Ballymore Novices Hurdle – An Overview

Class Beats Stamina

The second day of the festival doesn’t get off to the same ferocious start as day one. The Ballymore is run over 5f further than the Supreme and tends to be run at a much steadier pace. This creates a bit of an unusual paradox – while the Supreme is more of a test of stamina than you might expect over 2m, the Ballymore is more of a test of speed than you would expect of 2m 5f. They don’t go a mad gallop, so the key is settling, getting into a nice rhythm, staying in a good position and then having the speed, class, and turn of foot to win when the race heats up.

The evidence of the speed angle is in the role of honour – it was here that Aidan O’Brien ran Istabraq as a novice before he won three Champion Hurdles. Hardy Eustace ran in this as a novice before winning two Champion Hurdles. In more recent years, Simonsig won it before going back to 2m for the Arkle the following year, The New One won it before running in the next 4 Champion Hurdles, and Faugheen won it and then became the Champion Hurdler. In the same year that Faugheen won this, Vautour won the Supreme for the same trainer – it was Vautour who was campaigned over longer trips the following year, winning a JLT and almost winning a King George over 3 miles while Faugheen dominated the 2 mile hurdling division.

In other words, we won’t worry too much about stamina here, but will focus more on speed. This could explain one of the long-standing negatives for this race – the winner of the Challow Hurdle tends to perform poorly. The Challow is run at Newbury just before the New Year and is the natural trial for this race in the UK – it’s a grade one novice hurdle run over 2m 5f. No Challow winner this century has gone on to win the Ballymore (although a few have managed to make the frame). It might be better to focus on horses which ran over shorter trips last time out in order to find the classier, speedier contenders:

Distance of prep run Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
2m 2.5f or less 58 7 12.07 12 20.69 -22.41 1.36
2m 3f or further 75 3 4 18 24 -52.26 0.46

The theory holds up here. Horses which ran over a longer trip last time out (such as 2m 3f or further, which you would imagine would be beneficial) underperformed significantly in comparison with horses which ran in a shorter race last time out.

Good Recent Form

A relatively successful run last time out is something which is often considered essential coming into the Ballymore. The majority of runners tend to have finished in the top 2 last time out, and the importance of this stat is probably easier to see when looking at the awful performance of horses which didn’t finish in the top 2 last time out:

Finishing position LTO Runners Wins Win% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
1st or 2nd 97 10 10.31 29 29.9 -38.67 0.93
Not 1st or 2nd 36 0 0 1 2.78 -36 0

However, the vast majority of these horses which didn’t finish in the top two on their last outing ran at massive outsiders – only one of the 36 ran at a single-figure starting price, and 26 of them were priced 33/1 or longer. For that reason, I wouldn’t get too caught up on this.

More significantly, the Ballymore winner tends to have run in a good race last time out. The poor record of horses stepping up from handicaps to grade ones at the festival is covered elsewhere, and it’s as significant as ever here. I’ll start by comparing the record of horses which had their prep run in a graded race to those which didn’t:

Prep Run Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Grade 1/2/3 62 9 14.52 24 38.71 -6.87 1.1
Other 71 1 1.41 6 8.45 -67.81 0.28

Again, we’re often dealing with big-priced outsiders here, but there have been plenty of high-profile horses at shorter prices which came into the race off the back of a run in a non-graded contest. The record of horses which ran in grade ones last time out is particularly noteworthy:

Prep Run Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Grade One 18 4 22.22 8 44.44 2.43 1.37

Official Ratings

In a few races (notably the Mares Hurdle and National Hunt Chase so far) I’ve been pointing out the successful records of horses with higher official ratings. This might seem very simple, but it’s often underrated in what should in theory be very efficient festival markets. The Ballymore is another prime example. Last year, 5 of the 14 runners were rated 145 or higher. Their finishing positions were 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th. The year before, 4 of the 15 runners were rated 145 or higher. Their finishing positions were 1st, 2nd, 3rd and pulled up. In 2016 the record wasn’t quite as strong (whilst both the winner and the runner-up were rated 145+, so were the 7th and 8th-place horses and one which was pulled up), but 2015 is an excellent example – the 4 horses in the field of 10 rated 145 or higher finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th. The interesting thing is that these aren’t necessarily the top horses in the betting, although the main point to take from this stat is probably that the class horses tend to come to the fore here (remember, we have already pointed out that a good turn of foot and a bit of class is essential in this race).

OR Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
<145 95 1 1.05 7 7.37 -86.71 0.22
145+ 38 9 23.68 23 60.53 12.04 1.25

The key figure here is the A/E – the 1.25 for the horses rated 145 or higher shows that the market hasn’t caught on to the fact that these horses are better bets than the lower-rated contenders.

Not All About Experience

The final point that’s worth making is that here, contrary to in the Supreme, experience isn’t really paramount. In the Supreme, we were looking for hardened hurdlers who had run at least 4 times already over these obstacles. This isn’t the case in the Ballymore.

Hurdles Runs Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
0-3 72 7 9.72 19 26.39 -29.88 0.96
4+ 61 3 4.92 11 18.03 -44.8 0.67

The record of the less exposed hurdlers is actually far superior in this race to that of the toughened, experienced hurdlers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that having less experience is a plus, but the A/E’s might suggest that the market underestimates less experienced horses in the race. This makes sense – the idea could be that over a longer trip, you’re going to want a tougher, more experienced hurdler. In reality, the emphasis here is neither on stamina nor on jumping at speed, due to the fact that the race tends to be run at a fairly steady pace. For this reason, not writing off horses just because they’re less experienced over hurdles might help us to get an edge over the market.

