Coral Eclipse Trends

Run over 1m2f at Sandown Park racecourse in early July the Group One Coral-Eclipse Stakes is open to horses aged 3 or older and with 15 of the last 19 winners having already landed a Group One contest in their careers then it often attracts some of the best horses from around the world.

In recent years, we’ve seen 2 of the last 12 Epsom Derby winners from that season go onto land the Coral-Eclipse, while favourites have a decent record – winning 9 of the last 19 and being placed in 15 of the last 19.

Here at Geegeez, we look back at recent winners and highlights the key stats to be looking out for ahead of the 2021 renewal – this year run on Saturday 3rd July.

Eclipse Stakes Past Winners

2020 – Ghaiyyath (9/4)
2019 – Enable (4/6 fav)
2018 – Roaring Lion (7/4 fav)
2017 – Ulysses (8/1)
2016 – Hawkbill (6/1)
2015 – Golden Horn (4/9 fav)
2014 – Mukhadram (14/1)
2013 – Al Kazeem (15/8 fav)
2012 – Nathaniel (7/2)
2011 – So You Think (4/11 fav)
2010 -  Twice Over (13/8 fav)
2009 – Sea The Stars (4/7 fav)
2008 – Mount Nelson (7/2)
2007 – Notnowcato (7/1)
2006 –David Junior (9/4)
2005 –Oratorio (12/1)
2004 –Refuse To Bend (15/2)
2003 –Falbrav (8/1)
2002 – Hawk Wing (8/15 fav)

Eclipse Stakes Betting Trends

19/19 – Won by a horse aged 5 or younger
15/19 – Had at least 2 runs already that season
15/19 – Won by a previous Group One winner
15/19 – Placed favourites
14/19 – Placed in their last race
13/19 – Raced between 2 and 3 times that season
11/19 – Raced at Royal Ascot last time out (three won there)
9/19 – Favourites that won
5/19 – Won by an Irish-trained horse
5/19 – Raced in the Epsom Derby that season
4/19 – Trained by Aidan O’Brien
4/19 – Trained by John Gosden (4 of last 9)
6 of the last 14 winners won last time out
2 of the last 12 Derby winners of that season went onto win the race
The last 6 year-old to win the race was in 1886
The average winning SP in the last 19 runnings is 9/2
13 of out the last 16 winners had run in the previous 30 days
12 out of the last 16 winners were Group 1 winners
15 of the last 16 winners came from the first four in the betting
14 out of the last 16 winners had won over 1m 2f or further

 

Other Eclipse Stakes Trainer Facts

Aidan O’Brien won the race in 2011, 2008, 2005, 2002 & 2000
Sir Michael Stoute won the race in 2007, 2001, 1997, 1994, 1993 & 2017
Godolphin-owned horses have won the race in 2004, 1998, 1996, 1995, 2016 & 2020
Trainer John Gosden has won 4 of the last 9 runnings

 

 

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Cheltenham Festival 2021: Trainer Form

We're just a week away from the biggest gathering in jump racing, the Cheltenham Festival, and what a chaotic lead in it has been this year. As if a pandemic wasn't enough, we have subsequently had to endure reservations about ease of transit for Irish- (and French-) based runners post-Brexit, the shocking Gordon Elliott revelations, and rumours of a pan-European equine herpes outbreak potentially throwing a further spanner into the works. On top of all that, now we have the Meghan Markle story!

OK, so that last one, and probably/hopefully the last two, are of no consequence to Cheltenham, mercifully; but the others have each caused some degree of consternation in the weeks and months preceding the Festival. With six days until tapes rise on the Supreme, we can hope that all will hereafter be more serene, barring the perennial raft of late scratches and shock race switcheroos. So we can get down to business, the business of this post being to review current trainer form for the big guns heading into Cheltenham Festival 2021.

How to quantify trainer form?

This presents an immediate and obvious question: what actually is trainer form? When referenced in general - "xyz is in flying form" - it normally means xyz has had a couple of winners recently. Is that 'in form' or merely the happy end of the variance spectrum? How can we even things out and judge trainer performance more broadly? And should we even bother given that winners are winners and losers are losers, right? Plenty to chew on here.

Let's start with a pretty much unarguable contention: trainer form is how well or poorly a given trainer is faring at a point in time. So far so meh. The challenge is isolating an agreeable metric (or metrics) against which to vaguely scientifically measure form; and to then further layer on the wagering component of profitability (and, of course, how best to measure that).

Happily, geegeez.co.uk publishes a few metrics that cut through the thorny thicket of quantifying these data, namely Impact Value, Percentage of Rivals Beaten, and Actual vs Expected. We do also display win and place percentages but, in truth, these are the equivalent of answering the question, "What time is it?", with "Tuesday afternoon".

Let's (very) quickly recap what the numbers mean.

Impact Value (IV) is a measure of how frequently something happens for x in relation to how frequently it happens for all. For instance, how often the going is good to soft on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival compared to how often the going is good to soft over all days of the Cheltenham Festival.

A figure of 1.00 means the 'thing' - Cheltenham day one good to soft, in this case - happens the same amount as in the wider set of data. A figure above 1.00 means it happens more often, below 1.00 signifies that it happens less often. The further away from 1.00 the IV the more or less something happens in relation to the round.

Still here? Topper, PRB next.

Percentage of Rivals Beaten (PRB) is a means of applying a sliding scale of merit to every finishing position, and doing it in relation to the field size in which that finish was achieved. For instance, 2nd of four has less merit on this metric than 2nd of 40 - and rightly so, of course.

