Matt Tombs | Cheltenham Trends | 2nd Season Open Company

16 min

Cheltenham Trends analyst Matt Tombs is back with his second article of 2024, looking at second-season horses in open company…

Every season in the Open-graded races, punters have to wrestle with how the second-season horses will fare against their more experienced opponents. My gut feeling was that the best second-season horses get under-bet in the 4 championship races at the Festival, so I wanted to look at the stats.

Second-season horses have done well in the 4 championship races at the Festival, winning the following number of the 23 renewals this century:

  • Champion Hurdle – 10
  • Champion Chase – 13
  • Stayers Hurdle – 11
  • Gold Cup – 12 (in addition, Coneygree won in his first season)

In other words, second-season horses have won 50% of the renewals of the 4 championship races this century, with a pretty even spread across the 4 races. Overall, second-season horses represented only 38% of those fields.

That record has improved in recent years – if you include Coneygree, horses in their first 2 seasons over those obstacles have won 60% of the renewals in the last decade.

By contrast, horses in their third season have won only 22% of the championship races this century (it drops to 15% and 9% in the fourth and fifth seasons, respectively).


So, as well as having a good numerical record – are the top second-season horses under-bet?

In the 2 championship chases, simply backing the shortest first or second-season chaser in the SP market has proved a profitable strategy this century.

In the Champion Chase they are 10/23 – 20pt (85%) profit, in the Gold Cup they are 9/25 – 37pt (147%) profit. In the Champion and Stayers Hurdles, you’d be almost exactly even backing them blind (i.e. they’ve done a bit better than the average runner once the over-round is taken into account).

When betting ante-post, we’re trying to beat those SP, so we want to find the second-season horses that are particularly under-bet at this stage.

So why do second-season horses do so well, and how do we identify the right ones?

I think the answer to the first of those questions is simply what the stats above imply – that towards the end of their second season over those obstacles is the approximate peak point for the ‘average’ Grade 1 horse.

Of course, age is a factor, and each horse needs to be looked at individually, but, especially in the staying divisions, miles in the legs are crucial.

When looking at whether a horse is improving, plateauing or declining, punters don’t sufficiently factor in the length of time horses have been jumping those obstacles. They look at age, number of races, how many hard races a horse has had etc – which are all important. But so is the impact of day-to-day work on a horse’s physical and mental condition.

This leads to the horses in their third or later season being over-bet, especially over fences where horses typically have more miles on the clock overall.

To find the right second season horses to back ante-post we need to look at what has happened during the current season.

I have two theories that I’ve combined here. The first comes from an obvious point. In the battle between the second season horses and the established Open Grade 1 horses, it ought to get easier for the second season horses as the season progresses.

In the autumn they often have their first run out of novice company – they learn and improve from the experience during the season. There’s also the smaller factor that the established horses are getting more miles in their legs with each race and so are more likely to be on the downgrade later in the season.

The second theory is that races over 2m are more about natural ability and raw speed, whereas in races at 3m+ there is a greater emphasis on being battle-hardened through experience and being able to get into a rhythm. On that basis, you’d expect it to be less difficult for second season horses in the 2m races earlier in the season than the 3m races.

I therefore divided the pre-Cheltenham Open Grade 1s up between:

  1. Before Christmas
  2. The Christmas Festivals
  3. After the turn of the year

At 2m there is little difference between the 3 categories – the percentage of races won by second season horses before Christmas (32%) being similar to those won after the turn of the year (34%).

By contrast in the 3m races those percentages increase from 19% before Christmas, to 32% at the Christmas Festivals and 40% after the turn of the year.

Whilst the strength of each Open Grade 1 needs looking at individually, this suggests that if you can find a second season horse that is winning Open 3m Grade 1s before the turn of the year, and especially in the autumn, they could well be something special and have a great chance in the corresponding championship race at the Festival.

That’s the case. You’d have lost money simply backing blind second-season horses that had won an Open Grade 1 in both the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase – but it’s a different story in the Stayers Hurdle and Gold Cup.