The Ideal Candidate

  • Ran over a shorter trip last time out (we’ll say 2m 2½f or less)
  • Officially rated 145+

14 horses have fit the bill in the last 10 years, with 6 of them winning and another 2 making the frame. Blindly backing them at Betfair SP would have returned a profit of +13.3, and their A/E was 1.94.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Kim Muir Challenge Cup – An Overview

Experienced Jockeys

The Kim Muir is an unusual race in terms of the angles I take into it. The first is not original and has been well known for a while, but it still appears to have an edge on the market – jockeys claiming weight have a poor record in the race.

Claiming Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
No 144 9 6.25 35 24.31 -3.9 0.92 1.22
Yes 88 1 1.14 5 5.68 -70.65 0.29 0.44

The theory here is clear – it’s an amateur race at the festival, and the best jockeys tend to take part. Jamie Codd is the obvious example, with form of 1P10P11U3 in the last 10 years. It can pay to stick with a top jockey here, and the less experienced jockeys who can claim tend to suffer as a result. Last year 11 of the 20 jockeys in the race weren’t claiming, and they filled the top 6 finishing positions. The theory is backed up both by the A/E and A/E taking places into account – although one would assume that the public latch on to the rides of top amateurs in the race, these horses still appear to outperform the expectations of the market in comparison to those who receive the benefit of carrying a few pounds less but the disadvantage of an inexperienced rider.

Headgear

Headgear Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
Yes 88 7 7.95 20 22.73 30.02 1.44 1.32
No 144 3 2.08 20 13.89 -104.57 0.36 0.8

Another key angle which I don’t delve into often is headgear, and again it seems to be significant in this race. Around 38% of the horses to run in this race in the last 10 years wore some sort of headgear, yet these horses accounted for 70% of the winners and 50% of the horses to make the frame (including winners). They vastly outperformed market expectations and those without headgear underperformed significantly.

These two angles alone can narrow the field significantly – only 27% of the total field in the last 10 years fit both criteria, but these included 6 of the last 10 winners, with an A/E of 1.57. Whilst these appear to be the two strongest angles into the race, there are a few others which are worth noting:

Career Starts Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
0-11 39 0 0 3 7.69 -39 0 0.4
12+ 193 10 5.18 37 19.17 -35.55 0.94 1.13

Experience

Not a huge number of inexperienced horses tend to run in this race, but when they have, they’ve been unsuccessful. Horses with 11 or less previous starts under rules have failed to win the race from 39 attempts, despite a number of high profile, well-fancied horses attempting it (Indian Castle at 7/2 in 2014 and Champagne James at 4/1 in 2015 are a couple of examples). If we wanted to break this down further, it would seem that a huge number of starts isn’t a massive plus either:

Career Starts Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
0-11 39 0 0 3 7.69 -39 0 0.4
12-18 78 6 7.69 18 23.08 47.2 1.16 1.19
19+ 115 4 3.48 19 16.52 -82.75 0.73 1.09

A high number of veterans have run in the race, with 19 or more starts to their names, and these horses haven’t run as well as those with 12-18 previous starts. In fact, they’ve underperformed based on their odds.

Prep Runs – Staying Handicaps

The prep run is often a key factor and there are two criteria which stand out in that regard:

Last Run Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
Level Weights 40 1 2.5 7 17.5 -34.58 0.34 0.86
Handicap 192 9 4.69 33 17.19 -39.97 0.87 1.03

Those horses which had their last start in a level-weights contest underperformed, with just one win from 40 runners. The majority of horses do tend to prep for this in a handicap, but it’s still worth noting.

Last Run Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
>3m 76 2 2.63 10 13.16 -16.76 0.45 0.8
3m+ 156 8 5.13 30 19.23 -57.79 0.91 1.08

The majority of winners also tend to have their warmup in a race over 3 miles or further, which makes sense considering the fact that this is a tough test over the same trip as the Gold Cup.

Hcp 3m+ LTO
Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
137 8 5.84 27 19.71 -38.79 1.05 1.12

When combining these two factors we see a group of horses which has won 8 of the last 10 renewals (admittedly making up the majority of the field) but still manage to punch above their weight in terms of wins and in terms of wins and places.

Going Unnoticed in a Hurdles Prep

Hurdles LTO
Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
26 2 7.69 6 23.08 -11.81 1.4 1.44

As a quick side note when looking at prep runs, a prep run over hurdles is hardly a new concept when coming into a big handicap chase, but it has been useful in this race. The horses to do it in the last 3 years may have had finishing positions of PFP, but their odds were 25/1, 50/1 and 100/1. Back in 2011 it was more common (10000P) and 2012 (12900) it was more common, and these horses weren’t without success in recent years (the one horse to do it in 2015 was 5th and one of the three to do it in 2013 was 3rd). A lot of horses to take this route in the past have been big-priced outsiders, but if we look just at those with starting prices of 20/1 or shorter, we see a stronger record:

Hurldes LTO (SP 20/1 or shorter)
Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E A/E(W/P)
12 2 16.67 6 50 2.19 1.79 1.96

These 12 horses had form of 52P0012153F3.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Willie Mullins – An Off Season?

Willie Mullins has led the Irish charge to Cheltenham for a number of years. He was the leading trainer every year from 2013 to 2016 and is largely responsible for the recent Irish dominance at the festival. However, this year there his Cheltenham raiders aren’t surrounded by the usual excitement and hype. There is a general feeling that his yard never quite hit form this season, and as a result he sits third in the betting for leading trainer at the festival.

Previous Festivals – Where do the Winners Come From?