In this case, 2nd of four beats two horses and loses to one horse, so has a PRB score of 67% (or 0.67) for beating two out of three of its rivals.

2nd of 40 beats 38 horses and loses to one, so has a PRB score of... gets calculator... 38 beaten divided by 39 total rivals = 97%, or 0.97.

When looking at a combination of events - say, all trainer's runners over a period of time - we can derive an overall PRB figure and use that for comparative purposes.

Actual vs Expected (A/E) is the betting number. It works as an index where, like IV, 1.00 is a par figure and better or worse than 1.00 is a degree of good or bad respectively. It's calculation requires a little unpacking and, rather than do that here, you're encouraged to look at this racing metrics article where I explain and exemplify each of IV, A/E and PRB in more detail. The key here is that north of 1.00 is good, south of 1.00 not so much.

How to quantify trainer form pre-Cheltenham?

So we'll use IV, PRB and A/E as way points to navigate to a conclusion; but against which period(s) should we measure performance? It probably makes sense to compare a longer period pre-Cheltenham with a shorter period pre-Cheltenham with performance at the Festival itself.

Willie Mullins

The following table has performance data for Willie Mullins-trained runners (WPM) for three different periods in each of the previous five seasons:

- The four days of Cheltenham
- The four weeks prior to Cheltenham
- The four months prior to the four weeks prior to Cheltenham

 

Looking for correlation is difficult in what is, granted, a crowded table. And it is still more confusing when noting that comfortably Mullins' poorest win strike rate (6.78% in 2019) produced his best ROI (+30.51%).

The message there is simple enough: the microcosm of win strike rate - and indeed Impact Value - in tiny sample sizes is misleading. At the same 2019 Festival, Mullins could boast a 25% each way strike rate, in line with placed efforts at the two preceding Festivals. In PRB terms, 2019 only ranked third of five.

Below is the same information but with the key metrics ranked, e.g. Mullins' 2020 Festival win percentage was his second best of the past five Festivals; it was his best of five Festivals on each of EW%, PRB, IV, and A/E.

 

Looking for correlation is tricky. It can be said that the 2018/19 season was not great for Mullins, and that was something which manifested almost across the board at the Festival - with the counter-intuitive exception of ROI. Closer scrutiny reveals that Willie backers were saved by the 50/1 success of Eglantine Du Seuil in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle as well as, to a lesser degree, Al Boum Photo's 12/1 maiden Gold Cup score. Take out the big priced winner and it's -29 and ROI rank 4.

One thing that is reasonably clear in relation to Mullins is that in the past two years he's found things more competitive, not just at the Festival but generally, a number of his top rankings being largely accumulated between the 2015/16 and 2017/18 seasons.

 

Gordon Elliott

It is fair to say that nobody really knows what to expect of the Cullentra House yard, currently fronted by Denise Foster while Gordon Elliott serves out his suspension. What we do know is that flagbearers like Envoi Allen have been moved to other yards and that has to have a negative bearing on overall figures this time around. To frame this year's expectation, we need to look backwards.

 

Elliott's Festival record, in terms of scale and punter-friendliness, has been unrivalled. Apart from a big blip in 2019 - same as Mullins, interesting? - his performance has been off the chart by almost any measure.

Using the ranking approach gives us the following.

 

Here there appears to be quite strong correlation between Elliott's four-month form and his Festival form.

 

Nicky Henderson

The Irish haven't (quite) had it all their own way in the past five years at Cheltenham, and Britain's top man - sometimes persisting in the wind - has been Nicky Henderson.

 

Four-win hauls in the last two Festivals help to explain the mini-lull, relatively, in the fortunes of Messrs. Elliott and Mullins, and represent a welcome return for Seven Barrows, in the shadow of the Irish challengers for the prior few years.

 

Paul Nicholls

It has been slim pickings for the former multiple Champion Trainer who has failed to record more than a pair of victories in the last four Festivals. However, in the 2019 and 2020 renewals, Nicholls' three wins were all at Grade 1 level: quality over quantity he might say.

 

Looking at the rankings shows a loose, perhaps tenuous, link between four-month form and Festival form in recent years.

 

2021 Pre-Festival Form and Predictions

At this point, you'd be forgiven for thinking "so what?". So let's try to review recent form approaching this year's Festival in the context of previous years.

In the table below, I've included four-week form up to 7th March (not quite up to Festival Eve, obvs, as I'm writing this a week earlier); and performance in the four months prior to that.

Specifically, from 8th February to 7th March, and from 8th October 2020 to 7th February 2021.

Willie Mullins has the same 75% PRB figure as he did in 2018: that year he won seven races from 62 runners. His four-month form is also the best it's been since 2018. And yet, Cheltenham Festival 2020 was arguably Mullins' best in recent seasons in spite of coming into it off the back of his second-worst recent form of the past five.

Elliott's team, meanwhile, has been in top form despite the challenging circumstances. Who knows what impact the loss of key horses and the absence of the hitherto licence holder (and the new named holder) will have? Likely some, but probably not a huge amount is my best guess. Elliott has had three phenomenal CheltFests in the past four years, 2019 being a sharp reminder of the perils of blind backing a yard; and he's had at least three winners in each of those years - 27 in all during that time.

Paul Nicholls has enjoyed enjoyed a relative resurgence in the last two renewals courtesy of that hat-trick of Grade 1 scores. He comes to Cheltenham Festival 2021 in similar form to 2019.

Most interesting is probably Nicky Henderson, whose form this season is notably lower than in each of the previous four seasons (current season four-month PRB of 0.57 vs ultra-consistent 0.65 in 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20). In the past four weeks he's been pitching at 58% PRB which again compares unfavourably with far higher PRB figures for the run-up to the past couple of Festivals. It will be fascinating to see how Team Henderson fares next week, with Shishkin an early barometer.

