Cheltenham Trends analyst Matt Tombs pens his penultimate Insights article. With handicap entries out shortly, Matt takes a look at some of the handicap chases trends.
A New Era For British Handicappers At The Festival?
One belated conclusion drawn from the 23-5 drubbing Irish trained horses inflicted on their British counterparts last season was the acceptance that many British horses are just too highly rated. The BHA said in September that the median chase rating was over 20lb higher than in 2008-11.
The BHA, therefore, sought to amend the system to rate horses as they were during 2008-11. Given that so many more of the best horses are trained in Ireland than was the case in 2008-11 it makes sense to drop the British horses rather than to try and redress the whole balance by simply raising the Irish horses.
It’s not hard to imagine this caused a glint in the eyes of certain British trainers. Stripping out those without a chase mark at the start of the season and those whose mark remained the same.
This century 33 winners of the 4 handicap chases that remain were rated higher than when they started the season and 20 were lower.
It’s never been the case that you’ve had to be a progressive horse on a roll to win a Festival handicap – plenty of winners had been dropped during the season.
The only horse this century to have won any of those 4 handicap chases having been dropped more than 7lb during the season was Solar Impulse (who had been dropped 9lb) in the 2016 Grand Annual. It’ll be fascinating to see whether more British entries have been dropped, and dropped further this year – and whether any will win off a much lower mark than they started the season on.
The Irish / British split of recent winners suggests that whatever help the BHA handicapper gives is much less needed in the handicap chases than the handicap hurdles. At the last 5 Festivals British trained horses have won 12 of these 20 handicap chases, (but have won only 6 of the 25 handicap hurdles in that period).
Big field handicap chases ought to be unpredictable races. That’s certainly been the case in the Grand Annual with 9 of the last 12 winners going off double-figure prices, including 29.0, 41.0 and 67.0 shots.
The Plate was, until recently, the most unpredictable race of the Festival. 16 of the first 17 renewals this century were won by horses going off 13.0 or bigger. By contrast, the last 4 renewals have gone to the front 2 in the market. Novices have dominated recent renewals – a trend that may grow with the abolition of the Novices’ Handicap Chase. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Plate really is becoming a much more predictable race.
The fact that there are 2 similar staying handicap chases splits the best-handicapped horses up, making those races more predictable.
16 of the 21 Ultimas this century have gone to the front 5 in the market, (32% profit backed blind).
As the best Qualified Riders have increasingly got on the best horses in the Kim Muir it’s become a more predictable race. 8 of the 13 winners since the race was switched to the New Course came from the front 3 in the market, (37% profit backed blind).
It’s well known that none of Willie Mullins’ 78 Festival winners has come in a handicap chase. The last time he even had a runner was a 41.0 shot in the 2020 Kim Muir and I think Willie will continue not to prioritise them, a word of caution for ante-post backers of Grand Annual favourite Gentleman De Mee.
By contrast, Cullentra Stables, the home of Gordon Elliot, has won 4 of these 16 handicap chases at the past 4 Festivals.
Gordon is the only trainer to have won more than 1 in that period.
For a trainer so associated with champion stayers, Paul Nicholls record in Festival handicaps is stark. All 15 wins have been in races at 2m5f or shorter. He’s won the Grand Annual 4 times but none of the other 3 handicap chases.
Tactics have been most important in the Plate. The intermediate trip chases, especially on the New Course, strongly favour front-runners, especially in big fields, (there is usually close to a full field of 24 for the Plate). 3 of the last 10 winners have made virtually all and 3 more have been close to the lead. Only 2 have been held up.
Both the staying handicap chases have tended to favour patiently ridden horses, with the visual impression being that they often go too quickly in the Ultima.
The Grand Annual was switched to the sharper Old Course last year with the distance reduced by 83 yards, (2 years after the maximum field size was reduced by 4 because the race was deemed to be run too quickly). It’ll be interesting to see if this change reverses the trend that horses ridden patiently do well in the Grand Annual.
