Cheltenham Handicaps Review 2011

Training with Cheltenham in mind...

Training with Cheltenham in mind...

I've been sifting through the evidence of the Cheltenham Festival 2011, and one thing really stands out above all others.

Much has been made of the overall performance of the Irish with thirteen winners from the 27 races, but the point that has not really been drawn upon is the phenomenal performance of the Irish handicappers.

Traditionally, the Irish are stronger in the handicap hurdles and weaker in the handicap chases, but this year their dominance was - very nearly - total over the smaller impediments.

Specifically, only Buena Vista could prevent a clean sweep for the Irish in the handicap hurdles, as he fought off all-comers including closest pursuer, Sonamix, an Irish raider. Funnily enough, that race (the Pertemps) was the handicap hurdle in which Ireland were most heavily represented, with six of the 23 starters.

In the Coral Cup, Carlito Brigante won at 16/1 from just three Irish starters in the 22 strong field. In the Fred Winter, What A Charm won at 9/1 from just two Irish raiders in the 23 deep pack.

The County Hurdle had five Irish contenders in a field of 26, and Final Approach mugged Get Me Out Of Here on the line at 10/1 to snaffle another for the Emerald Isle posse.

Finally, and perhaps most depressingly of all, Ireland had a single runner in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle. Sir Des Champs won, at heavily backed odds of 9/2, in a field of 23.

Looking more deeply into the Irish performances reveals the non-winners mostly ran with credit too, as final positions of 6th, 7th, 8th and 21st in the County; 3rd, 5th, 8th, 11th, and 20th in the Pertemps; 4th in the Fred Winter; and 11th and 17th in the Coral Cup, testify.

Note how ALL of the Irish runners finished in their races.

Before I consider what this actually means going forwards, let's have a look at the Irish performances in the handicap chases.

As I've said, they are traditionally weak in this division, with the notable exception of the Cross Country Chase. Again, they bagged that prize, with Sizing Australia leading home a 1-2-3 for the Irish.

Elsewhere though, the warning signs are that the Irish are on the up. In the Spinal Research Handicap Trophy, there was little hint of what was to come with two runners both pulled up.

As mentioned, the Cross Country saw 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 10th and 11th from the fifteen runner field; the Centenary gave them a 6th, 10th and 12th trio of finishes from their trio of runners in the twenty deep race...

But then they had 3rd with their sole representative in the Byrne Group Plate; 3rd, 5th and 11th from their three in the Kim Muir; and 2nd from their sole representative in the Grand Annual.


So what does all this mean? Well, trying to pull it all together involves a slightly more holistic consideration, bringing in the overall performance of Irish runners in the non-handicap races, both hurdle and chase.

Here, some interesting patterns emerge. In the hurdles, excluding the Supreme (a traditionally strong race for the Irish) where they under-performed this year, Irish runners won the Champion Hurdle, Mares Hurdle, and Neptune Novices Hurdle. They were also 2nd in the Triumph and 3rd in the World Hurdle, with a disappointing show in the Albert Bartlett.

On balance, then, it is probably safe to assume that the British handicapper, who rarely does a bad job and who had not just to assimilate Irish form against English, but also ascertain the depth of so many bogs upon which many of the key handicap hurdles were contested in Ireland this year, got it wrong.

I don't say that lightly, and I'm not actually apportioning blame either. Because, quite simply, it was a nigh on impossible task to accurately rate those horses. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the British crop of horses suffered more from the bad ground, as trainers here tend to avoid running the animals rather than risk 'bottoming' them. They're made of hardier stuff across the watery way there.

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Obviously, that's easy for me to write and is so much conjecture. I don't really have a better notion as to why the Irish were so dominant in the hurdling sphere.

To add their side of the story, you can read the thoughts of Phil Smith - a refreshingly frank and honest chief handicapper - here, and those of his team here.

In the non-handicap chasing sphere, the Irish were third in the Arkle (Realt Dubh); won the National Hunt Novices' Chase (Chicago Grey); had the 1-2 in the RSA Chase (Bostons Angel beat Jessie's Dream); enjoyed a 1-2-3-4 (!) in the Queen Mother, led by Sizing Europe; won the Jewson (Noble Prince); grabbed 3rd in the Ryanair with a 16/1 shot (Rubi Light); were no better than 7th in the Gold Cup itself; and finished 1st, 3rd and 4th in the Foxhunters with only Alan Hill's pair keeping out another clean sweep.

