Thistlecrack an exception?

2016 Ryanair World Hurdle Preview

2016 Ryanair World Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips

The staying hurdle crown at Cheltenham has a new sponsor this year, Ryanair stepping into the space vacated by a bookmaker failing to sign up to ABP. That detail out of the way, it promises to be an enthralling race, as always, with a young second season hurdler carrying all before him thus far this term.

Thistlecrack, trained in the south west by Colin Tizzard, has followed a proven path to the World Hurdle as we'll discover. First, though, some trendage...

Ryanair World Hurdle Trends 2016

Eighteen years of history to go at, courtesy of horseracebase.com, encompassing all renewals since 1997 (2001 no race due to foot and mouth).

Last time out finishing position: Only one of the 64 horses to have finished out of the first four last time even managed to place here. Meanwhile, 10 winners also won last time from 72 runners (out of the 239 in total to contest since 1997). That's 56% of the winners from 30% of the runners... but a level stakes loss from backing the blindingly obvious of 21.42 units.

57% of the places were comprised of last day winners too, from the same 30% of runners, but again it would have made you poorer as a lone strategy.

Age: Horses aged six to nine have monopolized the win positions but the place story is a little more interesting. In fact, five- to seven-year-olds have won 11/18 (61%) and placed 36/54 (67%) from 56% of the runners. Eight- and nine-year-olds claimed the other seven wins and 15 of the remaining 18 places, from 80 runners (39% wins, 28% places, from 33% runners).

Days off: Whilst those to have run within two to four weeks of the World Hurdle have bagged four of the last 18, they've under-performed against numerical expectation (22% wins/26% places from 38% runners).

Those to have raced between one and two months ago took 56% of the available races (10/18) and 59% of the places (32/54) from 45% of the runners... but were still unprofitable to back.

All 18 winners since 1997, and all 54 placed horses in that time, had run within 90 days. The likes of Aux Ptits Soins, More Of That (if running here) and Kilcooley all have their work cut out, on the basis of history at least.

Distance: The World Hurdle is run over three miles, a fairly common race distance. It is somewhat surprising then to discover that eight of the last 18 winners had failed to win at that trip.

What makes this more surprising is the number of multiple winners during that time. Big Buck's won four times, Inglis Drever thrice, and Baracouda twice. Inglis Drever's initial win was his first at the trip; last year's winner, Cole Harden, had won at beyond three miles but never at that distance, and he was completing a hat-trick for first time three mile winners.

Put another way, ignoring the six times a previous World Hurdle winner (and therefore a distance winner) won again, first time three mile winners have won eight of the other twelve World Hurdles since 1997.

It's a quirky stat, but hardly a trend. Interesting, and probably of absolutely zero utility. If there is some value it is probably in not underestimating horses stepping up from around two and a half miles.

To that end, looking at horses whose previous race distance ceiling was between two and a half and two and three-quarter miles shows six winners (33%) and four further placed horses (19% placed) from just 15% of the runners in the review period. Moreover, that group was worth +31.5 units of profit, suggesting their chances are somewhat overlooked.

Irish: The lads from across the water will have plenty of winners - perhaps even one in this race - but their record since 1997 is a solitary victory (Solwhit, 2013) from 57 runners. That includes six beaten at 4/1 or shorter, and 13 overturned at 8/1 or shorter.

TRENDY SYSTEM ANGLE: Pulling a few of these together, backing a British-trained runner that finished top four last time, was aged six to nine, and ran between 31 and 60 days ago, produced nine winners from 44 runners (50% total wins from 18% total runners) and a profit at starting price of 38.21. Backing them each way when 5/1 or bigger saw 13/27 hit the frame for a profit of 40.2 units.

This year, excluding any possible supplementary entries, there are just two qualifiers: Thistlecrack and Un Temps Pour Tout. The former is favourite at around even money, while the latter has been chasing. If it came up soft and he reverted to hurdles, his price of 33/1 (non-runner no bet) would look fair value.

