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Monday Musings: Sonny Side Up Again for Irish Raiders

Throughout the Cheltenham (especially) and Aintree spring jumping Festivals, much of the conversation within the media but more importantly among trainers and owners was the manner in which Irish trainers’ horses seemed not just to outrun their handicap marks but almost to transcend them, writes Tony Stafford.

For ages Willie Mullins has been able to take aim at some of the fattest staying Flat-race prizes over here, having a well prepared line-up of Championship-class jumpers primed to run away with races like the Cesarewitch.

No wonder then that much of the build-up to Saturday’s Sky Bet Ebor at York was dominated by the expectation that once again the home trainers were going to be caught with their pants down. Mullins was coming and unleashing a horse that had not seen a racecourse since October.

The world’s greatest jumps trainer is renowned for bringing back former stars from long absences for easy victories and Mt Leinster, a six-year-old by Beat Hollow, told a compelling tale. Starting out life as an average bumper horse and then hurdler, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire. However once Willie’s son Patrick got onto him in qualified riders’ Flat races (amateur and conditionals) and lastly the Kildare Amateur Riders’ Derby his progress was remorseless.

After an initial Flat-race win over a mile and a half he next found the concession of 11lb to the talented and versatile Wonder Laish beyond him. It was his following victory that projected him into a different league. At Listowel he gave 11lb and an easy five-length beating to French importation Cape Gentleman who had already shown winning form at home for Nicolas Clement.

Following that performance he won again at 3 to 1 on to end his season. Meanwhile, Cape Gentleman was running away with the Irish Cesarewitch before embarking on a successful winter over jumps. Last time, in the highly-competitive Galway Hurdle, Cape Gentleman was a creditable third to Mullins’ Saldier, another of those smart jumpers that seem to mop up valuable handicaps at will.

In the event Mt Leinster proved a severe Ebor disappointment, finishing in the rear division; but, never fear, the UK handicappers still managed to extend their reputation for charitable largesse in the Irish quest for the holy grail of the half-million pound Ebor pot with its £300k to the winner.

Few doubt that, as good a champion jockey as was Johnny Murtagh, he is shaping as though he will become an even better trainer. When he brought his four-year-old Sonnyboyliston to Chester for the Group 3 Ormonde Stakes – he was a good third behind Ballydoyle’s Japan and subsequent Goodwood Cup winner, Trueshan – maybe the Ebor was already in his sights.

He might have expected a rise in his horse’s mark of 109 and that seemed the most likely outcome after a comfortable victory back home in Listed company. That is not to understand those compliant handicappers who left him unchanged. Thus on Saturday with those impeccably solid Graded form credentials, he was, remarkably, 3lb lower than when easily winning an admittedly valuable Curragh handicap for Murtagh last autumn.

On Saturday, Sonnyboyliston duly took advantage of that leniency and, having passed Hughie Morrison’s fellow four-year-old Quickthorn, he just managed to resist the gallant runner-up’s late rally by a head. Morrison reckoned the winner may have been getting lonely in the lead and also that had the rain started when predicted on Saturday rather than when the horses were in the paddock for the race it would have helped his horse but would not have inconvenienced the winner.

There are occasions when trainers do not mind their horses being reassessed up to the full value of their victories and Quickthorn was a case in point. He reappeared this term on a mark of 84 – a full 28lb lower than Sonnyboyliston at the end of last year – so needed to do something special to get into the most valuable handicap of the year which was Morrison’s rather wishful ambition.

This process got a big boost when Quickthorn won by a wide margin at Haydock on his return, bolting clear in the heavy ground up the straight. Raised 13lb for that and then another 6lb more for success in the Duke Of Edinburgh Stakes at Royal Ascot it meant he just squeezed in on Saturday, but even so only 6lb lower in the weights than Sonnyboyliston. Great progress then from Quickthorn, but the Irish got the big money again.