 

Cheltenham Festival Trainer Form Conclusions

Sometimes you can spend a lot of time looking for something which, in the end, only tells you that there is probably nothing to be found. This may be one such occasion. Indeed, the writing was on the wall when I mulled the research overnight, came back to my computer this morning and discovered Windows had decided to undertake a forced update and, further, had corrupted the open - and, naturally, unsaved - spreadsheet document containing all of the data. Ugh.

Ignoring my computer woes, what can be seen from the above is that there is little to no strong correlation between various preceding periodicities and the meeting itself; and sometimes it is useful simply to know that. Of course, that won't stop a swathe of "he's in form" or "she's out of form" observations casually lobbed into the chat next week, the kind of positive/negative reinforcement, generally delivered after the fact, that adds now't but sounds knowledgeable.

It may ultimately be the case that the best gauge of Festival trainer form is from previous Festivals. In that regard, we should expect each of Mullins, Elliott/Foster, Henderson and Nicholls to hit their mark, and at least three of them to do so multiple times.

At the last five Festivals, they have collectively bagged 82 of the 140 races. Four trainers responsible for 59% of the winners. Throw in Henry de Bromhead - whose team is bolstered by the high profile addition of the Cheveley Park bluebloods - and Dan Skelton and you have six handlers responsible for two-thirds of the Festival winners in the last five years. Between them, they'll be long odds-on to take at least half of the 28 prizes on offer next week.

Cheltenham Festival 2021: 7 NRNB ‘Free Hits’

With  just a fortnight to go until the Cheltenham Festival 2021, a number of bookmakers are now offering the 'non runner no bet' (money back if your horse doesn't run) concession. This is great news for punters, especially when allied to one bookmaker's - bet365 - best odds guaranteed concession. In this article, I've found seven horses that can be backed for 'the wrong race at the right price': stars which are expected to line up elsewhere but which would likely shorten from currently available odds if doing a late switcheroo.

They're presented in race order, starting on Tuesday, Day 1...

Honeysuckle - Mares' Hurdle - 11/8 bet365 (NRNB, BOG)

"She's running in the Champion Hurdle", all my friends tell me. And they're probably right. But she's the reigning champ in this race and the drying ground will make the two mile Champion more of a speed test than this two and a half mile contest. She's the classiest mare in the entries for this race by at least seven pounds, and there's a chance that drying ground sees Roksana re-routed to the Stayers' Hurdle. There will still be Concertista to deal with, but Honeysuckle will be more 8/11 than 11/8 on the day if she runs here. If she doesn't, you'll get your cash back a fortnight hence.

Royale Pagaille - National Hunt Chase - 5/2 bet365 (NRNB, BOG)

Venetia Williams' wildly experienced novice, Royale Pagaille, looks to have stamina as his strong suit. I was so taken with his outright demolition of a solid Graded handicap field in the G2 Peter Marsh at Haydock that I backed him for the Gold Cup. He's rated in the Gold Cup ball park off that run, too, though I don't fully trust it, given his main market rival, Sam's Adventure, came down too far out to judge whether he'd have been an actual threat in the race; and the third favourite, Acey Milan, also exited at a fence.

It is also true that RP has been dishing up in deep ground and it remains to be seen how he handles quicker terrain. For all of those reservations, he has been ultra-impressive visually, and his stamina combined with fluent jumping makes him a natural for a staying test like this. There are other credible contenders in the field, not least Galvin, but if Royale Pagaille lines up here rather than his other entries, he'll take some beating. If not, no damage done, money back.

Ballyadam - Ballymore Novices' Hurdle - 14/1 bet365 (NRNB, BOG)

Slightly more speculative, this one, but with the same 'second choice race' angle in play. Ballyadam has hitherto raced exclusively at around two miles, but has been beaten the last twice at the trip. In his defence, those defeats were in Grade 1 company against tip top opposition, and he got closest to Supreme favourite Appreciate It in the Chanelle Pharma last time. Closest, yes, but there is no real reason to believe he ought to reverse form with that one; so why not take on a different group of horses over a slightly longer trip?

Breeding - by Fame And Glory out of a Bob Back mare - suggests he'll stay the Ballymore range without a care, and in a race that is 3/1 the field, he has Grade 1 credentials. 14/1 looks a very playable each way proposition, with the NRNB proviso.

Shady Operator - Glenfarclas Chase - 10/1 bet365 (NRNB, BOG) or 10/1 Fred (NRNB)

Shady Operator could be an apt winner for players of this slightly snide angle. The horse is banks king Enda Bolger's latest McManus project, and was revitalised by a first spin over ditches, wedges and all in the PP Hogan Memorial Chase - a key prep for this - last time. There he won in a field of 17 which contained plenty of dead wood; so, too, will Day 2's Cross Country field. He was effective rather than eye-catching in winning but that was his first cross-country effort in public. As an eight-year-old he's oodles of upside in this sphere and is clearly with the right man.

He is not a guaranteed runner, hence the insurance caveat of NRNB, but this race is looking less and less clear cut by the day. Easysland was expected to bolt up before flopping at the November meeting; he was then expected to race in France as a preparation but skipped that, too, so comes in off that solitary, below par, effort. He could easily bounce back but is not the 'gimme' he looked going into the November meeting.

