Maybe Jezki should try the three miles of the Sun Bets Stayers’ (ex-World) Hurdle, worth a highly acceptable £170,000 to the winner this year.

At nine, Jezki still retains most of his ability, but until Saturday, Zarkandar, another probable for the Stayers’ race, was looking an habitual non-winner, having gone almost four years since his last triumph in the UK. Paul Nicholls’ 10-year-old did win a French Grade 1, easily beating the talented if enigmatic Gemix at Auteuil more than two years ago, but his Haydock win on Saturday offers hope for one more big Festival effort. Winner of the 2011 Triumph Hurdle, Zarkandar appeared at the fixture for the next four years but was absent in 2016.

It must be hard for a smaller trainer to eschew running a decent horse at Cheltenham, but Tom Symonds, 32 today, who escorted Punjabi back to the winner’s enclosure in 2009 when joint assistant trainer at Nicky Henderson’s with Ben Pauling, will not be sending Don Bersy there.

The French-bred, another notable find for Claude Charlet and his France-based ally Joffret Huet, made it three wins in a row for Tom when collecting the Victor Ludorum at Haydock, giving 8lb to the runner-up.

“We didn’t enter him for the Triuimph, and he won’t go to the Fred Winter. We might look at Liverpool,” said Symonds, as ever under the radar. This observer hopes he will break into the next level and owners Sir Peter and Lady Gibbins, who also own the smart pair Hollywoodien and Kaki de la Pree, can help him with that ambition.

On a weekend of some successful and some less-so old-timers, the best performance by far was Cue Card’s 16th win in 35 career starts in the £85,000 to the winner Betfair Ascot Chase. The 2010 Cheltenham Bumper winner and Ryanair Chase victor four years later, it’s hard to see why he shouldn’t go close in a race he might have won a year ago bar a late fall. I trust Michael O’Leary is not too fussed that after his Kempton King George defeat by Thistlecrack, handicapper Phil Smith chose to drop Cue Card  from 176 to 170 before Saturday’s tour de force!

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – ‘Jonjo Joy’ a Festival Feature

Though his monopoly in Ireland has come under threat this winter, chances are that Willie Mullins will again dominate at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Finding value in a Mullins contender is never easy, with his battalion often going off at restrictive prices. His Supreme Novice Hurdle contender, Melon, is a perfect example. The horse made his hurdling debut a few days back, beating an ordinary field in a 13 runner maiden. Though admittedly visually impressive, he’s now as short as 3/1 to take the Festival opener. The price is based on reputation rather than racecourse performances, and the handler’s outstanding Prestbury Park record of-course.

Success at Cheltenham for Mullins is pretty much nailed-on, but the same cannot be said for any other trainer. Many will be travelling to the Cotswolds full of hope, dreaming of that ‘big win’ on jump racing’s greatest stage. Anyone who doubts the magnitude of such a win should watch the reaction of trainers and owners as they return victorious to the winners’ enclosure during those fabulous four days.

One handler that knows the feeling all too well is Jonjo O’Neill. And he’s become something of a master at plotting the path to success, despite his team often looking to be ‘out of sorts’. He’s lifted major prizes at Cheltenham over the years, including the Gold Cup in 2012 with 8/1 shot Synchronised.

Jonjo’s had a steady flow of Festival winners since the turn of the century. Iris’s Gift was a hugely talented hurdler, finishing second in the Stayers’ of 2003 as a novice, before returning a year later to gain revenge on the mighty French hurdler Baracouda. Rated as high as 173 over the smaller obstacles, it came as a surprise when the powerful grey failed to make an impact over fences.

Though Black Jack Ketchum ultimately failed to reach the lofty heights many had anticipated, his victory in the Albert Bartlett of 2006, then the Brit Insurance, was possibly one of the most eye-catching the festival has seen for many a year. Travelling like a Ferrari among a field of Ford Fiestas, he cruised past his rivals, before scooting clear to win by nine lengths. AP McCoy’s face could not disguise the thrill of the ride on the wonderfully talented gelding.

McCoy had the pleasure of winning aboard Wichita Lineman and Albertas Run in the following years, with the latter winning three times at the Cheltenham Festival. In 2012 Synchronised captured the Gold Cup, and two years later, Jonjo celebrated a trio of festival winners, with Holywell, Taquin Du Seuil and More Of That.

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The latter looked set to dominate the sport after his stunning success in the World Hurdle. That victory came as a raw six-year-old, and in More Of That, Jonjo appeared to have a future superstar. Unfortunately, injury struck during the following campaign, and despite finishing third in the RSA last March, the horse hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle over fences. Nevertheless, he remains a horse to follow when running at Cheltenham, having won four times at the ‘home of jump racing’. His festival target is yet unknown, but he should not be discounted.

Taquin Du Seuil is another with festival pedigree, though he’ll find it tough in March. Despite looking like a horse that needed mud in his youth, his better performances in recent times have come on a sounder surface. His jumping remains an issue, but given a clear round in either the Ryanair or the Gold Cup, he remains an each-way proposition. He ran pretty well in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and is as big as 66/1 for the ‘Blue Riband’.

Holywell has the look of a Jonjo plot, with a handicap mark almost back to the festival winning level of 2014. Expect him to run in the opening day Grade 3 handicap chase. He won it in 2014, and finished runner-up 12 months ago. A pair of 10-year-olds have won the race in the past decade, he could be the third.

He may well line-up against stable companion Beg To Differ, who was last seen running a cracker in the Welsh National. His last run at Cheltenham was poor, but he was second at the track in January 2016, and is on a competitive handicap mark. Still only a seven-year-old, he looks a progressive sort.

Another young chaser who looks to be heading in the right direction, is the JP McManus owned Another Hero. He’s a dour stayer, and was last seen finishing third in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster. He came down in the Irish National last March, and may well be one for the Scottish version in April. If he arrives at Cheltenham, the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase looks a possibility, a race the yard won with Sunnyhillboy in 2012. Jonjo had three in the race last year, with Upswing the best of the finishers.

Doesyourdogbite was a little disappointing last time in the Lanzarote at Kempton. He was sent off favourite for the race, but never looked like winning, staying on late for a sixth-place finish. He’s won three of his four hurdle starts, and may well still prove competitive off his current mark, if taking his chance at The Festival. Two and a half miles with a stiff finish may be ideal.

Finally, the horse that maintained Jonjo’s impressive festival record a year ago. Minella Rocco looks set to test his Gold Cup credentials when he goes to Leopardstown in a couple of weeks. He’s fancied to go well in the Irish version, though this will be only his third outing of the winter, following his fall at Aintree behind the ill-fated Many Clouds in December. He won the National Hunt Chase at last year’s festival, beating Native River in the process. That form looks a lot stronger now. I’ve watched that race several times since, and it’s noticeable just how powerfully he travels into contention. He could be a real contender in March, assuming he jumps well enough.

It’s been a tough season to date for Jonjo and his team, with a current strike-rate of just 10%. Don’t be too surprised however, should the master of Jackdaws Castle be stood in the winners’ enclosure during the biggest four days of the Jump racing calendar.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – King’s Theatre

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a closer look at some of the underlying trends that give us hope of finding a few winners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

My analysis will be less stats driven, (that’s Matt’s speciality) but rather more observational. I’ve been heading to the Cotswolds in March for many years now, and hopefully can put some of that experience to good use, in at least guiding punters in the right direction, if not necessarily singling out individual winners.

Today’s piece will focus on the incredible impact of King’s Theatre progeny on Jump racing’s greatest festival.
Classy, if not top-class on the Flat, he was retired to stud in 1997, standing at Ballylinch in County Kilkenny. He was the Champion National Hunt Sire on a couple of occasions, and forever among the leading half dozen. Sadly, he died in June 2011 at the age of 20, but his influence on jump racing goes on. In recent years, the number of Cheltenham Festival winners that he has produced is quite incredible.

An important factor in the King’s Theatre success story is undoubtedly the drying conditions during the spring festivals. Though the offspring are generally adaptable towards ground conditions, they do tend to prefer a sounder surface. Prestbury Park in March is often ideal.