When the dust settles Morrison will need a rethink as the guaranteed extra few pounds will put most UK handicaps beyond his reach. The trainer will be targeting long-distance Group races in France where the four-year-old will have more chance of getting his favoured soft ground. Morrison has exploited this division with such as his subsequent Melbourne Cup runner-up Marmelo, the durable and talented Nearly Caught and from an earlier vintage Alcazar, who won a Group 1 for Morrison aged ten.

It’s not just over here that the big Irish teams seem to get plenty of help. One of the balloted out horses for the Ebor was the 2020 Triumph Hurdle winner Burning Victory when she infamously took advantage of Goshen’s last-flight misfortune.

The now five-year-old was number 47 in the Ebor list so never had a chance of getting in but the pragmatic Willie spotted an opportunity at Deauville on Thursday and I will be shocked if at the final stage today (around 11 a.m. BST) she has not stood her ground.

This is a two-mile handicap and with 34 eligible before today she will be in the first half of the divided race for which the winner gets €27,500 plus 45% owners’ premiums, so just short of €40k, well worth the road/ferry fees.

When Burning Victory left France as a three-year-old before switching to Ireland she had a 40 kilogram rating, equivalent to 88 on this side of the Channel.  Appropriately Thursday’s race is called the Handicap de la Manche. <The advantages of tote monopoly - €40k and that’s just to the winner for a 0-88, goodness!>.

While being employed exclusively over jumps in Ireland since her arrival she has been back on the level in France this summer. A conditions race over 2m1f at Lyon Parilly in June fitted nicely between runs in a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival and seventh place in the previously-mentioned Galway Hurdle.

She won that modest event by five and a half lengths, surely evidence enough that she is better than an 88, as you would expect of a Triumph Hurdle winner benefiting from two years of Mullins’ training. But the French handicappers have left her on her historical mark. You would have thought they might have seen Willie coming. I’m sure Clement’s Fitzcarraldo, whom I had planned to travel over to see in that same race, will have the Mullins mare to beat even though receiving 19lb from her.

I did say I planned to drive over but the old-time there and back in a day via Eurotunnel – my chosen mode of travel in the French Fifteen days – seems so tied up by Covid-flavoured red tape that it is looking increasingly unlikely that I can be there.

You do not need to take a test to enter France, or so I believe, as long as you have the correct number of vaccinations, which obviously I do.

But on returning to the UK you need one form showing you were tested between one and three days prior to that return from France with documentation of where you had been staying. Then two days after arrival it’s another test and not a free NHS job or even so I understand the £60 Boots special but a full-blown £125-a-go test from designated chemists and the like.

One trip I am definitely going to undertake is to toddle down to Brighton to see my friend Jonathan Barnett’s other active horse, the three-year-old Dusky Lord, try to overcome inexperience (one run last year) and an injury absence in a little maiden race.

I loved going to Ascot for the King George and today will be only my second appearance since Burning Victory’s Triumph Hurdle day. Maybe it will be an omen if I can’t make it to France. She was one of the luckiest Festival winners of all time and perhaps the luck might have run out. Alternatively Willie might think why bother to pick up another 40 grand? We live in hope.

Deauville continued apace yesterday and the Prix Morny was a triumph for the Richard Fahey stable with Perfect Power. He had been a desperately unlucky fifth at Goodwood on his latest appearance behind Asymmetric.

Alan King’s sprinter was again in the field and actually took the lead in the last furlong but had no answer to the finishing speed of Perfect Power (a son of Ardad) who held off another finisher, Trident, trained by Andre Fabre and running in the Tabor colours.

The Coolmore owners’ York had been mainly frustrating from the moment St Mark’s Basilica had to be scratched from the Juddmonte International owing to an injury sustained on the home gallops. Late sub Love proved no match in third behind six-length winner Mishriff who starred in a Gosden family revival stunningly shared by the ultra-game Stradivarius, holding Spanish Mission in the Lonsdale Stakes, undoubtedly the thriller of the week.

