Matt Tombs - Cheltenham Trends For Handicap Hurdles

17 min

Cheltenham Trends analyst Matt Tombs is here for his final Cheltenham Trends article of this series. This week, he takes a look at the handicap hurdles. 

Irish Domination Again?

Last week I wrote about the BHA’s revised handicapping method and whether it would result in more British trained winners of the handicaps.  I touched on the big difference between the handicaps over hurdles and fences – the Irish domination has been over the smaller obstacles. 

In the last 5 years Irish trained horses have won all 5 Pertemps Finals, 4 of the 5 renewals of the Fred Winter (Boodles) & Martin Pipe and 3 of the 5 runnings of the County & Coral Cup.  

Last year Irish trained horses won all 5 handicap hurdles and filled 60% of the places, from 38% representation.

In normal years it’s hard to quantify to what extent the travelling means there should be fewer Irish than British ‘social runners’ – and so how much better the Irish strike rate should be. 

With Covid preventing owners attending the number of social runners at the Festival should have been pretty small in 2021. Irish representation fell only slightly from 43% the previous year – it’s pretty clear that the Irish handicap hurdlers outperformed what you’d statistically expect. 

The BHA handicapper has been trying to redress the balance, putting the Irish hurdlers up 4-4.5lb, (compared to 2-2.5lb for the chasers,) in recent years – but it hasn’t worked. 

At the time of writing, the weights haven’t been published but the British horses have existing marks, most of which will be unchanged. What’s noticeable this year is the comparison between the marks British horses have compared to those they first raced off this season. 

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With the chasers, the overall pattern is similar to last season, whereas with the hurdlers it has changed significantly.

For example, the proportion of British trained hurdlers entered in the Festival handicaps that have been dropped 5lb+ has risen from 11% to 18% based on marks at the time of writing.

Ignoring the Fred Winter which is mainly for first season hurdlers, this century there have been only 9 winners of the other 4 handicap hurdles that won off a mark lower than they began the season on, (compared to 20 in the 4 remaining handicap chases.)

The revised handicapping method may lead to more winners in the style of 2012 Coral Cup winner, Son Of Flicka, who won off 9lb below the mark he ran off in that season’s Greatwood and 5lb below the mark he was second off in the previous year’s Martin Pipe.

Son Of Flicka won as an 8-y-o and the BHA’s stated aim of dropping older horses more quickly has fed through into their current handicap marks.

Last year the average entry aged 8 or older in those 4 handicap hurdles was 1.1lb higher than they first ran off that season. This year that average is 0.6lb lower.  

There’s a similar trend in the handicap chases with horses aged 10 or older. ‘Senior’ hurdlers (8yo+) and ‘veteran’ chasers (10yo+) may have a better chance in the Festival handicaps than in recent years.

cheltenham handicap


The old 3-day Festival could be a bloodbath for punters. In 1996 only 1 of the 20 favourites won, the following year only 2 favourites obliged.

By contrast, the 28 races have produced either 8 or 9 winning favourites in each of the last 4 years.

There are a lot more races that favour punters that want to back at short prices now. For those who like playing at big prices, the handicap hurdles provide some of the best opportunities at the Festival.

The Fred Winter is now by some way the most unpredictable race of the week. Last year Jeff Kidder (81.0) became the longest priced winner at the Festival this century, following a 41.0, three 34.0 and two 26.0 winners in the last decade. Those 7 winners were all 15th or lower choice of the punters in fields of between 21-24.  

The County and Coral Cup also produce plenty of big priced winners. In the last 13 renewals there have been only 2 County winners and 1 Coral Cup winner that went off shorter than 10.0.  The winners of both went off 34.0 last year – they are fiercely competitive and the best value is often at bigger prices.

By contrast the other 2 handicap hurdles are more predictable. In the case of the Pertemps it’s a race that’s changed. It used to be a race where relatively old, ex-chasers thrived, often at big prices – every winner between 2004-2013 went off between 11.0 and 51.0.

As the race has become dominated by lightly raced Irish hurdlers the market has got a much better handle on the race – the 8 winners since all went off from the front 6 in the market. I’m expecting that to continue.