Mullins has trained 32 winners at the last 5 festivals, so it’s worthwhile to break them down in order to identify his areas of strength. I’ve divided the festival races into 7 categories:

  • Non-Handicap Novices Hurdles – the Supreme, Ballymore, Albert Bartlett, Mares Novices Hurdle and Triumph Hurdle
  • Non-Handicap Novices Chases – the Arkle, JLT, RSA and National Hunt Chase
  • Open Grade 1 Hurdles – the Champion Hurdle, Mares Hurdle and Stayers Hurdle
  • Open Grade 1 Chases – the Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase and Gold Cup
  • Handicap Chases – the Ultima, Close Brothers, Festival Plate, Kim Muir, Grand Annual
  • Handicap Hurdles – Coral Cup, Fred Winter, Pertemps, County Hurdle, Martin Pipe
  • Other – Bumper, Cross Country, Foxhunters
Non-Hcp Novices Hurdle Non-Hcp Novices Chase Grade 1 Open Hurdle Grade 1 Open Chase Handicap Hurdle Handicap Chase Other
2018 wins 1 2 2 0 1 0 1
2017 wins 2 1 1 1 1 0 0
2016 wins 3 1 2 1 0 0 0
2015 wins 1 3 2 0 2 0 0
2014 wins 2 0 1 0 1 0 0
Total wins 9 7 8 2 5 0 1

So, a few points worth noting:

  • Mullins has had 16 wins in the non-handicap novice races over the last 5 years – in other words, he has trained 16 of the 43 winners of these races in the last 5 years.
  • He has had just 5 wins in handicaps, and no wins in handicap chases.
  • He has had 10 wins in open grade one hurdles and chases, and his other win came in last year’s Bumper.

Novices

It would seem that Mullins’ key strong point is, unsurprisingly, the level-weight novice contests. In the Supreme, Arkle, National Hunt Chase, Ballymore, RSA, JLT, Mares Novices Hurdle, Triumph and Albert Bartlett, he has trained 18.4% of the total field in the last 5 years. His horses accounted for 37.2% of the total winners in that period of time. Mullins trained 27.6% of the horses to make the frame in the last 5 years (including winners).

However, the general consensus seems to be that these wins followed seasons of domination in Ireland, and that the horses were well fancied and in good form when Cheltenham came around. I want to weigh up how Mullins’ novices are performing this season compared to past seasons, so I’m going to look at how his novice hurdlers and chasers performed in graded level-weight contests in past seasons before the month of March. Firstly, his novice hurdlers (note that this doesn’t include juvenile hurdles):

Mullins Novice Hurdlers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 25 9 36 14 56
2014-15 31 10 32 16 52
2015-16 27 14 52 18 67
2016-17 30 8 27 14 47
2017-18 31 8 26 11 35
2018-19 31 8 26 12 39

The 2015-16 season was a standout one in terms of novice hurdlers – Mullins won 14 graded events in Ireland before heading to Cheltenham, with over half of his runners in these races winning. However, the following 2 seasons were slightly lower with 8 winners each year before Cheltenham. This season has actually seen the same number of winners to date.

Looking at novice chasers next:

Mullins Novice Chasers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 16 5 31 8 50
2014-15 26 10 38 17 65
2015-16 16 8 50 8 50
2016-17 22 6 27 9 41
2017-18 25 6 24 11 44
2018-19 20 6 30 10 50

It’s the 2014-15 season that was the standout this time, but again Mullins has trained the same number of winners in these races as he did in the previous two years. In fact, he has done so with slightly fewer horses, so his win rates (and win/place rates) are actually slightly superior this year to anything else we’ve seen since the 2015-16 season.

These numbers alone tell us that Mullins isn’t having that much of an “off season”. However, a closer look at this year’s winners to date might. I’ve listed the winners in the 2018-19 season below in all cases where they appear towards the top of the festival markets:

  • Cadmium – 20/1 Grand Annual
  • Voix Du Reve – 25/1 Arkle
  • Camelia De Cotte – 33/1 Arkle, 25/1 JLT
  • Ballyward – 6/1 National Hunt Chase
  • Sancta Simona – 12/1 Mares Novices Hurdle
  • Aramon – 12/1 Supreme, 25/1 Ballymore
  • Klassical Dream – 8/1 Supreme

Some of these horses accounted for more than one of the wins in the tables, and some other winners are out for the season and won’t be heading to Cheltenham. This list tells a fairly different story to the tables – Mullins’ horses may be winning races, but they’re certainly not well fancied for festival races. The fact that Ballyward (second favourite for the four-miler at 6/1) is Mullins’ leading hope in the novice contests according to current prices is fairly damning considering the fact that he trained the Supreme favourite or joint favourite in each of the last 4 renewals, and that all of them were shorter than 4/1. He also trained the Arkle favourite in 4 of the last 5 renewals, and 3 of these were odds-on. This year, his leading Supreme contenders sit 3rd and 5th in the market at 8/1 and 12/1, and his leading contender in the Arkle is fourth in the betting at 13/2.

These are just two examples of races in which Mullins doesn’t seem to have the same strength as in past years. Another is the Mares Novices Hurdle – he has trained all 3 winners of the race, each of them the favourite at odds of 4/7, 11/8 and 8/11. This year, his top contender is probably Sancta Simona who can be backed at 16/1, putting her around 10th in the market (although she is as short as 8/1 with one firm).

In short, I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that Mullins is having an “off season” as a whole – we’ve seen that his success in big novice races has been on a par with the last few seasons, and his win strike rate in all Irish races so far this season (25.08%) is more or less on a par with where he finished up last season (26.6%), even if they are below the 3 seasons before last (33.75, 33.21 and 31.52). However, it seems unlikely that his success at the Cheltenham festival (with novices at least) will match that of previous seasons.

