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The Worlds Best Hurdlers

Auteuil Racecourse in Paris

Today marked the end of the Spring season at Auteuil. I have attached below the time comparisons for the hurdle races from February until June, with the rather simplistic approach of red (slower than) and green (faster than) to compare to the average time for the final circuit. It’s a basic technique, but I have used it for several years and found it to be a reliable method both for assessing the strength of the visual form and for making a more accurate assessment of the ground.

Before I get an enormous number of replies to this post I should state that I know Constitution Hill is the best hurdler around. There is no argument with that, but would he and State Man beat Theleme over an extended 3-miles at Auteuil? I doubt it. There is room for more than one superstar at the top of the hurdling ranks and this is my interpretation of the form from Auteuil this Spring.

There were exactly 100 hurdle races run during this campaign and I have no intention of going through each one to give a guide as to the form, but there is a point here that needs to be made. With so many hurdling prospects being sold to the UK and Ireland, there is a lack of depth to the top-level races in France and there is no getting away from that. At present, the BHA handicappers convert the official French ratings using a ratio of 2lbs per kilo. Based on that scale, there are only 8 horses in France with a hurdles rating above 140 and 4 of those are Four-year-olds. Hermes Baie and Theleme have been at the top of this tree for some time and since they moved into open company at the start of 2022, they have dominated the hurdles division and have won the 3 Grade 1 hurdles between them. Theleme has had the upper hand in the last 6-months or so, as he proved when getting the better of his rival in the French Champion hurdle in May. The pair pulled 7-lengths clear of Klassical Dream and the rest in that race and Timeform gave them ratings of 170 and 168 respectively, which puts them ahead of Sire Du Berlais (159 Cheltenham in March) and Klassical Dream (156 Punchestown in April). The pair are the best staying hurdlers in Europe and if either were given a campaign with Cheltenham in mind (highly unlikely) I’d make them both favourites amongst the current crop. The form from Auteuil in May backs up this opinion, but what is likely to emerge from pack to challenge them?

It might have been Il Est Francais, but after a promising start in March he has blotted his copybook and not been seen since finishing 5th in the Prix Hypothese. It would be harsh to write him off after the first poor run of his career, but he will need to take a huge step forward in the autumn to trouble the big players. It is very easy to after time and say that I always suspected that the 4-year-old form from last autumn was suspect, but it was, and I haven’t seen any reason to think he can match the 170 ratings that Theleme has run.

Instead, I will have to wait for next spring for the challenger to emerge and that will surely come in the shape of Hugo Merienne’s St Donats. If Theleme is the best staying hurdler in Europe, St Donats is the best 4-year-old. We only saw him once this time around, when he got the better of Losange Bleu in early April despite conceding 2lbs and a fitness edge to him. On a form line through the second, he is very closely matched with Willie Mullins Gala Marceau and through her, we get to Lossiemouth. Giving weight to the Fillies is never easy, but pound for pound he is very close and with his aggressive running style, if they ever met (another unlikely scenario), I’d back him to outbattle the girls every time. Incidentally, Timeform gave him a 158 rating for his win in April, they gave Lossiemouth 143+. Even with her sex allowance, I’m not the only one who thinks he would be the victor in an unlikely match.

Finally, I will come to the future. Whilst I don’t think that the 2020 crop are the best we have ever seen, there is one Juvenile hurdler who stands out. Jigme. He has won all 3 starts, running fast times on each occasion and there is a confidence and power about him that makes him very pleasing on the eye. With such a talented horse there are lots of rumours of enormous bids being rejected from British and Irish interests, but the fact is that he remains in France and crucially, he is still an entire which may point to him having a future as a much-needed National hunt Sire.

For some contrast, he was given a timeform rating of 132 for his debut win. The last 2 Triumph hurdle winners to run over hurdles in France got less (Lossiemouth 123+, Quilixios 128, Vauban ran only on the Flat in France). He ran to a rating of 148 on his latest start, which would have been enough to finish placed in each of the last 5 Triumph hurdles, imagine how good he could be in 9-months’ time? I am not surprised that he is the early Antepost favourite with those bookmakers brave enough to price up a race like the Triumph hurdle this far in advance, but that kind of bet needs a lot of caution. There is no sign that he is likely to be sold, in fact quite the opposite and winning at Cheltenham is not an obsession in France as it is in the UK and Ireland.

Losing so many good prospects to the UK and Ireland is not ideal, but the assumption that every good French hurdler leaves is clearly wrong. This spring season has proved that. Bring on the autumn.

Comparison times for Hurdle races at Auteuil in 2023

Comparison times for Hurdle races at Auteuil in 2023

Comparison times for Hurdle races at Auteuil in 2023

I wanted to add a small footnote to this piece. I know that it might sound like an advert for Timeform, which I assure you it isn't, I have no affiliation. However, I think it is important to try to put as much context as possible into the work that I do and it is nice to see that their experienced rating system matches my own opinion. I am a huge believer in sectional times and time comparisons (don't worry, I doubt ICY or Johnny Dineen read this blog anyway) and I don't think that it is any coincidence that the best horses have run the fastest times. Everyone has their own methods and ways to assess a race, this is mine. I have worn glasses since I was 7-years-old. My eyes don't work properly. If I can't trust my eyes, then I need to use a stopwatch to either confirm my opinion of what I have seen or in many cases, make me question it. The form lines confirm that these French hurdlers are the best. Visually they look the best. My stopwatch agrees.


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