SAINT ROI (Barry Geraghty) wins The Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle Cheltenham 13 Mar 2020 - Pic Steven Cargill / Racingfotos.com

Cheltenham Festival Handicaps: An Overview

For many punters, eyes are fixed firmly on the 2024 Cheltenham Festival as we are now literally days away, writes Dave Renham. In this article I am going to examine the Festival handicaps looking back at the most recent 15 renewals, which take us back as far as 2009. There will be nine handicap races in 2024, four over fences and five over hurdles. These handicaps are bound to be difficult puzzles to solve, unsurprisingly when one considers the number of runners that contest them: over the study period, the average field size for all handicaps has been 22.5!

So, let’s get started.

Cheltenham Festival Handicaps: Market Factors

To begin with, I want to look at the betting market. Here are the Betfair SP returns for different sections of the market:

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At this helicopter level, three things stand out for me. Firstly, the performance of favourites which, as a group, have made a profit. Secondly, the very poor performance of second and third favourites combined. And thirdly, horses priced 7th to 10th in the betting outperforming in win strike rate terms those ranked 4th to 6th. It seems that the value has been with these horses over the past 15 years. Interestingly, horses 7th to 10th in the market returned a profit in nine of the 15 Festival years.

Now, I have combined both hurdle and chase handicaps for the market stats. It is worth noting the favourite stats are quite different when we split into race type:

 

 

Handicap favourites in chases have fared well, winning better than one race in five and returning over 32p in the £. Added to that they have an excellent A/E index of 1.15. Handicap hurdle favourites have performed much less well. This is a good example of why we have to dig deeper into general stats, although we are dealing with smallish sample sizes here. Let me split the results up now starting by focusing on handicap chases.

 

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Chases

Course form

In terms of these races I want to look at whether a previous win at Cheltenham is a positive. To do that, I'll compare the A/E indices of previous Cheltenham winners with those who have not notched a success at the track. This includes all horses that have run at the track before:

 

 

There is quite a significant difference here with past Cheltenham winners the better value. They also have a better overall strike rate.

There is another group of runners that I have not shared yet, which is Cheltenham debutants: horses having their first ever run at the iconic venue. These runners have performed the poorest of all with an A/E index of just 0.63.

Country of Breeding

Next, I want to look to see if the country of breeding makes any difference. Essentially there are three main countries to look at – GB, Ireland, and France. They have provided 97% of the handicap chase runners. Be aware that the win strike rates are going to be low due to huge fields. Here are the splits:

 

 

Irish-bred runners have provided the most qualifiers and they have clearly the best record. The A/E indices for British- and French-bred runners are very low. It should be noted that this is not because handicap chases have been dominated by Irish trainers as we will see later. For the record, American-breds have won two races from 25 runners, but they have had no qualifying runners since 2017, German-breds are one from 18.

Days since last run

Is there a ‘sweet spot’ in terms of the time since the horse was last seen racing? In terms of value there does seem to be. Here are the A/E indices for different groupings. All groups contained at least 250 qualifiers meaning there was a decent sample and similar number of runners in each:

 

 

The first two columns are comfortably the highest implying that horses returning to the track within five weeks have offered the best value. These horses have combined to produce a modest, though not insignificant, 8p in the £ return on stakes. The three cohorts off the track for 36 days or more combined to lose 12p in the £. It seems in handicap chases a more recent run is favourable.

Position Last Time Out

How does last time out performance impact proceedings? Horses that won or finished second last time out (LTO) win far more often than those that finished third or worse. The strike rate comparison is 6.4% versus 3.9%. In terms of profit/loss, however, both groups made losses to Industry SP as you might expect; but LTO winners and runners-up lost 16p in the £ compared with 34p in the £ for horses that finished third or worse. When we look at Betfair SP results we see the following in terms of profit/loss to £1 level stakes:

 

 

Horses that finished first or second LTO have proved profitable to BSP. As a return on investment, this equates to 19p in the £ as opposed to losses of 17p in the £ for horses which finished third or worse LTO.

