Thistlecrack an exception?

When Classy Hurdlers Go Chasing…

There is understandable excitement when a high-class hurdler proven in open company goes chasing, writes Tony Keenan. The horse may have been Champion or Stayers Hurdle level with a mark in the high-150s or even 160s and the expectation is that they will translate that form to fences. However, I’m generally sceptical of this kind of prospective chaser, working off the truism that it is difficult to teach older horses new tricks.

Just as in the human world where a young child can pick up a new language with relative ease, older people tend to struggle with learning a foreign tongue. It makes sense that this would apply with horses too. The typical national hunt horse might start its career in bumpers at the backend end of its fourth or fifth year, run two or three times before being put away for novice hurdles the following season where it might have four or five runs. As a then six- or seven-year-old, it would then go chasing rather than stay over hurdles. Those horses that do stay over hurdles seem at a disadvantage as a larger proportion of their short careers are spent doing something other than chasing and this lack of practice can prove detrimental to their prospects over fences.

That’s the theory at least but with all theories it’s best to test them against a body of evidence. Ideally, I wanted to look at the record of horses going chasing that had varying numbers of hurdles runs but unfortunately the excellent HorseRaceBase didn’t have the facility to run that system which must be the only thing missing from their database; if any readers have access to other databases they might like to look at the figures for themselves. So instead I took a different tack and decided to look at the records of the best chasers in Ireland along with the best hurdlers (non-novices) that went chasing in the same jurisdiction.

I began with the 50 top-rated chasers in Ireland currently, a listed that is topped by Don Cossack on 177 and completed by Mozoltov on 149. Of those top 50, only five were better over hurdles than over fences and in many cases the differences were minimal; they were Champagne Fever (chase 156, hurdle 157), Rule The World (153, 156), Shaneshill (153, 156), Zabana (153, 155) and Identity Thief (150, 159). Of the 27 chasers rated highest, only one (Un De Sceaux) had more than one season over hurdles and the average seasons spent hurdling across the top 50 was 1.2, the average hurdle runs being 6.6. The vast majority of our top chasers have gone over fences directly after their novice hurdle season with their average hurdles mark being 141.9 and their average chase figure 156.6, an improvement of just over a stone, and a number we’ll return to later. This improvement is readily explainable as there is only so high most novice hurdlers can rate given the races in which they run.

Next, I looked at the record of the best Irish horses who spent at least two seasons over hurdles that later went chasing. Starting with the 2006/7 season to present, there were 31 such horses and they are listed below with their peak hurdle and chase marks (for those that didn’t get official marks I made an estimate based on what they achieved):

 

Horse Hurdle Mark Chase Mark Difference Chase Runs Chase Wins
Taglietelle 154 125 29 5 0
Monksland 157 149 8 7 2
Identity Thief 159 150 9 3 2
Alpha Des Obeaux 158 147 11 5 2
Diamond King 157 148 9 3 1
Lieutenant Colonel 156 149 7 4 1
Gwencily Berbas 151 130 21 3 0
Briar Hill 155 142 13 4 1
Kitten Rock 160 148 12 4 4
Tiger Roll 150 146 4 10 3
Rebel Fitz 155 155 0 9 6
Un De Sceaux 156 172 -16 10 6
Oscars Well 162 152 10 12 2
Rule The World 158 150 8 15 1
Tarla 150 144 6 6 2
So Young 158 115 43 2 0
Whatuthink 152 143 9 21 1
Donnas Palm 161 140 21 17 2
Blackstairmountain 152 147 5 6 2
Oscar Dan Dan 151 128 23 4 1
Shinrock Paddy 150 136 14 10 0
Powerstation 157 130 27 9 2
Muirhead 158 143 15 21 3
Catch Me 164 141 23 10 1
Aitmatov 160 131 29 8 0
Sizing Europe 167 177 -10 31 17
Jered 158 142 16 8 1
Harchibald 166 143 23 1 0
Sonnyanjoe 150 116 34 5 0
Adamant Approach 151 142 9 16 4
Rosaker 154 120 34 1 1

 

The most obvious point to make about classy hurdlers going chasing is that they regress for the switch to the tune of about a stone. There are exceptions, notably Sizing Europe, but also Un De Sceaux and Rebel Fitz; but as a general rule this is probably a negative move which brings up the question of why connections might want to do this. If the motivation is that the horse will improve for fences, the evidence suggests this is unlikely but if it is simply that they want to pick up some soft races back against novice chasers then it is probably a fair move; the horse may have reached its ceiling in open company over hurdles and be disqualified from races it can win whereas the switch to fences opens up other avenues.

Jumping would be a concern with these switchers but it is not necessarily backed up by the statistics; this group of classy hurdlers had a fall/unseat rate of 8.1%, which is below average. I covered this in an article last year and the national average in the period covered is around 10%. That said, I do wonder if these horses are more careful at their fences than those who went chasing earlier in their careers.

Of the 32 horses listed above, Noel Meade had seven of them (Monksland, Donnas Palm, Muirhead, Aitmatov, Jered, Harchibald and Rosaker) and it’s hard to make a case that any of them were much of a success over fences: Muirhead may have won a Munster National but that feels fluky along the lines of Tiger Roll’s win the in the same race and Rule The World’s Grand National victory this past year. If any punter found that pair, I admire your perseverance and hope your bank was still intact!

Willie Mullins had six such horses and Un De Sceaux has been a triumph, especially given his early jumping woes, but Henry De Bromhead is the one that stands out. From a single classy hurdler going chasing, he produced Sizing Europe which gives hope for the long-term prospects of currently injured Identity Thief who fits a similar mould.

It has been understandably difficult for these classy hurdlers, many of whom will have competed and even won at Grade 1 level over hurdles, to compete at the top level though there is an interesting contrast to how such horses do over different trips. Both Sizing Europe and Un De Sceaux won a number of Grade 1 chases around two miles as did Blackstairmountain, Barker and Mansony. The record of such horses over staying trips however is dismal with only Zabana at the most recent Punchestown Festival winning a Grade 1 chase over three miles or further.

Interestingly, this is backed up by the hurdles record of the winners of the feature chases at the Cheltenham Festival. Recent winners of the Champion Chase like Sire De Grugy, Dodging Bullets, Sizing Europe and Moscow Flyer all spent an extra season over hurdles but we have to go back to Imperial Call in 1996 to find the last Gold Cup winner who didn’t go straight over fences after its novice hurdle season.

All of which brings us nicely on to the current season where Thistlecrack is making a mockery of any such concerns in the staying chase division. But great horses will always make general rules seem silly and I’d be more interested in how the more typical classy hurdler going chasing will do. In the current season, we have seven such horses and the early returns have been ordinary. The group comprises Taglietelle, Identity Thief, Alpha Des Obeaux, Diamond King, Lieutenant Colonel, Gwencily Berbas and Briar Hill. While Identity Thief might yet make the grade over fences – he has both trip preference and trainer in his favour – most of the others are likely to compete over further and history points to them falling well short of their hurdles high in this sphere.

- Tony Keenan