Bristol De Mai’s Day

Bristol De Mai on his way to victory by 57 lengths

The ITV Racing team informed us with certainty that it’s pronounced “may” and not “my”; although Tony McCoy continued to say “my” – But hey, no one wants to contradict a knighted record champion jockey with a slightly prickly personality.

Correct pronunciation was about as committed as the ITV presenters would get about Bristol De Mai who won the Betfair Chase yesterday by 57 lengths. Whilst acknowledging this was probably a record margin of victory in a Grade 1 race, such praise was equally tempered by implications that he was no more than a course specialist and Mick Fitzgerald’s reference to him being a mudlark, sought to emphasise his limitations rather than a truly great performance. There was also the back story which had been running since the earlier Opening Show, that the race was all the poorer for the absence of Sizing John.

There maybe some truth in the experts’ analysis, but what struck me was the reluctance to celebrate an astonishing run in the first Grade 1 race of the season this side of the Irish Sea, from a horse that is still only six.

I suspect there were two things at play. Firstly, that the narrative hoped for was a battling win by the nation’s favourite, Cue Card, who would then be lined up for a shot at the Triple Crown- Any hope of Bristol De Mai winning this elusive title was effectively dismissed by the pundits.  Secondly, that it probably didn’t make for great telly.  Such was the distance between Bristol De Mai and the rest, the camera team were left with the option of having only the leader in shot or the chasing pack. As Bristol De Mai headed for the winning line, the camera did briefly pan back and catch Tea For Two, staggering over a fence looking exhausted.

When asked about the horse being a course specialist after the race, winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies had to remind the interviewer that Bristol De Mai had won the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby earlier in the month. Unlike yesterday that race, which was also on ITV, had an exciting finish, but what was the main story to have come out of it? Oh yes, it was Cue Card- who fell.


Wind Ops- A lot of hot air?

An extraordinary number of column inches have been written today about the BHA’s new rule regarding the declaration by trainers of horses who have had wind surgery. The change will come into force on 19th January 2018 and will apply to previously raced horses, making their first run after certain types of wind surgery.  The BHA has confirmed data will be made available for publication on Race Cards, with horses having “WS” next to their name. So far so good. But what appears to be a fairly limited change has sharply divided opinion amongst  various stakeholders.

Some have chosen to link the announcement with Nicky Henderson and Altiorgate.  Let’s be clear, the two issues are not connected.  Altior related to Nicky Henderson saying on At The Races last Monday that Altior was “totally on target” for the Tingle Creek, only to write in his Unibet blog on Wednesday that his horse would miss the race due to a wind operation.  To be fair to Henderson, he has given a detailed and credible explanation regarding the two apparently contrary statements. This has to do with how trainers’ statements influence markets and to some extent their financial relationships with bookmakers by writing for their websites.

The BHA change wasn’t drafted on the back of a fag packet overnight as a knee jerk reaction and was the result of a lengthy consultation, although perhaps the timing was always going to confuse the two stories.

One of main objections to the obligatory disclosure is that with such information being in the public domain it will push down the price of top horses in the bloodstock market. Frankly I don’t understand this argument: I wouldn’t consider investing even a modest sum of money in a horse, unless I was confident I had full details of its medical history and heritage. In any event, I would guess that the hugely inflated Irish market is not in any way driven by lack of information about wind surgery.  Rather it’s about three men who are willing to pay obscene amounts of money for a horse and think nothing of forking out £250,000 on the back of one win in a fairly obscure point to point.

Responses from individual trainers have been mixed, but their Union, The National Trainers’ Federation (NTF), has expressed concerns in a press release today, where it didn’t mince its words.  It questions how the rule is to be policed, highlighting that some surgery cannot be detected post operatively and the disadvantage to British based trainers, without reciprocal requirements in Ireland and France. My view is that if the BHA  leads the way then all credit to them and I suspect others will follow. As someone who makes their living in the law, I don’t buy into the “it can’t be policed” line. A rule is either right or it’s not and where there is a will to enforce it, my experience is that a way can be found.

The main thrust of the NTF’s stance is that there is not enough data to establish how different types of wind surgery effect a horse’s performance and as such the information which now has to be disclosed is of limited, if any, value to the public. In bringing about the change without an “evidence based approach”, the NTF accuses the BHA of “poor regulation”. Whether this is annoyance at the BHA choosing to listen to the voice of The Horseracing Bettors Forum above their own or part of a larger hidden agenda, I don’t know.  However,  punters already make many assessments based on information for which there probably aren’t any evidence based conclusions. We know when a horse has a tongue strap or is a first time cheek piece wearer and such details may be factored in when attempting to pick a winner. If we can now add to that information about wind surgery, over time we can make our own judgment regarding how that might infuence a run.

