There are two sides to the school of thought about the status of today's most valuable race over fences, the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot. Formerly a superior sort of handicap, it was uplifted to Grade One two years ago, the thinking being to provide an equitable stepping stone for the top two-milers between the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in early December and the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March.
Which is logical enough, but which did remove from the division an opportunity to show incontrovertible greatness. Beating your peers at levels is one thing; giving good rivals lumps of weight and a beating quite another. No one would expect Chelsea to have to give a 10-goal start to Preston this afternoon, but the ability to overcome a similar disadvantage is seen as something of a sine qua non for a top horse.
Over longer distances there are well-established occasions where that can been done, witness Denman's Hennessy Gold Cup this season. Arkle's claim to immortality rests not so much on his three Gold Cup victories as his successes, narrow and wide-margin, under crushing burdens in races like the Hennessy, the Irish National and, particularly, the Gallagher Gold Cup.
The modern programme has many more top prizes on a level playing field than were afforded to the giants of the past, which can make comparisons between generations difficult, even for experts. "It's not absolutely essential for the best horses to give weight away," said the British Horseracing Authority's chief handicapper Phil Smith, "but it doesn't half go a long way to help. You can compare like with like or look at handicaps; both methods are fine, but I'd be more confident of a rating based on a handicap performance. But having said that, I've still got Kauto Star ahead of Denman. I thought he'd win the King George by 10 lengths, rather than the 30-plus he did."
In its former guise, the Victor Chandler Chase did still attract some of the best two-milers for their midwinter outing and horses such as Desert Orchid (who gave Panto Prince 22lb and a head beating in an epic battle), Waterloo Boy and Well Chief only enhanced their standing in victory, as even did Azertyuiop in narrow defeat.
Twelve months ago, though, the presence of the reigning champion Master Minded reduced what had traditionally been a spirited betting heat to an exhibition round which, while exhilarating, was not wholly to the purpose of the sponsors.
Today things are potentially a little more competitive, with the title holder still absent under an injury cloud and three Champion Chase contenders among the eight runners. One of them, Well Chief, produced one of the finest handicap performances of this or any other era when taking the race five years ago off a mark of 176 (an occasion when it was transferred to Cheltenham) and although his would be the fairy-tale victory, there are now younger, fleeter legs on the park than his gallant battered ones.
Twist Magic, Master Minded's understudy in the Paul Nicholls stable, was beaten in this race two years ago and seems more at home at Sandown than anywhere else, so the percentage call is probably the youngster on an upward curve, Petit Robin (2.40).
His trainer, Nicky Henderson, would win with the stable cat at present and introduces to the domestic scene a fascinating prospect in the two-and-a-half-mile hurdle at Ascot, Stravinsky Dance (3.10). The mare, recruited from France by the Waley-Cohen family after running third to their infinitely exciting young chaser Long Run, is considered a handicap snip by those who have seen her recent homework.
The Champion Hurdle is sharply in focus this weekend, starting at Haydock this afternoon, when another of the Seven Barrows stars, Punjabi (2.55), rejoins his road to the defence of his Cheltenham crown. The seven-year-old has just three rivals in the big-race trial and, although he must concede weight all round in testing conditions, it will be regarded as a major facer if he cannot do so.
At Leopardstown tomorrow Nicholls sends Celestial Halo, a neck behind Punjabi in March, to test the mettle of the locals in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Chief among his rivals is Charles Byrnes-trained Solwhit, who took Punjabi's scalp in May and is two from three this term, with upwardly mobile Donnas Palm, three from three, an intriguing new name. This afternoon in Co Dublin Jayo (2.30) looks poised after an eyecatching effort at Cheltenham last month and of the many plotlines in the 30-runner handicap hurdle, Moville (3.05) may be the answer.
Over fences at Haydock, Grand National hero Mon Mome will do well to prevent course specialist Cloudy Lane (3.30) from winning a second Peter Marsh Chase. The card also features the debut over fences of the talented Diamond Harry, who changes direction in mid-season after having had his hurdles aspirations blown away by Big Buck's, but on this occasion the experience of Bensalem (2.20) may prevail.
Decline in Irish figures and fillies paints dismal picture
The brilliance of Sea The Stars – bred in Ireland, raised and trained there and next month due to start his stallion career there – notwithstanding, the racing industry "across the water" is in some crisis. Figures released this week showed alarming downturns in most departments: racecourse attendances 12 per cent, for example; prize-money 12.4 per cent; sponsorship 13.8 per cent; ownership 9.5 per cent, new ownership 27 per cent.
The most dramatic drop, however, came at bloodstock auctions, largely the province of the commercial arm of thoroughbred production, where there was a 32.2 per cent fall in turnover.
And there is also a much darker statistic to consider. It is the gross discrepancy in the division of the sexes among foals born in Ireland last year. Nature is equitable over colts and fillies; no matter what the actual numbers, the split is more or less 50-50. In some years there is a weighting towards one or the other, but never by much more than a percentage point.
However, the latest annual figures produced by Weatherbys, the firm which has compiled and published the throughbred stud book for more than 200 years, show that the 5,133 colts registered by Irish breeders in 2009 represents 53.6 per cent of the population and the 4,488 fillies 46.4 per cent.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Bosamcliff (3.55 Lingfield)
From a yard in top form and, after finishing strongly over 10 furlongs a week ago, will be suited by today's stiffer 12-furlong test of stamina on Polytrack, a trip over which she scored at Southwell two months ago.
Vino Griego (4.10 Wincanton)
Suited by soft ground and produced a good effort in Graded company last time, only his second attempt over obstacles.
*ONE TO WATCH
Though Jadalee (D E Pipe) finished well behind in a two-mile novice hurdle at Southwell this week but should be seen to much better effect when asked to go a bit further.
*WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING
Ronaldo Des Mottes was the subject of support yesterday for the Totesport Trophy at Newbury in three weeks', cut two points by Paddy Power to 12-1.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Rock A Doodle Doo (3.20 Lingfield)