Make hay in the handicap hurdles at the Festival....

Last Updated: 07.02.2019

Thursday, 7th February 2019

Make hay in the handicap hurdles at the Festival….

No racing today. All meetings have been called-off because of a break-out of equine flu. You can keep up-to-date with developments here....

We don’t know how long this thing will last. We don’t know when racing will resume....

But the BHA are due to make some sort of statement later today. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that they’ve identified the problem early and that it can be nipped in the bud....

Meanwhile, we will continue as per normal and carry on with prep-work for next month’s Cheltenham Festival....

  • Hard to win....

To reiterate the point made in yesterday’s column: Festival handicaps are difficult races to win – for horses and for punters….

The whole of the National Hunt season pivots on the Cheltenham Festival. All roads seem to lead to Cheltenham in March. A horse can win a race in October and the first thing the pundits talk about is which race he’ll be going for at the Festival in the spring….

I’m not getting . It is what it is. I’m just making the point that the 4-day Cheltenham Festival is pretty much the focal point of the jumps game.

Everybody wants a horse to be good enough to head there. Everybody wants their horses to run well there. Everybody dreams of having a winner there.

And that’s as true with handicap horses as it is with championship horses.

  • More competitive than the championship races?

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. They are difficult puzzles to solve, but they cannot be swerved….

  • Handicap hurdle targets at the Festival….

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….

  • On day 2, we have the Coral Cup over 21-furlongs.
  • On day 3, we have the Pertemps Final for the stayers over 24-furlongs….
  • On day 4, we have the County Hurdle over 16-furlongs and the Martin Pipe over 20-furlongs for the amateur riders….

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 time-frame….

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 12 renewals of the Coral Cup, the Pertemps Final and the County Hurdle – plus the 10 renewals to date of the Martin Pipe….

  • On the official rating scale….

The situation in the handicap hurdle races at the Festival mirrors what we saw when we analysed the handicap chase events yesterday….

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 46-handicap hurdle races we’re looking at, just two were won by horses rated 150+. Just 7 were won by a horse rated 146 or higher.

37 of our 46 races were won by horses officially rated 130 to 144. That band – encompassing 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.

  • Additional field-splitting pointers….

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. 42 of the last 46 handicap hurdle winners were aged between 5- and 8-years-old….

Avoid too much experience. Also, steer clear of horses with too little experience – 39 of the last 46 handicap hurdle winners had raced at least 3 times over timber but no more than 14 times….

40 of our 46 winners had been off-the-track and rested for at least 20 days. A longer break is no bar to winning. 26 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 6 such winners at the meeting over the last 12-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 one such race was 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. Eleven of our 46 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 11 goes with another 3 placing – making any claimer he puts up this time round very interesting indeed. 

  • Yards with form….

Three yards have dominated the handicap hurdle events over the last decade….

Willie Mullins has produced 8 winners and 16 placers from 75 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 13 placers from 67 runners….

Nicky Henderson has produced 4 winners and 13 placers from 100 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 fewer representatives in these races over the last 12-years – just 45.

But he’s already bagged 5 winners and 14 places – a performance suggesting he too can be a dominant force in these races going forward....

He certainly deserves to be included in your shortlist of trainers whose runners are worthy of close inspection….

  • The last word….

That’s all from me for today.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my usual contrarian take on the weekend action – assuming we do have some racing to shoot at....

Until then. Stay tuned.

Nick Pullen

Against the Crowd