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Ryanair World Hurdle Preview 2016

So much for the trends, what of the form book? I suspect it may lead us unequivocally to the same Thistly Cracky place, but let's roll with the punches and see if there might be some value in the each way or 'without' markets.

We can only start in one place, that aforementioned prickly crevasse...

Colin Tizzard is a bloody good trainer, everyone knows that. His Cheltenham CV includes a Champion Bumper winner, Cue Card, who was a four-year-old at the time (rare feat, the only 4yo winner since Dato Star in 1995), and three other Cheltenham Festival wins from 64 runners.

So he knows what it takes to win at the Festival. But what of Thistlecrack? Brought on slowly by Tizzard, he'd managed just three wins in his first seven starts. However, as with many at this range, a step up in trip seemed to be his making.

Since moving up to three miles-plus, Thistlecrack has won four from five, and finished a close second in the other race. The wins in that sequence included Aintree's Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle and Ascot's Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle.

It could be argued he's been beating sub-Grade 1 horses this season - the likes of the late Deputy Dan, Ptit Zig and Reve De Sivola (on ground too quick for that one's tastes) - but it cannot be argued that he's been unimpressive.

No, he's duffed them all up out of sight, and has shown improved form each time. His official rating of 168 is ten pounds superior to that of the pre-race rating of last year's re-opposing winner, Cole Harden, and - Big Buck's aside - is higher than eight of the other ten winners since 1997 (and the same as one of the other pair).

In so doing - winning the Long Distance Hurdle, the Long Walk Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle - he has emulated the path trodden to victory by Big Buck's three times (or 2.67 times to be precise); and his impersonation of the great stayer may not yet be complete.

So the questions perhaps should be a) can Thistlecrack run to at least 168 again and, if he can/does, is there anything in the field that can surpass that mark? The answer to a) is yes, the answer to b) is probably no. Whilst not being in possession of enough tens to try to pilfer some elevens, it is very hard to bet against the Thistlecracker.

Happily, there is a 'without' betting market and, while Paddy are the only ones to have priced this up to date others are sure to follow, most likely after a decision on Annie Power's Festival destination is made.

Annie Power is second choice in the 'non runner no bet' lists and, with her holding multiple alternative engagements, that would surely be the only way to consider her chance. She's an incredible mare, having won 13 of her 15 starts. But it is noteworthy and likely not coincidental that her two defeats were at the last two Cheltenham Festivals.

In 2014, she gave More Of That a good scrap before ceding. More Of That was rated 160 beforehand and was a wildly progressive unbeaten horse going into the race (as was Annie P). He earned a rating of 169 after that effort, just a pound above Thistlecrack's current figure. Although still quoted in the World Hurdle lists, More Of That is far more likely to take in one of the novice chases in March.

Getting back to Annie Power, and we've only seen her once since May last year. That was a week ago when she did little more than prove she retains a leg in each corner by putting less than seven lengths between herself and a mare rated 130. Granted, she was eased, but maybe not so much as some might have you believe.

That she was made ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle on the back of that effort is borderline laughable and, regardless of whether she runs in and wins that race, her price of circa 2/1 is an attempt by bookmakers at daylight robbery.

Whichever way you cut it, Annie Power could win this race (on the basis that any horse can win any race), but her odds far outweigh her chance making her rank poor value in my book, for both this and the Champion Hurdle. Let's move on.

Of the probable runners, Alpha Des Obeaux is 7/1 in a place. His price owes everything to the horses by which he's been beaten, in my view. A record of three wins from nine starts, two on heavy and a very shallow maiden hurdle, is backed up by SIX second placed efforts.

Those runner-up positions included defeats to Douvan (who was heavily eased), Nichols Canyon (who won "comfortably"), Arctic Fire (who "eased clear" and won comfortably), and Prince Of Scars ("ridden out, kept on well").

