What we learnt from the Cheltenham weights media conference

By Will Hayler
Wed 28 Feb 2018

By Will Hayler

If the war between certain big names in Irish racing and other certain big names (big, at least, in the small pond that is home to the BHA handicapping team) in British racing has become a shade tiresome, then the good news is that it increasingly looks like it might be soon to come to an end.

Nobody wants to be reminded of what Michael O’Leary said about Champagne Classic in the run-up to his comprehensive victory in the Martin Pipe last year, or indeed the same horse’s subsequent success at Punchestown. He’d surely be ashamed of himself if he was capable of such emotions.

But let’s move on. Not only are plenty of the Irish-trained entries this year set to run at Cheltenham off either the same mark as their official Irish rating or just 1lb higher, others seem to be running off lower marks and even those being asked to defy higher ratings at Cheltenham are nowhere near the 7-8lb higher that seemed to be acceptable in the past.

My admittedly-limited trawl through most of the handicaps found only isolated cases. Brelade, for example, being allotted 143 in the Close Brothers rather than 139, the British assessors perhaps deciding to take a more literal reading of his second to Petit Mouchoir at Punchestown in October than his Irish counterparts did.

Given that he would have been hard pressed to get into the race off 139, perhaps connections will not mind too much about the decision.

But rather than get bogged down in the minutiae, let’s look instead at the bigger picture.

British and Irish racing desperately need shared handicap ratings. If imports from France can run in the UK off their native marks (see Terrefort at Huntingdon in January), then it is absurd that the same should not be the case with horses who have been racing all their lives in Ireland.

The arguments against using shared ratings have carried some weight in the past, but look increasingly flimsy and the fact that we seem to be getting closer with the publication of these handicaps has got to be a good thing. At last.

The bet365 Festival - Hennessy Gold Cup Day - Newbury Racecourse Greatrex seems tormented over which race to run La Bague Au Roi in at the Cheltenham Festival (PA)

Poor Warren Greatrex does not seem any nearer to making a decision as to the best direction for La Bague Au Roi, the talented mare who could still line up either in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle or the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle at the meeting.

Greatrex seemed almost in pain when event host Nick Luck tried to make him unpick the thought processes behind what will steer him to his final decision.

The Stayers’ Hurdle might have more depth, Greatrex conceded, but might the most talented rival (ie Apple’s Jade) be in the Mares’ race?

With BetVictor becoming the latest firm to go non-runner, no-bet on every race, there is at least an increasing likelihood of ante-post punters being able to find a safety net if they want to try and second-guess the trainer in advance.

But for those prepared to wait until the action gets under way, the over-riding message to take away from Greatrex was of a man whose difficulty in making the final decision was being caused by his conviction that La Bague Au Roi is good enough to win either race.

The mare is, he said, “the best” he’s trained. So it’s worth remembering that in Cole Harden he had a horse good enough to win one Stayers’ Hurdle and twice finish fourth in his other attempts at the race.

With the going "good to soft, soft in places" heading into a weekend of heavy forecast snow, Simon Claisse’s groundstaff team had been busy out on the track removing the covers placed at strategic intersections to protect the track against frost.

This was for two reasons, Claisse explained. Firstly, because they are harder to remove after snow, but secondly because the snow takes much longer to melt if it lands on insulated covers than on grass.

Betfred Challow Hurdle Day - Newbury Racecourse Whittington is hoping the ground is anything but good for Saint Calvados (PA)

One trainer who will be pleased to hear of snow, sleet or any other kind or precipitation reaching the track is Harry Whittington, who seemed far more concerned by the prospect of good ground for his Arkle Chase hopeful Saint Calvados than worrying too much about the opposition – Footpad and all.

The presence of Redicean at the head of the weights for the £80,000 Boodles Fred Winter has given the race a strange look, but given that entries closed long before Alan King’s exciting juvenile had destroyed his rivals in the Adonis (and earned a 12lb hike in the ratings as a consequence), it was a sensible precaution to put him in.

As such a substantial rise in the weights is assured meaning that some of those set to carry very low weights - such as the Olly Murphy-trained Oxford Blu - will get in nicely in the middle of the handicap.

Murphy singled out Oxford Blu for a positive mention when weighing up his possible runners and gave away the news that he is hoping to bag Richard Johnson for the ride, making the horse look an interesting option at 25-1.

Incidentally, Murphy made his excuses soon afterwards to hotfoot it to Wolverhampton where he saddled Compatriot to win with ridiculous ease under Jamie Spencer – his 50th victory since taking out his licence.

Murphy, who said he would be having “no social runners” at Cheltenham is a man lacking nothing in either self-confidence or stable form.

2016 Cheltenham Festival - Champion Day - Cheltenham Racecourse

David Pipe is still looking for success in the race named in honour of his father’s achievements as a trainer, but Dell’Arca takes the eye having been eased down the weights by the requisite 4lb to get in to the Martin Pipe off the ceiling 145 mark.

He has two ways of running, but seasoned Pipe followers will know that the good way is more likely than the bad way when the Festival comes around.

He’s one intriguing possible top-weight to take the eye from the handicaps and another is the Ted Walsh-trained Any Second Now, handily given the 145 needed to be joint top-weight in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.

He earned his mark by twice chasing home Footpad at a respectful distance a couple of times in Grade Ones this season and could be a big player in that race.

Indeed, he takes the eye so much that I was left wondering whether fellow JP McManus possible, Movewiththetimes, another horse who could easily be well in off a mark of 143 could be rerouted to the Brown Advisory & Merribelle Stable Plate two days later on the Thursday should the field thin out sufficiently to allow him to get a run.

McManus has only fellow Nicholls-trained runner Le Prezien (also in the Grand Annual) higher up the weights in the race.

One way or another, we’ll have a firmer idea of plans soon after mid-morning on Sunday with every race at Cheltenham to be subject to 48-hour declarations for the first time this year. Thank goodness.

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