What of Tiger Roll? Who knows? But he looks a shadow of his past self even allowing that a spring campaign will have always been the plan. Then come the French pair of Ajas and Uniketat: the former is trained, like Easysland, by David Cottin and is well fancied by his yard; the latter is a banks specialist who won a very good race at Pau last time, electric jumping a feature of his victory. Uniketat may apparently be done for the season, so one less to feature.

It's hard to get excited by the rest which makes Shady Operator a compelling each way proposition at 10/1 with the BOG and NRNB concessions aforethought.

Energumene - Marsh Novices' Chase - 2/1 bet365 (NRNB, BOG)

He's running against Shishkin in the Arkle! Yes, that's very likely the case; but he is still entered here and, given current uncertainty about what will happen with horses trained heretofore by Gordon Elliott - which therefore extends to strong Marsh favourite, Envoi Allen - this could end up a desirable slot for the Arkle second choice.

Energumene would not necessarily be a bigger price than 2/1 if both he and Envoi Allen line up, but he will certainly be a shorter price if he does and the current ante post favourite does not. The balance of probabilities are that this will be a money back job, but he'll look great value if those things do come to pass: that's the whole point of this article!

Roksana - Stayers' Hurdle - 7/1 bet365 (NRNB, BOG) or 8/1 Sky/Fred (NRNB)

Dan Skelton trains this mare and she's looked very good either side of a two length third to Paisley Park and Thyme Hill in the Grade 2 Long Walk Hurdle in December. That run leaves her very little to find with the pair who beat her, especially as she was given a lot to do that day; and, if the ground dries as looks likely, connections may opt to go for the stronger test of stamina this represents rather than the half mile shorter Mares' Hurdle (which could look as deep a race as this in any case).

Her price represents a very solid each way bet in an open section and, as you know by now, if she doesn't run it's money back.

Put The Kettle On - Mares' Chase - 5/1 bet365 (NRNB, BOG) or 11/2 PP (NRNB)

Last year's Arkle winner has excellent Cheltenham form, being three from three at the track including that Festival score. Whether she has the stamina for this is uncertain - her best form is at two miles and she was beaten in a Grade 3 over this trip in late 2019; but there's little question it's an easier slot than the Champion Chase in which she is more obviously scheduled to participate.

Put The Kettle On doesn't need to lead, which is just as well in a field that could have plenty of early goers, but her ability to lie handy and her battling qualities, as well as no little class, mean she'd be very competitive if she ran here rather than in the Queen Mother. At an each way price, she is the final leg of this magnificently sneaky seven.

**

It can be no bigger than 4/1 that none of the above take up these engagements, in which case you've lent your money to bet365 (other books are available) for a fortnight or so. But considering any or all of this septet, perhaps in multiple perms, feels like a wise guy play with plenty of upside and limited downside. Given that four or more non-runners must be odds-on, I've permed them in each-way five-, six- and seven-folds. Declarations day will be interesting!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Favourites – Bankers or Blowouts?

Pretty much the last spectator-attended action of last year was the Cheltenham Festival and, regardless of the 20/20 hindsight about whether or not it should have had the green light for crowds, this year's event will be contested behind closed doors. That it will be contested at all, and that the entirety of the preceding seasonal narrative has played out - weather notwithstanding - is a cause for celebration during these times where not a great deal has been worthy of such emotional uplift.

With just 21 days until tapes rise for the opening skirmishes of the 2021 renewal of #CheltFest (I can hear the grinding of traditionalists' teeth as I pen that incendiary soshul shorthand!), time is nigh to fix mental bayonets and consider, in the round, what may transpire three weeks hence.

In this piece, we'll look at the shorties: those favourites whose current top quote is 5/4 or tighter. Using the age old hackney of 'banker or blowout', and mindful that for geegeez readers (and value players everywhere) the very notion of a banker is anathema, I'll offer a view as to which side of the back/lay divide I'd currently like to pitch my punting tent.

A recent history of short priced favourites at the Cheltenham Festival

First up, a short history lesson. The main lesson of history is "don't believe the hype", a message that resonates far beyond Festival jollies but which was poignantly reprised twelve months ago when, of the six favourites sent off at 5/4 or shorter, five were beaten. Ouch.

If that was a storm in the 2020 teacup, how does a more extensive tract of past performance influence our appetite for piling in at the sharp end?

As can be seen from the table and summary row above, there have been good times and bad times since 2009, with the management summary being that this is one of the less bludgeoning methods of wagering self-harm. But, of course, not all shorties are made equal; so is there anything to be gleaned from dividing what is already a very small dataset still further?

Despite the answer to that question almost certainly being 'no', for the record here are a couple of logical splits:

A lot of data manipulation and a very short read later we can now say the answer is certainly 'no'; which is unsurprising given the maturity of, and liquidity in, these markets. Nevertheless, when the media cries "certainty" and the market posits 4/6, punters are well served to beware.

The full list of qualifying runners is below, and may bring back painful memories for some, yours true included!

2021 Cheltenham Festival Shorties: Banker or Blowout

There is a quintet of ante-post shorties for this year's renewal of the Fez (yet more trads reaching for 'off' switch!) and they shape up price wise like this:

Time to consider each horse's respective merits...

Arkle Challenge Trophy: Shishkin

Form this season

Unbeaten in three facile wins in novice chases, most recently in a brace of Grade 2's, with no horse yet landing a glove on him. In spite of the small fields - he beat a trio of rivals in each - the form is solid and the times have been good. His fencing style is economical and comfortable: he has barely put a foot wrong thus far.

Shishkin is now unbeaten in seven completed starts, having fallen on his hurdling debut.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Sent off 6/1 joint-third favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year, he was hampered by a faller as the race was hotting up, but overcame that impediment to hold the late charge of Champion Hurdle fancy, Abacadabras. That was his only race at Cheltenham.

