Festival season is almost upon us once more, dear reader, and the first - and perhaps finest - of the fiestas of jump racing, is the Cheltenham Festival. And today, I've got a full analysis of the handicap chases to be run next week. I've also gotÂ news of a 'sensible' betting system, which relaunches today. You can read about that further down this post.
As well as the Championship events, and the champion novice races, there is also a series of handicaps over both hurdles and fences. It is the latter group of races - handicap chases - that will be our focus here.
There are six handicap chases amongst the 26 Festival races, but we'll exclude the Cross Country Handicap Chase from consideration here, as we consider the others collectively.
The cross country chase is different from the others inasmuch as it is rarely run as an end-to-end gallop and, as such, the effect of weight is far less material than, say, proven ability in such races. (Two of the five winners shouldered top weight, and the same trainer - Enda Bolger - has trained all bar one of the winners).
Looking at the other quintet as a group, some key pointers emerge.
Firstly, weight is clearly a factor. Just as the Grand National brings together battle-hardened chasers, and makes it very difficult for the highest rated - and weighted - to get competitive, so the Festival handicaps present problems for those lugging the largest lumps of lead.
Indeed, since 1996, only eight of the 53 handicap chases were won by horses carrying 11-00 or more. Of those eight, half were in the amateur riders' race, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup.
So look toward the lower end of the handicap to find the bulk of the winners.
Again, despite the omnipotence of the Irish runners in the Cross Country Handicap Chase, the Emerald Isle invading party has a fairly moderate overall strike rate in Festival handicap chases.
Of those 53 races since 1996, just six have fallen to Irish trained horses. Francois Doumen has also managed a winner for France, but the other 46 winners were all British-trained.
Although horses have ranged in age from five to teenagers, in the five handicaps run on the main chase courses, there is a clear and unsurprising preference for chasers in their prime: aged between seven and ten.
No fewer than 45 of the 53 handicap chases were won by horses in that bracket. Looking specifically at the five and six year olds pitched in against their older and more experienced rivals, only 8/1 Chapoturgeon last year has prevailed from the 31 to try. And that, naturally enough, was in the novices' handicap chase. Plenty of fancied runners have been usurped from the junior brigade. Eighteen of those 31 started at odds of 14/1 or shorter.
So that's the story collectively. But what should we be looking for race by race?
There are two handicap chases on the first day: the William Hill Trophy over a shade beyond three miles; and the cross country chase.
The William Hill Trophy
Winners fit the Cheltenham handicap chase stereotype perfectly, with the last ten all being aged 7-10, and carrying no more than 10-12 (all were in the handicap proper though). Proven stamina is unsurprisingly a prerequisite in these fiercely contested, truly run affairs, and all bar one of the last ten winners had already won over three miles or further.
My shortlist for the race is: The Package, Khachaturian, Boychuk
Cross Country Chase
In the cross country chase, it will probably pay (though not very much) to side with the Irish, and specifically with Enda Bolger's squad. Despite inexplicably failing to get any of his five runners into the first five places in the PP Hogan Memorial, a key prep race, Bolger didn't run either Garde Champetre or L'Ami that day.
Garde Champetre will be bidding for a hat-trick in the race, with Nina Carberry on board and, along with stablemate L'Ami, they constitute my shortest of shortlists.
Wednesday is a blank day for handicap chases, but on Thursday we have the Novices' Handicap Chase, the Plate Chase, and the Kim Muir.
Jewson Novices' Handicap Chase
In the novice event, which was only introduced five years ago, the winner has again always saddled less than eleven stone. In fact, the last four winners all carried 10-11 or 10-12, and had an official rating of 133-135. Whilst that band is too prohibitive to be meaningful, we are clearly looking for a horse with some proven ability as well as further scope for improvement.
Each of the winning quintet had finished no worse than 3rd on completed starts, though it is also interesting to note that four of the five had actually fallen during their brief fencing careers.
With the exception of last year's precocious winner, Chapoturgen (a five year old), the other four winners were all aged seven.
My shortlist for the race is: Faltering Fullback, Ogee, Deal Done, Swift Counsel, Fistral Beach, Diablo
Byrne Group Festival Plate
Next up is the Byrne Group Festival Plate (formerly the Mildmay of Flete). With its intermediate distance of 2m5f, the Plate has come to be a race which favours French-bred horses. To wit, a French-bred has been in the first two in each of the last ten runnings (six winners, four runners up).
