Cheltenham Trends expert Matt Tombs will be previewing different types of races over the next five Tuesdays leading up to the Festival.
He covers the four Championship races (Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup) this week…
Festival Form – Championship Races
It’s a truism that many of the best trials are run at the previous Festival. Of the 84 renewals of the four championship races this century, only 11 winners were making their Festival debuts. However, there are stark differences between those four races in terms of what Festival form winners have had.
In the 2m races, it’s common for horses beaten in a previous renewal to win. Hors La Loi, Brave Inca, Punjabi & Binocular were all beaten (all were placed) in their first run, in the previous Champion Hurdle. In addition, Hurricane Fly was third in between his two victories. The beaten horses have won more often than the defending champions with only Istabraq, Hardy Eustace & Buveur D’Air retaining their title.
Similarly, Edredon Bleu, Flagship Uberalles, Big Zeb, Special Tiara & Politologue all won the Champion Chase having been beaten on their first try, (additionally, Moscow Flyer & Sprinter Sacre regained their titles.) Again, the defending champions have done less well with only Master Minded & Altior retaining their title.
By contrast, in the staying championships, only Iris’s Gift has won the Stayers’ Hurdle having been beaten in it, with Big Buck’s (3 times), Inglis Drever & Baracouda retaining their titles. Only Native River has won the Gold Cup having been beaten on his first try in the race, (Kauto Star did regain his title having been beaten in between.) Best Mate (twice) & Al Boum Photo have successfully defended the Gold Cup.
I think the main reason for this difference is how much the staying championships, especially the Gold Cup, take out of horses. Most horses regress for a Gold Cup run and if they weren’t good enough to win the first time, it’s unlikely they’ll win it in the future. This might be a weaker renewal than last year but that has to be a concern for favourite A Plus Tard.
The Stayers Hurdle had historically been a shallow division, often with a gulf between the winners and beaten horses, making it harder for the latter to win in the future, (Iris’s Gift was a novice when beaten). That gulf historically led to repeat winners, which has been less common in recent years as the division has deepened.
Horses don’t finish tired in the same way over 2m and so have more renewals they can realistically win. The Champion Hurdle often features young horses who reach their peak after their first run – Hors La Loi, Punjabi & Binocular were all 5 when beaten on their first attempt. Aspire Tower hasn’t run yet this season but if lining up could go well at a big price.
The Champion Chase is the ultimate jumping test over park fences and that small margin for error is the unpredictable factor in a specialist division – both Moscow Flyer & Big Zeb tipped up and then won the race the following year. The less stiff fences nowadays reduce that uncertainty but it’s still a bigger factor than in the other championship races. The placed horses from last year Nube Negra & Chacun Pour Soi are in the mix in what’s shaping into a vintage renewal.
Festival form – Novice Races
Winners of the equivalent novice Grade 1 the previous season have thrived in the chase championships, (with Monkfish injured that’s not relevant for the Gold Cup this year). In the last 19 renewals, the previous season’s Arkle winner has finished 11721121211 in the Champion Chase, (213% profit) an obvious positive for Shishkin.
The equivalent novice winners over hurdles have not fared so well.
No Supreme winner has won the Champion Hurdle the following season since Bula in 1971.
While that’s a statistical negative for Appreciate It, with the Champion Hurdle a shallower division now. that’s a trend I can see being broken by Supreme winners that don’t go over fences. The Ballymore has been the better trial but Bob Olinger and co are chasing.
The Albert Bartlett is a really attritional and unpredictable race. Every year horses bomb in it only to win Grade 1s, (whether over hurdles or fences,) the following season. Penhill did the double in the Stayers Hurdle but the ante-post value is often with those beaten in the Albert Bartlett – such as Lisnagar Oscar and Paisley Park. Alaphilippe is the only entry this year and looks more likely to contest the Pertemps; Vanillier would be interesting if supplemented.