Cue Card was once a perfect example of the typical King’s Theatre progeny, though in recent years he has developed into a racehorse capable of performing to the highest level in all ground conditions. Nevertheless, in his younger days, a sounder surface was thought ideal, and when he romped home in the Ryanair Chase of 2013, it was his speed that set him apart from runner-up First Lieutenant. He’ll be back for another crack in March, possibly looking to add another Ryanair success to his impressive CV.

Phillip Hobbs has trained several that have brought Cheltenham Festival success the way of the outstanding jumps sire. Back in 2010, Menorah caused something of an upset in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle when getting the better of Get Me Out Of Here and Dunguib. Captain Chris was another Hobbs inmate that landed a Grade 1 at the showpiece event, when taking the Arkle Chase in 2011. When he returned 12 months later, he could only manage fourth in the Ryanair behind yet another from the prolific sire, in the Nicky Henderson trained Riverside Theatre.

The New One has become something of a National Hunt hero, and he’ll be back at Cheltenham in March, though a target has yet to be confirmed. Yet another from the phenomenal King’s Theatre production line, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts at lifting the Champion Hurdle, yet we must not forget that he did claim a Cheltenham Festival victory when romping home in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle back in 2013, defeating Rule The World and Ponte Alexandre in the process.

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AP McCoy gave a riding masterclass, when winning the William Hill Trophy aboard Wichita Lineman at The Festival in 2009. The horse was far from orthodox over a fence, but the Champion Jockey cajoled, bullied and up the famous hill, threw everything at Jonjo’s fella to get him home by a neck in a truly thrilling three-mile chase. Yet it’s easy to forget just how good a hurdler Wichita was, as that was his second Cheltenham Festival win, having captured the Albert Bartlett, (then the Brit Insurance} by a country-mile in 2007.

Another King’s Theatre hurdler that took the Albert Bartlett by storm, was the ill-fated Brindisi Breeze. Tragically killed when escaping from his paddock just months later, he had looked a future star having defeated the well-touted Boston Bob at The Festival in 2012.

Others from the prodigious bloodline to strike at Jump racing’s greatest meeting include; Fingal Bay, Balthazar King, Diamond King and the classy mare Glens Melody. And there’s numerous others that have come frustratingly close in recent years. Southfield Theatre got within a nose in the Pertemps Network Final. Voler La Vedette was unfortunate to run into the mighty Quevega in 2010, then lost out to the almighty Big Bucks two years later.

If those were luckless in not appearing on the Cheltenham Festival roll of honour, then spare a thought for the Willie Mullins trained Shaneshill. Currently a three-time runner-up on the main-stage, could he make it fourth time lucky in March. Chances are that he will be running in the World Hurdle. Like so many by King’s Theatre, he appears at his best when the ground dries out, and undoubtedly raises his game at the ‘home of jump racing’.

And there’s other fancied types that will be hoping to add to the prolific King’s Theatre Festival record.

It’s hard to imagine Shaneshill not going close once again, but what of stable companion Bellshill? Another owned by festival regular Graham Wylie, he has failed to spark on his previous two ventures to the track, but a step-up in trip may well help to put the record straight. He’s made a seamless transition to fences, and looks set to contest either the JLT or the RSA in March. The latter appears most likely, and his pair of victories thus far over the winter, suggest that he’s one of Ireland’s leading novice chasers.

I mentioned earlier in the piece that Diamond King was already a Cheltenham Festival winner. He took the Coral Cup last year, and has one victory from his three starts over fences. Highly tried in his last two, he looks just short of top-class, though was running a huge race in the Drinmore Novice Chase, before getting in close at the last and losing all momentum. He’s now on a handicap mark that could make him competitive in the Festival Plate over 2m5f. He’s currently best-priced 25/1 for the race. Better ground is vital for this fella, and he will be an interesting each-way proposition wherever he turns up.

In my review of Warwick on Monday, I commented on the performance of Peregrine Run, in conditions he would have hated. He’s undoubtedly a King’s Theatre progeny that requires a sounder surface. I’m of the opinion that this year’s Neptune lacks depth, and I maintain that Peter Fahey’s fella is a live each-way proposition. I’ll certainly be throwing a little ‘Keeling-Cash’ at him.

Born Survivor, William Henry and Royal Vacation will also be of interest, when a battalion of King’s Theatre offspring gather for the four-day extravaganza. Last year, of the 21 horses representing the stallion, a third finished top four in their respective races, though only Diamond King struck gold. In a few weeks, selecting the winners from the also-rans will once again become an all-consuming task.

The Best Exploiter of ‘The System’?

Jim Best wins the races..?

Jim Best wins the races..?

I wrote the below piece on 4th September 2014. But, in light of yesterday's verdict in the Jim Best case, it is both topical and prudent to revisit it, and consider - as well as the man himself - the wider implications, and what we as punters need to do to stay on the right side of such plots.

***

It was a contentious day at the office for British racing yesterday, as a plot unfolded in dramatic circumstances.

The race in question, a handicap hurdle at Southwell, looked a typically low grade Wednesday heat, the ten declared runners all being rated 100 or lower. Notably, trainer Jim Best was responsible for two of the ten. Tony McCoy was due to ride Into The Wind, the second favourite, and Rhys Flint would pilot apparent outsider, Saint Helena.

But, between declaration time on Tuesday and off time on Wednesday, a suspicious sequence of events transpired...

First, the more fancied of the two Best runners was withdrawn on account of the ground. Next, with McCoy now apparently without a ride in the race, Flint was 'jocked off' Saint Helena and the champion assumed the steering duties. All the while, market support for Saint Helena was strong, from before the notification of Into The Wind's absence right up until off time.

Saint Helena, a 9/1 shot in the morning, was eventually sent off the 11/10 favourite. As it transpired, she won, just, requiring all of McCoy's strength and race-riding nous to get the job done.

If you fail to see anything untoward in the above, that's probably because you're not party to Saint Helena's form history. A six year old mare, Saint Helena was good enough to win three times on the flat, off ratings as high as 79, and all on good to firm ground.

In her seven prior hurdle starts, she had run no closer to a winner than when a 69.75 length eleventh of twelve in her last race. That was a novice hurdle, and it was the latest bid from the trainer to get this horse handicapped.

**

The racing game in Britain and Ireland is predicated upon a few good horses running in stakes and conditions races, with the vast majority of the remainder running in weight for ability races once they've qualified.

The qualification criteria to receive an initial handicap rating are fairly straightforward, on the face of it at least:

In most cases a horse will have run on three occasions before being allocated a handicap rating. When handicapping a horse for the first time, it is necessary for there to be a clear correlation between the horse’s various performance figures and the handicap rating. Ideally from a handicapping perspective, the three qualifying runs would all be to a similar level, allowing a degree of confidence that the initial handicap rating is accurate.

If a horse returns performance figures of 60, 60 and 60, the Handicapper would almost certainly award an initial handicap rating of 60. The difficulty arises in three very different performance ratings, particularly in the case of a good run followed by two moderate performances. Generally the Handicapper will err on the side of caution with a handicap rating, giving emphasis to the best performance figure as long as that race looks solid.

Obviously, the official handicapper has a frequently horrific job in trying to nail form jelly to the ratings wall. And this was a case in point. Saint Helena, clearly a talented animal on the basis of her flat form on fast ground, had run seven times - four more than the minimum requirement - almost exclusively on soft and heavy, before being awarded an initial handicap rating.

Spot the difference between the win/placed flat form and the mark-seeking hurdles efforts. (Click the image to enlarge)

Saint Helena: Spot The Difference

Saint Helena: Spot The Difference

The British Horseracing Authority, via the on course stewards, called Jim Best in before the race, to explain the absence of Into The Wind. They then called him in after the race to explain the 'apparent' improvement in form of Saint Helena.

The released notes on that second 'chat' are thus:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, SAINT HELENA (IRE), ridden by A P McCoy and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the mare, who had been a very buzzy type in the past, settled better today and had benefited from a break of one hundred and twenty-five days since her last run. He added that the mare was suited by the firmer ground on this occasion. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of SAINT HELENA (IRE) could be reviewed. The Stewards ordered the mare to be routine tested.