Obvious dangers

For a while this looked a matter of 'how far' assuming good health and a clear round, but the emergence of Energumene - an energumence? - as comfortably the best of the Irish has livened up the pre-race debate immeasurably.

On form, Willie Mullins' charge is a serious threat. But he does have a lot more questions to answer: how will he handle Cheltenham? Does he need to lead and, if so, how will he handle Allmankind? If he doesn't need to lead, he has yet to prove his effectiveness from further back. And how will he handle drier ground if indeed it pans out that way?

None of these are of concern to Shishkin, who looks sure to get his favoured lead - either from Allmankind, or that one and Energumene - and who will have every chance having dealt with all underfoot terrain, longer trips, and the Cheltenham contours already.

If Energumene and Allmankind lock horns on the speed, they may both pay for those exertions in the manner that Saint Calvados and Petit Mouchoir did in the 2018 renewal of this race, setting things up for a 14-length rout for Footpad. Shishkin is undeniably more of a horse than Footpad, and a tear up on the front end could see him record the largest winning distance of the meeting.

But if Energumene is ridden more conservatively, there are two possible dangers. The more obvious is that, in a fair fight, the Irish raider is simply better than the domestic challenger; the less obvious is that, by marking each other, the top two grant Allmankind - a very good horse in his own right - an easy and unassailable lead.

The other fly in the Shishkin ointment is the form of the Nicky Henderson yard, on the face of it at least: a single winner since 10th February, from 28 runners, is not the sort of record a Champion Trainer needs going into the biggest gig of the year. But, of course, we're not yet at the eve of Cheltenham and, in any case, that headline figure masks what have been largely acceptable (if not altogether pleasing) efforts from his Seven Barrows squad.

A place strike rate of 36% is more compelling, and a majority of runners have performed at least close to market expectation. Notably, the big guns - Chantry House, Champ - have run very well. Still, better will have been expected overall and better will be needed if Shishkin's price is not to flirt with odds-against between now and mid-March.

Verdict

Shishkin looks a superb athlete and a very fast horse. His trainer is having a wobble just now but knows better than anyone - even Willie M - how to campaign a precocious two-mile chaser. Having ticked the race conditions boxes, and with a pace setup almost certain to play to his A game, he looks a 'banker' (relatively speaking).

*

Mares' Hurdle: Concertista

Form this season

Lightly raced, as is often the modus operandi with Willie Mullins' better mares, Concertista has run just twice this term. She beat the same mare, Minella Melody, by nearly two lengths in a Grade 2 in November and then by more than six lengths in a Grade 3 at the turn of the year.

The hallmark of those runs, and indeed her run style generally, is being held together off the pace before cruising through to prevail comfortably. In so doing it is hard to peg the level of her form exactly, always leaving the impression there is more in the tank.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Presented off a layoff of eighteen months prior to the 2019 Mares' Novices Hurdle, Concertista saw off all bar Eglantine Du Seuil as a 66/1 chance that day. She had twenty rivals behind her and only a short head to the one in front. That singular race in the 2018/19 season meant she retained her novice status the following campaign and, lining up in the same race last March, she outclassed a similar 22-strong field by an emphatic dozen lengths.

This will be her third visit to the Festival and she offers very solid credentials on that score.

Obvious dangers

It very much depends who lines up on the day. If the ground dries out, it might be that connections of Honeysuckle decide to run over this two-and-a-half mile trip rather than the extended two of the Champion Hurdle. That would change the complexion markedly.

Likewise, though to a lesser degree, if Roksana stepped this way rather than to the Stayers' Hurdle, she would present a fierce challenge.

But there is very little depth to this field beyond the aforementioned three: they bet 9/1 Dame De Compagnie (who has been chasing, has four entries, and is far from a certain runner in this), 14/1 Verdana Blue (more likely for the County Hurdle, I think), and 20/1 bar (including Elimay, who more likely goes to the Mares' Chase).

Verdict

If Honeysuckle goes to the Champion Hurdle and if Roksana goes to the Stayers' Hurdle, Concertista could be the shortest priced favourite at the meeting. If Honeysuckle comes here, she may be 4/7 or so.

This is a ground dependant conundrum: drying ground would increase the chance of Honeysuckle running here, but decrease the chance of Roksana doing likewise. Concertista is expected to run here regardless (though she is still entered in both the Champion Hurdle and the Mares' Chase).

The way to play this, if you're so inclined, is to back Concertista at 6/5 and Honeysuckle at 5/4, both non-runner no bet. Most likely, you'll have 6/5 about an odds-on shot and money back on the other; second most likely is that you'll have 5/4 about a 4/7 shot and a poor value back up ticket. That may not sound exciting right now but it is odds on to look value on the day.

*

Brown Advisory (ex RSA): Monkfish

Form this season

Another Willie Mullins inmate, Monkfish has been imperious this season in brushing aside talented opposition with relish. Monkfish with relish: tasty!

Lousy puns aside, he won his beginners' chase in a canter before being merely pushed out to record a pair of Grade 1 successes in recognised trials, by three lengths and then eleven lengths from the talented Latest Exhibition. He is by some margin the pick of the Irish challengers.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Not only is Monkfish unbeaten in three chase starts this term, he is also the reigning Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle champ, earning a hard-fought verdict over... you guessed it, Latest Exhibition. That was his only visit to Cheltenham so he is unbeaten in one both at the track and at the Festival.