A common mistake punters make is to blindly follow top-class horses even when they’re veterans. They often use their experience to beat the second-season horses earlier in the season, only to get improved past at the Festival. Veterans have won the specialist Champion Chase but it’s a long time since horses aged 10+ won the Champion Hurdle (1981), Stayers Hurdle (1986) or Gold Cup (1998). Al Boum Photo and Champ will be trying to achieve what Kauto Star, Denman, Baracouda & Limestone Lad couldn’t.
These level-weights championship races are the pinnacle of the sport, for which horses are peaked. It’s, therefore, no surprise that market leaders dominate, especially in the chases. 19 of the 21 Gold Cup winners this century went off a single figure SP and from the front four in the market.
15 of the 21 Champion Chases have gone to the front two in the market, 16 winners going off 7.0 or shorter – but seven of the 10 odds-on shots have been beaten.
Very few horses can run fast enough and jump at that gallop to have a realistic chance in a Champion Chase but the small margin for error jumping means it’s unpredictable amongst those (typically) two or three horses that can win – a note of caution about Shishkin. Ante-post backers in the chase championships need to focus on horses that will shorten towards the front of the market.
The hurdle championships are different as many contenders are only in their second season over obstacles and punters know less about them. The Champion Hurdle was a deep division where upsets were common, mainly because it was run so much faster than the trials.
Six of the first 12 winners this century went off double-figure prices.
As the division has got shallower it has become more predictable with eight of the last nine winners going off single figure prices – six were favourites. Honeysuckle is hard to oppose.
The Stayers’ Hurdle is the opposite. It was a shallow division and the first 14 winners this century went off 9.5 or shorter.
It’s more competitive now, five of the seven winners since have gone off double-figure prices.
Royal Kahala would be interesting if lining up on soft ground.
Cheltenham Trend For Each Race
When using trends it’s vital to know when a race’s inherent nature is changing as trends can cease to be meaningful. 5-y-o have a bad record, being 2/108 in the last 35 renewals. However, not only is the Champion Hurdle division shallower, the juvenile division has changed radically.
The Triumph isn’t any longer a big field cavalry charge dominated by battle-hardened ex-flat horses, who often don’t train on afterwards. 20 of the 23 Triumphs between 1990 and 2013 were won by ex-flat horses. Half the eight winners since began over jumps and I wouldn’t be using the bad record of 5-y-o against Quilixios and Teahupoo who have only contested hurdles races, or even Zanahiyr and Adagio who had brief careers on the flat.
The Champion Chase is about raw speed and the ability to jump at it. Clues to how fast a horse is, often come over hurdles. Horses that won a Grade 1 hurdle at around 2m are 6/22 (62% profit) and horses that had recorded a Racing Post Rating of 160+ in their most recent season over hurdles are 7/22 (79% profit). That’s a positive for Shishkin over Energumene.
There are two main types of winners. Firstly, the horse dominating the 3m graded conditions races – but this year the market leaders have been beaten in one of them. Secondly, a class act stepping up in trip. Horses going off 11.0 or shorter and stepping up from 2m5½f or shorter are 4/9 (239% profit). Song For Someone is a possible candidate this year.
The tempo of the Gold Cup varies more between renewals than the other championship races. If there’s a Denman or Coneygree in the field to pour it on from halfway, (or if the ground is really testing as when Bobs Worth & Native River won,) stamina is the crucial factor. However, Al Boum Photo, Sizing John, Lord Windermere & Kauto Star have all won steadily run Gold Cups on a sound surface in recent years. At this early stage, another steadily run Gold Cup looks feasible.
Steadily run Gold Cups favour horses stepping up from around 3m, who tend to be under-bet due to unfounded stamina concerns. Horses stepping up from 3m-3m½f for the first time are 9/34 this century (98% profit) – a positive for Tornado Flyer and Asterion Forlonge.
If you’re looking for more Cheltenham content, Matt Tombs joined Daniel Hussey and Micheál Deasy for a look at the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase as well as the Champion Chase which is below.
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