Monday, 24th January 2022
The Cheltenham Festival is 7-weeks ahead….
It’s impractical to do all the prep for 8 to 10 handicap events a week ahead of the meeting – so I prefer to do it a little at a time in the weeks leading up to the best four days of the year….
I’ve earmarked Monday as our Festival Clues day for the next few weeks….
This week we continue with a study of the key handicap hurdle events – and how best to approach them from a field-splitting perspective….
You could make the case that the handicap races are more competitive than the championship races….
You never see a long odds-on favourite for a handicap race. You never see a horse in a handicap so far ahead of his rivals in the formbook that he’s priced up like they’ve got no chance….
In all the handicaps, a big field always goes to post. And all the horses in that field are of a similar standard....
It’s very competitive. All of them are trying. Some will have been plotted-up – held onto all season for the Festival assignment. Nothing is being saved for another day....
The pace in Festival handicaps is always red-hot – from tapes to post. No horse wins without being good enough and tough enough to repel multiple challenges. As one opponent fades, another inevitably takes its place and asks another question....
Handicaps are tough races to win. A horse can run the race of its life in a Festival handicap – and still not win. A punter can place a cracking bet at a big price and still not be rewarded with a pay-out….
But it is the live contenders at big prices that make the handicap races must-play events for me. The races are difficult puzzles to solve, but they cannot be swerved….
I don’t get involved in novice or juvenile handicap hurdle events. I prefer the open events where I know a little more about the individual runners, their quirks, preferences, and peculiarities….
None of these races is an easy puzzle to solve for punters. Quite the opposite. There are no guaranteed winners. There are no guaranteed placers. It is a case of spot the undervalued horse, take the price and then hope the horse justifies your faith on the day….
And the job is complicated further by the fact that you can’t be certain what is running until 48-hours before the off….
It doesn’t leave much time to scrutinise the form of 20-odd-runners. But at least this year (following changes made in 2018) we get two-day final declarations instead of the 24-hours we’ve had in previous years. Even the most devoted formbook aficionado struggled to do a proper form-reading job of all the runners and riders in that limited timeframe….
Ahead of time, the historic record does at least offer pointers that might come in useful when splitting fields and reducing the number of runners of interest….
I’ve been studying the last 15 renewals of the Coral Cup, the Pertemps Final and the County Hurdle – plus the 12 renewals to date of the Martin Pipe….
The situation in the handicap hurdle races at the Festival mirrors what we saw when we analysed the handicap chase events in a previous section….
The received wisdom is that you need something like a stone in hand on the handicapper to win a handicap event at the Festival….
That would mean horses officially rated 150+ would have to be 160+ in reality – and that’s rarely the case. Hence the poor record of 150+ rated horses in handicap chase events at the Festival. And hence the similar poor record of handicap hurdle horses rated 150+….
Of the 58 handicap hurdle races we’re looking at, just 4 were won by horses rated 150+....
46 of our 58 races were won by horses officially rated 134 to 149. That band – encompassing just over a stone in the weights – appears to be the most fertile soil in which to look for handicap hurdle horses this time round. Those horses are rated high-enough to get a run – but low enough to have something in hand. That’s where I’d be looking....
The statistical record suggests you can discount older horses without too many concerns. They win handicap hurdle events occasionally – no stat is completely fool-proof – but it is the exception rather than the rule. 53 of the last 58 handicap hurdle winners at the Festival were aged between 5- and 8-years-old….
Avoid too much experience. Also, steer clear of horses with too little experience – 49 of the last 58 handicap hurdle winners had raced at least 3 times over timber but no more than 14 times….
51 of our 58 winners had been off-the-track and rested for at least 20 days. A longer break is no bar to winning. 36 of our winners – more than 50% – had been off the track for 5-weeks and longer....
Willie Mullins is the man with the best record of winning Festival handicap hurdle events with horses off a 5-week+ break – he’d saddled 8 such winners at the meeting over the last 15 years....
Headgear is something a trainer can reach for to improve a horse – to squeeze a bit more out. But be aware he can also be reaching for it in desperation....
First-time headgear hasn’t been a great guide to winners in handicap hurdle events since 2007. Just 3 such races were won by a horse wearing something for the first-time….
Claimers have a better record in Festival handicaps run over hurdles than they do in the handicaps run over fences. Twelve of our 58 winners had an apprentice up....
Seven of those winners were saddled by just 3 trainers – Nicky Henderson, David Pipe and Willie Mullins. If they put a claimer on one this time round, it is worth a look....
Henderson and Pipe put plenty up and sorting the wheat from the chaff is the challenge. Mullins has the best record – 3 winners from just 13 goes with another 3 placing – making any claimer he puts up this time round very interesting indeed....
Three yards have dominated the handicap hurdle events over the last decade….
Willie Mullins has produced 10 winners and 22 placers from 112 runners. That’s a cracking effort in a series of races with fields of 20+ runners going to post....
Paul Nicholls has produced 5 winners and 14 placers from 80 runners….
Nicky Henderson has produced 6 winners and 19 placers from 121 runners….
Gordon Elliott cannot be ignored either. He’s a relative new kid on the block compared to these gnarled veterans. As such he’s had less time to build up a huge representation like Henderson….
But it hasn’t stopped him producing a stellar performance. His 67 runners to date have produced 7 wins and 21 places – so he’s already a dominant force in these races and likely to remain so for some time to come....
Last season Elliot was serving a ban that precluded him from training horses. Mrs Denise Foster oversaw the preparation of what would have been his runners. They ran under her name – but might as well have been Elliott runners. They produced 4 places from 8 runs….
Elliott is back now and deserves to be included in your shortlist of trainers whose runners are worthy of close inspection in handicap hurdle events….
Nor can Dan Skelton be overlooked with 3 winners and 4 placers from just 25 qualifying runners to date....
The stats, of course, offer no cast-iron guarantees. They merely tell us what happened in the past….
The stats can assist and guide us. They offer us a starting point. They can direct our attention to horses that tick all the right boxes – as judged by the historical record….
But you can never take the individual horse out of the equation….
When it comes down to it, the individual horse must be able to do the job in the circumstances and conditions served up on race day….
In other words, the stats do a decent job of splitting-the-field. They are the first port of call. But when it comes down to isolating your specific bet, nothing beats a detailed appraisal of the horse in question….
The stats above will lead you to handicap hurdlers worthy of that closer inspection come March....
That’s all from me for today. I’ll be back tomorrow. Meanwhile….
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Until next time. Stay tuned.