It is almost certainly true that Saint Helena was "better suited by the quicker ground" - after all, her best flat form was on quicker. Equally, she looks sure to have "benefited from a break of one hundred and twenty-five days since her last run" on the basis that she might have actually been trained for race fitness during that time.

The case has been referred to High Holborn, and we'll see what the beaks in town make of it.

**

An interesting story for a Wednesday in its own right, the Jim Best plot saga is actually a little older than 24 hours or so. Indeed, Best has multiple 'previous' for such coups, almost all with a matching fingerprint.

A quick 'system builder' query for Jim Best-trained, Tony McCoy-ridden horses running in handicap hurdles without a prior win for the trainer reveals a 47% win rate (15 from 32). Amongst this group of horses, all of which received the McCoy assistance for the first time, were the likes of:

6/08 Noble Minstrel  form F0775 - mark of 72 awarded - 58 days off - wins at 4/1

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1/09 Rocky Ryan form 005 - mark of 90 awarded - 61 days off - wins at 15/8

6/13 Planetoid form 089F70 - mark of 85 awarded - 169 days off - wins at 5/6

8/13 Sugar Hiccup form 00070P - mark of 79 awarded - 239 days off - wins at 5/6

7/14 Money Money Money form 40P0 -mark of 80 awarded-250 days off-wins at 5/1

8/14 Kiama Bay form 09503 - mark of 104 awarded - 91 days off - wins at 7/4

9/14 Saint Helena form PP9P080 -mark of 82 awarded-125 days off - wins at 11/10

And the similarities don't end there.

Consider Planetoid. This was a horse that was due to be ridden by Mattie Batchelor, a Jim Best stable stalwart, but with a (seemingly) lamentable record of 0 wins from 71 rides for the yard.

What atrocious luck then to experience "car trouble" on the day of Planetoid's success, having ridden him on three of his unsuccessful prior starts. Lucky for connections, at least, that McCoy was there to take the spare mount. Ahem.

Here are the stewards' notes from Planetoid's win after interviewing the trainer about the apparent improvement in form:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, PLANETOID (IRE), ridden by A.P. McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the gelding had problems with his jumping last year and has been given a break in order to re-school him over hurdles. He further added that PLANETOID (IRE) was suited by this quicker ground and running for the first time in a handicap. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of PLANETOID (IRE) could be reviewed. The Stewards ordered the gelding to be routine tested.

And these are the stewards' notes after Sugar Hiccup's win:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, SUGAR HICCUP (IRE), ridden by A.P. McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer’s representative who stated that the mare was suited by the faster ground and, having been off the course for 8 months, had been freshened up. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of SUGAR HICCUP (IRE) could be reviewed.

Finally, here's Money Money Money's post race stewards chat:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, MONEY MONEY MONEY, ridden by A P McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, compared with its previous run at Fontwell on 13 November 2014 where the mare finished tenth of thirteen, beaten 110 lengths. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the mare had benefited from a break from racing and appeared to appreciate the better ground.

**

What it means for punters...

So a very clear pattern emerges to these Best 'job horses' and, in a racing jurisdiction so heavily based around the art of handicapping, it is a part of the punter's job to be aware of trainer behaviour. Jim Best is not the only exponent of mark manipulation. In fact, some higher profile handlers on the level - Luca Cumani and Sir Mark Prescott, for instance - are positively admired for their ability to 'get one ready'.

When betting in handicaps, punters must ALWAYS be aware of the material differences between today's race and a horse's recent efforts. That's where value lies, perhaps not in heavily gambled animals like Best's, but certainly with the smaller stables who are having a few quid on but passing serenely under the radar.

First time in a handicap always merits attention, especially when combined with a material change in circumstance, such as a step up in trip or markedly differing ground. A break between qualifying for a handicap rating and running in a handicap can also be a sign of expected improvement. After all, if a horse runs a week after qualifying for a mark, that doesn't leave a lot of time to get the beast fit, does it?

A drop in class can often help, as can to a lesser degree the fitting of headgear (especially a hood). These are considerations the smart bettor must make, and they are part of the game. Making those considerations in the microcosm of trainer patterns can be most instructive, and there are no Jim Best's in the list of 'most effective first time in a handicap hurdle after a break'.

No, sir. That list, which in truth probably never existed until now, contains four high profile National Hunt trainers: Nigel Twiston-Davies, Evan Williams, Anthony Honeyball, and Philip Hobbs. How many Class 5 Taunton handicap hurdles do you suppose they've carved up between themselves? And yet, these events pass largely without comment or question.

I guess the key difference is that Best's modus operandi is to take a proven flat performer and 'bugger about' with it to get the mark, whereas the jumps boys are dollying around in novice hurdles and bumpers beforehand. Which is worse, or better? I'm not sure.

What it means for the authorities...

The exaggerated game of cat and mouse between trainers and the official handicappers is one of great importance to the sport, both from an integrity, and from an interest and engagement perspective. And, the truth is that there is very little the authorities can do about things, as they stand.

Jim Best operated within the current rule set.

It is perfectly acceptable for a jockey change to occur when a better option becomes available due to a non-runner in the same race (cf. "25.3.5 the substitute Rider was declared to ride another horse in the same race but the horse is unable to run" from the Rules of Racing).

It is perfectly acceptable for a horse to be self-certificated on account of the ground, or indeed anything else, as long as the trainer does not breach a 15% of declarations threshold (cf. "8.3 For any Trainer, where the rate of non-runners in Jump races measured as a percentage of the Trainer's declarations in Jump races is 15% or more, the Authority may suspend the Trainer's ability to self-certify non-runners in accordance with Rule 97.3 for up to twelve months." from the Rules of Racing).

It is perfectly acceptable for a horse to 'apparently' improve markedly, as long as the trainer or his representative can explain the improvement after the race, should the local stewards deem it appropriate.

To borrow that hackneyed Dickens quote from, I think, Oliver Twist,

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.

The BHA's eyes have been opened by experience. They are all too aware of the issue here. They spoke to Best both before and after the race; and they are due to call him in again in due course to discuss the matter further. (That said, they're still due to discuss the Planetoid run with him, fifteen months after the race. Perhaps they can discuss them, along with Sugar Hiccup, Money Money Money, and Kiama Bay, as a job lot... with the emphasis on the word 'job').

The key question for the BHA to answer themselves, rather than necessarily bring Best to book, is around the allocation of a handicap mark. It is usual practice for a horse to receive a mark after three runs, if not winning once or placing twice before that time. The handicappers already have discretion to await further evidence, and this discretionary power has been invoked in six of the seven cases mentioned above.

I am led to believe by the twitterati that Saint Helena's seven runs before a rating was allocated constitutes something of a record. But, while that insistence of further evidence is to be admired - and may be the solution to the problem ultimately, at least in part - it is unclear why the 'capper relented after seven inscrutable efforts.

It should be reasonable for the official handicapper to require as many runs as is necessary to give an opening mark or, alternatively, to give a deliberately cautious mark - to the tune of two stone, let's say - in agreement with the trainer. All trainers have a dialogue with the handicappers, and I imagine the next chinwag between David Dickinson, under whose remit most of the above cases fell, and Jim Best will be interesting...

Perhaps a horse should be initially required to run in three handicaps within x% of the race distance of those it raced in to qualify for a mark. That might make it more difficult for trainers to run horses over the wrong trip. Or perhaps a horse must run over the trip for which it is most obviously bred - with a percentage of latitude - prior to being awarded a mark.

These suggestions are somewhat left field, and I'd hate to see any of them introduced for the simple reason that they'd be a triumph of job creation, whilst most likely opening up new loopholes for trainers to figure out and subsequently exploit.

Nope, I think that whilst the governance of self-certification and the allocation of initial handicap ratings can - and must - be improved, the game can - and should - be allowed to continue largely unimpeded by further legislation.

We now all know the hallmarks of a Jim Best punt, so at the very least, the next time one is afoot, we can get involved!

