Horses to follow lists are a staple of this time of year, much more so than at the equivalent period on the flat in March and April. Whatever it is about national hunt racing, people get enthused about the months ahead and no one can be derided for that. They can’t all deliver on their potential however and I wonder if a more useful approach might be to collate a list of horses to oppose.
The power of the negative is underrated in horse racing analysis and I’ve long found one of the best ways into a race is to find a favourite you dislike and work back from there, the theory being that if it is underpriced there will be value somewhere amongst the rest of the field. Having a few horses in mind that are overrated or at least likely not to match market expectations could be useful as we start into the winter.
One final point on this: my opinion on any of these horses could change after they have had a run or two. One can have views at this point of the season but becoming hidebound to them is a mistake and I am a firm adherent to the John Maynard Keynes approach: ‘when the facts change, I change my mind.’
There is a school of thought that horses who jump to their right or left are best-suited to racing at tracks with that configuration but I am more inclined to view it as a physical problem of some sort. That seems to be the case with American Tom judging by comments from connections and his fencing was certainly erratic in his novice season. He returned at Naas on Saturday but having travelled best, hitting a low of 1.62 in-running, he found little and finished third to Ball D’Arc. Some will argue this was a creditable return for a horse off for 10 months but he was getting 9lbs from the winner who really wants further and he could be one to oppose in two-mile chases this winter. I can certainly see him being put in short for such events in Ireland which, outside of Douvan, look paper-thin as we saw in Sunday’s Fortria.
Bristol De Mai
Though he won well enough in the Charlie Hall earlier this month, there has to be doubts about the value of that form; Coneygree was out of the race early while Cue Card fell when going pretty well, leaving Bristol De Mai with only Blaklion to beat. Cheltenham does not seem to be his thing and furthermore there is a concern that Bristol De Mai’s best efforts seem to come at Haydock, a track that can produce freak performances. He does at least get to go back there soon for the Betfair Chase but a win in that event could be the high-point of his season rather than a signal of better to come.
Failure is rarely seen as a positive but when Let’s Dance went without a win in four runs in juvenile hurdles it was a blessing in disguise as it left her with a significant experience edge against the novices last season. That was a campaign where she was well-placed to win five races on the bounce and, while it could be argued that she won against the geldings in January before landing the Dawn Run, holes can be picked in those runs: the Leopardstown win came when half the field jumped poorly while she only beat Barra at Cheltenham. Augusta Kate – herself no star – beat her afterwards and she has a long way to go to compete with the best mares like Apple’s Jade and Limini.
For whatever reason, our culture has a tendency to get carried away with the achievements of those that die young with the assumption being that their potential was certain to be reached. That seems to be the case with Fayonagh who has already been crowned a second Dawn Run since her demise, and fans of the mare may be inclined to overrate the horses that finished behind her last season. Paloma Blue is an obvious one for this treatment having finished second to her at Punchestown, but that looked a weak race with only seven runners and the winner was a clear victor; the third also makes this list while Someday simply didn’t run to form. The value of Paloma Blue’s previous bumper win is questionable, allowing that Henry De Bromhead doesn’t really train his horses for such races, and his jumping on hurdles debut was ordinary. He will likely be able to win a maiden hurdle somewhere but graded class may prove beyond him.
Evidence suggests that horses that spend an extra season over hurdles are less likely to become top-class chasers even when they have been very good over small obstacles and in the main I’m looking to oppose these horses with ones that have improved for fences all winter. Petit Mouchoir certainly didn’t look like he had any issue with fences on his chase debut but that slight niggle persists and more than that he has had a small setback which is likely to keep him out until early 2018. That puts him on the back-foot with a view to races like the Arkle, for which he remains second-favourite, as he will give up match practice to horses that will have been running over the next couple of months.
A £300,000 price-tag meant Poli Roi was always going to be one with a reputation and the starting prices in his four runs under rules thus far suggest he is well-regarded by someone at least. The evidence of those runs has been less compelling though; he looked quirky in winning first time before being put in his place in the Punchestown Champion Bumper, while his two hurdle runs have been marked by temperament, flashing his tail on the way to victory last time. In general, I don’t think opposing ungenuine horses is the betting angle it once was – the markets have wised up to it and trainers seem better at working around it – but there are still cases when it can create value.
It seems reasonable to ask what Sub Lieutenant is at the moment, be it two-and-a-half or three-miler. Regardless of trip, he has started 2017/18 out-of-form which isn’t encouraging given he was particularly good in the early part of the previous season; furthermore, he seems to have gone back from first to second run which is a negative for any horse. He put up some good efforts last year, notably when runner-up in the Ryanair, but a deeper dive into his form suggests he may not be up to winning another Grade 1 or 2. He is two from fourteen in such races, the first win coming in a race Milsean threw away, the second in an event confined to second-season chasers. Unfortunately for him, these are just the sorts of races he has to compete in with a mark of 157 and he could have a season of frustration ahead of him that may culminate with reverting to staying handicap chases.
A late starter to chasing raises alarm-bells straightaway, even for one as lightly-raced and talented as Thistlecrack, and then there is his tendon injury from last season. Thistlecrack also lost a little lustre in his Cotswold Chase defeat in January as prior to that he seemed one with unlimited potential, not a horse that could be beaten by Many Clouds, granted that one had ideal conditions. That put a lid on how far he can go and facing a host of impressive novices from last season along with the likes of Sizing John and Native River, Thistlecrack looks a weak favourite for the Gold Cup. Perhaps he will again prove the exception to the rule but I wouldn’t like to be betting on it.
Following a pair of impressive bumper wins in 2015, Tombstone hasn’t really built on his early promise and the temperament that first surfaced in the 2016 Deloitte (didn’t go through with his effort when coming to challenge Bleu Et Rouge) now seems to be a feature of his make-up. He did win a Red Mills Hurdle last season but that was against a ‘bouncy’ Jezki and he failed to back it up with short-priced defeats at Cheltenham and Fairyhouse. Chasing has gone ok for him thus far but there was again a less than strong finishing effort on debut last month before being gifted a race at Down Royal last time. Put simply, he’s a horse whose reputation outstrips his achievements and he appears less than willing to boot.
Already favourite for the old Hennessy (now Ladbrokes) at Newbury, Total Recall might be worth taking on there and not only because of Willie Mullins’s record in UK handicap chases; he is 2 from 113 in such races since 2003. Total Recall was very good in winning the Munster National but that race fell apart quite early with a number of the field failing to complete and the seemingly-back-on-track second, Alpha Des Obeaux, ran just ok next time. I am also sceptical about how much further Mullins can improve this horse; he went up 18lbs for Limerick, and Sandra Hughes, allowing that her yard was out-of-form last season, is a competent trainer, better than some who previously handled the other improvers for the move to Closutton. Perhaps Total Recall has already reached his level for his new yard.
As always, these are only my opinions. Feel free to agree or disagree – with your wallet or in the comments below; and if you have any ‘to not follow’ suggestions of your own, do share them below with a comment.