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.

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