As the BHA said this is about transparency and I would find it hard to argue against that. The more transparency there is the better, not just for the gambler but the industry as a whole. So let’s congrtaulate the BHA, but there’s still work to be done.  The sport needs to be even more open, for the benefit of us all.





Ginge Wins while Youth make a Splash

 James Bowen adds a bottle of champagne to the collection

The chirpy weatherman on The Racing Post video who assured us there would be no more than a millimetre of rain at Cheltenham yesterday, would appear at best to have been misinformed. From arrival until leaving it didn’t stop and the only change in the sky being between shades of grey.  Such conditions did nothing to dampen the spirits of more than 30,000 race goers who attended Prestbury Park for BetVictor Gold Cup Day.

Nor did it lessen the enthusiasm of our group of three making our first collective visit of the season to Cheltenham. We operate under an established structure where each has defined roles-I’m the banker – and a type of race to pick the winner in – I’m the hurdles man. All money is pooled and a stake agreed. Our backing expert then elbows his way through the crowd, while studying the bookies’ boards to ensure best odds are achieved. It’s fair to say my friends take a more analytical approach to selections than me; our most learned member will look you in the eye and tell you with evangelical conviction that the spread sheet is the greatest invention known to man.

I couldn’t see past Gumball in the Juvenile Hurdle, but opted for Eragon De Chanay as the value bet. The unexposed Apple’s Shakira romped home and was quickly installed as  favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. The selection in the Novices’ Chase fell to our backing expert and the money went on West Approach, in a depressingly small field of three. We found ourselves still without a winner, but it is was hard to resent the increasingly impressive Bryony Frost victory on Black Corton. Still only 22, Bryony’s smile when returning a winner is always a sight to lift even the most down cast of spirits. Black Corton is now unbeaten in five and looks like a decent punt at 25/1 for the RSA.

The Spreadsheet King, whose real name is Martin, selected Perfect Candidate in the BetVictor Handicap Chase. I don’t know how he picked out the 9/1 winner, who to me looked to have no form at all, but I guess that’s why he has a PhD and I don’t.

Our backing expert, Mark, picked Tully East for the Gold Cup and set off to place the money.  Whilst negotiating the crowd, Martin mentioned Splash Of Ginge. His name had been raised on the journey up and we all had a Splash Of Ginge story – mine centered on a conversation I had with a particularly vocal redheaded Irish woman in a packed train, whilst on my way to the Festival in March. In a clear breach of all our established governance rules, it was agreed we would have £5 each way on the outsider. Having delivered instructions to Mark, he then through skilful navigation secured the bet at 40/1. For a while it looked as if both our on the nose and each way bets would provide returns and it wasn’t until two from home, that I fully appreciated Splash Of Ginge might actually win. By this stage Martin was in a state of animation that denied any signs of the hangover he had earlier confessed to be nursing. We all know anything can happen on that final gruelling climb to the winning line at Cheltenham, but approaching it in the lead, he held on. Just.

Mark reported that receiving our winnings was a rare exchange with a bookmaker, where both participants were pleased with the outcome and having previously been spotted collecting on a 9/1 winner, found himself being asked for tips on his return to the enclosure.

Success didn’t follow in the listed Handicap Hurdle, where victory went to the short priced favourite, Thomas Campbell. His rise in weight from recent victory at Cheltenham, was largely wiped out by 16 year old, James Bowen, riding on his final day of having a 7 lb claim. I watched young James politely receive a bottle of champagne  as the winning jockey, even though he’s not old enough to consume it. I suspect by the time he is legally allowed to drink, he will have quite a collection.

I’m not sure even the greatest master of the spreadsheet, could have picked the winner in the impossibly tricky Intermediate Handicap Hurdle, but we managed to come out evens with an each way return on Mischievous Max.

There was little science in our selection in the Bumper, where we backed Dory largely on the basis of “That Warren Greatrex, he’s rather good at Bumpers, isn’t he”. Looking to have every chance until the final furlong, he quickly faded, with favourite Posh Trish finishing a comfortable winner.

