cheltenham trainers

Matt Tombs | Cheltenham Trends | Looking At The Trainers

16 min

Cheltenham Trends analyst Matt Tombs is back with his second article looking at different trainers at The Festival…

One element of betting at the Festival that punters often neglect is to look at which races trainers tend to do well and badly in.

It’s often assumed that Willie Mullins is such a genius that he can turn his hand to any sort of race – but that’s not actually the case, Willie is the most specialist trainer at the Festival.

It’s well-known how good his record is in the Bumper, (12 wins, no other trainer has won it more than twice), and the 3 mares races, (16 wins, nobody else has trained more than 2 winners of mares’ races.)

He’s not just the best in these races; he’s in a different league.

Backing his runners blind, you’d have recorded a 52pt / 59% profit in the Bumper and a 30pt / 46% profit in the 3 mares races.

Willie Mullins Cheltenham Handicap Chases

On the flip side, Willie has never won a Festival handicap chase and doesn’t often try, having had only 30 runners in handicap chases, (over conventional fences,) none doing better than third – his last runner coming in 2020.

Patrick has never won the Kim Muir so that may be targeted, (Mr Incredible looks like a feasible contender this year if he remains on 145,) but otherwise, I’m not expecting Willie to start focusing on the handicap chases.

Willie has won 11 handicap hurdles, (6 Countys, 4 Martin Pipes & 1 Coral Cup,) but plenty of those have been with novices who have fallen into those races rather than been laid out for them. State Man was a case in point last year, touted as the Closutton Supreme horse at one stage.

He fell on his debut for Willie at Christmas and then won a maiden at the start of February.

That left him short of meaningful experience for the Supreme but with a generous mark in the County.

I don’t look at Willie’s horses before the turn of the year and try to spot what he’s plotting up for Festival handicaps because he’s not doing it.

He’s only had 5 runners in the Pertemps Final this century (best finish of 3rd), because he’s not focused on the qualifying system.

Shewearsitwell qualified by winning at Punchestown, but rather than having her handicap mark minded, she then won a Grade 3 conditions race.

Sheer weights of numbers mean Willie is more likely to break his duck in the Fred Winter but he campaigns his best juveniles openly in graded juvenile hurdles and is up against a dozen handicap plots each year, so I suspect his ordinary record in the race will continue.

Willie Mullins Novices

Willie specialises in winning with novices.

If you count bumper horses as novices, 65% of Willie’s 88 Festival winners have been novices.

A rough rule of thumb in the novice races over obstacles is that Willie almost always has his pecking order right at shorter distances but less so over staying trips where there can be value about his supposed lesser lights.

His relatively modest record in the two championship races over fences, (Energumene is his only Champion Chase winner and Al Boum Photo his only Gold Cup winner), is perhaps in part a result of horses being harder trained earlier on in their careers.

Its notable Al Boum Photo never ran in a bumper, and Energumene’s 2 bumpers were in the same season as his sole hurdles start.

Horses that go chasing quickly are at a huge advantage in the open championship chases, especially over staying trips as they haven’t got too many miles in their legs by the time they begin chasing.

That’s a positive for Galopin Des Champs who didn’t run in bumpers.

By contrast, none of Willie’s 9 Champion Bumper winners this century have won an open Grade 1 over jumps. (His early Bumper winners did better – e.g. Florida Pearl, who never ran over hurdles, won 7 open Grade 1 chases).

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Nicky Henderson

Nicky Henderson is a trainer who can turn his hand to pretty much anything – except marathon chases, (he’s never won the Not-Quite-4-Miler).

Nicky used to have something of a reputation as a trainer who excelled in training two-mile hurdlers and that’s true. He’s won 4 Supremes, 8 Champion Hurdles and 7 Triumphs.

But Nicky has won all 6 non-novice Grade 1s, all 9 handicaps and all 7 novice/juvenile Grade 1s.

The races he hasn’t yet won are mainly ones he doesn’t really target – the Bumper, Foxhunter, Cross-Country & Not-Quite-4-Miler.

