The Front Runner is Chris Cook’s morning email exclusively for Members’ Club Ultimate subscribers, available here as a free sample.
In Monday’s email Chris reflects on the hopes of Gaelic Warrior in Tuesday’s Boodles Juvenile Hurdle – and subscribers can get more great insight, tips and racing chat from Chris every Monday to Friday.
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The hottest handicap runner this week is Gaelic Warrior in tomorrow’s Boodles Juvenile Hurdle, formerly known as the Fred Winter. There seems to be a certain amount of amazement that this ex-French horse has been given a mark of 129, with connections repeatedly suggesting it looks lenient and that they’d have been happy to compete from 10lb higher.
“Look, when we’re buying these horses, we hope they’re 140-plus,” Patrick Mullins was quoted as saying recently. “We definitely expect him to do better than that mark… Off that mark, we’re very excited to be running him.”
In a recent interview with At The Races, Willie Mullins said the horse had been doing “some very good work” and added: “When we saw his handicap mark, we decided to aim him straight for the Boodles. He has jumped plenty of Irish -style hurdles here and we are very pleased with him.”
Gaelic Warrior is just 5-2 against 21 rivals in a race in which every runner has unexposed potential. Matt Chapman has called him his banker of the meeting. Is this insanity or has the handicapper actually let him in light?
I went to the BHA’s Andrew Mealor, the senior handicapper for hurdle races, and asked for a quick chat about how the rating was arrived at. Part of the explanation is that ex-French horses are being treated differently this season, a message that has evidently not got through to connections.
“We’ve been putting those French horses in lower than their French mark,” Mealor said. “We’ve got plenty of data to suggest they were just going in too high previously.”
Gaelic Warrior is not the only Boodles runner to benefit from this new approach. Milldam, trained by Jamie Snowden, is also due to have his first race since leaving France in Tuesday’s contest.
“I think there was 2kg between them on their French ratings, which is 4lb, and we’ve got them 4lb apart. We’re treating all of these ex-French horses the same way, we’re not treating Willie Mullins’s any differently from Jamie Snowden’s.”
So, if you’re interested in Gaelic Warrior, the message is that you should perhaps be giving Milldam a look as well. The good news is that Milldam is a 33-1 shot. He also has plenty of upside, having been assessed after just three starts.
On the other hand, it generally means something significant when the Mullinses enthuse about a horse in this way. Mealor concedes: “The betting tells you that they obviously expect Gaelic Warrior to be better than his mark but we’ll have to wait to see what happens on Tuesday.
“He’s only had the three runs, so there’s not a massive amount of evidence to go on but those runs do qualify him for the race. Most of them in that race are lightly raced but coming from France adds another layer of complexity, a bit more of the unknown.
“If we get an ex-French 1-2-3 in this race then clearly we’re going to have to look at it again but at the moment, that’s the policy.”
It is not unknown for horses to win Cheltenham Festival handicaps on their first start after leaving France. Aux Ptits Soins did it in the 2015 Coral Cup, as did Diego Du Charmil in the Fred Winter of 2016, both trained by Paul Nicholls.
But Cheltenham will be a very different test to what Gaelic Warrior has faced before and who can say if he will be able to adapt right away. Will he ruin his luck by failing to settle or have it ruined for him by trouble in running? Perhaps he will run every bit as well as expected but be beaten by something that is rated even more leniently.
So many things can go wrong. Are those risks comfortably accommodated by odds of 5-2? The Front Runner will be looking elsewhere.
But the form of Gaelic Warrior’s most recent start, in June, is working out extremely well. The winner won a Grade 3 next time, the runner-up went on to land a Grade 2 and the fourth horse is subsequently unbeaten, prevailing by nine lengths in a top-class contest in November.
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Willie Mullins organizes some of his potential Cheltenham Festival runners.Closutton.Photo: Patrick McCann/Racing Post23.02.2022
I ask Mealor how he feels about the week’s other handicaps, having tactlessly forgotten that the sole Irish raider in the Imperial Cup has just dotted up by nine lengths. “We’ll have to see what happens,” he says.