The Positives – Handicap Hurdles

So, are there any positives to be taken from this? Well, there is one area which isn’t necessarily associated with Mullins, but in which he has excelled over the years – handicap hurdles. He hasn’t always aimed a large number of runners at these races (from 2007 to 2012 he had an average of just over 3 runners per year, including none in 2008 and 1 in 2009). However, he was nevertheless successful, with 3 winners and another 2 places from his 20 runners in that period. In recent years he has aimed more runners at the handicap hurdles – he has had 55 runners in these races in the last 5 years. His win rate has been relatively low by his own high Cheltenham standards, with 9 winners from these 55 runners (a 9% strike rate with 1.27 A/E) and a further 7 places (a 22% W/P strike rate). The 1.27 A/E is the more interesting point – despite Mullins’ high profile, his horses in these races don’t tend to be as heavily backed as in grade one contests – Bleu Berry was 20/1 when winning the Coral Cup last year, and Arctic Fire was the same price when he won the County Hurdle the previous year off top weight.

An interesting angle is that all of these winners and placed horses ran in a graded race last time out – if we focus just on horses which ran in graded hurdles last time out, it makes the record even more impressive:

Mullins Hcp Hurdlers (Ran in Graded Hurdle LTO)

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
36 5 14 12 33 71.53 1.81

I’ve broken this down a bit more with a few other angles, which can be seen below:

Location of Prep Run

Track Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Leopardstown 15 3 20 5 33 50.87 2.56
Clonmel 3 1 33 2 67 11.59 1.96
Other 18 1 6 5 28 9.07 0.93

As ever, a Leopardstown prep run is proven to be valuable experience heading towards the festival. Interestingly, Clonmel has also produced a winner and a runner-up from 3 runners. Both of these (Don Poli when he won the Martin Pipe in 2014 and Roi Des Francs when finishing 3rd in the same race the following year) ran in the Surehaul Mercedes Benz Novices Hurdle, a grade 3 3m novices hurdle run at Clonmel in February. Battleford took the same route to the Martin Pipe in 2017 but only managed 8th.

Graded or Listed Winner?

Won at Listed Level or Above?

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Yes 19 4 21 7 37 79.36 2.9
No 15 1 7 5 33 -5.83 0.82

4 of Mullins’ 5 handicap hurdle winners had previously won a graded or listed contest, as had another 3 placed horses.

Which Race?

Race Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Coral Cup 18 1 6 3 17 13.29 0.89
Fred Winter 5 0 0 0 0 -5 0
Pertemps 1 0 0 0 0 -1 0
County Hurdle 18 2 11 6 33 34.48 1.71
Martin Pipe 13 2 15 3 23 10.76 1.57

An obvious question to ask is which handicap hurdles Mullins’ horses are being aimed at and are winning – it’s clear that he doesn’t tend to run many horses in the Fred Winter or Pertemps, but does run them in the Coral Cup, Martin Pipe and County Hurdle.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Can a 4-Year-Old Win the Supreme?

One pressing issue this year ahead of the first race of the festival is likely to be the presence of a four-year-old runner. This occurrence isn’t unheard of – there was one last year – but the increased significance this year is understandable, given the fact that Khudha went off at a price of 200/1 last year and finished down the field, as, with no disrespect to the horse or connections, would have been expected. Before that, the last 4yo to run was the admittedly smart Marsh Warbler who had won a grade one juvenile hurdle but went off at 22/1 and was out of his depth, finishing down the field in a Supreme featuring the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card and Al Ferof.

This year, however, Joseph O’Brien has dominated the Irish juvenile scene and with Sir Erec proving a worthy Triumph favourite in an impressive win at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival, it’s looking increasingly likely that stablemate Fakir D’Oudairies, who won the Triumph trial on Cheltenham Trials Day with ease, will be re-routed to the Supreme in order to keep O’Brien’s runners apart. So, the question arises again this year, can a four-year-old win the Supreme?

At first glance the record of juveniles in the Supreme looks poor – three horses have tried it in the last 10 years, finishing 13th, 11th and 9th. If we look back over the last 20 years, 15 4-year-olds have gone to the race and only one has won, with another one making the frame. The winner in question was Hors La Loi III in 1999, and the runner-up was Binocular in 2008. They went off at 9/2 and 8/1 respectively, making them two of just three four-year-olds to run in the Supreme at single-figure starting prices in the last two decades.

In short, the form of 4yo’s in the race in the last 20 years looks dire (01F009007002900) but this may be misleading – the form of 4yo’s at single-figure prices is 129.

Admittedly, we’re looking at a very small sample size here, and there may be some logic behind the idea that a 4yo isn’t ideally suited to this test. To my mind, the Supreme is a race for as an experienced horse. This is looked into in detail elsewhere, but to summarise, horses with at least 4 starts over hurdles (in the UK or Ireland) have outperformed those with 3 or less in the last 10 years:

Runs over Hurdles Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
1-3 92 2 2.17 14 15.22 -83.76 0.3
4+ 69 8 11.59 16 23.19 50.03 1.52

The two winners with 1-3 hurdles starts before running in the Supreme were Douvan and Vautour, each of whom had run twice in France over hurdles before arriving in Closutton. This seems to be a very strong stat, with the majority of runners in the Supreme in the last 10 years not having had as much hurdling experience as would be desired. To me this is a major negative for this year’s favourite Angels Breath who has run once over hurdles and missed his planned second start due to the influenza. At the time of writing it’s unclear whether he will get a prep run before the festival, but even if he does, he will only have run in two races over hurdles.

Compare this to horses in the field such as Aramon (6 races over hurdles including a win and a second place in a grade one hurdle), Klassical Dream (7 starts over hurdles including a grade one win) and Elixir De Nutz (6 starts over hurdles including a grade one win) and 4/1 seems a very short price for the favourite.