Matt

p.s. what are your thoughts on this most contentious of issues? Leave a comment and let us know.

McManus targets further Betfair Hurdle Glory

Newbury hosts the prestigious Betfair Hurdle on Saturday, with prize money of £155,000. The two-mile handicap hurdle is renowned for uncovering classy types who go on to strike gold at the highest level.

The race was established in 1963 and originally known as the Schweppes Gold Trophy. The three times Champion hurdler Persian War took the event in 1968. He’d taken the previous season’s Triumph Hurdle and had to haul a hefty 11st 13lbs to victory against 31 opponents.

Make a Stand was another gifted hurdler who won the race during a dominant 1997 campaign. Trained by the legendary Martin Pipe, the six-year-old went on a stunning run of victories culminating in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. He improved by an incredible 55 pounds during the season, taking the opposition apart with a string of devastating front running performances. Having taken the Newbury event by nine lengths he won the Champion Hurdle by five in a performance described by Alastair Down as “a remorseless display of speed and precision hurdling”.

In recent years the race has become a successful target for those looking to head for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival. Two names in particular stand out, and both carried the famous JP McManus silks.

Get Me Out Of Here took the race in 2010, displaying a stunning ‘turn of foot’ from the last flight. In hindsight he was clearly ‘thrown in’ off a handicap mark of 135. He headed for the Supreme at Cheltenham and came agonisingly close, when beaten a head by Menorah, with the Irish odds on shot Dunguib back in third.

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Three years later My Tent Or Yours carried the famous green and gold to victory in the Betfair Hurdle. He oozed class when taking up the running between the last two hurdles and storming to a five length success. So impressive was the performance that he headed to Cheltenham as a strong favourite for the Supreme Novices’ hurdle. Sadly for JP McManus, Nicky Henderson and AP McCoy, a certain Champagne Fever refused to be passed on that memorable Tuesday in March.

It would be remiss not to mention the ill-fated Darlan, who was unfortunate not to win the race in 2012. He was still travelling powerfully when coming down two from home. He too went on to finish second a month later in the Supreme at Cheltenham. Tragically just a year later he was fatally injured when falling at Doncaster. He was a hugely talented horse, and one feels that his loss left an indelible mark on his trainer Nicky Henderson.

On Saturday it’s the turn of Paul Nicholls to send a JP McManus contender into battle. The famous colours will be carried by several challengers, but it is Modus that looks set to head the market, and has the potential to move on to bigger and better things. A terrific second place in last year’s Champion Bumper identified him as a classy individual, and he followed up with a brilliant third behind Bellshill at the Punchestown Festival.

He’s two from three over hurdles having had his stamina stretched under a penalty when third last time at Taunton in testing conditions. He has course form having won at Newbury back in November, though is likely to be at his best on a sounder surface which he certainly will not get on Saturday.

However, a handicap mark of 139 could prove lenient, and yesterday Nicholls said of his runner: “He was a good bumper horse and we bought him in the summer and sold him to JP. He's a much more mature horse and is getting better all the time. We like him a lot and it's a good race for a novice in that you might be well handicapped whereas in a year you might not be.”

The Champion trainer went on to say: “He's got a lot of ability, but one thing I think is he'll be a lot better on better ground. He can cope with the soft ground. He just lacks a bit of experience, but one thing he does do is jump well. I'm very happy with him and he's a high-class horse. He's a horse who's going to get two and a half miles in time, but he's not slow.”

It’s more than likely that Barry Geraghty will be onboard, further enhancing the chances of the famous green and gold capturing this prestigious event once again. An impressive win would ensure that Modus heads to Cheltenham as a major contender for the Supreme.

‘Choc’s Away’ – Thornton calls time on momentous career

Choc wins on Katchit

Choc wins on Katchit

Sad news arrived yesterday of ‘Choc’ Thornton’s retirement after his battle with injury.

The 37-year-old had not ridden competitively since suffering damage to vertebrae in a fall at Chepstow back in April 2014. Thornton said of the decision: “Whilst I've always hoped to return, following recent specialist reports and having met with Dr Hill from the BHA, due to on-going issues with my neck and upper limbs I have no choice but to retire.”

He went on to thank the trainer who provided the ammunition for his greatest victories: “I'd like to thank all the trainers and owners who have supported me over the years, in particular Alan King and his owners, who've been incredibly supportive especially the last four or five years when I had a rotten run of luck with injuries. I'd also like to thank the team at Oaksey House, and in particular Daloni Lucas, as well as Jerry Hill at the BHA, who has been first class throughout.”

For agent Dave Roberts it’s another high profile jockey to come off the books following on from AP’s retirement. Acting on behalf of Thornton throughout his career, he said: “It's sad news as I know he's tried really hard to get back, but it's not going to happen, unfortunately.”

Roberts went on to heap praise on the rider, saying: “I've been very lucky to work with some of the top jockeys around and he was definitely right up there with the best of them. His record at Cheltenham was exceptional. On the big stage, there was nobody better. He had a great grounding with David Nicholson and carried that through to being a great jockey and a great person. He was always a pleasure to deal with.”

Thornton started out as an amateur with Nicholson at Jackdaws Castle, winning the Conditional Jockey's title in 1998. But he is best known for his association with Alan King at his Barbury Castle Stables.

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In 2004 ‘Choc’ rode King’s Fork Lightning to victory at the Cheltenham Festival, and a year later found Grade 1 success aboard the stables Penzance in the Triumph Hurdle. That 2005 Festival also saw Thornton ride a double for French trainer Francois Doumen on-board Kelami and Moulin Riche.

This proved to be the start of a ‘Purple Patch’ for Barbury Castle, with high-profile winners a plenty over the following half dozen seasons. My Way De Solzen and Voy Por Ustedes arrived on the scene during the 2005/06 campaign, with the former taking the World Hurdle, whilst the latter leapt to a stunning success in the Arkle Chase.

Later in 2006 a diminiative juvenile hurdler announced himself as a horse worth following, when Thornton rode Katchit to a trio of victories at Cheltenham’s mid-winter meetings. Those performances could not have prepared us for the stunning demolition that took place in the Triumph Hurdle, back at Cheltenham in March 2007. The pocket-sized rocket streaked clear to win by a yawning nine lengths.

That Cheltenham Festival week of 2007 proved to be a sensational one for Thornton and King, with My Way De Solzen taking the Arkle Chase and Voy Por Ustedes successful in the Champion Chase. Thornton then added to his tally when riding the Paul Nicholls trained Andreas to victory in the Grand Annual.

‘Choc’ was fast becoming the ‘go to’ jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, and he opened the 2008 proceedings with victory on-board Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for trainer Edward Harty. AP had chosen to ride Binocular, but ‘Choc’ rode a blinder, delivering his mount at exactly the right moment, before getting on top from the last flight. It was a ‘peach’ of a ride.

Incredibly, the best was yet to come for the jockey when he partnered the bravest hurdler in training to win the Champion Hurdle. Katchit became the first five-year-old for more than 20 years to take hurdling’s greatest prize. He showed all of his warrior-like qualities to get home in testing conditions ahead of Osana and Punjabi.

I was fortunate enough to be there that day, and I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed an out-pouring of raw emotion quite like that of Choc’s as he entered the winners’ enclosure. You couldn’t help but love Katchit. It was an incredible performance from both horse and jockey.

Later that week Thornton needed all of his skill and strength to drive home Nenupher Collonges to win the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in atrocious conditions. Other great wins came Thornton’s way over the following years. Voy Por Ustedes won Grade 1’s at Ascot and Aintree, whilst the likes of Walkon, Medermit and Bensalem became new stars of the yard.

‘Choc’ may never have challenged for a jockeys’ title, and may have spent much of his career, like others, in the shadow of McCoy and Walsh, but when you look at the horses he rode to such glorious victories at the greatest National Hunt meetings, he surely could not have wished for a more thrilling career.

Robert Thornton had many a low moment as a jockey over the years, but ‘WOW’ those highs were of Everest like proportion.