As I sat in the back of the car on the journey home, digesting a post race curry and a decent amount of celebratory wine; in the front conversation progressed from spreadsheets to databases and pivot tables. What I didn’t say was that I thought our success was probably largely due to it being a day when the Racing Gods chose to smile down on us, through a leaden Cheltenham sky.


Novice Chases Revisited

I recently posted about the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) changes to the rules regarding Novice Chases. Often attracting only very small fields, the problem was identified as trainers being put off by what they considered a disproportionate rise in weight by the handicapper, when their horse had finished anywhere near a half decent winner.

The BHA working group didn’t seem to accept that there was any evidence to support the trainers’  view, but concluded that perception can be as important as reality. Therefore , in response the BHA stopped any rating increase in weight for age Novice Chases of Class 2 and below.  The rule does not apply to horses who have run less than four times over either obstacles or the winner.

The issue was picked up on by Joe McNally in his excellent Lazybet Blog writing about Monday’s meeting at Kempton, where the Novice Chase was contested between two horses and the Graduation Chase (which is really just a variation on the Novice Chase theme)  also being literally a two horse race.

I was also struck by trainer, Jamie Snowden’s comments when watching him interviewed at Cheltenham’s Showcase meeting following Double Treasure’s victory in the Royal Gloucestershire’s Hussars Novices’ Chase. Obviously pleased to have won, it was interesting, however, that one of his first remarks was expressing a hope that the handicapper wasn’t casting too watchful an eye. Whilst this was probably at least partially influenced by Double Treasure losing his Novice status on 31st October and having to find new categories of races to run, the point is that it isn’t just non winners who perceive  the handicapper’s over exuberance.

The changes came in at the beginning of October, on a trial basis. When I wrote few weeks later, I concluded the jury was still out whether the  problem had been correctly identified. My view now is that even if it has, the changes probably haven’t gone for enough to alter perceptions, whether they be justified or not. And it is ultimately the perception that counts. As for the jury, on recent evidence, I suspect it is not too long before a unanimous verdict is returned.



Rich Ricci on Douvan

Rich Ricci with Ruby Walsh and Douvan in happier times.

I watched last season’s Champion Chase on the big screen that overlooks the Parade Ring at Cheltenham and the sound that  accompanied the realisation by 57,000 people that Douvan was losing ground three from home, is one that I can still hear now. It was something like a collective sharp intake of breath, with a brief pause, followed by a lengthy eerily dull groan. It can be best compared to the noise of a patient undergoing a particularly unpleasant medical examination.

There were many good reasons why punters backed the 2/9 Festival banker, not least of which were the owner’s comments before the race. Although caveating his remarks with the usual – He’s got to get round and anything can happen, the appropriately named retired banker Rich Ricci told  Sky Sports “Douvan certainly has to be the one to look forward to” and assuring us “He is going there in great form”

Douvan finished 7th out of 10 and the post race analysis was that he had been lame. Speaking on Racing UK’s Luck On Sunday, Ricci’s line now is “Something was clearly bothering  Douvan for most of last year and he wasn’t quite himself” and “No-one was entirely happy with him the whole time despite him putting in some pretty good performances”. This would appear pretty diametrically opposed to the presumably informed views he was expressing going into the race. I suppose the questions have to be on what basis the original assessment was made, why is it so different now and why has he now gone public to contradict what was previously said?

I don’t intend to turn this post into a let’s bash Rich Ricci rant- There are many others who have done that, whether focusing on him being one third of the triumvirate that monopolise the ownership of NH horses in Ireland or his role in the banking crisis. However, it is probably fair to say he was a bit lucky to leave his post at Barclays with an £18 million bonus and a year’s salary worth £700,000.   Such luck didn’t extend to the punter who reportedly placed £500,000 on a Douvan win in the Champion Chase.

The Haldon Gold Cup

Haldon Hill on Gold Cup Day

In my neck of the woods there was only one place to be yesterday and that was at Exeter for their showpiece meeting of the season, the highlight of which is the Haldon Cup Cup. Exeter Racecourse has a rich history – it was the venue for the last recorded duel by pistols in Devon in 1833- and the Gold Cup has had some notable winners. It will forever be associated with  Best Mate who won it in 2001 and died after being pulled up in the 2005 race.