Obvious dangers

It is quite hard to find 'obvious' dangers to Monkfish. He has blitzed the best of the Irish this season, and he did the same to the best of the British and Irish here last season over hurdles.

Of course, he's a novice and the fences have to be jumped, so that's a possible issue.

In terms of potential rivals, Royale Pagaille has looked a mud machine this winter, but that one has numerous other possible engagements, principally the Gold Cup itself. Moreover, the two horses are in the same Ricci ownership and will surely attempt to divide and conquer.

The only other possible issue is ground: good to something would present a challenge met only once previously, when Monkfish was beaten into second on debut in a 2m2f bumper at the Punchestown Festival in May 2019.

Verdict

It's double digits bar Fishcake - as Nicky Henderson once flippantly (and very amusingly, imho) labelled the jolly - and Royale Pagaille; and, with options over longer and shorter for shying rivals, this could cut up dramatically. Monkfish looks very strong in this division.

*

Champion Chase: Chacun Pour Soi

Form this season

Three runs, three wins, in Grade 2 and Grade 1 (twice) company, beating the right horses with nonchalance. He travels like a dream, jumps very well and, if he faces the starter at Cheltenham, will have managed more runs this season than in the previous two combined.

His form this campaign is well clear of any other two mile chaser on either side of the Irish Sea.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

It was all going so well, but then... Chacun Pour Soi was pulled out at the eleventh hour last year and, as such, has yet to race outside of Ireland. That leaves question marks not just over the track but also about travelling generally: he did come over on the boat last year but was withdrawn with a foot abscess.

Whilst it may very much be a case of abscess making the heart grow fonder (sigh), it also nods to this fella's hitherto fragility. Against that we do have a trio of scores, and an absence of scares, so far this term. But we have still to conjecture about his ability to handle the idiosyncrasies of Cleeve Hill.

Obvious dangers

He himself is the obvious danger. Will he stay in one piece? Will he handle the travel? Will he handle the track?

Of the other horses in the race, each has eroded his or her case at some point: Arkle winner Put The Kettle On was bashed by Chacun, albeit after what was a very hard race at Cheltenham first up this season, and she may bounce back training up to the race; Altior is patently not the horse he was; Politologue has a rock solid Champion Chase profile but not against the calibre of CPS; and Defi Du Seuil is a binary chap, more zeros than ones in recent times.

The leftfield option is First Flow, who was exhilarating at Ascot last time. He'd need supplementing, very likely, but he'd also need to improve another eight pounds on current ratings - less likely.

Verdict

Chacun Pour Soi has to contend with himself. His form is in another postcode to his rivals in a market still trying to get him beaten with the wonderful but past his best Altior and a sizeable group of second division chasers. A horse like Fakir D'Oudairies, who is 20/1 NRNB in a place because he's more likely to fly Ryanair, might be a feasible hail mary in a race loaded with if's and but's.

Those imponderables extend to the favourite which makes him unplayable outright at the prices for all that he is the outstanding logical choice. [I did flag him in a derivative market at more appealing odds, as I don't really seeing him finishing second or third. He will win, or something will have happened between now and the finish line, is my wagering opinion.]

*

Marsh: Envoi Allen

Form this season

Three runs, three wins this campaign have meant Envoi Allen is now eleven from eleven lifetime under Rules (plus one point to point), all of them as favourite and only once at odds-against (the 2019 Cheltenham Champion Bumper). The middle leg of his 2020/21 hat-trick was a comfortable verdict in the Grade 1 Drinmore, and it was little more than a schooling round against Grade 3 rivals last time. I wasn't as impressed as some with that most recent effort for all that he still bolted up.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Two tries at the track, both at the Festival, have yielded two victories; the Bumper score was by a narrow margin, his Ballymore victory more unequivocal. He beat 13 rivals the first day and eleven the second and, well, he just keeps winning.

Obvious dangers

This looks another case of getting to the start line. Unlike CPS, EA has been slated to start twice and has started - and finished first - twice. He's had an incident-free prep thus far and has jumped really well in his three chase races to date.

Still, those fences need to be jumped, and he has to arrive pristine at Prestbury. It is hard to nominate dangers thereafter.

Verdict

The Brown Advisory would have meant a likely clash with Monkfish, the Arkle a ding dong with Shiskin, Energumene and Allmankind. The Marsh feels a bit like the coward's route for a horse boasting his CV. More generously, it is the best opportunity to extend the winning sequence.

You can bet double figures any other horse likely to run in this race - single digit quotes about Energumene and Monkfish don't even appeal NRNB especially - and there has to be some each way value, though I've yet to go through the fine detail to find it.

What is clear is that, on form, Envoi Allen is different kit.

**

Summary

Last year, five of the six horses sent off at 5/4 or shorter were beaten. This year, we look set to have at least five runners priced in that same bracket. Mishaps aside, it is hard (for me, at least) to make credible cases to oppose any of the quintet.

But mishaps do happen: in 2020, Paisley Park had a palpitation, Patrick Mullins was carelessly ejected from Carefully Selected (very harsh on the jockey, apols, poetic license for a play on words), Tiger was Roll'ed over by a heretofore unconsidered French assailant, Defi did the Defi thing, and 'mon dieu' Benie was beaten by Honey.

Any horse could come down or have a heart murmur in the heat of combat; Shishkin could get beaten by Energumene; a previously unsighted dark horse could emerge in one of the novice chases (though that feels unlikely).

In short, stuff could - and at some point probably will - happen. But I'd be hard pushed to bet against any of this quintet in the win slot if they trotted round at the start. That's my view, uncontroversial as it is. What about you? Which horse(s) would you hang your hat on? And where are you looking to get a hotpot beaten? Leave a comment and let us know.

