Sailing Close To The Wind

December 21st, 2021 | Marten's Current Racing Diary

Hi there!

As someone who has always tried to think outside the box, I like to keep on the lookout for possible touches, especially in poor contests at lower-profile venues.

Last season I wrote about a few of them, none more so than the remarkable Dreal Deal, who progressed from a mark of 84 to 145, an improvement of 61lbs between September and April. The horse had not won a race in 11 starts, starting at odds of 100/1, 250/1, 200/1 and 100/1 in his four outings prior to landing odds of 6/4 (from 20/1) in a 80-102 handicap hurdle at Navan in September.

David Jennings, writing in the Racing Post analysis, concluded his summary by saying “It was extraordinary stuff really.”

Well, the boys are back in town again, with a handful of equally unfathomable touches being landed in recent days.

At Catterick last week Pittsburg, a five-year-old with form figures of P0-0PP0P, was backed from around 33/1 to 11/4 before winning an extended 2m 3f 0-105 amateur jockeys’ handicap hurdle despite being 7lb out of the weights.

Ridden by the relatively inexperienced Alice Stevens, he travelled comfortably through the race and was always doing enough to hold on. The horse was having his first run with a tongue-tie and since wind surgery.

Vee Dancer, trained like Dreal Deal by Ronan McNally, has won his last three races having finished unplaced on eight of his nine previous outings, In his case the bookmakers were alive to the threat, with starting prices of 1/2, 1/4 and 1/3. He had shown a hint of ability in his run at Down Royal in October, just over a month before the winning sequence began.

Eurowork was harder to predict, although once again those in the know could have got on at 40/1.

Nigel Hawke’s seven-year-old had been pulled up in handicap chases last February and March and then this season had been beaten 64 lengths in a handicap hurdle at Uttoxeter in September and 88 lengths in a handicap chase at Hereford in November.

Dropped in trip to a 2m 3f 0-105 handicap chase at Exeter last week, he was ridden up with the pace throughout and came home by three and a quarter lengths with something in hand. The trainer said afterwards that they had “changed a few things at home.”

There was another long-priced touch landed at Naas last Thursday, when Routine Excellence won the 2m 3f maiden hurdle at 11/4 having been backed at 33/1.

He had won a point-to-point in October, 2020, but since then had been beaten 98 lengths in a bumper and 152 lengths, 90 lengths, 46 lengths and 47 lengths in four chases. Rated on a chase mark of just 90, it was a brave call to go for a touch in a maiden hurdle, but it came off and afterwards trainer Gavin Cromwell said the five-year-old, who was equipped with a first time tongue-tie, had come back a “different horse” having not run since March.

There have been a handful of others that I could refer to – All Class was pretty clever, although he had shown recent form on the Flat – but the one that falls into a class of its own was Ardhill in the extended 2m 7f 0-120 at Ascot on Saturday.

Equipped with first-time blinkers, he was backed from a double-figure price to 4/1 and won, in the words of the Racing Post, in a canter.

He came into this race with form figures of OUP42/6880930009-0, having been beaten 26 lengths when last seen at Downpatrick in August. He had displayed a modicum of ability, when third of 14 in a handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse last January, but on his last few runs before Saturday he had been beaten 134 lengths, 109 lengths, 86 lengths and 26 lengths.

The result, to say the least, clearly irritated the Racing Post’s hugely experienced and respected Graham Dench, who said in his summary the horse “made a mockery not only of the handicapper, but also of his rivals and of punters not in the know, by cruising around throughout and winning on the bridle.”

I must stress that given the relatively dire state of the prize-money on offer then it is easy to understand why some owners like to try to subsidise their hobby with a few winning bets.

I am a firm believer that the person who pays the bills is entitled to benefit from the edge his association and contact can confer, but in the case of the above horses there was precious little evidence, if any, to suggest that they were capable of winning.

Furthermore, they mostly won with a great deal in hand.

Punters don’t need to bet, and those of us who do know the risks, but I could not blame anyone from becoming disillusioned if we see many more of these.

I fully acknowledge that horses are living, breathing creatures that are capable of change, development and progress, and this is a valid defence for a horse that has improved following time away.

However, in the case of a horse that has run tailed-off within a few weeks of landing a touch the explanations for improvement are harder to justify.

Every case needs to be judged on its merits, and connections will always find reasons for a horse’s improvement, but it comes to something when experienced observers such as Graham Dench and David Jennings begin to raise their concerns in print.

Bye for now