Nicky’s long been a leading trainer of mares so it’s surprising Marie’s Rock was breaking his duck in the mares’ races last year. It would be no surprise to see him add the Dawn Run and Mares Chase to his C.V.

Despite having won a record 21 handicaps at the Festival, Nicky has only won 3 handicaps at the last 7 Festivals.

Last year’s 6 runners in handicaps included two seconds, and a third, and punters have short memories. Nicky is still very adept at laying one out for a Festival handicap, but given his recent win record, his runners may provide value.


Gordon Elliott

Gordon Elliott is a trainer who is particularly adept at turning his mind to races that some of his main competitors aren’t focusing on.

He’s revolutionized the Cross-Country, 5 of the last 6 renewals being won by horses trained at Cullentra House.

In the novice chases, he has targeted the least prestigious of the 3 Grade 1s, the Turners (2 wins from 3 runners), and also the Not-Quite-4-Miler (4/11). By contrast, he’s 0/4 in the Arkle and 0/7 in the Broadway.

As his reputation suggests, he’s particularly proficient at laying out horses for Festival handicaps, having already won 15.

Given the massive advantage of having a top Qualified Rider on board, Irish yards tend to aim their staying handicap chasers at the Kim Muir not the Ultima.

Gordon can call on the likes of Jamie Codd & Barry O’Neill and I’d expect his good record in the race to build.

Of Gordon’s 34 Festival winners, Don Cossack’s Gold Cup win is the only one in any of the four championship races.

Similarly to Willie Mullins, it may be that’s partly a result of his horses being trained harder earlier in their careers.

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Paul Nicholls

By contrast, Paul Nicholls has a long track record of improving horses over a number of seasons and keeping them sweet into the veteran stage, especially staying chasers.

15 of Paul’s 46 winners have come in the four championship races.

The flip side is that to achieve this Paul doesn’t over-face his horses when younger and is increasingly bypassing the Festival with his best prospects, especially novice chasers, so extra care is needed when considering backing them ante-post.

The other point to emphasise about Paul is his record in handicaps.

All 15 of his handicap winners have come in races at short (11) or intermediate (4) trips, perhaps surprisingly for a trainer with such a good overall record with stayers.

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Dan Skelton

Dan Skelton’s is the other big British yard, for whom it’s still early days at the Festival with 4 winners so far, 3 of which came in the County Hurdle, (5 of his other 10 runners have finished in the first 7.)

He also has a fair record in the Fred Winter given it has been such a lottery, his runners finishing 660634605.

Dan’s record in handicap chases is much less good – 0/28, with none doing better than third.

Henry de Bromhead

Henry de Bromhead has been training since the turn of the century but coming into the 2017 Festival he’d only trained 3 winners.

His tally is now 18 and he’s very much a man for the biggest races with 7 of those wins coming in the 3 most prestigious races, the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase & Gold Cup.

Henry isn’t one to lay a horse out for a Festival handicap, with only 2 handicap wins so far.

Many of his horses improve out of all recognition for switching to fences and he’s particularly good with 2-mile chasers having won 3 Champion Chases and 2 Arkles.

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3 smaller yards to mention that punch above their weight at the Festival:

Paul Nolan has had 3 winners and 8 places from 38 runners, (32% profit backed each-way,) and is very selective about what he brings over.

His form at the last 5 Festivals is 2P23062134P.

The market often underestimates his horses, and he’s had horses place at 29.0, 34.0 & 67.0.

Paul’s aiming Sandor Clegane at the Albert Bartlett and HMS Seahorse at the Coral Cup.

If Paul Nolan’s record is good from a selective policy of what he runs at the Festival, then Colm Murphy’s is brilliant.

He’s 4/23 – 12pt (53%) profit, with 9 of his losers placed.

Impervious has sound claims of enhancing that record in the Mares Chase.

Ben Pauling’s horses have been in great form this season following a switch of yards and he’s 3/39 – 20pt (51%) profit, at the Festival so far.

Only 2 of his runners have gone off shorter than, (shortest price winner was 15.0,).

There’s often value at prices with his runners.

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