John Ferguson’s Sizzling Summer Continues

John Ferguson enjoying the summer

John Ferguson

Last week’s focus was rightly on the York Ebor Meeting, and though the ‘Clash of the Summer’ failed to materialize, we still witnessed a terrific few days of top-class action.Though the Flat Racing season still has plenty to offer, I thought today I’d switch codes and take a look at how the summer jumps programme is progressing.

It should come as no surprise to see John Ferguson and his battalion of ex-flat runners setting the pace at the head of the trainers’ championship. A strike rate of around 40% is impressive, and the prize money won is already set to break through the £200,000 barrier. The Newmarket trainer recently moved to strengthen his team further by adding one the most talented young jockey’s.

Aidan Coleman was appointed as Ferguson’s number one at the end of July. The partnership is already flourishing with Coleman lying second in the title chase behind Richard Johnson. He’s set to continue his working relationship with Venetia Williams over the winter as far as possible, and that will be a useful partnership to maintain, with many from Ferguson’s stable better suited by a sounder surface.

Maputo was the latest recruit from the flat to take to hurdles with an impressive win at Perth on Saturday. Trained by Mark Johnston for much of his career, he had been off the track since running third at Meydan in January 2014, and there’s every chance that this five-year-old could take high order among novice hurdlers during the winter. He was a little scrappy over some obstacles on Saturday though that is sure to improve with experience. Parlour Games flew the flag for the yard last winter, I wonder if Maputo could do the same this time round?

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The aforementioned Richard Johnson is the man to catch in the race for the jockeys’ title. He’s had a very busy and successful summer to date. Philip Hobbs will supply much of the ammunition during the winter, but for now he will ride for anyone and everyone. At Perth he had the leg-up on Gordon Elliott’s contenders. A winner for Jonjo at Bangor on Friday followed winners for Tim Vaughan and Henry Daly during the week. He’s also struck up relationships with other Irish raiders, including Shark Hanlon, who he rode for at Newton Abbot recently.

In the shade of the great AP McCoy for so long, it seems Johnson is determined to take advantage this season. He couldn’t have got off to a better start.

As is often the case during the summer and early part of the winter campaign, Jonjo O’Neill has plenty of horses in action. A 20% strike rate during the early part of this new campaign is promising, but he’ll be desperate to avoid the winter collapse that befell his yard last year. He’s utilised Richard Johnson as often as possible during the summer months, though that luxury will not be available to him once Mr Hobbs has his team ready and raring to go.

Much will change when Nicholls, Henderson and Hobbs have their charges primed and ready to go. Just how much of an impact Ferguson has on the National Hunt scene will continue to be one of the more interesting narratives during the winter.

He will take great confidence from the performances of Parlour Games and Three Kingdoms last season. He’ll also look to the likes of Windsor Park, a horse with a flat pedigree, who beat him to the Neptune Investment prize. The son of Galileo became one of the outstanding novice hurdlers of 2015. Dodging Bullets is a gelding by Dubawi, yet became the champion chaser at two miles. And Nicky Henderson trained Hargam to a prominent finish in the Triumph Hurdle. He’s a son of Sinndar out of a Galileo mare.

Of course new stallions will continue to have a greater influence on jump racing, that’s simply inevitable. The team of Bloomfields will hope that a Godolphin influence becomes a feature in the coming years.

Double Delight at Ayr as Graham Lee goes ‘Flat Out’

Lee wins at Royal Ascot

Lee wins at Royal Ascot

A full book of rides at Ayr yesterday yielded a tasty double for Graham Lee, and keeps the Irishman on the cusp of the title race.

To be fair, the man from Galway is unlikely to reach the summit, despite the injury to Moore and pending retirement of Hughes. Firepower favours De Sousa, Buick, Hanagan and Doyle, though Lee is certainly racking up the mounts in pursuit of winners.

On Friday four rides at Haydock were followed by four at Hamilton. On Saturday five at Ripon yielded a win and two seconds before a trip back to Haydock for a winner from his only mount. Sunday was no day of rest, though five rides at Redcar failed to produce a single winner.

It’s a demanding and hectic schedule, though Lee is no doubt pleased to be spending more time in the saddle and less on the turf. His decision to change codes in 2012 followed a crunching fall at Southwell which left him with a dislocated hip.

In truth he’d always been a flat jockey in waiting. Keeping weight on had been a problem for Lee and the sensible move to switch had become more an issue of pride than common sense. A fear of being seen as a ‘bottler’ probably kept him over the jumps two or three years longer than necessary.

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He had tried the flat before when having 36 rides without success in 1996. Many of them were for Mary Reveley in North Yorkshire who he’d joined at the age of 18. The trouble was that he hated the flat in those days and was desperate to make it as a jump jockey.

He joined Howard Johnson on a permanent basis in 2002, after leaving Malcolm Jefferson’s yard. It was a period of his riding career that will live long in the memory, not only for him, but for all fans of National Hunt racing. In 2004 he achieved the dream of all jump jockeys when riding Ginger McCain’s Amberleigh House to victory in the Grand National. He then completed a famous double when steering Grey Abbey to victory in the Scottish equivalent.

A year later he had arguably his greatest week in the saddle when winning three Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival. Arcalis, No Refuge and the wonderful Inglis Drever were the trio of Howard Johnson winners on the greatest jump racing stage.

Great times continued when stable jockey to Ferdy Murphy in the Yorkshire village of West Witton. Graded success came his way on-board the likes of Another Promise, Aces Four, Hot Weld and the classy Kalahari King.

But that was then, and this is now. At 39, Lee is riding as well as ever and has the passion and determination to be around for a good while longer. His intensity as a sportsman is well known. Lee spent a couple of months lodging with AP McCoy back in 2001, and soon realised the amount of work necessary to make a mark at the highest level.

After his Grand National winning season of 2004 he sought help from sports scientist Chris Barnes, then working with Middlesbrough Football Club. Barnes worked on Lee’s upper body strength and nutritional intake, transforming his overall fitness. The pair worked together again when the jockey changed codes. Lee’s exercise routine needed subtle changes to help him lose a little weight whilst maintaining strength and stamina. Vitamin supplements were retained to boost his immune system with healthy snacks through the day to retain energy levels.

Lee has now become a much sought after jockey for the big occasion. His vast experience in the saddle along with the acquired patience gained from years riding over the jumps were seen to great effect at Royal Ascot in June. His Group 1 success in the Gold Cup aboard Trip To Paris showed what a classy pilot he has become. As the pack moved off the rail at the two furlong pole, Lee made the crucial decision to switch his mount inside, leaving a glorious path to victory.

Not simply confined to the northern circuit, expect further big wins over the summer at the major meetings for Graham Lee. The jockey that once hated flat racing is certainly making a decent fist of it.

Special Tiara – Stylish winner of Sandown’s Celebration Chase

Special Tiara

Upwardly Mobile Special Tiara

Sandown on Saturday was simply sensational. Tony McCoy received a truly wonderful send-off from a sell-out crowd.

The horse racing fraternity came together in a celebration of the greatest jockey of all-time. AP was understandably reduced to tears and reflected on the day speaking to At The Races saying: “It was very difficult to take it all in. The great racing public came out in force and I was thrilled by it all. I don't think I have ever cried before because of the sheer emotion of what a day was like."

But as well as saying a fond farewell to the jump racing legend, the Sandown public were treated to some quality racing. In particular Henry de Bromhead’s chaser Special Tiara continued on his steep upward curve and cemented his place as one of the leading two milers. He took the Celebration Chase in impressive fashion, in a decent time on the softer than anticipated ground, adding this Grade 1 victory to his Grade 2 success in the Desert Orchid Chase back in December.

A typically bold front-running display saw him pull clear two from home, but what impressed most was the way he maintained the run to the line on this stiffer track. He is definitely learning to settle better in his races as he gets older, which is allowing him to finish off a race to greater effect. To my eyes, this looked to be a career best performance.

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His trainer was also impressed, saying: “He was brilliant. I was amazed how well he was going coming to the Pond fence. He seemed to come out of Noel's hands at the last and was full of running.”