Matt

 

 

Two Cheltenham Festival Side Bets to Consider

February is upon us and, with it, the focus on the Cheltenham Festival becomes more intense. Regardless of the debate about the middle March showpiece overpowering the National Hunt calendar's narrative, there is no denying it offers a rich range of options from an ante post perspective. So, during this short hiatus from decent turf action, I thought it might be worth looking at a couple of the more interesting 'side bets'.

The growth of 'request a bet' type functionality has been a boon for bookmakers, with ambitious punters adding more and more elements which must occur in an event in order to trigger the cumulative payout. These are largely to be avoided though the related contingency (i.e. one element having a direct bearing on another element within the wager) factor can occasionally make such plays of interest. Here are two which might appeal - they did to me!

Arkle Chase - Shishkin to win by six lengths-plus (10/3 Skybet)

On first inspection, I was apprehensive of this. Not because I think the horse in question is poor value: on the contrary, I think he's a very, very likely winner where the biggest dangers are expected to be the form of his stable and the 13 fences between the rising tapes and jam stick.

Of stable form, it can be seen from the right hand part of the chart that the Henderson hordes have not been firing at their highest rate in recent months. Nor, mind you, has the win percentage been anything other than aspirational for most other yards.

Moreover, there is plenty of time for an uptick should such a thing even be necessary: it's not prevented Shishkin from strolling home in his three chase runs this season, most recently by eight widening lengths from a 150-odd-rated animal on Saturday.

And in terms of jumping acuity, he has yet to make a serious mistake in three chases. True, all were small field affairs, but the Arkle, too, will quite likely cut up to a handful of contenders.

The opposition looks a rung below Shishkin, with perhaps Energumene the only credible danger. A fortnight ago, he beat a rival of similar ability by the same margin as Shishkin won on Saturday; if that was a parallel performance, there is little doubt about the 'remaining gears' differential in my view. Moreover, Willie Mullins' charge was a little novice-y in places that day for all that he was entitled to be on just his second fencing start. One further slight question mark is whether Energumene needs to lead in his races: he has led or disputed in all four of his starts over obstacles though whether that was a function of class and staying out of harm's way, or is a tactical prerequisite, is moot. What is clearer is that, if he does go forward, he will very likely face a challenge from Allmankind who appears to have no plan B when it comes to run style.

All of the above verbosity is by way of suggesting that Shishkin will probably win assuming he turns up in one piece (never a given). But a top priced 8/11, whilst still very far from offensive in value terms, is unexciting for those of us with limited elevens to risk in the pursuit of eights. And here is where the winning distance comes in.

Skybet are actually offering prices on winning margins of 2+ lengths (10/11), 4+ lengths (2/1), 6+ lengths (10/3), 8+ lengths (5/1) and 10+ lengths (7/1). I'm interested in 6+ as the optimal value play. And here's why.

Last year, Put The Kettle On was a 16/1 chance when winning by a length and a half. There were 18 lengths back to the third placed horse. In the five previous renewals, the race went more in keeping with the form already in the book as 5/1 Duc Des Genievres was the only one of the quintet of Arkle winners between 2015 and 2019 to score at odds against. His winning margin was 13 lengths. The four odds-on scorers, in reverse chronological order Footpad, Altior, Douvan and Un De Sceaux, scored by, respectively, 14 lengths, six lengths, seven lengths and six lengths.

The tl;dr (bit late now, I realise) is that five of the last six winners - four of them, like Shishkin, odds-on favourites - won by six lengths or more. In that context, Shishkin - who has won all of his completed starts, by 8L, 11L, 11L, a neck, 23L, 13L, and 8.5L - looks very fairly priced at 10/3 to win the Arkle by six lengths or more.

The link to this market is here.

**

Queen Mother Champion Chase - Chacun Pour Soi to win by four lengths-plus (4/1 Skybet)

Suggesting an ante post position on a hitherto infamously infrequent racecourse attendee may seem a tad gung-ho, all the more so when said runner was withdrawn on the morning of the race last year. But there is a growing belief, in the heart and mind of this scribbler at least, that the 2020/21 Chacun Pour Soi model is a more robust one.

Exhibit A to that end are the two races - both comfortable victories, in Grade 2 and Grade 1 company - in one month, the final month of last year. If that's the good news, the less good news is that Exhibit B must likely follow this weekend at the (outright excellent) Dublin Racing Festival; and Exhibit C requires him to cross the Irish channel in mid-March sans sicknote.

That's a risk and there are no two ways about it: if you don't like that risk, don't make this bet. Indeed, don't make any bet on CPS without the 'non runner no bet' concession.

But if, like me, you think 4/1 more than accommodates the chance of his non-participation, then let's talk about the opposition and the winning margin, oppo first.

This season, I've been a Put The Kettle On fan and a Politologue fan and a Chacun Pour Soi fan. The first two have bombproof Cheltenham form while the headline act - in the context of this proposed wager - has had a look around Cleeve Hill but not yet galloped there in anger. If anything was to happen to CPS, I'd split my stake between the other two named here, and might chuck in Rouge Vif in the unlikely event we get a six week drought henceforth. I can't have Altior, as much as my heart wrestles my head to consider him: he's just too long in the tooth now, before we even consider the depth of the Kempton form behind Nube Negra (a horse arguably a good bit better suited to Aintree than Cheltenham, though he has run well at the Festival).