Aside from the Gallic angle, this race is tough to approach from a historical inference perspective, as winners have been aged between 5 and 11, and been weighted between 10-00 and 11-07.
This lack of predictability is reflected in the starting prices, as only one winner in the last ten returned at shorter than 12/1. That winner, Majadou in 1999, was the only winning favourite in nearly thirty years.
So, you might argue we are due a winning favourite, or you may want to look a little further down the betting market. I will take the latter approach and, as such, my shortlist looks like this: last year's winner, Something Wells, Piraya, Mister McGoldrick, Le Burf, Nikola, Magic Sky.
Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup
The amateur riders take centre stage next, when the tapes rise on the Kim Muir, and the absence of professional pilots only serves to increase the difficulty level when it comes to solving this particular equine puzzle.
History offers us little in the way of clues, aside from the fact that the last ten winners were aged 7-10 years, with nine of them between seven and nine years old.
Scratching around as we are for statistical hints here, it is probably material to note that - aside from seasonal debutant, Royal Predica - all of the remaining nine had a podium finish already that season (and eight finished first or second already).
Without too much confidence then, my shortlist for the race is: I'moncloudnine, Ma Yahab, Mark The Book, Poker De Sivola, Sherwoods Folly, Wind Instrument
Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase
All of which stat-bashing brings us to Friday and, whilst the Denman - Kauto Star Gold Cup conundrum will rightly take the vast majority of media attention, neither will pay us out at more than 4/1.
There may well be bigger betting fish to fry in the concluding handicap chase, and also the curtain call for the 2010 Cheltenham Festival, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual, over a distance of about two miles.
As the name implies, this is a race that Nicky Henderson is keen to win, as it is run in honour of his father. Since the renaming in 2005, Nicky has had a winner and three placed horses. Only once has he failed to hit the board, so I will be keeping a close eye on his entries, especially French Opera.
With this race being a speed test, it is little wonder that older horses have a poor record. Tiger Cry, as a 10yo in 2008, was the only double digit aged horse to win in the last decade, and only the third such horse to win since the race's inception in 1980.
Weight is a key factor here again, with no winner shouldering more than 10-11 since Edredon Bleu back in 1998. (He went on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase the following year, highlighting the type of class required to prevail from the top of the handicap in this contest!)
This race, along with the cross country chase, has proven the best for the Irish, with Space Trucker, Fadoudal Du Cochet, Fota Island and Tiger Cry all winning in the last ten runnings. It may be pertinent that three of these had their preparatory race over the smaller obstacles.
Moreover, to further accentuate the theme of protecting handicap marks, nine of the last ten winners had won just once or less that season. However, nine had placed once or more that season.
My shortlist for the race is: Nicanor, Awesome George, Sunnyhillboy, Nikola, Russian Flag
So those are the horses I'm looking out for in the handicap chases. In most of these races, it will pay to side with a young - but not too young - horse, who is set to carry sub-eleven stone, has had a run in the last eighty days and is relatively unexposed.
By using these filters, we might miss one of the winners, but we will also cut the field sizes down to a far more manageable size.
[This article featured in the Irish Field newspaper last weekend, 6th March]
Now then, as mentioned at the top, and as some of you are already aware, my friend and colleague, Matt Watson, relaunches his laying service today.
It's called Laying Odds On Favourites, and sort of does exactly what it says on the tin. It won't be for everyone (as I think I mentioned before), because it does require a fair amount of discipline and a mid- to long-term view on things. Obviously, with short priced favourites, they win regularly.
But, as with any laying service, the frequency of winners is only half of the relevant information. That frequency needs to be considered in the context of the average odds being laid. In other words, if I lay horses and evens and two out of every five win, I'm going to be very happy. Much happier than if I lay horses at 2/1, and one in three wins.
If that makes perfect sense to you, and you are happy enough laying horses, then check out Matt's LOF service here. He's got a very special first month offer, so you can try his premium service for almost nothing.
Two races for me in Betfair Conspiracy today - 2.40 and 3.10 at Southwell.
I'll be back on Thursday with a look at the RSA Chase, a race that I have a feeling is ripe for an upset, despite the bullish noises that Long Run is 'a machine'. For me there are numerous chinks in that one's armour...