‘I don’t think we have regressed. In terms of results, we have. But at the same time we’re moving forward, though I know that’s hard to see.’
Eddie Jones was trying to put the best possible spin on the worst possible outcome for England in the Six Nations, where they finished above only Italy, the Cap’n of the tournament, while Ireland dominated from start to finish, embarrassing England through the competition and during their game.
It was 24-15 at Twickenham, a 61% share of the points to Ireland, exactly the same percentage as the Prestbury Cup (17-11), which was the single match that reflected the season, just like in the rugby.
Even the self-styled ‘Jump Finale’ at Sandown this Saturday feels a little like the St Mirren bus parade – worth seeking out on Twitter – because of the more meaty and meaningful climax in Ireland this week, Punchestown the party where all the cool kids are at.
The question in the aftermath of Twickenham was whether England were bad or Ireland were brilliant, and the same English introspection is necessary in National Hunt racing if, as is being claimed, and as is being seen, all the horsepower is in Ireland. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between the extremes, along with the acknowledgement that the sum can skew the parts, and racing is all about the parts played by individuals.
Let’s look at those parts, from an English perspective, by evaluating the heavy-hitters in each division this season, to uncover where, and why, they weighed in light against the Irish. Here, then, is the best of British, by end-of-term ratings, separated into the significant categories:
1. Buveur d’Air 168
2. Sam Spinner 162
3. L’Ami Serge 161
4. Agrapart 160
5= My Tent Or Yours 159
5= Wholestone 159
Keep calm and carry on. That quintessentially British philosophy was the only play in the book for another unbeaten season for Buveur d’Air, who defended the crown but lost a pound (relative to his 2017 rating) as he carried on but wasn’t calm the one time something squared up to him, beating boys en route but meeting a man in Melon at Cheltenham.
Sam Spinner flashed and burned, though the flash wasn’t in the pan, not when he’s got those timefigures, but the remainder on the list of ‘elite’ English hurdlers tell a tale of a stale season when the 11-y-o My Tent Or Yours is still in there and two of the other three – L’Ami Serge and Agrapart – are admirable but anchored. Up-and-comers were thin on the ground, though the same was true in Ireland, and the way is wide open, at all distances, for the next generation of hurdlers.
1. Altior 180p
2. Native River 172
3. Might Bite 171
4= Waiting Patiently 168p
4= Fox Norton 168
6. Politologue 166
If there was an bombastically-British, hour-long DVD review of the National Hunt season, the first 12 minutes and 51 seconds would be spent spelling out how the Gold Cup and Champion Chase are the be all and end all in the sport, leaving exactly the right time to show all seven races in full involving Britain’s holy trinity: Might Bite, Native River and Altior.
Seven between three isn’t much, but nature was the only motive behind the delayed return of Native River and Altior, and the latter gets to grace the Sandown stage on Saturday, effectively a lap of honour for him, as the award for top jumps horse in training is already in his bag. The ‘p’ indicates that we’ve still to see the full extent of Altior’s ability, and the same is true of Waiting Patiently, likewise unbeaten over fences, commander of the resurgent armies of the North.
Who else?! Altior wins the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase! pic.twitter.com/ahrcLR5OZM— ITV Racing (@itvracing) March 14, 2018
We talk of notable ‘training performances’ in terms of a single race, attached more often than not to a long absence. But regarding the whole season, of reinventing a horse not once but twice, and of getting more out of it over an extended period than anyone could have imagined, there hasn’t been any training performance in 2017/18 better than Paul Nicholls’ managing of Politologue, who stands alongside Might Bite and Un de Sceaux as the only non-novice chasers to have won more than one Grade 1 in the season, though Altior will join that club on Saturday.
1= Diego du Charmil 157
1= Saint Calvados 157
1= Sceau Royal 157
4= Terrefort 156p
4= Finian’s Oscar 156
4= Cyrname 156
7. Ballyoptic 154
It’s a good job that the established British chasers are so qualified, as the new wave are substandard, based on what their predecessors have done in the past and what their Irish counterparts are doing in the present. Presenting Percy and Al Boum Photo are in the 160s on the same scale, and Footpad is out on his own on 174.
The increasingly-impressive Terrefort is the standout amongst the British novices, for the momentum he’s built in the short time since his transfer from France in mid-winter, but on ratings he’s not breaking rank from a rank-average band, who collectively look at the mercy of the Irish squad when it comes to the literal and figurative graduation events for the second-season chasers.
1. Summerville Boy 156p
2= Kalashnikov 152p
2= Black Op 152
4. Kilbricken Storm 151
5. On The Blind Side 150
6= If The Cap Fits 149p
6= Santini 149
The outlook is far brighter for the novice chasers of next season from these shores, considering that their number is likely to include several from the promising batch of young hurdlers shortlisted above. Everything has been in Samcro’s shadow in this division, but Black Op emerged relatively unscathed from a Samcro-ing at Cheltenham to go one better in a Grade 1, and he, along with fellow Aintree winner Santini, could go right to the top over fences, marrying their physique to their proven power.
And it’s not just about the budding chasers, as the best of all the British novice hurdlers, Summerville Boy, has his sights set on Buveur d’Air and the thin line through to championship class for hurdling.
1. We Have A Dream 150p
2. Redicean 141
3. Gumball 140
4. Apple’s Shakira 137
5. Style de Garde 134
6. Malaya 133
It’s a long time since the leading juveniles have made the grade in top open company, and if there’s one amongst the current crop then it’s probably in Ireland, as, at the business end of the season, cracks have appeared in the British batch, so that We Have A Dream finds himself head and shoulders above the pack after Aintree. His rating of 150, however, hardly puts him on the Champion Hurdle path.