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As well as those efforts - little of note running under favourable conditions in behind each time - he fell in Thistlecrack's Aintree Grade 1 when not definitely beaten; and he won last time out. There he beat At Fishers Cross, a good horse on his day - which is normally at Cheltenham, incidentally - but that hasn't won for three years, on heavy ground.

I'm not sure the ground will be right for Alpha, I'm not sure what he's beaten that has much substance, and I do not like his price one bit.

8/1 generally is last year's World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden. He was 14/1 that day and was awarded a rating of 166 when winning; he was also having his first start after a wind operation. He stays fine, jumps well and has reportedly undergone similar surgical intervention since his run in the Cleeve Hurdle on New Year's Day.

If the ground comes up on the quick side, he looks a likely podium finisher again, making 9/2 without Thistlecrack quite appetizing. His trainer, Warren Greatrex, remains in good form and the record of former winners offers further hope.

Vroum Vroum Mag is as short as 4/1 in the non runner no bet lists, and as long as 7/1 in the same (she is 12/1 all in run or not). With multiple entries elsewhere she can only be entertained with the money back safety net, but despite being unbeaten in eight UK/Irish starts, she's rated no better than 155 by the Irish 'capper. That's a stone below what's needed for this job and, though she's highly likely got more in the tank, her price is too short considering she needs to step forward so much.

Subject of plenty of money after an upbeat bulletin yesterday is Paul Nicholls' failed chaser, Saphir Du Rheu. That's a touch harsh on last year's World Hurdle second, and his trainer was in bullish mood at the annual pre-Cheltenham media morning, saying, "Saphir Du Rheu will be seen in a completely different light on better ground and is a big player. We haven't seen the best of him."

Given the horse has high class form on heavy, including when beating Whisper in the Welsh Champion Hurdle, I'm not sure I'm buying that appraisal. At the same time, his silver last season gives him a more credible chance than some at similar prices. It would be far from a shock if he makes the frame and he is one of the more legitimate middle 160 hurdlers in the field.

I'm not interested in the chance of Coral Cup winner, Aux Ptits Soins from the same stable. Given an initial UK mark of 139, he showed that was too lenient by stealing one of the most competitive handicaps of the season; but he's not been seen since and needs to show a stone and more improvement to get involved.

That's not impossible for one so unexposed - just four career starts - but I like a bit more evidence to work with and that year long absence is something very, very few horses are able to overcome to win at the Festival.

[Only Young Spartacus - 2003 - has managed to defy a layoff of 350+ days from 81 horses to try in that time. 13 of the 81 placed, however]

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Moving on down the lists, and we're into the realms of the 20/1 shots. The World Hurdle has been a race for the top of the market in recent times, but that doesn't mean we should ignore 'the field' completely. Kilcooley, for instance, has an interesting profile despite being off since the end of October.

The seven year old son of Stowaway might need some cut in the ground to show his best and, if it does come up muddy he has a chance of making it four from four in completed UK starts since bolting up in a decent Haydock handicap in December 2014. His last two UK runs - and wins - have been in Grade 2 company, the latter over three miles at Wetherby when cantering home 13 lengths clear of former Champion Hurdler, Rock On Ruby.

Even allowing for the fact that Ruby was a questionable stayer there, the form looks reasonably solid. The Wetherby win was his first start for seven months so we know he can go well fresh, and that race - the West Yorkshire Hurdle - was won last season by Cole Harden en route to World Hurdle glory.

Trainer Charlie Longsdon has reported a few niggly injuries earlier in the year, but Kilcooley seems to be over those now, his handler suggesting it's 50/50 that he will be ready in time. At 25/1 non runner no bet, this looks a bit of each way value about a horse already rated 164 - joint second highest in the field - and one that has improved from 137 in four starts.

With a lingering doubt over his participation, 10/1 in the 'without' market - which is all in run or not - makes zero appeal.

At a massive price, At Fishers Cross is not without hope. Highly impressive when winning the Albert Bartlett over course and distance at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, he's had plenty of issues since. But he's still been nursed back to sufficient health to be beaten less than seven lengths in the last two World Hurdles, finishing third in 2014 and fourth last year. With Cheltenham form of 111234, it would be no shock to see him hit the board again and he looks over-priced at 50/1.