In short, I believe heavily in the idea that experience is a big advantage in a Supreme. With this in mind, I’d be probably be against a lot of four-year-olds running in the race. However, Fakir D’Oudairies has not only run in four races over hurdles (two since he arrived in Joseph O’Brien’s yard and two in France) but also in two chases in France. He’s not lacking in experience, and for this reason I wouldn’t necessarily discard him in a Supreme based solely on his age.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Cheltenham Handicaps – Spread of the Weights

With the popularity of the festival increasing, there’s extremely high demand to run horses not just in the graded races but also in the handicaps. This means that a lot of handicaps are contested by horses who are good enough to win at graded level, and the ratings can be fairly compressed, ultimately making the actual weights less significant than they are at other meetings. The market possibly hasn’t caught on to this yet, so horses in the top half of the weights can be under-bet as punters prefer something which is theoretically better treated. It’s worth looking at each handicap individually and seeing the spread of the weights. This allows you to determine the relative significance of the weight being carried by horses.

Although every year will be different, so we’ll only know for certain about the spread of the weights in this year’s handicaps when they’re released, it’s worth looking back on previous years to look at the patterns:

The Festival as a Whole

The method of looking at the spread of the weights is simple – just take the top OR in a race, compare it to the bottom OR and find the difference between the two. The average difference between top and bottom OR in last year’s 10 handicaps was 16.5, and this has been fairly steady over the last few years:

Average Difference by Year
Year Avg Dif
2018 16.5
2017 16.1
2016 14.7
2015 15.2
2014 16.7
Overall Average 15.84

It’s worth trying to put this into context, and to do so I’ve looked at the average difference between top OR and bottom OR in two top meetings this year either side of the Irish Sea, each of which hosted 5 handicaps – Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival and Kempton’s Christmas meeting.

Leopardstown DRF 2019
Race Bottom OR Top OR Difference
0-150 2m Hcp Hdl 120 148 28
0-150 2m1f Hcp Ch 113 141 28
2m2f Mares Hcp Hdl 112 133 21
0-150 3m Hcp Hdl 119 139 20
2m5f Hcp Ch 130 150 20
Average Difference 23.4
Kempton Christmas 2018
Race Bottom OR Top OR Difference
Nvc Hcp Ch 121 137 16
2m5f Hcp Hdl 122 142 20
3m Mares Hcp Hdl 120 142 22
3m Hcp Ch 120 144 24
2m Hcp Hdl 114 142 28
Average Difference 22

Both of these are notably higher, so the theory stands (not that we needed much proof, as it’s an easy observation to make) – as more and more horses are campaigned towards festival handicaps, the ratings tend to be more compressed and therefore so are the weights. This also acts as a good reference point – 3 of these 5 races had ratings spreads of 28, and the average difference of the 10 races was 22.7.

Race by Race

Cheltenham does host 10 handicaps over the week, though, and it’s not much use to evaluate them all as a whole. So, I’m going to look at which handicaps have the highest average differences and which have the lowest. In theory, this should show us which handicaps should be looked at as handicaps in the traditional sense (assessing a horse’s capability and comparing this to the mark given by the handicapper) and which should be analysed similarly to level-weights races.

Festival Plate
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 137 155 18
2017 133 158 25
2016 135 157 22
2015 137 155 18
2014 131 157 26
Average Difference 21.8
Ultima
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 137 155 18
2017 134 155 21
2016 131 153 22
2015 133 155 22
2014 129 151 22
Average Difference 21
Coral Cup
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 135 153 18
2017 136 156 20
2016 139 158 19
2015 138 158 20
2014 135 154 19
Average Difference 19.2
County Hurdle
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 133 154 21
2017 134 158 24
2016 138 152 14
2015 134 146 12
2014 132 154 22
Average Difference 18.6
Grand Annual
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 139 154 15
2017 135 154 19
2016 137 152 15
2015 130 153 23
2014 136 154 18
Average Difference 18
Pertemps
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 135 155 20
2017 137 147 10
2016 135 154 19
2015 135 152 17
2014 135 148 13
Average Difference 15.8
Kim Muir (Max 145)
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 119 145 26
2017 133 145 12
2016 134 145 11
2015 130 145 15
2014 131 144 13
Average Difference 15.4
Fred Winter
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 126 139 13
2017 124 139 15
2016 128 142 14
2015 129 139 10
2014 127 139 12
Average Difference 12.8
Martin Pipe (Max 145)
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 136 144 8
2017 135 145 10
2016 135 142 7
2015 135 144 9
2014 133 146 13
Average Difference 9.4
Close Bros (Max 145)
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 137 145 8
2017 137 142 5
2016 136 140 4
2015 134 140 6
2014 131 140 9
Average Difference 6.4

So, the Ultima, the Plate, the Coral Cup, the County Hurdle and the Grand Annual, although below the averages set by the Leopardstown and Kempton meetings, can probably still be described as true handicaps, for now anyway. The Pertemps and the Kim Muir are good examples of how much the ratings spread can change from year to year – last year they were 20 and 26 respectively, placing an emphasis on the ratings given to the horse by the handicapper, whereas in 2017 they were 10 and 12 respectively. The Fred Winter, the Martin Pipe and the Close Brothers Handicap Chase tend to have very low spreads, so really the handicap shouldn’t be the main priority when assessing those races.

