cheltenham trends

Matt Tombs | Cheltenham Trends | Festival Handicaps

17 min

Cheltenham Trends analyst Matt Tombs is back with his fourth article looking at the Festival Handicaps…

This week, Matt is looking at the Cheltenham Festival Handicaps, focussing on what is different in 2023.

Check out Matt Tombs other articles in this series below:

Seeing Through The Annual Squealing

Connections complaining about handicap marks is an intrinsic part of the sport. When the weights are announced on the 28th the loudest protests are likely to come from connections of Irish-trained horses.

The grid below is a summary of the average raise for Irish-trained horses at the last 3 Festivals:

Hurdles (ex-juv) Juveniles Chasers
2022 4.9lb 3.3lb 4.0lb
2021 3.9lb 2.9lb 2.3lb
2020 4.4lb 4.6lb 2.1lb


The results have been stark. At those 3 Festivals:

  • British-trained horses won 67% of the 4 remaining handicap chases
  • Irish-trained horses won 80% of the 5 handicap hurdles

Looking back over 10 years:

  • British-trained horses won 68% of those handicap chases, (i.e. results are virtually identical)
  • Irish-trained horses won a slightly lower proportion, 60%, of the handicap hurdles

Handicapping has long produced very different results over the 2 different types of obstacles.

Last year, it was particularly noteworthy that, despite how well British yards had done in the handicap chases, Irish chasers were, on average, bumped up nearly double the amount from previous years.

Of the 20 horses who filled the first 5 positions in the handicap chases, only Andy Dufresne (2nd in the Grand Annual, having been raised 3lb from his Irish mark) & Fakir D’Alene, (4th in the Kim Muir, having been raised 7lb,) were trained in Ireland.

We’ll see how the Irish-trained horses are treated on the 28th, but there’s a strong chance that the handicapping system will again favour them over hurdles, favouring the British-trained horses over fences.

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British horses being dropped more quickly

Early last season, the BHA announced a recalibration of the British handicapping system.

One element was the BHA’s decision to drop horses more quickly.

Historically, horses high in the handicap but on the downgrade weren’t dropped fast enough to have a realistic chance in ultra-competitive Festival handicaps.

Before last season only 1 winner this century had been dropped more than 9lb that season, Son Of Flicka, who was 11lb lower when landing a massive gamble in the 2012 Coral Cup – and that’s a literal analysis as his first run of the season was in May. He was only 9lb lower than on his first run of the ‘season proper’ in November.

Last season I kept a record of horses that were dropped 10lb or more and ran in a Festival handicap to assess the impact of the BHA policy of dropping horses quicker.

This analysis was complicated by the fact that the BHA said they were, partly during the summer of 2021, doing a significant reappraisal of existing marks as, overall they were felt to be too high.

I, therefore, widened the criteria to also include horses that were 10lb+ lower than the mark they had when they last ran over those obstacles the previous season (2020/21) – so I’m not quite comparing apples with apples comparing the 2022 Festival with the previous 21 Festivals this century.

The results are below – from left to right – horse, finishing position, race, Starting Price, the mark they ran off at the 2022 Festival, the higher mark of when last ran over those obstacles the previous season or mark the horse had when first running over those obstacles in the current season, the difference between those 2 numbers:

  • Lostintranslation – 8th Ultima (26.0) 155-167 (-12)
  • Global Citizen – WON Grand Ann (29.0) 136-151 (-15)
  • Third Wind – WON Pertemps (26.0) 141-153 (-12)
  • If The Cap Fits – 6th Pertemps (34.0) 137-155 (-18)
  • Slate House – 6th Plate (41.0) 132-148 (-16)
  • Elegant Escape – UR Kim Muir (51.0) 140-161 (-21)
  • Didero Vallis – 3rd Kim Muir (67.0) 127-139 (-12)

The results are really good, albeit from a tiny sample – and not just the 2 winners. 3 of the other 5 finished in the first 6. All bar Didero Vallis had won graded conditions races in the past and were coming down from high marks.

Crucially they all went off 26.0 bigger. Last year the markets didn’t work out these horses had been given a much better chance.

The reassessments may not be as stark as in the first season of this new handicapping method because there isn’t the same starting point of the overall population of British jumpers being seen as too highly rated.

Even so, it’ll be interesting to see which trainers have cottoned onto it and plotted up a horse, typically a former graded conditions racehorse – and what price those horses are this year.


New Qualifying Rules In The Pertemps Final

This season qualification rules changed so that only the first 4 in each qualifier, rather than the first 6, qualify.