The Martin Pipe has been the most predictable of the handicap hurdles, 7 of the last 8 winners coming from the first 7 in the market. It’s a race in which to look for an embryonic Grade 1 stayer.

cheltenham handicap hurdles

Last Time Out Winners

Given the unpredictable nature of some of the handicap hurdles it’s surprising how under-bet last time out winners have been.  If you’d backed last time out winners blind this century you’d have made a profit in 4 of the 5 handicap hurdles:

  • Martin Pipe – 6/64 (48% profit)
  • Coral Cup – 11/126 (23% profit)
  • Pertemps Final – 8/89 (13% profit)
  • Fred Winter – 8/113 (4% profit)

Even in the County 8 of the last 9 winners had finished in the first 3 on their last start.

None of this is to suggest backing last time out winners blind or putting a line through last time out losers.  Rather, many punters look at handicaps and think last time out winners will have shown their hands and so be handicapped out of it and/or be over-bet.

In fact, the opposite has been true – they’ve tended to be under-bet.

Many of the winners have been young, lightly raced horses and plenty of them were progressing fast enough to win again in a Festival handicap hurdle.

Cut Marks

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 A Run (Winner)
Fred Winter
2020 129 32 of 57 (8)
2019 129 32 of 59 (7)
2018 126 27 of 40 (17)
2017 124 34 of 48 (11)
2016 128 30 of 48 (19)
2020 133 74 of 97 (57)
2019 123 87 of 90 (18)
2018 113 (reserve) 87 of 87 (42)
2017 134 65 of 100 (1)
2016 138 56 of 95 (53)
Martin Pipe
2020 136 66 of 145 (5)
2019 126 94 of 113 (4)
2018 136 81 of 139 (5)
2017 135 71 of 162 (40)
2016 135 70 of 150 (37)
Coral Cup
2020 138 77 of 148 (56)
2019 132 98 of 126 (10)
2018 135 (reserve) 90 off 119 (24)
2017 136 72 of 130 (14)
2016 139 59 of 154 (15)
2020 131 35 of 40 (2)
2019 134 30 of 48 (6)
2018 135 32 of 43 (18)
2017 137 29 of 49 (3)
2016 135 27 of 45 (15)

Turning to a specific trend for each race: 

Fred Winter

Given that it’s a race for juveniles it’s not surprising that experience has played a part. Whilst there’s an element of not running too often to show your hand to the handicapper, horses learn at home too between races.

Those that started their hurdling careers early can be at a big experience advantage in the hurly-burly of a Fred Winter.  

The French system, which has 3-y-o hurdle races in the spring, is perhaps the ideal training ground for the Fred Winter.  Horses that began in French jumps races are 7/76 (68% profit). 4 of those winners had run by the end of May and were effectively second season hurdlers.

County Hurdle

Plenty of handicaps are won by handicap debutants and punters tend to latch onto them.  In some types of handicaps the advantage of being unexposed trumps the lack of experience.  The County hasn’t been one of them – the big field and truly run race has tended to reward experience.

Since 1993 Saint Roi is the only one of the 81 handicap debutants to have won.

It’ll be interesting to see whether modern training methods change this trend.

Martin Pipe

The 145 ceiling effectively makes this a limited handicap. In 6 of the last 7 renewals the weight spread has been between 7lb-11lb. One consequence of such a compressed handicap is that the best horse, rather than simply the best-handicapped horse, usually wins.

In 11 of the 13 renewals, the winner would (in theory) have won at level-weights.

Having the mindset of just looking for the best horse, as you do (bar e.g. the mares allowance) in the Grade 1s, makes the analysis much simpler. 

Coral Cup

Punters latch on to unexposed types in handicaps. At the start of the season it tends to be second season hurdlers and as the season progresses attention turns to novices.

No first season hurdler has won, (Whats Up Boys was a second season novice when winning in 2000).

The Coral Cup is often the highest quality handicap at the meeting, in part because there is no open Grade 1 at the trip. 5 of the last 9 winners were rated 148+. If you have a novice that is good enough to win a handicap against a smattering of graded conditions hurdle horses – they probably have a decent chance in the Supreme or Ballymore and run there. 14 of the 21 winners this century were second-season hurdlers and that’s a trend I’d expect to continue. 

Pertemps Final

Cullentra House Stables has a fantastic record, with form figures (most recent first): 21215123549.  Gordon has never run more than 2 in the race before but this year he has 7 qualified and has said he intends to run them all.

The biggest price in the win market for any of the 8 horses to have placed was 15.0 with Gordon’s other 3 runners all going off bigger prices.

It would be no surprise if he had the first 2 or 3 this year and following the vibes for the Elliott pecking order could be the key to unravelling this renewal.

Check out Matt’s other 4 Cheltenham Trends articles in the series looking at the Championship Races, Novice Chases, Novice Hurdles & Handicap Chases.

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