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.
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.
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:
|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…|
|… 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|
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|
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|
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.
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).
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.
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:
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.