“It was a bit of a bad omen, the Imperial Cup, but you only have to go back to last week’s Morebattle Hurdle, there were a couple of Irish runners in that; one finished a close second and one was down the field.
“I think the overall Irish strike-rate in British jumps handicaps this season is down a bit on previous years but we’re going to be judged on what happens this week, aren’t we? I haven’t got the stats to hand but the Irish strike-rate, or impact value, whatever measure you want to use, is down this season, in both chase and hurdles.” The Front Runner has not yet had time to check the numbers behind this assertion.
“Hopefully in the handicaps it can be a bit more even this week [than at last year’s Festival]. But the other point to make is that the Irish are going to have a lot of runners in these races.”
That is certainly true of the Boodles, in which 14 of the 22 declared runners are from Ireland. There is still time for that balance to shift slightly, as both reserves are British-trained.
It is the other way around in the other handicap on day one, the Ultima Handicap Chase, in which the home team traditionally have a strong record. There are seven Irish entrants out of 24, with a single British-based reserve waiting in hope. But it is one of the visitors who has caught the Front Runner’s attention, as Blur looks a strong contender at 9-1.
We’ll keep an eye on these and other matters as the week progresses. For now, it’s time to do some last bits of form-studying before the madness begins and concentration becomes impossible…
Tom Lacey will have a couple of chances at Cheltenham this week but more immediately he has a likely favorite in Dibble Decker (3.45) at Taunton. Cheaply bought after landing a point in May, this six-year-old was the easy winner of a novice hurdle at Huntingdon in January and only just failed on his handicap debut at Warwick when outbattled by an experienced rival.
Confirmation Bias, from the Paul Nicholls yard, would be one to worry about but this looks like the beginning of a recovery mission after a disappointing attempt over fences last time. Dibble Decker is fairly priced at 9-4.
Drier ground prevails at Plumpton, where Blade Runner (2.45) looks set for a personal best in a weak-looking contest. Chris Gordon’s charge won a low-level Irish point in October and then achieved very little in three novice hurdles.
That means he gets to start in handicaps and over fences on a rating of just 95 and it could be no surprise if we see a transformation here, upped in trip and with cheekpieces fitted. Bits of 2-1 are still available.
Richard Birch’s Monday picks are here.
Three things to look out for today. . .
1. White is the new orange, starting at Stratford today, where the guard rails, toe boards and top boards will have a frosted look instead of their familiar, angry brightness. It’s the result of research carried out at Exeter University which concluded that horses have trouble telling the difference between shades of red, orange and green and might therefore be confused about the distance to obstacles on approach. White provides more of a contrast, so the new-look obstacles are now to be phased in across British racing. Too bad we didn’t think of this in time to get Annie Power over the last in the Mares Hurdle, eh?
2. Brian Hughes needs another 22 winners in just less than six weeks if he’s to reach the 200-winner mark for the first time in his career. He’ll be one of the jockeys trying to adjust to the glare of Stratford’s new obstacle furniture today, as he has three rides, all of which seem likely to be around 5-1. There’s Bob’s Bar and Oscar Montel in handicap chases, plus Iceman Dennis in the bumper. The latter, a gray trained by Donald McCain, was most disappointing when sent off at 1-4 at Sedgefield early in the year, so it will be interesting to see if the half-brother to Cilaos Emery can prove that wrong now.
3. Andrew Balding is in riotous form at this early stage of the Flat racing year, with seven all-weather winners from 17 runners in the past fortnight. His only runner today is Hold Fast in Wolverhampton’s opener this evening, when she will be ridden by the 7lb claimer Harry Davies, a winner aboard a William Haggas runner the other day. Hold Fast steps down in trip to 7f for the first time in years, having been passed by two rivals close home over a furlong further at Kempton last month.
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The Front Runner is our latest email newsletter available exclusively to Members’ Club Ultimate subscribers. Chris Cook, a four-time Racing Reporter of the Year award winner, provides his take on the day’s biggest stories and tips for the upcoming racing every morning from Monday to Friday