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2016 World Hurdle Tips

Thistlecrack has a perfect profile for this, and it is very hard to crab his form. He's 11/10 but if he was trained by Willie Mullins he'd be nearer to 1/2, I guess. We know Colin Tizzard has a winning knack at Cheltenham and I think he'll win. He's obviously the most likely winner.

But if you want a bit of jam on your bread - I do - then there are other ways to play the race.

First, although the 'without Thistlecrack' market is still maturing - just one firm priced up as I write - there looks a whiff of value about Cole Harden's 9/2 there.

Then, for windmill-tilters - I'm one - there are a couple of forgotten sorts who look the wrong prices. Kilcooley will be 12/1 or so if he lines up, I'd guess; and he'll only line up if he's spot on. Otherwise connections will wait for one of the later Festival meetings. As such, 25/1 about an unexposed upwardly mobile type who is proven when fresh is perfectly playable, non runner no bet.

At the other end of the exposure spectrum, At Fishers Cross has danced with merit in this dance the last two years, and 50/1 rather overlooks that fact at a meeting where course form is perennially advantageous. Again, each way NRNB is worth a shekel or a bob, just for fun.

Most likely winner: Thistlecrack (duh!)

World Hurdle Selections

1pt win Cole Harden 'without Thistlecrack' 9/2 Paddy Power

0.5 pt e/w Kilcooley 25/1 general (ensure you bet with non-runner no bet bookmaker)

0.25 pt e/w At Fishers Cross 50/1 Skybet (non-runner no bet)

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Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews

All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here:

Cheltenham Festival 2016 Race Guide

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4 replies
  1. crgallagher93 says:

    Nice article, Matt!

    Probably fair to say that Thistlecrack is most people’s idea of the banker of the meeting now that Faugheen has been ruled out. That’s obviously reflected in his price, but I myself have combined him in multiples with a couple of other shorties in an attempt to extract some extra value.

    Like you, I think last year’s winner Cole Harden is capable of giving Thistlecrack a race, but I don’t think for one minute that he will beat him.

    Really like your write up on At Fishers Cross. I have to admit I hadn’t spotted him myself but now that you mention it 50/1 does look overpriced and it wouldn’t be a total surprise if he was to sneak into the frame.

    Connor

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Thanks Connor. As always, time will tell, but I think there are a few to be against at the top of the market (excluding ‘crack and C Harden) making for a touch of value elsewhere. The 50s is now 40s on AFC but it won’t have taken many geegeez readers to bet that price to move it. Might drift back out again yet.

      It’s a fascinating race and I tend to agree that Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Thistlecrack looks appealing at just over 4/1. Have talked myself into it!

      Matt

  2. Ben says:

    Hi Matt,

    I’m a bit surprised you’ve not mentioned whisper in the article. He seems to be aimed at this race, went close last year with a disrupted preparation (went on to win at Aintree after Cheltenham got him right). Henderson seems to think he’s right this year and has a cracking Cheltenham record. 10/1 in the without thistlecrack market seems a great price!

    Ben

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Ben

      I backed him last year when he ran his prep on 1st Jan, finishing 2nd in an aborted chase campaign.
      This year, he ran his last prep on 1st Jan, finishing pulled up in a shocking effort in the Relkeel. Prior to that he was last of five, beaten 31L, behind Thistlecrack.

      I don’t listen to trainers very much, especially not Whisper’s trainer. If he’s good enough, fair play, but there’s nothing at all in his form this season that says he should be a player, to my eye.

      Best,
      Matt

      p.s. I don’t buy the ‘better on better ground’ argument. He ran Saphir du Rheu to a neck on absolutely bottomless quag at Ffos Las, and has won three times on heavy.

      p.p.s. Readers are often “a bit surprised” when I haven’t mentioned the horse they’ve backed! 😉

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