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Storting stars in Thirsk feature

Storting caused an 18-1 surprise to win Thirsk’s richest ever race – the Cliff Stud Thirsk Hunt Cup.

Mick Channon’s five-year-old hit the front a long way from home under Tony Hamilton and had to be game as the challengers came from behind.

Richard Hannon’s Nugget, winner of the Spring Cup, and Sir Michael Stoute’s Astro King were making ground hand over fist, but Storting held on by a neck and half a length.

Channon said: “We felt Storting had a good chance from his draw (seven) and I thought Tony rode a great race.

“He is a homebred for Jon and Julia Aisbitt. Unfortunately, he has had quite a few problems, but we have got him through it all and it is lovely to win a nice prize like this.

“The drop back to a mile looked to play to his strengths. In fairness, he is a pretty talented horse with a nice pedigree and hopefully he can kick on from here.”

Hamilton said: “We jumped away and I thought they were going to go a gallop in front, but they slowed it down on the bend.

“I had a nice position to manoeuvre out once we turned in and, from two furlongs down, I always felt I was going to hold on.

“I think the fact I was able to get a nice pitch from my draw was a help because I was able to dictate from where I was in the straight. They were coming late, but I had already gone.

“Mick, in fairness, fancied Storting when we spoke before the race. He felt he could win and, fair play, he was right.”

Thirsk Hunt Cup Preview: Astro Set For Star Turn

It’s been a good couple of weeks for this column, not only in terms of finding the winner but also in predicting which horses will run well or not so well. The Geegeez data has been a huge help, as always, particularly with figuring out which trainers have their strings firing first time out and which are needing a run. Don’t forget, you can get your first 30 days of Geegeez Gold for just £1, just click here to take advantage of that offer.

The eyes are immediately drawn to Newmarket this weekend with the first classics of the season. As a punter that generally enjoys handicaps more than anything else the Suffolk Stakes, run over Newmarket’s 9f would ordinarily be a race I’d be very interested in. However there is a slightly disappointing turnout for the race this year and a much stronger field seems to have assembled for the Thirsk Hunt Cup, which will be run at 2.40pm on Saturday over a mile and be shown on ITV. Thirsk doesn’t often reach a terrestrial audience so let’s look at their feature handicap, with the help of the Geegeez Gold suite of tools and data.

Draw

A maximum field of 16 are set to go to post so any potential draw bias is  likely to be seen to maximum effect here.

The data above reveals a slightly surprising disadvantage for lower drawn runners. It’s surprising because they are going around a bend, and the lower drawn participants should, in theory, find it easier to get a better position. However it seems that either the ground closer to the rail is slower, or the runners on the inside struggle to get a clear run. Perhaps even a combination of the two.

A low draw PRB of 0.43 is very low for what should be a pretty fair course. It’s not necessarily a case of needing to be drawn as high as possible though, middle draws have a PRB of 0.53 and high draws have a PRB of 0.54 so it’s pretty even between the middle and high draws.

The win percentages suggest a middle draw is superior to a high draw but the win data has the smallest sample size. When you look at place data, which gives us three to four times more data, the high draws narrowly beat the middle draws (place percentage of 27.78% compared to 25.77%), backing up the PRB data.

The individual stall data should give us further insight here.

The above data is sorted by PRB3, which takes an average of the individual stall and the stalls either side in order to smooth the curve. What it seems to show is the absolute ideal draw is either 11 or 12. These stalls of PRB3 scores of 0.58 and 0.55. What is pretty clear from this data is that a double figure draw is a big advantage over a single figure draw.

Only one single digit stall makes it into the top eight using the PRB3 data and that’s stall 7 which is obviously one of the higher single digit stalls.

Five of the six worst PRB3 figures belong to the lowest five stalls which is a big worry for anything drawn very low. Stalls 6 and 7 have individual stall PRBs of 0.56 and 0.55, which are good, so it seems being drawn higher than five is hugely preferable.

Pace

Will there be as strong a pace bias as there seems to be a draw bias?

There appears to be a fairly strong pace bias, favouring those who are nearer the head of affairs early on. There isn’t much difference in the data between being prominent or racing in mid division but front runners are clear best here with a win percentage of 10.14% and place percentage of 30.43% compared to held up which is clear worst with a win percentage of 4.44% and place percentage of 16.83%.

The drop off in performance between mid division and held up is quite remarkable. The place percentage for mid division is 23.48% and that falls to just 16.83% for held up.

In the same way you don’t want to be in the lowest five stalls here, you also probably don’t want to be amongst the most patiently ridden five or so runners.

Pace Map

The pace map for this year’s Thirsk Hunt Cup will help us judge how strong a pace bias there could be in this individual race.

There is unlikely to be a strong gallop on with just Al Erayg as a recognised pace setter. This means that the course bias towards those nearer the pace is likely to stand up here and coming from way back could be extremely difficult.

There aren’t many in the field that seemingly want to be dropped out in rear. Queen’s Sargent and Hortzadar appear most likely to be the backmarkers early on in this.

Pace and Draw Combination

The pace and draw combination heat map may show us that a low draw isn’t a death sentence if a horse is ridden a particular way and that a higher draw isn’t that great with certain rides.