At least Snowfall was able to maintain her winning sequence in a third Oaks, copying Love last year with wide-margin wins at Epsom, the Curragh (Irish) and York (Yorkshire). Some churlish observers were reading down the distances, 16 to eight to four and discerning something sinister from them.

Aidan O’Brien seemed to be considering Champions weekend in Ireland as a preliminary before her top target in the Arc for which she is the 3-1 favourite. I’m sure “the boys” would be content with another halving to a victory by two lengths on the first Sunday in October. But then again as York showed us last week, a lot that can happen before that.

- TS

Ebor Handicap 2021 Preview and Tips: Away He Goes Ticks All The Boxes

It’s quality not quantity as far as the live races on Saturday are concerned and as I’m a big handicap fan the choice seems to be the Melrose or the Ebor, both run over the same course and distance. I love a 3yo stayer but there are just too many unknowns in the Melrose with so many lightly raced runners meaning it’s the big one, the Ebor Handicap, that I’ll be previewing this week.

The race is due off at 3.35pm and as usual it will be run over York’s 1m6f course. There are 22 runners (plus reserves) to go through and hopefully the race will be run on good to firm ground. There is rain forecast on Saturday but the vast majority is likely to fall after the race and after racing finishes as things stand. This of course could change between now and Saturday though.

All of the data used below is available through a Geegeez Gold subscription. Click here to get your first 30 days of Geegeez Gold for just £1.

Draw

The effect of the draw on round course races can sometimes be overlooked, and sometimes overestimated, where do you want to be drawn over this course and distance?

Not much between the win figures but slightly against convention the place percentages and PRB figures suggest low is slightly disadvantaged with a considerably lower place percentage compared to middle and high and a slightly worse PRB score than the higher draws.

This is something that should be investigated further with the individual stall data.

It’s worth noting that eight of the best nine individual stall PRB figures belong to double figure draws with 16, 18, 19 and 20 filling the top four positions. This would suggest the higher the draw the better.

Stalls 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 are all amongst the poorer performers with PRB figures between 0.47 and 0.39.

Stalls 1 and 20 have both previously won this race so you can clearly win from anywhere and no draw should be written off but slight preference would be for something drawn in the top half of the draw, all other things being equal.

Pace

The shorter trips here favour early pace, what about this distance?

Quite the opposite when it comes to the 1m6f distance here with hold up performers bossing it in terms of both win percentage and place percentage. The place percentages suggest there isn’t much between mid division and front running with prominent coming out worse of all with a place percentage that is three times worse than that for the most patiently ridden types.

It’s not impossible to make all here but it’s pretty clear that on fast ground it will be difficult to dominate and in most cases those that are held up and delivered late may have a distinct advantage.

The individual pace make up of each race will obviously have an impact on this but granted an even to strong early gallop the best value could be gained from hold up performers in this race.

Ebor Handicap 2021 Pace Map

Here is the pace map for the 2021 running of the Ebor Handicap at York.

There clearly isn’t going to be an extremely strong pace in this with just one recognised front runner (Mt Leinster) but Makawee has led in two of his last three starts (was held up on his penultimate run making his average run style look slightly less prominent). Max Vega is another who has led in two of his last three runs so there should be no shortage of pace and at the very least we’ll likely get an even gallop that could give a slight edge to the runners that are held up.

Draw and Pace Combination

With such a big field here we could witness some micro advantages within the usual draw and pace biases so the draw and pace combination heat map will help highlight those.

What this heat map tells us that front runners are best served by a middle draw with prominent racers doing best from a low draw (but not doing well in general). Low draws that race in mid division seem to perform extremely poorly but they do much better from middle to low draws and the draw doesn’t seem to matter at all if you are held up.

So whilst a low draw had seemed a slight disadvantage according to the draw data, this helps highlight that it is no disadvantage at all if you are going to be held up but the stats aren’t good for all other run types with low draws.