At Cheltenham in the Champion Chase he had run with great credit finishing third to Dodging Bullets. He still looked a little too buzzy that day, and De Bromhead has the task of getting his eight-year-old to settle just slightly better in the ‘big one’. If he can, he would have every chance of picking up the major prize he won with stablemate Sizing Europe back in 2011, when coincidently, he was a maturing nine-year-old.

Paddy Power reacted by cutting him to 16-1 (from 25) for next year's Betway Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Those odds look quite generous to me.

Saturday’s race was also notable for the return to form of Sprinter Sacre. Henderson’s superstar is clearly still some way short of his best, but in finishing second he ran with more zest, and probably came close to the form he showed in his seasonal opener behind Dodging Bullets. I’ve watched the race over again and again, and can’t help feeling that he still looked ‘bulky’. I wonder just how much Henderson got ‘stuck into him’ this season, maybe fearing a repeat of the career threatening injury of December 2013.

The trainer’s comments after the race appeared telling, when he said: “I have to be pleased with that as he looked fantastic and he ran his race. I think we had reason to come here to see how he did in his next race. I don't see any reason to stop and we can build on that. He made a bit of a noise at Cheltenham but made no noise today and there was no sign of blood. He travelled well and finished his race - that was a shoot.”

It’s possible that another summer on his back, and a rigorous pre-season with renewed confidence in his well-being, could see a fair bit of improvement from the former champion.

So as the Jumps season draws to a close, and racing adjusts to losing the Champ, fans have plenty to look forward too, when we gather to do it all again next winter.

AP McCoy – ‘Weighs In’ One Last Time

AP McCoy

The Greatest

It’s all about Sandown tomorrow as the curtain comes down on one of the greatest careers in sport. A capacity crowd will be in attendance to give Tony McCoy the send-off he deserves as he rides competitively for the final time.

Many involved in the sport are still finding it difficult to come to terms with the imminent departure of jump racing’s greatest jockey. Former champion John Francome said: "To have that will-power, drive and determination. More than his riding it's his mind-set that has captured me over the years and it won't be the same on a morning and picking up a paper, not seeing his name anywhere.”

The man who sent him out on the path to glory all the years ago, trainer Jim Bolger added: “He was a little gentleman at that stage, and it remained that way for the three and a half years he was with me. He always had the will to win, and as soon as he got the opportunities he made it quite clear he was up for the job.”

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Of course no-one is saying that others lack the drive and determination to succeed. But could any other jockey, whether now or in all the years past, have managed to get Wichita Lineman home with his head in front on that memorable day at Cheltenham back in 2009. Such sporting feats define the man. His record defies belief, and we are unlikely to see his kind again.

One man closer to McCoy than most is Jonjo O’Neill, and he added his thoughts of the Champ: “For me his retirement is very sad because he has been a great help and a great fella. The Gold Cup, the National, his 4,000 winners, they were fantastic. All those days were very special.”

O’Neill expects AP to struggle with such a dramatic change to his life: “I know a lot of the lads find it very hard. They can't go in the weighing room, and its difficult hearing the camaraderie, but time is a great healer. I don't know what he will do now. It's very hard to get that buzz from a winner from anything else, you end up changing your lifestyle," said O'Neill. "Who knows, after Saturday he might never want to sit on a horse again. But the door of Jackdaws Castle will always be open. We will welcome him with open arms."

Jonjo’s sentiments have been echoed around the industry. There’s an overwhelming feeling of warmth towards a man that has been one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors. Horse racing has been all the better for having Tony McCoy a part of it for the past 20 years or so. The sight of him urging, stoking-up a willing partner for maximum effort is an image that we will truly miss.

All will wish him well as he ‘weighs-in’ for one last time.

Brian Hughes – A Potential Champion Jockey

 

Brian Hughes-The Festival 2014

Brian Hughes-The Festival 2014

This Saturday at Sandown the greatest jump jockey Tony McCoy will retire from the sport. It’s hard to imagine National Hunt racing without the ‘Champ’, but his farewell will initiate the first truly competitive race for the rider’s crown for many years.

A look at the current standings shows just how close the title chase is likely to be. Tom Scudamore, Richard Johnson and Sam Twiston-Davies are all within four winners of each other, and there’s no reason to believe that next season the race will be any different. Riding for David Pipe, Philip Hobbs and Paul Nicholls respectively, the three are sure to have the firepower to make a concerted challenge to become the first champion jockey other than AP since Richard Dunwoody in the 94/95 season.

Currently some 40 winners adrift of the ‘big three’ is the dominant jockey in the North, 29-year-old Yorkshire based Brian Hughes. Those involved in the sport are quickly catching on to the fact that Hughes is a terrific horseman, and his talent has ensured he picks-up rides for a multitude of trainers. Malcolm Jefferson may be the supplier of the bulk of Hughes’ rides but he also regularly gets the leg-up for John Wade, Jimmy Moffatt, Kevin Ryan, Richard Fahey and Dianne Sayer, just to name a few.

Yesterday’s treble at Hexham was the perfect example of a Brian Hughes day at the races, when he rode winners for three separate trainers in Malcolm Jefferson, Peter Croke and Patrick Griffin. Two of those came over from Ireland and they were the kind of spare rides that Hughes continues to pick up on a regular basis.

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Without good horses the jockey is fully aware that he would not be in a position to compete at the highest level. Interviewed earlier in the season Hughes commented: “There is still a difference between being a good Northern jockey and someone going to meetings like Cheltenham with good chances. A jockey is only as good as the horses that he rides and there are a lot of lads who are unable to get the rides. I am lucky. I am riding for good owners and am able to get on horses that are able to win. “

The man from Thirsk has also developed an association with owners Camilla and Tim Radford and has ridden some of their string that are in training with Mick Channon, the Lambourn based former footballer. Two victories on promising novice chasers Sgt Reckless and Warden Hill, have come in the past few weeks. He also gave the wonderful Somersby a mighty ride in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, when only just denied a famous victory by Dodging Bullets.

This continued developing network of contacts can only enhance Hughes’ title aspirations and indeed make it a realistic possibility. Riding for many owners and trainers along with a phenomenal desire for success is the very blueprint that has rendered AP McCoy unbeatable for almost two decades.

A trip to the races with his Grandfather to watch an uncle ride over hurdles at Dundalk, may well have been the spark for a youngster many years ago. He graduated from Irelands Racing Academy in 2002, before spending three years with Kevin Prendergast on the flat. Like so many, weight issues forced him to take to jumps and in 2008 he became Champion Conditional in England.

Winning the Topham Chase on Always Waining in 2010 remains one of his favourite rides to date. His first Festival winner came in 2014 when Hawk High won the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. And an old alliance with Mr Prendergast brought a big winner in Ireland this winter, when Katie T won the Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown in January.

Another horse he’ll be looking forward to getting back on board is Cyrus Darius for Malcolm Jefferson. He stormed to a wide-margin victory at the Grand National meeting in the Grade 2 Top Novices’ Hurdle. A huge chaser in the making, he looks set to become the new stable star and could be dominant in the North over fences next autumn.

As AP steps aside a yawning gap will be left, and just who fills that gap will undoubtedly become one of the major stories of next season. Brian Hughes looks sure to be one of the leading contenders.

2015 Scottish Grand National Preview, Trends, Tips

2015 Ayr Scottish Grand National Preview Tips

2015 Scottish Grand National Preview Tips

2015 Scottish Grand National Preview, Trends and Tips

The last of the Nationals is the Scottish Grand National, run at Ayr racecourse, over a distance 110 yards further than four miles. As with many of these extreme handicapping tests, the Scottish National lends itself to a spot of trends analysis, and I've unearthed some interesting data with which to rationalize the 2015 field.

2015 Scottish Grand National Trends

Almost all data is derived from horseracebase.com and covers the eighteen renewals since 1997. Let's begin with the basics... Age, Weight, Last Time Out

Age: Although every winner since 1996 was aged between seven and eleven, the two immediately prior to that were twelve and six respectively. Moreover, the number of older/younger runners in the race is small, and their place to runs ratio is at least competitive with the perceived 'optimal age range'. This looks a red herring, and isn't worthy of consideration. (Only the six-year-old Royal Player is outside of the 7/11 range, and he's no worse than numerically disadvantaged).