The first surprise here is that despite front runners doing well here, this actually appears to be the worst kind of ride to give a front runner. Not good news for Al Erayg! There doesn’t seem to be much difference between riding low drawn runners prominently, in mid division or holding them up in rear.

If you are going to be held up, a higher draw is a slight advantage according to the heat map but not as much of an advantage as with any other run style. Presumably as they end up at the back of the field and on the rail wherever they were drawn.

If drawn in the middle, it pays to be ridden prominently with an impressive PRB of 0.61. Mid division is next best for the middle draws with front running tactics and hold up rides slightly sub optimal.

For those drawn higher, the PRB of 0.69 for front runners really stands out. Hartswood could potentially try to lead from stall 12 but he’s more likely to track the leaders and there are no other real high drawn candidates to lead so that piece of data may end up irrelevant in this race. Mid division for high draws also has a high PRB (0.60) ahead of prominent and then held up.

Anything drawn fairly high or likely to be ridden positively should be marked up in this.

The Runners

Here are the  protagonists, in early odds order.

Astro King

Lightly raced 4yo representing Sir Michael Stoute. He only made his debut as a 3yo so should still be improving at a good rate in his second season of racing. He found the combination of 10f and soft ground too much on handicap debut back in October and enjoyed the drop back to this trip in November at Lingfield, winning narrowly but decisively. He resumed racing earlier this month in similar form winning at Nottingham off a 2lb higher mark.

He's gone up 6lbs for that victory, despite winning by just a short head, but there is plenty of strength to this form. The runner up, Finest Sound, won on his next start and the 3rd, Nugget, won the Spring Cup at Newbury next time out.

He's unbeaten in three runs at less than ten furlongs, has really solid form, looks to still be improving, is ideally drawn in stall 11 and has the ideal prominent racing style for a middle draw. It will take a big performance to beat him.

Nugget

Closely matched with Astro King on Nottingham form. He was slightly unlucky in that race but still only beaten 1.75 lengths and he’s 1lb better off here. He won convincingly at Newbury on his next start, being other lightly raced, in form rivals giving that form a strong look. He’s gone up 5lbs for that but certainly looks one to still be interested in.

He's fairly flexible tactically but looks most likely to be held up in rear or mid division. That, combined with his low draw in stall 4, certainly seems to swing things in favour of Astro King if deciding between the pair.

Acquitted

Another lightly raced 4yo, as you tend to find near the head of the betting in this sort of contest. Last season ended with a relatively poor run at Sandown in July and he was gelded shortly after. He returned in good form though with a 2nd in the Spring Mile, the Lincoln consolation.

That form has worked out well and a 1lb rise underestimates Hugo Palmer’s runner. Artistic Rifles, just a head ahead of Acquited, came out and won by 4.5 lengths. The 3rd home was beaten just half a length this week at Ascot whilst the 5th, 8th and 9th have all finished 2nd since and the 6th has come out and won. He’s handicapped to win a decent race but is drawn lower than ideal here in stall 5. He’ll race prominently which will help his situation but the draw has to be a concern, for all he should still run well.

Tom Collins

Inconsistent performer making his debut for William Haggas, having been bought for 100,000gns by son Sam Haggas last autumn. He ran well on his only start on good to firm last season but both his wins to date have come on soft ground, including on his last run when victorious over a mile at Pontefract. The runner up from that contest, Dashing Roger, is now rated 12lbs higher and the 3rd has won twice since so he’s perhaps underestimated by a 5lb rise for all he’ll face very different conditions here.

He's been gelded since and is bred to be smart and to improve with age. He’s well drawn in 13 but his best runs have come when held up which might make his task difficult here if those tactics are repeated. Don’t be surprised if he goes down in trip this season and he’d be very interesting dropped in trip on softer ground.

On A Session

Ran well on his return and stable debut in the Lincoln Trial to finish 2nd but that form hasn’t worked out well and he was well placed in that race. He has strong big field form from Ireland but in six runs on either good or good to firm ground he’s beaten just 24 out of a possible 87 rivals. All three of his wins have come with cut in the ground and if there isn’t much rain this could be a tough task.

Hartswood

Seasonal debutant for Richard Fahey who has a PRB of 0.46 with all handicap runners in the past 30 days and a PRB of 0.33 with runners returning from a 60+ day break in handicaps in the past 30 days, suggesting improvement for this run is likely. He’s well drawn in stall 12, can race prominently and won on his only previous run here as a 2yo. He also ran in some top handicaps last season, particularly at York, including at the Ebor meeting when runner up to Brunch who has since finished 2nd in the Lincoln off a 9lb higher mark. Hartswood is only 3lbs higher here.

He ran well fresh last year but the trainer form is a slight concern, otherwise he’s capable of running well. Assuming he does improve for the run, he’s one to look out for in the mile handicap at the Dante meeting at York in a few weeks.