Of course, both groups have seen big priced winners pop up occasionally which one could argue has skewed both of their bottom lines. However, LTO winners/runners-up have combined to make a profit when the BSP price has been 12.0 or shorter, too. Under these price constraints they have returned just under 8 pence in the £. When we use this price limiter on horses that finished 3rd or worse LTO that group of runners produced losses of 18p in the £.

All the past evidence points to the fact that horses that finished first or second LTO should demand most of our attention when looking for handicap chase selections.

Trainers

Normally when I examine trainer data, we get some potential backing options. However, when we are dealing with competitive handicaps averaging 20+ runners, successful trainers are going to be difficult to find. Here is a list of all trainers who have had at least 25 handicap chase runners during the study period. The table is in alphabetical order:

 

 

Some big names have not managed a single winner in this timeframe including Willie Mullins and Dan Skelton. Following specific trainers in terms of backing to win looks a poor option based on the numbers we see in the table. Hence, I have looked at profit and losses to the Betfair Place market and one could argue a few trainers have the potential to be playable in that context. Here are the findings (biggest profit first):

 

 

Roughly one third of all Gordon Elliott’s Cheltenham Festival handicap chasers have finished in the first four over the past 15 years, which is quite incredible considering the fierce competition in these races. He looks a solid option backing to Betfair Place or each way with traditional bookies. Likewise, his runners should be considered if attacking the placepot.

Indeed, looking back at the bookmaker places paid last year, it's reasonable to assume six places at 1/5 odds (sometimes they paid down to 8th place). On that basis, and at Starting Price, the following returns could have been achieved - using BOG could only improve on these figures:

 

 

Naturally, there are some losing years, and 2024 may be another of those, but as part of a portfolio play, it may be worth keeping in mind.

Elsewhere, Messrs. Pipe, George, Twiston-Davies and Henderson should also not be written off in these races. Their runners would again be considerations for me, certainly as far as the placepot is concerned. One trainer that it seems sensible to steer right away from in Festival handicap chases is Paul Nicholls. Nicholls has long been one of the best trainers in the country but his record in these contests is extremely poor and offers dreadful value.

Finally on trainers, Venetia Williams' figures for both win and place have been skewed somewhat as her three winners were priced 72.43, 66.23 and 42 on the win market, 10.78, 11.88 and 7.2 on the place market. That said, the fact she's had three winners at huge prices means they're likely underestimated.

Run Style

My final port of call for the handicap chasers is run style. We have seen before in numerous articles I have written than run style can be a big factor. Below is a graph showing the A/E indices for the four individual run styles – led (L, 4 in the table below the chart), prominent (P, 3), mid division (MD, 2) and held up (HU, 1).

 

 

As we can see there is a huge bias to horses that lead early or race close to the pace. In fact, if you had been able to predict pre-race which horses would lead or race prominently you would have secured a whopping great profit on both groups to Industry SP, let alone BSP!

 

 

*in this table, the nulls are where - for much older results in our database - the run style has been impossible to score from the in-running comment. 4 is led, 3 prominent, 2 midfield, 1 held up.

There have been 12 horses that have led early and gone on to win a handicap chase at the festival since 2009 and of those, seven had led on their most recent start, while 10 had led in at least one of their last two starts. Also, nine of the 12 had ‘LTO four race pace totals’ of 12 or higher with three of them out-right top rated in terms of pace for their race. Hence, likely front runners should offer us value.

Bonus Handicap Chase Stats

I have a couple of additional handicap chase stats that I think are worth sharing.

Firstly, it looks best to ignore any horse that has failed to reach the first three in any of their last three runs. 288 handicap chasers have come to the Festival with this record and just eight have won (SR 2.8%) for BSP losses of £162.38 (ROI -56.4%).

And secondly, it is preferable to have run at Cheltenham LTO compared to many other courses. Below is a table looking at the performance of Festival handicap chasers since 2009 which had run LTO at any of Ascot, Cheltenham, Doncaster, Kempton, Leopardstown, Newbury and Sandown. These are the LTO courses that have supplied at least 100 runners:

 

 

There is a much higher strike rate for last time out Cheltenham runners but, more importantly, a small profit to BSP and a stand-out A/E index of 1.17 (next best LTO course 0.62).