The rule requiring a first 6 finish was introduced for the 2016 Final, (previously, you didn’t actually have to run in the qualifier you were entered for and Final winners like Kayf Aramis & Inching Closer didn’t.)

All 7 winners since had finished in the first 4 in a qualifier except Sire Du Berlais when he won in 2019.

It could be argued that spotting the horse that ‘finishes 6th but will win the Final’ was a myth.

Historically, winners of qualifiers have done badly in the Final, having shown their hand.

Only Ballyfitz (2008) & Fingal Bay (2014) have won the Final this century from 101 qualifier winners who have tried (you’d have lost 76% of your betting bank backing them).

Increasing the theoretical proportion of runners that won their qualifier from 16% to 25% ought to mean more win the Final.

It’ll be fascinating to see if they do better going forward.

Irish-trained runners won the first 6 Finals since the ‘finish in the first 6’ rule was introduced, that streak being broken last year by Third Wind.

There are still only 2 qualifiers in Ireland – i.e. 8 qualifying spots now, not 12.

Only 4 Irish-trained horses have qualified in Britain so far – so the most significant impact could be on the size of the Irish challenge.

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Whilst the new qualifying system looks to make British winners more likely, I suspect British hurdlers still need all the help they can get with Irish yards winning the other 4 handicap hurdles last year.

Since you had to finish in the first 6 to qualify, entries (that had qualified and so were given a mark) have been (most recent last) 45, 49, 43, 48, 40, 39 & 51. Eliminations have been 12, 18, 11, 13, 5, 1 (Covid year) & 13.

With the final qualifier on Saturday at Chepstow, there are only 51 horses that have qualified so far.

It’s far from certain that the 24 places will be filled this year, a far cry from the pre-2016 system when there were typically more horses eliminated than got a run.

What does look likely is that the cut, if there is one, will be lower than in recent years (again, most recent last): 135-137-135-134-131-126(Covid)-134.

Markets generally underestimate the chances of horses that are perceived to be unlikely to make the cut – even where you get your money back if they don’t run.

There may be some value in horses rated in the 120s this year (many of whom would probably not be out of the weights if they run). One possible contender, at a huge price, is:

  • Schalke (125), who, since the start of 2022, has bolted up both starts going left-handed

On cuts more widely, the Martin Pipe & Coral Cup are still significantly oversubscribed. There are also usually fewer eliminations in the Fred Winter & County.

By contrast, in the handicap chases, I’d assume that virtually any horse entered would get a run:

  • In both the Plate & Kim Muir there hasn’t been a horse eliminated since 2020
  • Only 2 horses have been eliminated in total in the last 3 Ultimas
  • Despite their now only being 20 spaces rather than 24, only 1 horse has been eliminated in each of the last 2 Grand Annuals

Impact of novices needing 4 runs

This season the BHA have introduced a rule that novices have to have run 4 times in Britain, Ireland or France over hurdles before they are eligible for a Class 1 or 2 handicap hurdle.

This does not include juvenile or novice handicaps, so doesn’t include the Fred Winter.

The new rule doesn’t apply to handicap chases. In both cases, 3 runs is still enough for a novice.

It, therefore, applies to the County, Martin Pipe, Coral Cup & Pertemps Final.

Novices winning off 3 runs are rare.

All 3 this century have been trained by Willie Mullins – Saint Roi & State Man in the County and Killultagh Vic in the Martin Pipe. (To complete the picture both Sir Des Champs (Martin Pipe) and Aux Ptits Soins (Coral Cup) won off 2 hurdles runs but weren’t novices and were apparently allowed to run on the questionable grounds that there aren’t enough options for non-novices otherwise).

Some trainers have clearly been alive to this – e.g. Gavin Cromwell was quick to point Path D’Oroux towards the County after he won on his fourth hurdles start last month

In theory, forcing that fourth run gives the handicapper more information to assess a novice – it’ll be interesting to see how much of a difference it makes.

My hunch is that the impact will be small – the only material difference I’m expecting concerns the Mullins novices

As I mentioned in my Matchbook Insights article on trainers, Willie rarely plots up horses for Festival handicaps; they tend to fall into the handicaps when Plan A goes wrong – e.g. Supreme horses like Saint Roi & State Man end up in the County.

Willie is a man who does things his way. He’s flexible to change if he thinks the change will help him but he’s very rigid about some things.

The chances of him getting his novices going earlier and giving them an extra run to qualify for these 4 handicap hurdles look remote.

A horse like Viva Devito, who bolted up earlier this month, getting his act together on his third hurdles start, might have gone for the County in previous years.

Assuming Willie doesn’t run him again he won’t be eligible.

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