Matt Tombs | Cheltenham Trends | Jockey Claimers

16 min

Cheltenham Trends analyst Matt Tombs is back with his penultimate article of 2024, looking at Cheltenham Claimers…

One of the things I enjoy most about horse racing is that there is so much I don’t know. The constant opportunity to learn new and useful things – and translate them into betting value is one of my main motivations.

It’s not necessary (or feasible) to be an expert on every aspect of racing. Being a jack of most trades is a good way to utilise all the points that make up the overall punting puzzle.

For example, I’m no expert in the relatively recent science of sectional timings, but I pay attention to 1 or 2 people who are – and factor that into my analysis.

I’ve enjoyed the RaceiQ innovations analysing jumping speeds and momentum this season. I’m very much at the novice stage in understanding that technology, but I am looking forward to learning how to use it going forward.

Sometimes, however, there are long-standing factors that I’ve never understood, and so I do some research to try to understand them better. One of those is the use of claimers. I’ve had the (perhaps simplistic) view that a claimer is either good, fair or bad value for their claim.

It’s not quite that simple, there are other factors – if you’ve got a horse that is very professional and needs little assistance from the saddle to show their best form then there is more an element of ‘something for nothing’ in claiming off them. By contrast a top rider replacing a claimer on a tricky horse can be a boost to their chances, despite the extra weight.

What I’ve never understood is the widely touted concept that if a horse has top weight you should be more inclined to use a claimer. This is linked to the more general question of whether you should focus on weights or marks in handicaps. I’m strongly of the view that it is fundamentally the mark that matters. Under the same conditions, a horse that is fairly handicapped off 135 should run to 135, whether carrying 12-0 or 10-0.

The fact that a smaller horse is ‘not built to carry weight’ so is better off carrying 10-0 in a better race, is at best a very small factor. Half a tonne of racehorse carrying a few pounds less isn’t going to change whether a horse can run to form or not.

There are nuances where I think actual weight has an indirect impact, such as the pace of the race. If a 135-rated staying chaser runs in a race like the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury carrying 10-2 on the prevailing sound surface, they will probably go very quickly for a staying handicap chase. I’d be looking at whether that 135 horse will be able to go the gallop or whether they are better carrying top weight in a lesser contest where they would be in their comfort zone going a steadier pace. But a horse’s actual mark under the conditions of a particular race is the dominant factor.

On that basis, why would you claim off a horse just because they have top weight? You should only claim off any horse where you think doing so increases their chance. Perhaps more horses further up the handicap are more experienced and so need less assistance from the saddle but again that’s a small factor. I suspect plenty of top weights claimed off are exposed, with little chance – and trainers use them to give claimers experience.

So I thought I would look at the history of claimers in the Festival handicaps to see whether the axiom of it being a good idea to claim off top-weights was truer than I gave it credit for.

There are 9 handicaps at the Festival at the moment. Claims were removed from the Martin Pipe in 2019 and the Kim Muir is restricted to amateurs where the gun Qualified Riders are such a big factor that I’ve discounted that race. I’ve therefore focused on all the renewals of the other 7 handicaps this century.

Starting with the overall picture, 666 horses have been claimed off in those 7 races this century, 25 of which have won. You’d have made a small (10%) loss backing them blind, which, when the over-round is factored in, suggests that claimer-ridden horses have provided very slightly better value than all runners.

6 of those 25 have come at the last 3 Festivals, including 3 last year – so whilst I wouldn’t read too much into that, claimer ridden winners are clearly not an historical factor that’s less relevant now.

So, what of the top weights? Only 5 have won this century and 4 of those were in the last decade, (handicapping methodology has changed to leave horses in the 150s, that typically carry top weight, with more of a chance than they had earlier in the century).

None of those 5 top-weights were claimer-ridden; in fact, they were all ridden by top pros – Barry Geraghty, Davy Russell, Paul Townend and Tom Scudamore. 56 top-weights were ridden by claimers and all were beaten, (10 were placed.) If anything, history suggests that if your horse has top weight, what you need to overcome that is the assistance of a top jockey, rather than trying to reduce the weight with a claimer.

I then looked at the overall profile of the 25 claimer-ridden winners and the original weight allotted before the claim was reduced. Only 8 of the 25 were initially allocated 11-0 or more at declaration, 17 were allocated less than 11-0. There’s no evidence that claiming helps horses near the top of the weights at the Festival win more often than it does those lower down – if anything it’s the reverse.

The list of the jockeys who rode those 25 winners, unsurprisingly, shows plenty of future top riders, such as Nico de Boinville and more recently Michael O’Sullivan and Jordan Gainford. Spotting the emerging talent where the claim is ‘something for nothing’ is an obvious angle.

Last year Ben Harvey won the Plate on Seddon claiming 5lb and he can currently claim 3lb in Britain. Liam McKenna won the Pertemps on Good Time Jonny and can currently still claim the same 5lb. Caolin Quinn and Mark McDonagh are amongst this season’s leading claiming conditionals, (both can claim 3lb in Britain at the time of writing,) and are worth keeping an eye out for this year.

As well as the conditionals, top amateurs often have a lot of experience from the pointing field, (and for Irish amateurs from bumpers,) and can be well worth their claim. Nina Carberry, Will Biddick, Sam Waley-Cohen and Katie Walsh all feature amongst the 25.

The obvious one this year is top point rider Rob James who is still a couple short of losing his 7lb claim (and 3lb claim in the Kim Muir.) Ironically enough, Gordon Elliott has tended to use him on top-weights.

More generally, it’s not been surprising that the winners have mainly come from the more experienced claimers. In these 7 Festival handicaps Britain’s standard claiming rules apply – 7lb until 20 wins, 5lb until 40 wins and 3lb until 75 wins. There is a pretty even split between 3lb claimers (11 wins) and 5lb claimers (10 wins) but only 4 of the 25 were 7lb claimers.

If you can spot a Jordan Gainford at the start of their career or an experienced crack Qualified Rider like Rob James, then that’s great – but more generally I’d expect 3lb and 5lb claimers to continue to provide the bulk of the winners. The Festival handicaps are obviously ultra-competitive and few riders that are really inexperienced can navigate them.

Vibes are tricky to assess but are an important part of the Festival punting puzzle more generally. Gordon Elliott is the number one trainer in the Festival handicaps and having already won the Fred Winter 3 times, booked Michael O’Sullivan, (then claiming 3lb), for his first string Jazzy Matty last year. Given the jockeys Gordon had to call on from his own stable, that should have been a big hint.

In the run up to the 2014 Festival I remember Nicky Henderson saying he wanted to make sure Nico de Boinville didn’t lose his 5lb claim before the meeting – and Nico duly won the Coral Cup on Whisper. Whisper won by a short head and Jazzy Matty by a neck – the claims were crucial.

Experience of having ridden the horse previously ought to help any jockey, especially a claimer. Some of the claimers were regular pilots such as Lizzie Kelly on both Coo Star Sivola & Siruh Du Lac and Keiran Burke on Holmwood Legend, but that’s been the exception rather than the norm. 9 of the 25 were riding the horse for the first time in a race and 9 of the other 16 had ridden the horse once or twice previously. I wouldn’t be put off by the fact that the claimer is riding the horse for the first time.

In summary, the research confirmed what I hoped it would – that it’s been a myth that there’s an advantage to claiming off top weights at the Festival. A claimer is either good, fair or poor value for their claim and we should be assessing their impact on any horse on that basis.

If a shrewd operator books a quality claimer that can be a clue in itself – the 3 trainers of claimer ridden winners last year were Tony Martin, Gordon Elliott & John McConnell.

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