Shortly after Bristol De Mai donkey-licked the field in The Betfair, he was available at 7/1 for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. Since then, a combination of big-race defectors, Thistlecrack’s disappointing reappearance and some punters coming to their senses, has seen that price drop to around 7/2. With a week to go there’s no telling what the weather will do. It was good ground last year; prior to that, you need to go back to 2008 to find good going for the King George. In the past 20 runnings the ground has been soft in 5 runnings and heavy in one. Nine have been good to soft.
The easier the ground the better the chances of Bristol De Mai because his key weakness becomes a strength in those conditions: he is a one-paced racehorse. But that one pace is pretty fast and he can keep going at it an awful lot longer than anything else that’s around just now. Many have him written off as a Haydock bog specialist without digging deeper into why he excels in such conditions. Aside from stamina, the answer is a simple one:
Rhythm is right up there with sound jumping when it comes to the factors that matter most in a staying chase. Indeed, rhythm is essential to good jumping and vice versa. A horse in a rhythm uses considerably less energy than one who is not. A front runner in a rhythm can put immense pressure on his rivals because they cannot afford to let him get away so the jockeys are often forced to ask for efforts that push their mounts out of the comfort zone at crucial times in a race. Those horses then become more prone to errors and the vicious circle begins whirling around them as the rhythmical horse up front just keeps doing what it’s doing.
Soft ground robs many good horses of their prime asset: speed. Bristol De Mai ran a fine race in the Gold Cup in March but the ground was good and when the others quickened after the third last, the grey could not go with them. The mistake he made three out contributed to his downfall and he made a real howler at the last which ended any chance of him finishing placed. He was beaten 20 lengths behind Sizing John but, contrary to what many say, his defeat was not because he does not act on good ground, he was beaten because his rivals acted better on it, and his jumping was a factor too in that loss.
But he acts on good. There is nothing in his racing demeanour to suggest he does not. In his first appearance at the Cheltenham Festival, he earned a Racing Post rating of 161 when finishing second to Black Hercules. That was on good ground. It was also on a day when he was 4 years and 10 months old. It’s very rare for such a young horse to be in a Grade One steeplechase and, as with that Festival, he was not yet 6 when running in this year’s Gold Cup. He’ll be stronger now and very probably still improving. His jumping looked more assured in his two victories this season and if he has ironed out that issue he will be a threat to any horse in a steeplechase.
I didn’t back him at all last season because of his jumping errors. It wasn’t because of the mistakes themselves, but he seemed unusually badly affected by them. If he blundered early in a race it seemed to upset him and you could guarantee there would be more mistakes, each appearing to upset him more. If he could get a circuit in without blundering, that seemed to help his confidence but it became unusual for him not to hit one or to overjump. Only at Haydock was he foot perfect. That’s because he had time, time to build that rhythm, and every fence he flew without touching it fed that rhythm and nourished his confidence.
He overjumped a couple of times at Haydock in November but he was unfazed by it and my guess is that his jumping technique has improved quite a bit. We will know much more by this time next week when I hope he will have added the King George trophy to his owners’ cabinet. If he does that he will almost certainly be favourite for the Gold Cup. You should back him at 12/1 now.
Good luck, and remember the potential pitfalls of antepost betting: if for any reason your selection does not run, your stakes are lost. Never bet more than you can afford to lose with a smile.