Weight: Another over-played 'trend'. It is often noted that most winners were weighted 11-03 or lower. However, look more closely and you'll see that most runners were also weighted 11-03 or lower. Indeed, since 1997, 15 of the 18 winners carried no more than that figure. That's 83% of the winners. Alas for lazy trend-noters, those five-sixths of the winners came from nigh on nine-tenths of the runners (89.3%).

If more evidence was needed - hint, it's not - let's look at the place data. Those weighted 11-03 or below bagged 61 of the 71 available places (86%), but that was from 368 of the 412 runners since 1997 (89%). That's an place strike rate of 16.6%.

The heavier group - carrying 11-04 or more - won three and placed ten times. From just 44 runners. That's 17% winners, and 14% places, from 10.7% of the runners. And the place strike rate in the group is 22.7%, which compares favourably with the 16.6% place strike rate of the lighter-weighted horses.

We saw with the Grand National just last Saturday the folly of ignoring a horse on the basis of the lead it's allotted. As with age, the lightweights have a significant numerical advantage in the field - just Sam Winner and Houblon Des Obeaux will lug more than eleven stone - but that doesn't mean they're statistically better off.

Last Time Out: Although this was a buster last year, it actually does seem pertinent to have recorded a competitive finish last time out. Specifically, the data points to a cut off of sixth place. That might seem arbitrary - heck, it may well even be arbitrary - but there is a noticeable depreciation in the prospects of horses that failed to be in the first six to cross the line.

Just one of the 168 horses to finished seventh or worse (or fail to finish) last time out managed to win the Scottish Grand National. That was Al Co, a 40/1 chance, last year. That group of 168 horses represents 40.8% of Scottish National starters since 1997, meaning the other 17 winners (94%) came from 59.2% of the runners.

The place data backs this up, to some degree at least. 55 of the 71 place positions went to horses finishing first to sixth last time out. That's 77.5% of the places from the same 59.2% of the runners.

Despite last year's setback, I'm happy to demand circumstantial evidence of a good run last time, in the form of a top six finish.

Now how about a slightly more left field angle with which to attack the score and ten intended Ayr Nash runners? Try this one for size...

Class Move: The top of the market for this race tends to feature unexposed novice or second season chasers more often than not. But the actual race winners have often been plying their trade for longer, and generally in lower grade, than the vaunted novice brigade. Whilst the likes of Godsmejudge (2013) and Joes Edge (2005) have landed the spoils, before that we go back to Paris Pike in 2000 and Earth Summit in 1994 to identify the last four novice winners of the race.

No, I'll politely decline the fashionable profile of an up-and-comer in favour of a more streetwise slugger, albeit usually at a class peg or two below the over-bet boys. Oh, sorry, I was forgetting myself. How about the evidence?

Those stepping up to this Grade 3 contest from Class 2 or Class 3 last time out have won 16 of the 18 renewals since 1997 (88.9%) from just 53.4% of the runners (220/412). I found that snippet fascinating. Keep in mind that this includes the likes of Joes Edge, who won a Class 2 novice chase at the Aintree meeting prior to scoring here. And when Godsmejudge ran third in the 2013 National Hunt Chase that too was a Class 2 novice chase.

The ceaseless expansion of the Pattern means both of those races have now been elevated in class, so the position on novices and class moves is moot for now. But still, four wins in 21 years is hardly a robust trend, especially in light of the counter-argument for the older mob.

Quonky, eh?

So if I was looking for a trendy type, I'd side with a horse stepping up in class from a top six finish last time out. That's not a profile for the Ayr National you'll have heard before, but it would have netted you 15 of the last 18 winners (83%), and 39 of the 71 places (55%), from just 38% of the runners. Those are numbers I personally like. Very much.

The downside is that you'd be backing roughly nine horses each year, which is not to everyone's tastes. And your nine picks last year would have got to ate pea soup. Or, poor punning aside, a form string of 8PPPPPPPP. Unsexy.

Against that, your four in 2013 would have nailed the winner and third; and, though perming thirteen in combi trifectas is a game of incremental gains even for shrewdies, a 15/2-25/1-40/1 trio paying £13,532.10 pays for a few losers... (It's 1,716 lines in case you were wondering).

A 1-3-4 from eleven picks in 2011 would have been painful, and might have put even the doughtiest of combi trifecta boxers off stride for that monster payout the following year. And I won't even mention the twenty-five grand trifecta in 2010, mainly because it was secure from no less than eighteen of the field!!!

So the question is, who does that leave this year? Well, before I answer that, I should say that I was inclined to leave those top six finishers from the National Hunt Chase in the reckoning. But I decided against it, because the class elevation has come as a consequence of the removal of a previous rating ceiling. In other words, better horses are allowed to enter the race now, and the better horses tend to come to the fore. Those better horses are higher rated and have not (yet) shown themselves to be commensurately competitive in the Scottish National. Ye follow?

Right, as we were then, and I've a not especially shortlist of ten: Milborough, Yes Tom, Samstown, Wayward Prince, Harry The Viking, Amigo, Carli King, Man With Van, Drop Out Joe, and likely drop out, second reserve Carrigdhoun.

2015 Scottish Grand National Form Preview

we'll look at the form in two parts. Firstly, those near the head of the market will be considered, and then I'll sift through the trendier types, according to my somewhat skeletal interpretation of what they are. It's 10/1 the field and many bookmakers are paying out five places, so any win or place will be worth having.

The favourite in most lists is Gallant Oscar, third in the Festival Handicap Chase at Cheltenham last time out. He's trained by Tony Martin, an Irish handicap plotter with few peers. But the Irish have a lamentable record in the race: no wins and just two places since 1997, from 18 runners (small sample, granted). Indeed, so far as I can establish, there hasn't been an Irish winner of the Scottish Grand National since it moved from Bogside to Ayr in 1966.

Ignoring the historical, and focusing more firmly on form, Gallant Oscar is inexperienced over fences with just four starts to his name. While on the one hand that gives scope for upside, on the other he's already a stone higher than his peak hurdle mark. Moreover, the going - likely to be good (and perhaps, unofficially, good to firm) is a complete unknown. At the price, and with Tony McCoy having opted to ride something else (though that horse, Benvolio, has been withdrawn due to the ground), he's not for me.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Broadway Buffalo and Catching On are the next pair, both 12/1 shots.

Broadway Buffalo ran a stormer in the National Hunt Chase to be beaten a length and a half by Cause Of Causes. But, while he's won on good ground before, that was in a bumper - no jumping required - and over obstacles his record is a less attractive 884. Although I don't know for sure, it's not unreasonable to assume a horse named 'Buffalo' is on the large side, and his overall predilection for sodden conditions (all six other wins on soft or heavy) lends credence to the nominal suspicion.

Catching On is a third novice at the top of the market, and he was oh so impressive at Exeter when fair lagging up on heavy ground. The form of both that run and his prior win over A Good Skin has worked out really well, and a fall in the Midlands National may have done him a favour, coming fairly early as it did. However, that winning form was on soft and heavy. Comfort comes from the fact that Catching On's sole run on good was a win, at Southwell in a novice handicap hurdle, and he looks more likely to cope with quicker than the others mentioned so far.

If his jumping stands the test, he's a player, and may yet get the services of Tony McCoy.

Sego Success is yet another novice in the race, and is 14/1 fourth choice. Trained by Alan King, he's following the same handler's Godsmejudge's route, by running well in the National Hunt Chase before attempting a win here. Godsmejudge managed that, but he was more stoutly bred - my Beneficial stats are worth repeating here: at distances beyond 3m4f, Beneficial progeny are 1 from 78. That one winner was the stallion's very first horse to attempt the marathon distance, G V A Ireland, who won the Midlands National in 2006. 0 from 77 since then.

Of course, there have been placed horses since, but Sego Success travelled really well at Cheltenham and emptied out like a non-stayer. It's possible that the easier track at Ayr and the quicker ground will enable him to see it out, and it's even possible that he'll win (of course), but he's not for me at 14/1 with that breeding reservation.