Application

So how can this information actually be applied to our betting at the festival? Well, my theory would be that a large number of punters haven’t factored this into their analysis, and therefore the market hasn’t factored it in to the odds. Handicaps are viewed as handicaps, and the traditional method of assessing a horse’s chance of winning a handicap is to treat the weight it’s carrying as a key factor, if not the key factor. Punters love to latch on to the idea of a plot horse who has been overlooked by the handicapper – if the weights are less important in races like the Fred Winter, Close Brothers and Martin Pipe, then these horses should be over-bet and those at the top of the weights should be under-bet, therefore representing value.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Arkle Chase – An Overview

Strong Favourites in Recent Years

In the last few years, the Arkle has become a difficult race to assess based on stats from past renewals. The race has generally been very predictable with the best horse winning, meaning that it’s hard to find a clever angle based on past results.

When looking at this year’s race, it has to be considered that the market at the time of writing looks very different than it has in the last couple of years. In 6 of the last 7 years, we’ve had an odds-on favourite (and all 6 of these have won). It’s unlikely that we’ll have a similarly short-priced contender this year, with the Arkle looking a relatively open race. Nothing has dominated the division in either the UK or Ireland as much as Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Un De Sceaux, Douvan, Altior or Footpad did in previous years. These odds-on favourites have also tended to scare away the opposition – the average number of runners in the last 7 renewals was just 7.7 – there were less than 8 runners in 4 of the last 7 years, meaning that this hasn’t really been a race for each-way bettors.

Of course, odds-on favourites aren’t the only reason for these decreasing field sizes. The JLT Chase over 2m 5f was introduced for horses which would likely be aimed at mid-distance chases such as the Ryanair the following season, meaning that we have less horses running in the Arkle which are suited to further than 2 miles but aren’t quite up to the test of the RSA. This has meant that Arkle winners aren’t generally horses which could stay further – it’s more about speed than stamina.

Unbeaten Record

In the first grade one race covered, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, I looked at how an unbeaten record over hurdles isn’t necessarily a massive plus. The Arkle is a different story. Any horse which has been unbeaten in at least 3 starts over fences have performed excellently here:

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Unbeaten in 3+ chasing starts 9 5 55.56 6 66.67 4.74 1.36
100% W/P rate in 3+ chasing starts 21 6 28.57 9 42.86 -0.3 1.19

However, although the A/E suggests that these horses have outperformed market expectations, they haven’t exactly been massive prices – 4 of the 5 winners were odds-on favourites (Footpad, Altior, Douvan and Sprinter Sacre) and the form of odds-against horses which fit this criteria reads 12454 (not massively impressive considering the small fields that we’re dealing with). It might be worth noting that only 2 horses have run here having been unbeaten in 4 or more starts over fences, and both have won (Altior and Sizing Europe, who was 6/1).

However, the key to this stat might be fallers. It’s not at all uncommon for a novice chaser to fall at some stage over fences as their jumping improves with every run. If we look at horses which finished in the top 2 on all completed chase starts, allowing for horses which fell, unseated, slipped up or were brought down, the number of runners increases to 59 (63% of the total field), the number of winners increases to 10 (100% of the total field) and the number of places (including wins) increases to 22 (85% of the total places). This would suggest a significant over-performance from horses which have run consistently well over fences with no shock defeats, with the exception of the occasional jumping error bringing them to a halt.

Course Form

As this is a novice chase, there have been plenty of opportunities for horses to have had a run at the track in the past. In fact, over two thirds of the field in the last 10 years had done so. These accounted for 9 of the last 10 winners:

Ran at Cheltenham? Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Yes 66 9 13.64 21 31.82 10.36 0.96
No 27 1 3.7 5 18.52 -25.28 0.47

Like the last stat, this could just be indicative of the fact that the best horse tends to win. Those which were top-class hurdlers would probably been aimed at either a Supreme Novices Hurdle or Ballymore Novices Hurdle, or, if they had two seasons over hurdles, a Champion Hurdle in the past. This experience at the track seems to be a plus. The A/E isn’t particularly high, but we wouldn’t expect it to be considering the fact that these horses accounted for about 71% of the total field in the last 10 years. A simpler way of looking at the over-performance of these horses may be that they took up 71% of the total field and 81% of the total places (including 90% of the winners).

Won Last Time Out

Last start Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Won 47 9 19.15 16 34.04 22.64 1.07
Won or placed 62 10 16.13 18 29.03 16.09 1.04
Unplaced 31 0 0 8 25.81 -31 0

We can see a bit of an over-performance here from the horses which won last time out. They made up 51% of the total field but filled 62% of the total places. Those which made the frame last time out did account for 100% of the winners, but the W/P stat is probably more telling – they only marginally over-performed in terms of wins and places, filling 69% of the total places from 67% of the total field. So, the focus should probably be on horses which come into the race off the back of a win.

Grade One Form

All of the stats thus far have shown that in recent Arkles, the cream has risen to the top. This can be seen clearly in the next stat, which shows the performance of grade one winners. However, I’ve included not just the winners of grade one chases, but of grade one hurdles and even bumpers too:

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Grade One Winners 28 7 25 13 46.43 -4.34 1.05

The reason that this particular angle may be interesting is that it has not only covered the odds-on favourites which won in recent years, but also some over-performing outsiders. Sizing John was 2nd in 2016 at 9/1 and Gods Own was 2nd in 2015 at 33/1, for example. Narrowing it down to horses priced at 5/1 or higher, we see the win strike rate decreasing, but the win/place strike rates remaining relatively high:

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
5/1+ Grade One Winners 16 2 13 6 37.5 -0.02 1.32

Looking back at last year’s renewal, Footpad was a very impressive winner under an expert ride from Ruby Walsh. He was hardly a shock winner, having won a beginners’ chase in Ireland and then two grade one novice chases before coming to Cheltenham. The brilliance he was showing over fences was far greater than the ability that he had shown over hurdles, where he was a good enough horse to compete in grade ones but not quite good enough to win them – his form figures in graded contests over smaller obstacles read 313F4243. Altior and Douvan were different – both had won a Supreme Novice Hurdle and were by the far best 2 mile hurdlers the previous season.