That is a quite remarkably dominant set of results for the Irish, and it seems to imply that whilst many across the pond are bemoaning a lack of funding in the sport, the beasts themselves are leaner, meaner racing machines as a consequence of the cutbacks. Again, that's a conclusion on my part that is hard to substantiate, so if you've a different view on why this might be the case, do leave a comment.

Certainly, this is likely to be the reason for so many long punting faces on the English side of the Irish Sea...

What I suspect it means for next year is one of two things: either the Irish will run riot in the handicaps again, or the handicapper will take preventative measures to avoid a repeat of the one-sided nature of this season.

My advice, which we'll all have long since forgotten by then, is to watch the first day's handicaps before taking a view on the strength of both the Irish form and the handicapper's grip on Irish runners.


Now then, moving on, I've finally got round to starting my general blog at It has a broader remit than Geegeez, and will cover such things as horse racing (of course), online business, travel, and really anything else that I want to scribble about.

There's no opt in on the page at this time, though there probably will be at some point - when I get round to it. It's certainly intended to be more of a 'hobby' site for me, but it's also a place where I can perhaps be a little more frank about exactly how I feel... 😉

In any case, there's a potted history of my life and an initial post (which proved to be depressingly accurate, it is transpired) on there, so if you fancy checking out Matt Bisogno's blog, click those words!


Finally today, I'm delighted to be sponsoring the Alleged Stakes at the Curragh on 3rd April (a week on Sunday). If you can get there, and fancy a pair of complimentary tickets for a box with a bit of lunch thrown in as well, then email your name and full postal address to

Please note, you'll have to make your own way there, etc., so if you live in Budapest, and have to be out on the Saturday night, this probably isn't something you're likely to benefit from! [Of course, if you're happy to take an early flight to Dublin Sunday morning, then by all means drop your name in the hat...]

Full details on the prize, and how to enter are on my Irish site, at


That's it for today. Next week, as the flat season gets underway, I've got an interesting little backing system that might be rewarding to follow, so stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, have a great weekend and feel free to leave a comment on your abiding memories of the Cheltenham Festival 2011.


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5 replies
  1. Ian Synnott says:

    Interesting assessment Matt but I’m going to have to be biased and say that the irish horses were just better :).. if the numbers were reversed and Irish horses made up 70-75% of the fields then I guess we would win all 27 haha. But I will agree with you on Carlito Brigante’s weight… handicapper got that terribly wrong!


  2. Declan says:

    What is this “depth of so many bogs they race in” rubbish about? Most of the key races are at Leopardstown which dries out even quicker than Cheltenham, and is located in what is reputedly the driest part of the British Isles?
    Bostons Angel can hadle any ground, don’t know about Zemsky but all the other Irish winners seem to prefer good to fast ground.

    • Matt Bisogno says:


      Some not most of the key races are held at Leopardstown, and how often does the word ‘good’ appear in a NH going description in Ireland?

      My point was not in any way meant to be offensive, and I think most people can see that. Rather, I’m pointing out that it is very difficult for the handicapper to assimilate the value of form for horses whose preference is for fast ground but whose recent form is all on a (much, in many cases) softer surface.

      So, I don’t believe the statement was ‘rubbish’, and I stand by it.


  3. martin says:

    very interesting! Usually the Irish trainers all tend to think that their horses are “wrongly” handicapped when they come over here but I’d noticed several Irish trainers say they thought there horse/horses were well handicapped in the lead up to the festival!

    Hindsight is a great thing but it may well be that the GB Handicapper has “erred” in his ratings from across the Irish Sea!! – does this mean we should expect the same at Aintree and maybe even the Swinton Hurdle?

  4. john murray says:

    my dear matt,
    it is unbelievable that anyone takes offence at what you write. you have stated something here, that i have not seen written anywhere else. and you are right, the handicapper has a really hard job to rate irish horses for handicaps. the irish are famed for getting a horse ready for a race at the festival, and long may that continue, but you write 100% the truth, as you are entitled to do, rather than taking offence, if i was of irish descent i would be proud. well done the irish, and top marks to you matt, for your findings,
    john murray

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