*

Enough with the handicap chasers. It is time to delve into handicap hurdles now, a group in which I suspect it might be difficult to find strong positive ‘angles’ given the even bigger fields. However, I’ve been wrong many times in the past!

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Hurdles

Course form

I’ll start by once again looking at the past course form data in terms of A/E indices.

 

 

These figures are much closer than we saw with the handicap chase figures. There remains an edge to prior course winners but it is modest at best. Having said that, course winners have snuck into BSP profit, but the figures are skewed by some big priced successes.

Country of Breeding

Irish-breds were the value in handicap chases. What about over the smaller obstacles?

 

 

Irish-bred runners have again proved the best value, though not as dominant as over fences; still, they are certainly more playable than British-bred runners overall. IRE breds have also proved profitable to BSP, with nine winning years out of 15, albeit with a few big priced winners sprinkled into the mix. Such pedigrees clearly outperform their competition because if we compare Industry SP figures, Irish-breds lost only 8p in the £, but British- and French-breds lost a massive 43p and 32p in the £ respectively.

Days since last run

Will we see the same pattern that we did with handicap chasers where there seemed a value bias to horses which had run within the past five weeks (35 days):

 

 

The 50-to-77-day group here have provided the value from a win perspective. They have also provided comfortably the highest percentage of placed horses when comparing the five groups. Maybe freshening hurdlers up with this type of break is the optimum. My takeaway from this is that a medium-sized break from racing is much more a positive than a negative. Likewise, digging deeper into longer breaks, horses off the track for 91 days or more (13 weeks +) have won just three races from 181 runners with an A/E index of just 0.32.

Position Last Time Out

In handicap chases we saw that LTO winners and runners up looked the way to go taking all the data into consideration. In handicap hurdles it appears that we should primarily focus on LTO winners as the graph below illustrates when comparing A/E indices:

 

 

There is quite a significant difference in these values. Not only that, LTO winners have by far the better strike rate, both win and placed, and they have also made a blind profit to BSP. One fact to be aware of is that no LTO winner has won when returning from a layoff of 91 days or more (they are 0 from 39), correlating well with the data shared from the ‘days since last run’ section.

Trainers

Having seen the trainer data for handicap chases, I would expect a slew of low strike rates once more.  The table below is in alphabetical order with 25 runs again the minimum requirement:

 

 

Taking the group of trainers as a whole these are better figures than the chase ones. Gordon Elliott has an excellent record considering the field sizes involved, as has Dan Skelton. Alan King and the Hobbs/White combo have very poor win records, but both have been profitable backing to place on Betfair. Nigel Twiston-Davies has a poor place record on top of his 0 from 40 win performance, and might be one to swerve unless you really like one of his.

Run Style

Finally a look at the run style splits:

 

 

These are far more even than the handicap chase figures. Front runners have an edge but even if your crystal ball was in tip top shape and you had backed all early leaders pre-race, you would have made a loss to SP. Generally, looking at data for all courses, chases tend to offer front runners a much bigger edge than they do in hurdles. The Cheltenham Festival stats correlate strongly with the general findings.

Bonus Handicap Hurdle Stats

Before winding this piece up there are two additional stats I’d like to share with you regarding handicap hurdles.

Firstly, mares are rare starters in these races but when they do run, they have won 7 races from 86 for a BSP profit of £99.06 (ROI +115.2%) – their A/E index is an impressive 1.71.

Secondly, a group of horses to avoid are those aged 9 or older who have combined for just 3 wins from 203 runs, with huge losses to boot.

 

Cheltenham Festival Handicaps: Main Takeaways

This has been quite a deep dive into handicap races at the Cheltenham Festival and I hope there are some solid profit pointers in its midst. Let me finish by focusing on what I think are the key stats from each race type.

Handicap Chase Takeaways

Handicap Hurdle Takeaways

 

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The Cheltenham Festival handicaps are some of the most challenging wagering puzzles in the entire racing calendar. Finding winners is tough, and requires luck as well as good judgement. I hope that the snippets above will put you on the right side of the ledger come next Friday evening.

- DR

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