With a prize fund of £65,000, the Grade 2 handicap is as good an early season test for 2 mile chasers as you will find. Eight lined up for yesterday’s race, including two previous winners, Sir Valentino and Vibrato Valtat. It also marked the return of Ar mad in his first race since finishing fourth in last season’s Tingle Creek. Fittingly enough he was ridden by Joshua Moore, also marking a comeback from injury. The favourite Politologue finished a comfortable winner. Leading from four out, Sam Twiston-Davies  only really had to drive him when tiring after the final fence. The result marked a one two for Paul Nicholls, with San Benedeto finishing second.  It was also the trainer’s sixth success in the race.

Another big name from hurdles made their debut over the larger obstacles when Ballyoptic lined up in the 3 mile Novices’ Chase. Leading from start to finish he ended 13 lengths clear and was the most impressive winner of the day, after an accomplished display of jumping. Not bad for a horse who hadn’t always jumped fluently over hurdles.  The victory marked Sam Twiston- Davies third win of the day, However, he was not done and claimed his fourth win in the final race on Norse Light.



Sunny Saturday

Cue Card and Coneygree eye up a fence at Wetherby

If last week’s Cheltenham Showcase marked the psychological start of the season, yesterday was when the serious business began. With meetings in England, Scotland, the North of Ireland and France, there was no shortage of races to grab your attention.

The season’s first Grade 1 on either side of the Irish sea took place at Down Royal. Gigginstown was represented by four of the seven horses contesting the Champion Chase and achieved first and second, with Outlander and Road To Respect- I suspect it might be easier this year to back a Michael O’Leary winner than it will be to secure a seat on one of his planes. The odds on favourite, Our Duke, finished last after the veteran  Carlingford Lough unseated Mark Walsh.

There was a competitive card at Ascot. Harry Fry who took a quartet, would have been disappointed not to come away with a winner, but managed two second places.  The attention was rightly focused on  sixteen year old James Bowen who rode Exitas to victory by seven lengths in a Listed Handicap Chase. The expression fresh-faced could have been invented for this young man, who looks to have a promising future.

The feature race at Wetherby was the Charlie Hall Chase, where all the pre race talk had focused on the Cue Card/Coneygree,  heart vs. head debate. As it turned out neither finished, with Coneygree being pulled up and Cue Card falling, both jockeys citing low  sun as  being the issue.  There will be questions about whether the eleven year old Cue Card should continue racing, but he looked to be travelling well before the fall and appears to have emerged unscathed. None of this should distract from Daryl Jacob’s impressive victory on Bristol De Mai. Nigel Twiston- Davies’ other runner, Blaklion, ran in second and after his treble at Cheltenham last Saturday the duffle coated trainer has every reason to be upbeat.

Bristol De Mai is still only six and like James Bowen, the best may lie ahead. Overall yesterday seems to have been a triumph for youth over experience.

Redemption for Melon

It’s difficult to appreciate now exactly how much hype there was surrounding Melon leading up to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. He even had his own twitter account. For a horse that had only raced once, winning a perfectly average Maiden Hurdle at Leopardstown, almost all the expectation was based on the stories of how he was performing behind closed doors at Closutton.

What the script writers hadn’t factored in was the bad boy of racing Labaik, for whom the biggest question was whether he would refuse to run again, denying Melon victory. Not to worry the experts said, Labaik was a freak, and all would come good at Punchestown. He came second again, with Labaik finishing last by 99 lengths, having eventually agreed to start.

Some form of redemption came at Down Royal yesterday when he won the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle, having been sent off 2/5 favourite in a field of six. The main rivals were Willie Mullins’ other entry, Coquin Mans, and Gordon Elliott’s Mick Jazz. Approaching the last two, the smart money was probably on Coquin Mans, although Melon quickly improved when it mattered. At the final hurdle both made mistakes, with Melon taking it in a  particularly awkward fashion , but finishing comfortably by over 4 lengths.

Melon is currently 14/1 for next year’s Champion Hurdle and less than 20/1 for the Arkle. Let the hype begin again.

Career Opportunity

Phil  Smith – Retiring after twenty-two years

Just to remind anyone who is tempted to apply for the job of Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) that your application will need to be submitted by 5th November.

The vacancy arises following the announcement by Phil Smith that he will be retiring from the post at the end of next May. Liverpudlian Smith has spent 22 years working for the BHA, following a career as a teacher.

There is surprising little on the BHA website by way of job description, required skills or indeed, remuneration. However, I suggest a good starting point would be a head for figures and the ability to wear a tank top without any hint of irony.  As someone without a Maths O level to my name, I shan’t be throwing my hat in the ring.