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Come gather around people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing
The domination of the Irish was the main talking point from last week’s Cheltenham Festival where they won seven of the ten handicaps in addition to the small matter of 12 other races including four of the big five. So much for the suggested anti-Irish bias from the BHA Handicappers then.
What I found more important about the handicaps going forward however was just how well the higher-weighted horses performed last week and the top weight in particular. It looks like dead are the days of trying a win a Festival handicap the old way by getting in off a low weight, which was pretty much the way to go until the last half a dozen years.
In a section of The Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide 2015 I quoted David Pipe when he summed up the emerging class factor in Festival handicaps when discussing Ballynagour’s win the in the 2014 Plate: “His Festival win reinforced my theory you basically need a Graded horse to win one of the handicaps at Cheltenham nowadays; that’s how competitive they are.” Subsequent events in that spring of 2014 reinforced Pipe’s view further as of the 11 handicap winners at Cheltenham, as many as eight then ran in a Grade 1 race on their next start with three winning (Holywell, Whisper and Lac Fontana) and three more placed (Ballynagour, Don Poli and Savello) and Balthazar King also finished second in the Grand National next time out. Therefore watch out for this season’s ten handicap winners for the rest of the campaign.
Running through last week’s handicap results, two of the top weights won (Un Temps Pour Tout in the Ultima and Arctic Fire in the County Hurdle) and two more were beaten into second beaten under a length (Divin Bere in the Fred Winter and Pendra in the Kim Muir). The second-top weight in the Fred Winter, Project Bluebook, also hit the frame.
In fact, when Arctic Fire (rated 158) won the County Hurdle, it was the second-top weight, L’Ami Serge (rated 152), who finished second, and this in a race where only two winners since 1960 had carried over 11st 2lb and only one winner since 1998 had won off a mark of over 145! Holy moly.
As for the other winning top weight, Un Temps Pout Tout (rated 155) became the first winner of the Ultima to be rated over 150 since as far back as 1983 and it was also a 154-rated horse in Noble Endeavor who finished third. For 14 straight years the Ultima winner was rated no higher than 143 but the last four winners ran off 145, 146, 148 and 155. Last year the 1-2-3-4-5 were all rated 148+ so this a race where the class acts are taking over.
And what about the Pertemps Final with all the hoo-ha over Presenting Percy’s handicap mark being one of the talking points entering the Festival? Davy Russell sitting next to me at the Let’s Live Racing Preview Evening on the Monday last week said that he would wear an ‘I love Phil Smith T-Shirt’ if he won after lambasting the Handicapper! In fairness to Davy, the first thing he said when interviewed after pulling up was an apology to Smith, but that’s not going to stop the LLR head honcho Mark Ball ordering in said t-shirt for next year’s event! In dotting up off a 16lb higher mark than for his previous win in Ireland, he carried second-top weight of 11st 11lb and it was another Irish raider in Jury Duty who finished third off a big weight (11st 10lb). Three years earlier the top weight beat the second-top weight into second.
As for the Plate, in the previous 30 years only two winners were rated 143+ but the signs were there last season that we could be in for a big change as the 1-2-3 were rated 142, 149 and 150. And what happened this season? A 1-2-3 for horses rated either 145 or 146.
The Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir has been a good race for those at the top of the weights for a good number of years now and the top weight, Pendra, looked the winner for virtually all of the last mile bar the final 75 yards. The second-top weight, Mall Dini, finished a close-up fifth.
Modus also ran well off top weight in the Coral Cup finishing sixth in a race where a couple of 148-rated horses filled the first two places. That is significant because the first 20 winners of this race were rated under 148 up until 2013.
And to end the meeting, it was the 147-rated Rock The World that took the Grand Annual thus equalling the joint-highest mark carried to victory in this race in 26 years so, make no mistake about it, the handicaps are a very different animal now to five years ago.