Hayadh

Winner of the last renewal of this race in 2019 and 3lbs higher here. Improved from his seasonal debut last time when a close 4th at Redcar. He was well drawn on that occasion and that was a much weaker race than this. He often races prominently but has been ridden with more patience on his two starts this season, perhaps with this target in mind. He's drawn lowest of all in stall 1 though, whereas he won a weaker renewal of this two years ago from stall 10. Needs to improve to land this.

Jean Baptiste

Runner up on both starts this season, both times beaten by lightly raced and well handicapped rivals. He deserves a change in luck but isn’t going to be bumping into less well handicapped rivals in this and although he’s seemingly well drawn in 16, he’s often patiently ridden which might not be the best tactics here. He’s gone up 1lb for his two recent defeats which is fair and he’ll win a decent enough race soon but this might be too deep.

Hortzadar

A surprise 3rd in the Lincoln at 66/1 and then was unsuited by a slow pace and poor position at Newmarket next time out. He was 3rd over course and distance in July but that was off a 6lb lower mark and he needs to improve at the age of 6 to win a race this competitive off a mark of 97, having previously won off a mark no higher than 94 and being defeated in eight races off marks of 95 or more.

Queens Sargent

A steady improver over the years and one of the subsequent winners from the Spring Mile. He’s 4lbs higher now, taking him to a career high mark of 90 and on the face of it he’d have difficulty reversing form with Acquitted who was 2 lengths in front of him at Doncaster with that rival also now 3lbs better off. Given his run style, which generally sees him settled in the rear, you’d think he wouldn’t be suited to this course but his course record actually reads 2131. Three of those runs (including both wins) came over 7f and he does seem better at that distance having been beaten on all four runs at a mile. He was only beaten 0.75 lengths on his only course and distance run but that was off a 9lb lower mark in a weaker race. He might outrun his odds but he’ll be of much more interest back here over 7f.

Al Erayg

The likely pace in the race and he’s run well on two occasions here. He’ll be making his seasonal debut for Tim Easterby who has a PRB of 0.46 with all handicap runners in the past 30 days and a PRB of 0.43 with runners returning from a 60+ day break in handicaps in the past 30 days, suggesting he can be expected to resume racing in decent enough form. He also won on seasonal debut last year. Backing leaders here can be very profitable but Al Erayg’s best form is with plenty of cut in the ground and he’s never won off a mark this high.

Scottish Summit

He's already managed three runs this season and has run respectably each time, not beaten far in two of those. He has no excuses last time out and doesn’t seem well enough handicapped now to take this having been hit hard by the handicapper for a comfortable success at Newmarket last September. Stall 3 makes life difficult too.

Byron’s Choice

Making his seasonal debut for Michael Dods who has a PRB of 0.56 with all handicap runners in the past 30 days and a PRB of 0.51 with runners returning from a 60+ day break in handicaps in the past 30 days, suggesting he should return in good enough form. All his wins have come over shorter and he's 5lbs higher than when unplaced over course and distance last season. Stall 6 is okay but he’s very difficult to make a case for off this mark at this distance.

Global Spirit

Ran as though needing the run last time out at Redcar when behind Hayadh. He was half a length behind course specialist Queens Sargent over 7f here in 2019 and is is now 2lbs better off so he’s closely matched with that rival here, for all that form goes back a bit. His run style can be difficult to anticipate as he has been prominent and held up in recent starts but if he’s not given too much to do here he could definitely outrun his odds. He might not be well enough handicapped to place in a strong race like this but look out for him slightly down in grade, perhaps at York or Haydock. He seems to run particularly well around a left hand bend and if he fails to place here it will be the first time he has done so on good or better ground around a left hand bend on turf in seven runs.

Storting

Spent most of his career racing over further. He didn’t settle last time out when running okay at Newbury and probably isn’t badly handicapped. He may well find this too sharp a test on fastish ground at a mile though and he might not be ideally placed given how this seems likely to be run.

Waarif

Ran poorly on seasonal debut over a couple of furlongs further (has form at that trip) after a 531 day break. David O’Meara’s runners generally have been improving for the run season but after such a long absence it’s possible he’ll need more than one run to get fit and at the age of 8, after a layoff, he might just have lost his ability. He’d have a chance on his best form but there is every chance he’ll never rediscover that.

Verdict

Queen’s Sargent and especially Global Spirit are capable of running well at big prices but the market principles will have to underperform for one of those more exposed runners to win. I certainly wouldn’t put anyone off a place only bet on Global Spirit who seems best in big fields around a left handed bend.

Jean Baptiste could run well but his run style probably prohibits him from winning given others look better handicapped and Hartswood would be more interesting if he’d already had a run this season.

Unoriginally the three most interesting runners for this race are the three market leaders, Astro King, Nugget and Acquitted. The fact that ASTRO KING is so lightly raced, has such strong form, has a prominent racing style and crucially is so well drawn makes him a relatively confident selection for this.

Nugget and Acquitted have been done no favours by the draw but other than that look set to run well. The fact that Acquitted should be ridden more aggressively than Nugget makes him the next best for this and I’d have no hesitation in backing a forecast including both Astro King and Acquitted, maybe even including Nugget for a tricast despite his draw AND run style probably being negatives. He’s probably still well enough handicapped to overcome that to a certain extent, if he gets a clear run.