Welcome to the first of what will be a new weekly column from me on attheraces.com.
As we all know, there is only one Road To Cheltenham™ and this column won’t seek to build a motorway parallel to that fine highway.
That said, while every road seems to lead to Cheltenham at this stage of the National Hunt season, some of them have more potholes, speedbumps and icy patches than others. As much as we’d all like our favoured horses to be bulletproof, wanting that to be the case won’t make it so. No matter how talented they are, every horse has vulnerabilities that are all too often underplayed, ignored or lost completely amongst accentuated positivity.
A significant part of my own analysis of racing focuses on finding these detrimental tendencies and weak spots in the performances of horses, both actual and potential, subtle and not-so-subtle. Identifying these vulnerabilities and interpreting their potential impacts going forward can be a key weapon in getting ahead of the crowd.
With all of that in mind, this column will look to hone in on these more negative aspects of some of the most noteworthy performances of the previous week. The hope will be that doing so will help the reader navigate around some of the aforementioned hazards on the road to finding winners.
With the introduction now out of the way, leave your sensitivities at the side of the road and strap yourselves in, this could be a bumpy ride!
Apple’s Jade isn’t back yet
Let there be no doubt, we in racing love convenient narratives. We LOVE them. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise to see so many jumping back aboard the Apple’s Jade Express after she won the Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle at Leopardstown last week. Two lacklustre efforts had led to loud calls for her retirement from some quarters, yet this performance seemed to vanquish all such doubting thoughts and promise that even greater successes may be ahead of her. It’s just too attractive of a narrative to dispute. She won a Grade 1 hurdle by 17 lengths, what’s not to like?
However, objective analysis of her performance and the race itself casts serious doubt on that narrative. The cracks soon begin to appear with even the briefest of glimpses under the bonnet. The runner-up Unowhatimeanharry is a great old warrior, but being straight, it’s been over two-and-a-half years since he’s produced a genuinely top-class effort. Penhill is notoriously difficult to keep right and having shaped with limited promise on his first start for over a year-and-a-half on his previous outing, this didn’t seem to be a big step in the right direction. Most significantly, her main rival Bacardys was produced a lifeless effort in a well-beaten fourth and was reported by Paul Townend to have never been travelling.
As windy as the form in behind Apple’s Jade looks on paper, comparing the sectional and comparative times of the race to the Pertemps Qualifier over the same course and distance earlier on the card is a very revealing exercise.
The races were run in contrasting style, with Apple’s Jade reaching the winning post on the first circuit approximately 25 lengths faster than the leader in the steadily-run Pertemps Qualifier. However, that lead had completely evaporated by the third-last flight, with the leaders in both races reaching this flight in very close to the same time.
From there, the Pertemps Qualifier field surged past Apple’s Jade and her rivals. The winner Treacysenniscorthy ran from the third-last to the winning line approximately a dozen lengths faster than Apple’s Jade. While many of the main protagonists in the Pertemps Qualifier were carrying significantly less weight than Apple’s Jade, they would all have been carrying even less than her had they met in a handicap. The rest of the field in the Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle, most of whom were held up well off the pace that Apple’s Jade set, finished even slower which supports the thought that they significantly underperformed as a group.
All told, there is an awful lot of evidence there to suggest that Apple’s Jade didn’t bounce back as much as many seem to believe she did at Leopardstown. She certainly seemed to go with more spark, the first-time cheekpieces may well have helped and this might have represented a positive step in the right direction that will be continued on her next start. However, it would be very dangerous to give her too much credit for her success at Leopardstown, as it fell apart into a genuinely awful race for the grade in behind her.
I would be very wary of the back-to-her-best narrative leading to her being put in too short for her next race in what will surely be in much deeper company. It could well be an expensive lesson for those that let sentimentality influence their view of reality.
Meanwhile, in a stable somewhere south of Swindon, a foghorn was reportedly required to wake Paisley Park from his contented slumber the night after the Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle…
Allaho loves it left
The Willie Mullins-trained Allaho was the focus of most of the attention going into the maiden chase at Leopardstown on Saturday. While he could only finish second to his stable mate Easy Game, there was enough promise in the performance to maintain hopes he can be a top-class novice chaser, but there were also some notes of caution for the future.
Having set out to make the running, Allaho exhibited a neat enough technique over a fence that could be categorised on the better side of the average in terms of proficiency. However, as the race progressed it was noteworthy that he started to jump to his left. This became more pronounced as the race went on and was quite significant at most of the fences in the second half of the contest. It isn’t something that has come from out of the blue either, as replays of his final start over hurdles at Punchestown back in May reveal a similar albeit less pronounced tendency to jump left in the late stages of the race.
It was a tendency that naturally wasn’t heavily punished around the left-handed Leopardstown, but it was so pronounced at the business end of proceedings that it would be a significant concern if he was to run at a right-handed track in the near future.
On a related note, the question of where he will run next is an interesting one. The natural thought would be to go for another maiden chase prior to hopefully going onto better things, but his connections might well have his novice status in the back of their minds.
For those that aren’t familiar with the Irish system, if a horse breaks their maiden over hurdles or fences after January 31st, they remain a novice until the Hatton’s Grace meeting at Fairyhouse in late-November/early-December.
Given that Allaho has only just turned six, there might even be a temptation for them to only run him in Grade 1 novice chase company for the rest of this season. If he wins one, that will be a great result, but if he doesn’t win one, he’ll have all of next season to look forward to as a novice with significant Grade 1 experience over fences under his belt.
Whichever way they choose to go with Allaho he looks a smart chasing prospect, as long as that way isn’t right-handed!
Unexcepted wants a shorter trip
There is a slightly strange phenomenon in National Hunt racing that plays out each and every season. A horse creates a very good impression on their first start of the season, many get overexcited and hype them to the moon, only for the train to be immediately and seemingly irreversibly derailed if the same horse happens to be beaten in their next start.
The Willie Mullins-trained Unexcepted may well prove to be an example of one that many have exited the train prematurely with. The six-year-old had been shortened into single-figure odds for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after he made an explosive winning Irish debut in a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse in November. Yet, many of his supporters have seemingly deserted him after he was well beaten in a winner’s hurdle at Limerick last week, with him now being available at as big as 25/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. This seems a wild overreaction, as his Limerick defeat is very forgivable in my mind.
Given that he is a half-brother to the well-known lunatic Great Field, tractability was always going to be a point of scrutiny for Unexcepted. He had taken a good grip prior to finishing third on his only start in France back in 2017 and a big feature of his winning start for Mullins last November was how hard he had pulled whilst covered up behind what was a slow pace.
That he pulled so hard made it a risky decision to step him up to two-and-a-half miles at Limerick last week and for me, that was his undoing. While his jumping was sharper and better than it had been at Fairyhouse, he again pulled much harder than ideal off what was a below-average pace. He paid the price for those exertions in the closing stages and had no answer to the impressive Easywork in the straight.
I would be very prepared to forgive Unexcepted for this defeat. Everything about his racing character suggests he is a two miler and his pedigree backs up this view. If he is dropped back to the minimum trip and ideally gets a stronger pace in front of him next time, I’d expect him to belatedly build on the promise of his impressive win at Fairyhouse. Who knows, he might even put himself back in the mix for what doesn’t look to be the strongest renewal of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with just 10 weeks remaining for contenders to emerge.