Last year's winner, Al Co, is taking support for the in form Peter Bowen stable. We know he stays and we know he goes on the track. And, with a season geared heavily to Aintree's Grand National, he's had a relatively easy time of it thus far. Indeed, that stroll through the term was extended when he dumped rider Denis O'Regan off at the the very first fence. He's in here off just five pounds higher than last year, and though that would have been enough to beat him then, it might not be now.

The record of Aintree quick returners is terrible, but not many of those fell at the first!

I had a fairly strong fancy for Lie Forrit last year, but horlicksed and bungled his way round before pulling up. He's been in excellent form since, winning his last two in marathon events, both on deep ground. He does have form on good ground, however, and cannot be discounted on that score. Further, his jumping seems much improved this term. And, quirkily, this 3m5f winner's damsire is Beneficial, perhaps undermining the aforementioned stat.

But still... I can't erase the memory of his errant effort last year when arriving in similarly good form, and I suspect it will all happen a bit too quick and too crowded for him. Not for me, not this time, though he'd be the one I haven't backed which would bring me most joy to see win.

We're firmly into the 16/1 shots now, and top weight Sam Winner is in their midst. Good ground and a flat track is no issue to him. Nor is soft and an undulating circuit, such is his admirable versatility, and a horse good enough to run in the Gold Cup last time was good enough to win the Aintree Grand National this season.

That one, Many Clouds, benefited from discretionary handicapping, however, and this one doesn't. That translates to a leaden impost of 11-12, with only Houblon Des Obeaux within a stone of his lumpy burden. Weight stops trains, they say, and in more everyday parlance it stops plenty of good horses. And yet, we know that if a horse is good enough when lining up for the Ayr Nash, weight will not stop it. Grey Abbey, Young Kenny and Belmont King all won this carrying 11-10 or more since 1997, so it can be done. None of that trio pulled up in the race the previous year, mind.

A trends buster that just has to be a player is Trustan Times. High enough class, he was third to Al Co last year, and after a targeted campaign returns two pounds lower than then. He looks to have been laid out for this, his only chase run in his last three being a fine fifth in the Haydock National Trial. That was sandwiched between a pair of fitness-retaining hurdle spins, and he wasn't really put in to that heavy ground Haydock contest, according to my binoculars at least. With top of the ground known to suit, 16/1 for five places looks all right.

Enough already of the market principals. Time for the profile squad. Let's start with Milborough, a winner of two of his last three including the Eider Chase last time over this trip (give or take a hundred yards) and on this ground (give or take a millimetre or two of the wet stuff). His handicap chase wins have come off marks of 129 and 134, and he's ten pounds higher for that last day win. Although he was getting on top at the end, ten pounds in this context looks a lot. He's 18/1 if you disagree.

Yes Tom is next in the weights, representing those wily Crawford's (along with another trend shortlister, Man With Van). Although they're based in Northern Ireland (Co. Antrim), they send so many runners to Britain - Scotland especially - that they could almost be considered locals. Yes Tom moved to his current barn this time last year and made an immediate impact when winning a chase at Down Royal. But a subsequent thumping in the Scottish National last year suggests stamina is lacking for this four miler. He comes to the party in similarly good form this year, but has done nothing to enhance his prospects of getting home. 33/1 with the sponsors, Coral.

Samstown is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, he's a course winner on good to soft, so track and ground should be at least okay. Second, five of his six wins have come at beyond three miles (though none beyond 3m3f). He was given a nice little run over hurdles last time to put him spot on without necessarily impacting his chase mark and, though he's six pounds higher than his last (and highest) winning rating, he's still improving as an eight year old. He comes here fresher than most, too, with just five starts this term. The 25/1 is being nibbled.

If Samstown is still improving, Wayward Prince most certainly is not. Now eleven, he won the Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle five years ago, but like many Sefton winners, his career didn't really go on from there. Good ground is a must for him, which he'll get here, and while the trip is an unknown he's in as good a form as he's been for some time. That's largely thanks to the leniency of the handicapper, who has dropped Wayward Prince from a perch of 155 in December 2013 to 137. (He actually sunk to 126, but then dotted up in the Grimthorpe (3m2f, good ground). There's no question there are worse 33/1 shots in this field.

I love this one: Harry The Viking. Like Wayward Prince, he's not getting any younger, and his recent propensity for running up has meant he's been elevated most of a stone for not winning. Such is the handicapping game, and unfortunately, personal sentiment aside, it's hard to see a horse winning in that context, though I have huge respect for both the horse, and his shrewd Borders trainer, Sandy Thomson.

Another old mate, Amigo did me a very good turn when winning at Chepstow two years ago. He looked a horse on the up and up that day, but is 'only' a stone higher now with ten further runs under his belt. Still, that's hardly regression, and he does have abundant stamina. A win on good to soft (at this track) and a solid second last time over 3m3f at Newbury on good suggest he'll cope with conditions, too, and he is another of interest at 25/1.

Not many more to come under the Geegeez microscope, with the next being Carli King. Caroline Bailey is not in the best form at the moment, but this chap has plenty to like. Two easy wins at trips beyond three and a half miles on top of the ground bookended a disappointing effort at Catterick over a similar range. It is entirely possible that the middle run came too soon after the first of the three - just 13 days later - and, if that's the case, then this boyo has brighter prospects than a general quote of 33/1 implies.

The wins were facile. Both of them. By fifteen lengths, eased down; and by eleven lengths, heavily eased. True, he's stormed up the weights as a result of those victories, but he needed to, and gets in here with ten stone, and just a pound out of the handicap proper.

He goes from the front, which is no bad thing in this race - six of the last eight winners were no worse than midfield early. He probably does need to lead - all wins when he's led - and there's a pretty good chance of that, with only Lie Forrit a confirmed front runner in this field.

Stuart Crawford's other runner is Man With Van. He was just a head away from a three and a half mile win last time, and is an experienced novice with seven chase starts to date. He had a sighter of the track a month ago and looks to have been primed for this most of the season. I question whether he's quite good enough, though.

Drop Out Joe completes the preview. Another novice, with flat track good ground form to his name, he's not without a chance. He'll be Charlie Longsdon's first runner in the race, and he's only two pounds out of the handicap. Certainly capable of better than he's shown thus far, he's more lightly raced than most this season (and overall). With two wins from 13 career starts, and another five places, he's the sort of plodder who could keep on running a la Forrest Gump and may conceivably be good enough to outrun them all.

2015 Scottish Grand National Tips

As you'd expect in a thirty runner big prize handicap chase, there are lots with chances. On pure form, I quite like the look of Trustan Times, for whom conditions will be spot on and who has been managed into this well.

And from the trendy types, I'd be happy to take a trio of swings with Samstown, Amigo and Carli King. All look to have the requisite stamina, and all have fair allocations of weight in relation to their overall form profiles. Most importantly, all look to offer value in a race that has returned winners at 66/1, 40/1, 33/1, 20/1 and 18/1 in the past decade.

1 pt win Carli King 33/1 general

1 pt e/w Trustan Times 16/1 general (look for FIVE places)

0.5 pt e/w Samstown 25/1 general (look for FIVE places)

0.5 pt e/w Amigo 25/1 general (look for FIVE places)

5 points staked

**

Two quick lines, as well as the above:

1. Chasing Tomorrow, the juvenile in which I have a share and about which I blogged here, makes his debut tonight. We're hopeful but not expectant. Everything is crossed!

2. Geegeez Gold is in great form. Stat of the Day has had three good winners already this week, and is +22.5 points in April. The Shortlist found five winners from five races two days ago, the acc'a paying 1841/1.

Gold race cards are the very best available in Britain - according to hundreds of users - and the overall service offering (tips, reports, cards, form tools, tracker) is unbeatable value at £24 a month. Better still, you can test drive it for two weeks for just £5.

STOP PRESS: Opening Batsman's win this afternoon has nudged the monthly Stat of the Day profit up to +25.8. That's £258 for £10 stakes. An ANNUAL subscription to Geegeez Gold costs £197. You do the math... 😉

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Good luck!

Matt