The Runners

Here are the runners for the 2021 Ebor Handicap, in early odds order:

Live Your Dream *FIRST RESERVE*

The ante post favourite for this isn’t guaranteed a run, he needs one to come out. Quite a few of the field would prefer rain so maybe he’ll get a run but most entries are going to want to see how early Saturday’s rain turns up which could count against him.

On form he has obvious claims having bolted up in an uncompetitive Wolverhampton handicap before winning a 15 runner heritage handicap over this trip at Newmarket at the July Festival. That looks pretty solid form, even if it hasn’t worked out particularly well, and he can’t really be crabbed for beating everything he’s come up against comfortably at this trip or further.

Sonnyboyliston

Yet to race on faster than good but his better form has come on better ground so there should be no issues with underfoot conditions. One of his most interesting pieces of form is his 4.25 length victory at the Curragh 11 months ago which worked out well and that effort suggests he was more well in than the 9lb higher mark he now runs off.

His form has been slightly underwhelming this season though for one of his rating. He won a pretty poor listed race in June over 12f and his two runs over further haven’t particularly advertised his claims for this – he was behind three of these rivals last time out over course and distance including Roberto Escobar who he has to give weight to here.

Hamish

Still lightly raced and certainly a horse to be interested in given he won twice over course and distance in 2019 before being beaten just a neck by subsequent group 1 winner Trueshan off level weights. He only managed one run last season though, which was an eyecatching run at Royal Ascot.

His form is top notch and he’s certainly capable of proving better than his handicap mark of 108 but he hasn’t been seen for 428 days and on top of that he’d prefer softer ground by all accounts, for all he has won on good to firm here previously. In these big handicaps you tend to get one horse who shortens dramatically just before the off and Hamish looks like that sort of runner. Either way he's certainly one to watch in the market, even if he is already well found.

Ilaraab

Likes it here as he’s won both starts on the Knavesmire but he’s pretty ground dependent (was withdrawn on good ground last time out). He beat an okay field by 3 lengths here in May off a mark of 102 which was a smart effort but he seemed to have his limitations exposed somewhat next time out at Royal Ascot in deeper company. The return to this venue may suit but he’ll want plenty of rain and he still has to prove himself over this trip.

Mt Leinster

The sole runner for Willie Mullins, who had several well fancied entries at the five day stage. He’s only had four runs on the flat producing form figures of 1211. In September last year he beat 101 rated Cape Gentleman in a listed contest by 5 lengths so the fact he runs off 102 here is interesting, especially as he was giving Cape Gentleman 11lbs that day.

He certainly looks well handicapped but he hasn’t been seen for 314 days and there has to be a ground concern as all his wins have come on soft ground and he’s been beaten all seven times he’s raced on anything better (even yielding). Yet another that will likely want rain.

Tribal Craft

He's been running very well this term and a 2 length defeat at the hands of Wonderful Tonight last time out at Goodwood is certainly no disgrace, even in receipt of 3lbs. That effort means he’s 4lbs well in here but once again, he’s one of those that surely wants rain having been kept to soft ground all season. Ignoring a three runner novice race win he’s been beaten in all eight runs that have come on good to soft or faster.

Fujaira Prince

Last year’s winner has only had one run this season so far and it was a fair 3rd over course and distance in listed company, leaving the impression he’d come on for the run. His win in this last year came on soft and he does prefer cut in the ground but he’s run well on good to firm and good ground previously, in fact he’s run well everytime he’s reached a racecourse given he’s yet to finish out of the first 3 in all 11 starts.

He’s up 6lbs from last year’s win which doesn’t rule him out and this has surely been the plan all season. He followed up last year’s victory with a 2nd place in the Irish St Leger so he’s clearly very useful but he could end up finding a couple better handicapped.

Mirann

Plenty of solid form in the book and stays the trip. Only 1lb higher than a decent 4th at Royal Ascot in the Duke Of Edinburgh Handicap. The ground could be a problem though. If it stay fast then he’s unproven on it and his best form is on softer. If it does soften then there are almost certainly better handicapped runners with give in the ground.