In the Stayers Hurdle division there are 2 Open Grade 1s, the Long Walk, which is shortly before Christmas and the Jack de Bromhead at Christmas. This season, Crambo became the 6th second season hurdler to win the Long Walk this century, (ignoring Baracouda the season the Festival was cancelled due to foot and mouth).

Of the previous 5, 3 won the Stayers Hurdle:

  • My Way De Solzen (9.0)
  • Thistlecrack (2.0)
  • Paisley Park (2.38)

Punchestown was second to the great Big Bucks. The fifth, Sam Spinner, went off favourite but was only 5th under a misjudged ride. I’d question how strong this season’s Long Walk form is, but I’d still see this stat as a real positive for Crambo’s chances.

The Jack de Bromhead became a Grade 1 in 2013 but it’s only in recent years that Irish trainers have really focused on the Stayers Hurdle, the early Grade 1 renewals were often weak. This season Irish Point became the 4th second season hurdler to win. In the early years Lieutenant Colonel was 10th in the Stayers and Prince of Scars didn’t run – but more recently Flooring Porter won the Stayers at 13.0.

Therefore, the record this century in the Stayers Hurdle of second-season hurdlers who’d won an Open 3m Grade 1 hurdle that season is 4/7 – 19pt (277%) profit. That’s a big positive for Irish Point and Crambo in what looks an open renewal.

Over fences there are Open 3m Grade 1s in the autumn – at Down Royal and at Haydock. Being so early, second season chasers winning have been rare – and it’s unusual when they even try. Only 2 of the 19 Betfair Chases have been won by second season chasers – only 10 have lined up so far. In the 21st renewal as a Grade 1 at Down Royal Gerri Colombe was the 21st second season chaser to run and the 3rd to win.

Second season chasers winning Open 3m Grade 1s have been much less under-estimated in the Gold Cup than their counterparts over hurdles – but they are 5/20 (16% profit). Given his flop in the Savills, where he got agitated in the preliminaries, (Jack Kennedy had his feet out of the irons for much of them), Gerri Colombe could be underestimated come March.

Whilst it’s been profitable to back the second-season horses that had won a 3m Open Grade 1 at SP, they’ve often been much bigger prices ante-post, so it may be better to go in now if you fancy Crambo, Irish Point or Gerri Colombe.

A wider point is not to give up on second-season horses that were beaten in Open Grade 1s earlier in the season – it’s not uncommon for them to improve past their more experienced rivals as the season progresses and turn the form round at the Festival.

This century the following horses were all beaten by seasoned campaigners in Open Grade 1s at the same sort of trip during the season – and then turned the tables at the Festival:

  • Champion Hurdle – Jezki (10.0), Rock On Ruby (12.0) & Katchit (11.0)
  • Champion Chase – Put The Kettle On (9.5) & Azertyuiop (2.88)
  • Gold Cup – Minella Indo (10.0), Lord Windermere (21.0), War Of Attrition (8.5), Best Mate (8.0) & Looks Like Trouble (5.5)

In addition, the following horses all won after being beaten in Open Grade 1s at the same sort of trip, either by fellow second-season horses or by horses that didn’t re-oppose at the Festival:

  • Champion Hurdle – Hardy Eustace (34.0)
  • Champion Chase – Energumene (3.5), Finian’s Rainbow (5.0) & Voy Por Ustedes (2.88)

Here are a couple of second-season horses that might be overpriced to emulate them:

After getting turned over in the Clarence House, Jonbon is out to around 4.8 for the Champion Chase in what looks effectively a match with El Fabiolo. Whilst I’m a big fan of the favourite, 8 of the 11 odds-on shots this century have been beaten. I think that is a bit of a freak stat, in part created by the likes of Douvan & Shishkin getting injured – but it’s a reminder that jumping at what’s often an eyes-out gallop in the Champion Chase pushes horses towards their limit. The markets may have overreacted in pushing Jonbon out so far.

The King George is an idiosyncratic test that many good horses don’t take to and The Real Whacker missed the start, made 2 early mistakes and never got into a rhythm going right-handed for the first time over fences. He stayed on well having got done for a turn of foot in the Cotswold Chase and could go well at long odds in the Gold Cup, (4 of the 9 Gold Cup winners this century that ran in the King George were beaten at Kempton).

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