It seems that ‘Five Things We Learned’ articles are everywhere these days, but it’s questionable whether some in the jumping game quite appreciate the assistance overall that sectional times can play in analysing performances over obstacles.
The overall time performance of Duc des Genievres in the run-up to the festival had clearly shown that he was well up to Arkle-winning standard, while the dissection of Beware The Bear’s performance in winning his Cheltenham-prep race uncovered that he did so despite running the middle section of the race out in front far too quickly. Acceptance of the usefulness of times will come eventually, but for now it allows a window of opportunity to be exploited.
For all Timeform have been returning timefigures over jumps since late 2015, we don’t yet cover Auteuil, the leading jumps track in France. That will come in time, too, but unfortunately too soon for Friday. Had the data have been available, it would have shed some light on what the current Triumph Hurdle second favourite at the time of writing Pic d’Orhy achieved on his seven starts in France. The likelihood is that he achieved considerably more than the Triumph market gives him credit for, as he was clearly a better horse in France last year than either the Supreme winner Klassical Dream or Supreme fourth Fakir d’Oudairies.
Current favourite Sir Erec might have been a smart Flat horse, but he was gifted a very soft lead when winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last time, and it would be no surprise to see his stable-companion Gardens of Babylon - who heads the field from a timefigure perspective - get closer or even reverse the form in these more demanding conditions. Whether he will be good enough even then to get near Pic d’Orhy remains to be seen, however.
The Gold Cup is a wide-open affair and little stands out overall from a timefigure perspective. Bristol de Mai is by some way the best in here on time, but his standout 174 performance – when demolishing Cue Card by 57 lengths in the 2017 Betfair Chase - was achieved in very deep ground and under more normal conditions he’s not shown himself capable of more than 164.
That would still put him in the mix, but he comes here under a bit of a cloud having fallen when last seen over Christmas. So, too, does last year’s runner-up Might Bite (164), factors which would perhaps have left the door open for the reigning champion Native River (168) if he himself hadn’t been below his best in both starts this season, including when second behind Bristol de Mai on his reappearance.
Friday's forecast softer ground and stronger gallop will suit Native River more than his conqueror in the King George at Kempton, Clan des Obeaux, who may struggle to confirm that form here having outspeeded Native River at Kempton, but the presence of up-and-coming Grade 1 winners such as Kemboy, Presenting Percy and Al Boum Photo will ensure that this race will take more winning than last year even if they haven’t yet recorded fast timefigures themselves. With that in mind, the Gold Cup promises to be a cracking race.
Forty minutes after the Gold Cup, another 2018 champion attempts to retain his crown, when two-time winner Pacha du Polder lines up in the Foxhunters. He faces stiff competition in his hat-trick bid, though, and Ucello Conti makes by far the most appeal.
The timefigure he recorded (148) when finishing as runner-up to Gold Cup hopeful Anibale Fly in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown in December 2017 makes him the standout performer in the line-up, and he has warmed up for this with two wins in hunter chases in Ireland this year, settling a well-contested if steadily run affair last time out with a smart turn of pace. A repeat of that effort (or even somewhere near it) would have won most recent renewals of the Foxhunters with some ease and the booking of top amateur Jamie Codd is the icing on the cake.
It was a superb effort from the 14yo Salsify in third but Ucello Conti, who has two Cheltenham entries, wins another Hunters Chase to raise a Gordon Elliott treble at Navan pic.twitter.com/181xVWbLtt— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 17, 2019
We were very keen on Santini in the Albert Bartlett last year, but he ended up being undone by inexperience. His stable-companion Birchdale is among the favourites for the race this year but faces the same dilemma as Santini did, having run just twice since his Irish point-to-point win. In our eyes, he didn’t seem to show as good a level of form in that field as either Commander of Fleet has or, more notably, stablemate Dickie Diver, and a race-leading timefigure of 138 doesn’t make him an attractive proposition.
Commander Of Fleet and Dickie Diver will both be at least as well suited by this very demanding test, while Allaho has already won (and won well) over three miles.
Like the Albert Bartlett, the remaining handicaps are very tricky. Capitaine is the nominal choice in the County Hurdle off what remains a good mark on his chasing form having landed a well-run handicap hurdle at Taunton last time on his first run back from a wind operation, while Mind’s Eye has credentials as good as any in the Grand Annual. Top-weight Early Doors is top on time in the Martin Pipe, but also doesn’t appeal sufficiently to warrant backing.
Back Ucello Conti at 5/1 in the Foxhunters Chase