Away He Goes

He's 2lbs well in following a career best 2nd in the Goodwood Cup. That effort came on soft ground but his previous three wins have been on much faster ground so he could be capable of better yet, especially as he’s not fully exposed after 15 runs so far (only 4 of those have been at further than 12f).

He has work to do with a couple of these based on his run in the Silver Cup Stakes here but a bigger field and stronger pace will be in his favour and he’s not to be underestimated, for all he might be even better over 2 miles than this trip. Drawn extremely wide but that’s not necessarily a disadvantage.

Humanitarian

Another one that comes here off an absence, Humanitarian hasn’t been seen since winning over 12f at Newbury 11 months ago. That win came off a 455 day break meaning he’s had just the one run in the past 26 months. He’s seemingly one of the few that wants the rain to stay away here and he’s proven he can run well after a long break already. The horse he beat last time out, Dubai Future, has subsequently rated 11lbs higher and Humanitarian runs off just a 4lb higher mark here. He’s unproven over this trip but oth his runs at 12f suggest he’ll stay.

Quickthorn

Mudlark who won back to back races on testing ground earlier this season before finding things happening too quickly on good ground in the Silver Cup Stakes when behind several of these. He was poorly in at the weights that day and would be capable of a bold showing on soft or heavy here given his profile but it’s hard to see the ground softening enough in time for him. Something like the Old Borough Cup at Haydock (usually run on testing ground) would be a suitable target after this.

Roberto Escobarr

Very lightly raced still and a 4 length defeat of Matthew Flinders last season (rated just 1lb inferior to Roberto Escobarr now) suggests he could be well handicapped still. He’s 2 from 4 here at York, has won his only start on good to firm (beating a subsequent listed winner) and ran well last time out in the Silver Cup Stakes just half a length behind Fujaira Prince who he now gets 7lbs from. Roberto Escobarr was well placed in that contest but he does look decent value here.

Shanroe

A handicap winner over this trip last time out on good ground which took his flat record to 3 from 5. He’s won on soft ground but he’s also run several good races on good ground so underfoot conditions shouldn’t bother him. The handicap he won in October over this distance off an 18lb lower mark worked out well, which you’d hope for given his subsequent rise in the weights, plus the form of his latest win is pretty solid too. Very few negatives and he’s at the right end of the weights to progress further.

Alounak

Not the most consistent but he’s come good on his last two starts and he’s shaping as though worth trying over this trip. He seems pretty reliant on very soft ground though and the form of his Old Borough Cup win hasn’t really worked out so he could be vulnerable whatever the ground.

Global Storm

Slightly surprising to see him available at twice the price of Live Your Dream given they were separated by less than a length at Newmarket with Global Storm now 3lbs better off. His better form has generally come at Newmarket but it’s also generally come with a bit of cut in the ground too so if the ground was to ease even slightly he might have better claims of reversing that form. Global Storm did prove himself away from Newmarket when placing at Royal Ascot and given his consistent profile there will certainly be worse each way bets out there.

On To Victory

Won last year’s November Handicap in testing conditions and ran extremely well to get as close to Hukum as he did at Goodwood in May, surely running above his rating of 104. It was therefore a bit underwhelming that he was only 5th off this mark last time out in a handicap at that same venue when getting his ground again. Three of his four wins have come on soft, the other came on good to soft, so he needs rain to be at his best and he needs to improve on that latest run but he has a chance on his best efforts and Saffie Osbourne claims a useful 5lbs.

Pablo Escobarr

Runs against his full brother Roberto Escobarr here, who seems to have a decent chance if the rain stays away until after the race. Unsurprisingly he seems to have a similar going preference to his brother and he seems to have a similar level of ability too. He was rated 5lbs higher last year and hasn’t been the most consistent but he’s probably been campaigned with this in mind and should be cherry ripe now.