Stamina is at even more of a premium in the 2 staying handicaps than many punters think. The typically strong gallop in the Ultima has led to horses with proven stamina being under-bet. Horses that had previously contested a race over 4m+ are 6/99 (54% profit). With the dolling out the Kim Muir is often run over further than the Gold Cup and 6 winners this century had already run over 4m+.
These horses are often dismissed by punters as being too slow and can provide value at big prices.
The Plate is unlike the Grade 1 chases at intermediate trips, which are often won by horses that have been running over the ‘championship distances’ of 2m or 3m during the season. The Plate has been very much a race for specialists at the trip. 18 of the 21 winners this century had recorded their best Racing Post Rating over fences at an intermediate trip.
Last year’s Grand Annual was the first run on the Old Course since 1992. I’m expecting that switch to make it even more of a race for specialist two-milers.
A look at the Festival novice hurdles, including some misconceptions about what makes a Supreme or Ballymore horse and why the Albert Bartlett might not be changing as much as some think.
Good luck! https://t.co/nBXvPajA8V
— matt tombs (@thespieler) February 15, 2022
For those looking to bet when the weights come out, it’s helpful to know not only the recent cut marks but also at what number in the original weights the cut came. Ignoring 2021, which was distorted by Covid, the grid below sets that information out, (the figure in brackets being the position in the original weights of the winner.)
|To Get A Run||Entry No Got Run (Winner)|
|2020||140||37 of 52 (19)|
|2019||134||50 of 58 (42)|
|2018||139||46 of 65 (12)|
|2017||135||60 of 77 (14)|
|2016||137||45 of 65 (35)|
|2020||140||54 of 95 (18)|
|2019||135||69 of 82 (44)|
|2018||137||72 of 94 (20)|
|2017||133||85 of 99 (35)|
|2016||135||81 of 102 (44)|
|2020||129||88 of 90 (62)|
|2019||140||71 of 105 (23)|
|2017||134||87 of 101 (7)|
|2016||131||97 of 105 (33)|
|2020||135||52 of 89 (25)|
|2019||133||68 of 91 (10)|
|2017||133||61 of 93 (41)|
|2016||134||75 of 103 (11)|
NB – the maximum field size for the Grand Annual was reduced from 24 to 20 in 2019
Turning to a specific trend for each race:
As a 2m chase, the Grand Annual attracts specialists and previous form in the race is much more important than in the other handicap chases. 8 of the last 16 winners had run in the Grand Annual before – more than the combined number that had form from previous renewals in the other 3 handicaps all century.
You’d have made an 87% profit backing previous runners in the race-blind. Plenty of those winners had been well fancied in the previous renewals and last year’s favourite, Embittered, may be getting himself well handicapped.
Not having shown your hand to the handicapper is an obvious attribute in any handicap. The last winner to have won a graded conditions race over either hurdles or fences was Mister McGoldrick in 2008. The Plate has genuinely been a handicap for handicappers.
Horses that have higher marks over hurdles, often because they’ve seemingly not taken to fences, have obvious potential to be well handicapped. In the last 13 renewals, 14 runners were 7lb or more below their hurdles mark and 5 won (392% profit). High-class hurdlers, similar to Un Temps Pour Tout, Holywell & Wichita Lineman, that are novices over fences are worth watching out for in races like the Ultima.
The top jockeys increasingly get on the best-handicapped horses these days so it is important to listen to the vibes. If they can get below the 145 ceiling the best handicapped Irish trained horses tend to get aimed at this rather than the Ultima because the best pilots can be booked.
Gordon Elliott targets this race, the Cullentra House runners in the last 6 renewals finishing 118003U1. Gordon can call on several of the best Qualified Riders, in particular Jamie Codd, who has won this 4 times. Gordon’s Frontal Assault heads the ante-post market.
Next week we focus on the Handicap Hurdles.
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