Hurdling Form

Hurdling form is a very good indicator of which horses have the most class, and the market has undoubtedly caught on to this. However, every year we see horses which can increase by a stone when switching to fences and this may well be the case in this year’s market. Lalor and Kalashnikov head the market (the former won the grade one Top Novices Hurdle at Aintree’s Grand National meeting last year and the latter finished 2nd in the Supreme). Behind them in the betting are Le Richebourg (not a grade one winner over hurdles) and Dynamite Dollars (who won just twice over hurdles, in a class 3 and a class 4). It’s possible that horses such as these may be underrated by the market, which seems to be turning a blind eye to the fact that Lalor and Kalashnikov have both put in disappointing performances over fences.

The Supreme Novices Hurdle – An Overview

A Messy Race?

The Supreme has a bit of a reputation for being a big, unpredictable race but field sizes are actually decreasing. The average field size in the 10 years from 1998-2008 (no race in 2001) was 21.5 (including 30 runners in 1998). In the last 10 years, it has decreased to 16.1. Last year was a relatively large field of 19 runners, but in the 5 years before that, the field sizes were 12, 18, 12, 14 and 14. The smaller field can mean that it’s not a particularly messy race – there have only been 3 fallers in the last 10 years, whereas in the 10 years before that, there were 12.

Speed or Stamina?

The race is usually run at a serious pace so horses obviously need to have a high cruising speed in order to avoid being run off your feet in the first half of the race. However, the pace at which the race is run tends to turn it into a test of stamina and this is an interesting paradox. Throughout the season, there tends to be a lot of talk about whether a novice “has the speed for a Supreme” or “has the stamina for a Ballymore”. However, looking at past renewals, the longer race has often been won by horses which turned out to be 2 mile hurdlers, whilst plenty of Supreme runners have gone on to be successful stayers (even Gold Cup winners – Kicking King was 2nd in a Supreme and won the Gold Cup two years later).

Unexposed v’s Form in the Book

Most years, we’ll have hype horses or ones which are supposedly showing massive potential at home. These might be French imports who haven’t been run in top races in the UK or Ireland but have a lot of excitement surrounding them. However, there is a tendency to fall for this type of hype. This has been heightened by the fact that French imports Vautour and Douvan were extremely impressive winners for Mullins in 2014 and 2015 – however, we have to remember that both of them had won graded novice hurdles in Ireland before coming to Cheltenham. Two years later, Melon came to the Supreme having only won a maiden hurdle and was beaten (albeit in a bit of a shock result with Labaik winning the race).

So, graded form is very important. 19 horses have come into the race in the last 10 years having won a grade one hurdle in the UK or Ireland. 3 of them won (27% win strike rate) and another 4 made the frame (63.64% win/place rate). Grade one winning novice hurdlers don’t run every year – there were none in 2017 – but in last year’s race the two horses which fit the bill were Summerville Boy (won at 9/1) and Megli Khan (3rd at 14/1). In 2016, there was Bellshill (13th of 14 but his form in general would suggest that the track itself might be an excuse for this) and is 2015 the grade one winners were Sizing John (3rd at 25/1) and L’Ami Serge (4th at 7/2). This possibly shows that the market does underestimate these grade one winners who in theory have the best credentials.

Unbeaten Hurdlers

There are also runners each year who have been visually impressive and consistent, but with doubts over what they have beaten. Horses with a 100% record over hurdles (from at least 3 starts over hurdles in the UK or Ireland) have a record of 2 wins and a further 4 places from 13 runners – that’s a 15.38% win rate and a 46.15% win/place rate. Of the 13, 9 were single-figure prices, and the list includes 2 beaten favourites (as well as one winning favourite in Vautour, who was a grade one winner over hurdles). If we eliminate the grade one winning hurdlers from the list, we see that it’s down to 9 runners with 1 winner and 2 other places. In other words, grade one hurdling form is a massive plus, whereas an unbeaten record over hurdles isn’t quite as important.

Recent Form

So, 100% win records aren’t overly important, but what about recent form? The table below first shows the record of horses which won last time out, and then narrows this down to horses which won a graded hurdle last time out:

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Won last time out 72 8 11.11 23 31.94 -1.24 1.02
Won graded hurdle LTO 26 6 23.08 16 61.54 28.42 1.29

Horses which won last time out made up 8 of the last 10 winners and 23% of the total places (winners and placed horses) on offer. However, they did account for over 45% of the runners in the last 10 years. If we narrow this down to horses which won a graded hurdle last time out, we still find 6 of the last 10 winners, but from just 16% of the total field (these horses made up 53% of the total places). The horses which won a graded hurdle last time out exceeded the expectations placed upon them by the market (based on the last figure in the table, A/E).

The latter group could be broken down further, to look into the never-ending competition between the British and the Irish at the festival. So, is it better to have won that last graded hurdle in Ireland or in Britain?

Won a graded hurdle last time out…
Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
… in Ireland 11 4 36.36 9 81.82 20.05 1.6
… in GB 15 2 13.33 7 46.67 8.38 0.93

The Irish runners who meet this criteria perform significantly better than the English, not only based on win strike rates and place strike rates, but also based on profit/loss figures at BFSP and the degree to which they outperformed the expectations of the market.

