The Curious Case of Bristol De Mai

I first published this a few days before the 2018 Betfair Chase. I return to it even more certain of Bristol De Mai’s ‘secrets’. I’ve added a few paragraphs at the foot.

I see Nigel Twiston-Davies is now concerned about the drying track at Haydock for tomorrow’s Betfair Chase. I hope he runs Bristol De Mai, not so much for the betting side, but he is a fascinating horse, the kind I like. The straightforward ones are the horses you want to own. They consistently run to their mark leaving little detective work to be done for the punter. They’re a joy, but boring. You can’t beat a good mystery like Bristol De Mai.

Treating Bristol De Mai as a suspect in a fictional story, what would Sherlock Holmes say? He has a solid report full of evidence and the starkest fact confronting him is that Bristol De Mai shows what seems his true character only at Haydock. This is obvious and unarguable. The question is why does this happen?

Many of Sherlock’s contemporaries believe that it is not so much Haydock as a track, but the deep ground there he likes. BUT, he has failed to reproduce his ‘evidence’ on deep ground elsewhere. Either the ground at Haydock plays a much smaller part than has been allowed for, or the texture of Haydock’s deep ground differs so significantly from similar going at other tracks that it stands on its own. The trouble with the latter assumption is that our only witness here is Bristol De Mai, and nature has imposed an eternal Fifth Amendment on him.

What of the other matters the horse cannot discuss? Those stomach ulcers. Are they made much worse by racing? Could it be that after a Herculean effort in bad ground that those ulcers flare up so badly the horse needs a long rest before he is comfortable enough to race again? Was his final run at Aintree last season some evidence of this theory? And does the fact that he ran so comparatively poorly immediately after his last two Haydock victories lend that theory even more credence?

Well, you might say, after his first Haydock win he won again. Hmmm, but that was three years ago; were the ulcers there back then? Also, that race was comparatively short at 20f compared to the stamina tests of the other two.

Let’s return to the known evidence – the steeplechase track at Haydock. If we set aside the ground for now, what is it about Haydock that makes it different from the tracks where he hasn’t run so well?

1 It’s left-handed

Interesting . . . 9 out of his top 10 Racing Post Ratings have been achieved going left handed. The only right handed course, Sandown, was down in joint 9th/10th.

2 Haydock’s a galloping track, owing to its long straights.

All but one of his top 10 Racing Post Ratings (Aintree the exception) were gained at galloping tracks.

3 Haydock has easy fences

Does it? They are portable fences, which can be made just as stiff as permanent fences. Not enough evidence at hand of casualties at Haydock or elsewhere to provide any insight.

4 Haydock is a flat track 

Of his top 10 Racing Post Ratings, the top four were at flat tracks. Some evidence there but inconclusive.

(NOTE: all Racing Post Ratings based on chase form only)

What of the horse’s style of running, might Haydock particularly suit his natural stride length, especially in the positioning of the fences?

The only evidence to support this would be that Bristol De Mai jumps Haydock better than he does any other track, and gets into a sustained rhythm there that he has never been able to produce elsewhere.

Form detectives will have their own opinions on what aspect is most important in staying steeplechases. My own is that rhythm, by which I mean a sustained rhythm for as long as possible, is the most important aspect – all else being equal. Sustained rhythm cannot happen without good jumping, so that quality is assumed.

So, aside from the solid evidence that he is better going left-handed, the chief suspect in Bristol De Mai’s top performance level is not so much tied to a particular track, but to achieving sustained rhythm. It is likely, I think, that Haydock’s layout and, perhaps the makeup of its fences, provides Bristol De Mai with the ideal conditions to establish a rhythm early in the race and sustain it to the end. His strong record on galloping tracks lends credence, I think, to the benefits of rhythm in staying steeplechases.

Over to you my learned friends.