He was quite well fancied for this race last year but the ground went against him and connections have been playing with different headgear since. Cheekpieces go back on here for the first time since he was a good 3rd in a listed race over an inadequate trip last year and he’s been shaping as though this sort of trip and big field could be what he wants. Not very reliable but probably overpriced if the rain stays away.

Euchen Glen

A credit to connections who is extremely versatile. He put in a rare below par effort last time which is a slight concern but more of a concern is the fact that he’s 15lbs higher than when winning last year’s Old Borough Cup and 14lbs higher than when 5th in this race last year.

Blue Cup

A slightly frustrating sort who finally came good at Epsom in June when winning by a wide margin and he backed that up with a decent effort in the Wolferton at Royal Ascot when 4th. He ran less well last time out at Newbury and he’s on a stiff enough mark now having gone up 16lbs since his last win and this trip isn’t one he’s sure to see out.

Eagles By Day

Just one win outside of maiden company but it did come over course and distance on good ground in last season’s Silver Cup Stakes. He’s been highly tried since but without any success and in all probability his mark flatters him. He’s only had one run this season, perhaps by design, but he’s got plenty to find.

Makawee

A regular at this venue with a total of eight runs here and he generally seems to run her race with form figures of 15220333. She got 5lbs and an almost 3 length beating from Roberto Escobarr over course and distance earlier this season and is unlikely to reverse that form on these terms.

Max Vega

Still lightly raced and he’s looked better on softer ground to date. With that in mind he didn’t run too badly on seasonal debut on good ground in the Silver Cup Stakes behind several of these given he was poorly positioned, may have needed the run and would have find the surface lively enough. He was 2.25 lengths behind Away He Goes for example and he'll get 5lbs from him here.

Unfortunately if the rain comes and the ground goes in his favour this probably become a more competitive race and he could get found out still. On good to soft he’d represent fair value though.

Mekong

Not the force he was for Sir Michael Stoute and hasn’t really run to form since early last year. Difficult to see him bouncing back in such a competitive race.

The Verdict

A tremendously tricky puzzle to solve, complicated further by the possibility of the ground slowly easing throughout the day. At the time of writing this rain is likely to hit towards the end of the card (and after) so the race being run on ground softer than good seems unlikely for now. That would be a negative for the likes of Ilaraab, Mt Leinster, Mirann, Tribal Craft, Alounak, Quickthorn, On To Victory and Max Vega, amongst others. That’s almost half the field plus Fujaira Prince, Hamish and Global Storm would prefer the rains to come, even if they have run well on faster ground before.

Hamish in particular is very interesting still. He’s been extremely consistent to date on the racecourse and has even proven he can run well off this sort of absence before. He’s still a risky proposition though given the absence and the ground so unless there is sustained market support he’s probably not one to get too involved in at the price.

If the ground does stay on the fast side then Live Your Dream, Sonnyboyliston, Humanitarian, Away He Goes, Roberto Escobarr, and Pablo Escobarr should all run well. Humanitarian is very interesting and like Hamish, he’s proved himself off an absence before but still plenty has to be taken on trust. The Escobarr brothers are probably overpriced but neither are particularly reliable.

The Silver Cup Stakes could be a key bit of form for this given six of these ran in the race and the pick of those could be AWAY HE GOES. He seems a better horse with a run under his belt so should improve beyond several of those in that race (he doesn't have to improve much to beat Sonnyboyliston on these terms). He’s completely unexposed as a stayer, ran a career best last time out, will enjoy the big field scenario and he’s run well on fast and soft ground so for those of us having an early bet on the race he’s a safe candidate. On his last handicap run, earlier this year, he was runner up off an 8lb lower mark, beaten less than a length behind a horse that was 11lbs well in who enjoyed the run of the race more than Away He Goes, who in hindsight was also running over an inadequate trip. He’s officially 2lbs well in here but could still have more in hand than that. He's only a suggestion though in such a difficult race.