Britain v’s Ireland

This is backed by a preference for all horses which had their prep run in Ireland, but the difference in performance in the two groups isn’t as strong when we compare all runners in the last 10 years based on which country their final run before the festival took place:

Location of Prep Run Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Ireland 57 5 8.77 13 22.81 14 0.9
UK 104 5 4.81 17 16.35 -47.73 0.78

Hurdling Experience

Each year, we get a number of horses coming into the race with minimal experience over hurdles (just taking into account their runs over hurdles since they came to the UK or Ireland). These can often be quite high-profile horses. In 2017, Melon aimed to be the first horse since 1992 to win it after just one run over hurdles. Last year, Getabird came into the race after just two hurdles starts, as did Debuchet. The former went off a short favourite but both were beaten. Douvan, also from the Mullins yard, was an exception to this rule, having run just twice over hurdles (in Ireland at least) before winning the race in 2015. However, the record of horses with three or less starts over hurdles is far inferior to that of horses with 4 or more starts:

Runs over Hurdles Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
1-3 92 2 2.17 14 15.22 -83.76 0.3
4+ 69 8 11.59 16 23.19 50.03 1.52

On every single statistic, the more experienced horses outperform those with less experience. For anybody who may be wondering about the record of horses with exactly 3 hurdles starts (as this may seem a satisfactory number), I’ve added the record below:

Runs over Hurdles Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
3 41 1 2.44 7 17.07 -36.19 0.35

These horses made up about half of those with less than 4 starts over hurdles and performed no better than those with 1 or 2 previous starts over hurdles. The interesting thing is that these horses with just 1-3 starts over hurdles have included horses at short prices such as, to name just a few, Cue Card (7/4 favourite), Galileos Choice (6/1 favourite), Lami Serge (7/2), Min (15/8 favourite) and the aforementioned Melon (3/1 favourite) and Getabird (7/4 favourite). Of course, they do also include two winners – Vautour (7/2 favourite) and Douvan (2/1 favourite). There are exceptions to every rule, and both of these horses had run twice over hurdles in France before arriving in Willie Mullins’ yard. Overall, it looks like horses without the experience over hurdles are worth taking on.

Trainers

Willie Mullins has won the Supreme 3 times in the last 10 years and so is the obvious starting point when discussing trainers. He is also the trainer who has run the most horses (27 runners in the last 10 years – the next highest is Nicky Henderson with 18).

Trainer Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Willie Mullins 27 3 11.11 6 22.22 -13.1 0.87

Along with his 3 winners, Mullins has also had another 3 horses placed in the race, including the runner-up in both 2016 and 2017. However, it is worth noting that both of these 2nd-placed horses were favourites (Melon and Min) and both did come up short.

Gordon Elliott has had just 4 Supreme runners in the last 10 years, but they included a winner (Labaik in 2017) and a runner-up (Mengli Khan in 2018). Tombstone also finished just outside the places in the famously competitive 2016 Supreme, making Elliott’s form in the race 7413.

Trainer Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Nicky Henderson 18 1 5.56 9 50 -12.31 0.51

Nicky Henderson’s win strike rates may not be as impressive as Mullins’ (1 win from 18 runners) but his win/place rates are outstanding (9 from 18). His overall form in the last 10 years reads 8U4032928232431635. If we narrow this down to his top-string each year (based on SP’s), the form reads 8422234135 – in other words, his horses have been incredibly consistent and are almost always there or thereabouts. The market hasn’t necessarily caught on to this – his top string horses in the last 10 renewals are listed below, along with their starting prices:

No other trainer has had more than one placed finisher in the last 10 years. However, the other trainers who have had at least 5 runners in the last 10 years are listed below:

Trainer Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
David Pipe 6 0 0 0 0 -6 0
Phillip Hobbs 6 1 16.67 1 16.67 10.56 2.94
Paul Nicholls 5 1 20 1 20 5.64 2.13
Colin Tizzard 5 0 0 0 0 -5 0
Alan King 5 0 0 1 20 -5 0

The Ideal Candidate

Based on the findings above, we could in theory create a “profile” for the ideal candidate for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Of course, it’s rare that we’d find a horse which ticks all of the boxes, but it is worth making out such a profile in order to keep an eye on Supreme contenders over the coming months and speculate over which horses might end up fitting the bill. Our ideal profile would look something like this:

  • Grade 1 winner over hurdles
  • Won a graded hurdle last time out
  • At least 4 starts over hurdles

There have only been 5 horses which met these 3 criteria over the last 10 years (considering we’re focusing on hurdles starts in just the UK and Ireland). These were Dunguib (3rd in 2010), Marsh Warbler (11th in 2011), Jezki (3rd in 2013), Champagne Fever (1st in 2013) and Summerville Boy (1st in 2018).

The main factor which narrows down the field here is the grade one win over hurdles. There are only a limited number of opportunities for a horse to pick up a grade one win over hurdles before the Supreme – the Challow Novices Hurdle over 2m 5f (won by Champ), the Tolworth Hurdle (won by Elixir De Nutz), the Royal Bond Novices Hurdle (won by Quick Grabim), Future Champions Novice Hurdle (won by Aramon) and the Slaney Novices Hurdle over 2m 4f (won by Battleoverdoyen). Still to be run at the Dublin Racing Festival are a 2m 6f novice hurdle and a 2m novice hurdle. It’s likely that only the latter will be of any significance to the Supreme, while the winners of the Challow and the Slaney Novices Hurdle are unlikely to run here.

So, so far this season our grade one-winning contenders are Elixir De Nutz, Quick Grabim and Aramon. Interestingly, all of these have run in at least 4 races over hurdles – 6, 6 and 5 respectively. Elixir De Nutz goes straight to Cheltenham so you would imagine that he will be our first definite contender. Quick Grabim has been ruled out with a setback. Aramon is currently 2/1 favourite for the grade 1 2m novice hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival and this would be an obvious stepping stone to the Supreme.