November 22nd. 2020

In the two years since I wrote this, life for Bristol De Mai has continued as normal. He won that 2018 Betfair, on good ground, which at least put the ‘best on heavy’ theory in the bin. His only other win was in yesterday’s Betfair.

After the 2018 victory, he fell in the King George, a most unusual mishap for him, the sole fall of his career. But he wasn’t ready for that King George. He hadn’t recovered from the Betfair. As I said two years ago I had a strong suspicion he needed a lot of time to get over big victories. I’m convinced now that this is the key to him

Yesterday, like some mad stalker, I messaged joint-owner Simon Munir pleading for three months rest for the big grey before a final crack at the big one in March. I’m not trying to pull off a betting coup or prove a point, I just think Bristol De Mai is one of the best steeplechasers in history and he deserves a blue riband to mark that in the twilight of his career.

The fact he hasn’t won a Gold Cup so far is down to a hugely optimistic trainer and the very mixed blessings of the Jockey Club Million Triple Crown offer. After finishing second in last year’s Betfair Nigel said, ‘No point going to Kempton. Can’t win the million.’

The closest Bristol De Mai came to his perfect Gold Cup prep was in 2018/19. And that was an accident, courtesy of the King George fall. He came down at the 9th, saving him another hard race on top of the one he’d had 32 days earlier. He stayed in his box then until the Gold Cup, where, once again showing versatility, this time in running style, he was held up.

His challenge was delivered at the second last, which he jumped within a length of the winner, but he could find no more and was beaten a touch over 6 lengths in third. He travelled wide that day, his usual berth in the Gold Cup, and I’ll leave it to the numbers guys to calculate how many lengths were sacrificed on the way round. I’d love to see him bag the rail and front run there.

I’ll wait now to see what the owners decide for March. There’s strong talk of a Grand National challenge and he’d be right at home there with a superb chance if he is kept in his box until April. But maybe they will give him just one last opportunity to crown a career pitted by ulcers and insufficient rest.

Despite his good ground Betfair victory and good to soft 3rd in the Gold Cup, I see heavy ground specialist was touted again yesterday. It’s a reasonable point to raise; it’s just wrongly attributed. Heavy ground makes no difference to Bristol De Mai because it does not interfere with his key weapon – rhythm.

It’s not what heavy does for Bristol De Mai, it’s what it does to his rivals. That rhythm he has gives an incalculable advantage, It’s a huge asset for any steeplechaser, and for a front runner it’s priceless. The longer the race, the advantage of rhythm increases with every furlong. Think about it physiologically: your rivals are dipping in and out of energy reserves with every little pull or kick from the jockey, with every lightly unbalanced jump. Meanwhile, the likes of Bristol De Mai and, horses like Frodon, gallop along in a zone where energy is on a straight and level drip, feeding each long stride, fuelling the smooth arc of every jump.

Even on good ground, very few chasers can consistently get into a rhythm in races. Tactics interfere with it. Lack of jumping fluency kills it. Poor pacing affects it. When a horse of the quality and stamina of Bristol De Mai deploys it with such deadly ease he is close to unbeatable, all else being equal. I mentioned Frodon, but I doubt he will break the concentration of /Bristol De Mai upsides and Bristol De Mai is not one for having to win a pacemaking battle, though Frodon might be.

What a sight it would be to see them both in the Gold Cup, upsides from the off in their usual rhythm, neither fighting for the lead, but just doing what they do superbly, almost like partners, defying the pack to pass.

Let’s hope, at least, both turn up at the pinnacle of their game.



  1. “Dr Watson intervened and said surely Holmes this all centre’s around Bristol De Mai’s ability to act on the prevailing ground. He looks, on average, a stone better on soft/heavy going that he does on genuine good ground. Further proof Holmes, if it were required, is that even his trainer is concerned that going might be too fast today and is considering taking him out of the race.”

    We’ll know more after the race. Native River has as a minimum a 35% chance of winning this and is over-priced at 4.0+.



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