Chacun was imperious at Christmas, value for plenty more than the official six and a half lengths. He will again face the second horse from that Grade 1, Notebook, if both stand their ground at the weekend, and the fact that Notebook is circa 5/1 third choice for Dublin's Festival Chase speaks of the paucity of opposition once more. There is the not inconsiderable frame of Min betwixt and between in the weekend market but, in the same ownership as Chacun Pour Soi, it is unclear what might be gained from that pair locking horns. Mind you, they did last season, CPS prevailing by most of four lengths.

Put The Kettle On jumped poorly under Sean Flanagan when slammed by CPS and Notebook last time but can be expected to improve both for a return to Cheltenham and the presumed return of Aidan Coleman to the saddle. In that light, she's of minor interest at 14/1 each way and also worth at least a second glance when the 'without the favourite' market emerges. But it is hard to see her turning tables with her last day vanquisher.

Of the home team, Politologue had been under-rated a touch in my view: his Festival record is excellent and he is the reigning champ. He'd looked good this season before being undone by an absolutely terrific performance from First Flow at Ascot ten days or so ago. Kim Bailey's charge reminded me of something between Denman's belligerence and the young Master Minded's panache: he has some way to go ratings-wise to be within a half furlong of that pair but his Ascot performance was, visually, everything jump racing should be.

In terms of race tactics at Cheltenham, if First Flow and Politologue again have at it a mile and more from home, as they did at Ascot, they'll be spent when CPS presents arms at the turn in, and that one ought to run away from them thereafter, assuming he handles the track.

The margin of victory of Champion Chase-winning favourites in recent years is thus: Altior 2019 (1 3/4 lengths), Altior 2018 (7 lengths), Sire De Grugy 2014 (6 lengths), Sprinter Sacre 2013 (19 lengths), Master Minded 2009 (7 lengths).

If Chacun Pour Soi runs and wins at the Dublin Racing Festival this weekend - he's currently a best priced 4/9 so to do - he'll be shorter for the winning margin bets and odds on for the Champion Chase. If he doesn't run, he'll be circa evens on the day assuming he shows up. If he runs and gets beaten, who knows? But, like I say, I think he's a more robust animal this season, and I'm prepared to back that perception.

So here's the rub: if Chacun Pour Soi wins the Champion Chase, I believe he'll win by a 'fresh air' margin. And if he doesn't... well, you might as well have 4/1 as 6/5 about the same loser.

The  link to this market (at the bottom, in the 'lengthen the odds' section) is here.

**

There will be lots of to and fro in the six weeks from now until the Cheltenham Festival gets underway. A few positions on shorties at fancier prices, for all that the spectre of our picks winning but not by far enough looms, may help to wile the worst of these remaining Covid days.

Matt

Cheltenham Festival: Avoiding the Bad Bets

This article was originally written ahead of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, and was updated prior to the 2019 Cheltenham Festival. It has been further updated ahead of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival as most of the themes have gained strength since first publication.

The Cheltenham Festival is almost upon us and soon we'll be faced with the unenviable - though highly enjoyable - task of trying to find winners in 28 deeply competitive races. Many sensible players will focus on a subset of the full four-day card but, regardless of your plan of attack, there are some rules of thumb worth keeping in mind.

I've broken the races down into four categories: open Grade 1's, novice Grade 1's (excluding the Bumper and Triumph Hurdle), handicap hurdles (excluding the Fred Winter), and handicap chases. The following races, in addition to the trio mentioned above, are also excluded: NH Chase, Mares' Novice Hurdle, Cross Country Chase, and the Foxhunters' Chase.

That leaves 21 races spread across four groups upon which to focus. For each I was looking for negative angles: in so doing, I'm happy to forego a small percentage of winners if it means there is a far more workable residue of runners who comprise most victors and, crucially, a value edge.

The sample covers the last eleven Festivals, going back to 2008, with commentary on the updated figures and performance at the 2018 and 2019 Festivals appended.

Cheltenham Festival Open Grade 1's

The open Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival are the Champion Hurdle, Mares' Hurdle, Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase, Stayers' Hurdle, and the Gold Cup: six in total. Across the ten years to 2017, that equated to 53 winners (Mares' Hurdle upgraded during the sample window) and 158 placed horses, from 635 runners. To that we add six winners and 17 placed horses from 2018, and a further six winners and 18 places from last year.

Headgear

Those wearing no headgear won 50 of the 53 open Grade 1's in the last decade, from 521 runners. That's 94% of the winners from 82% of the fields.

Just one of the 94 runners sporting blinkers or cheekpieces won - Our Vic in the 2008 Ryanair - and such horses' place strikerate is poor, too.

Be wary of horses wearing headgear, especially blinkers or cheekpieces, in Open Grade 1's at the Festival.

2018 Festival Update: Native River won the Gold Cup wearing cheek pieces, with just one of the other twelve headgear-accoutred runners making the frame. So that's 55 of 59 open Grade 1's now: 93% of the winners from 82% of the runners.

2019 Festival Update: 15 headgear runners across the sextet of open G1 races, and no winners. In fairness, three were placed (Melon, Politologue, and Sam Spinner) at solid prices.

2008-2019 Picture

Those wearing headgear can win (QED) but are 4/142 (2.82% SR) with an A/E of just 0.43.

Age

Horses aged five to nine won 49 of the 53 open Cheltenham Festival Grade 1's in the last decade. The other four were aged ten. From 45 runners, 11+ year-olds have failed to win. These include such sentimental veterans as Cue Card, Big Buck's and Kauto Star, all of whom were sent off at 9/2 or shorter since 2012.

Avoid backing horses aged in double digits in Festival Open Grade 1's.

2018 Festival Update: Two more 11+ year-olds ran in last year's Festival, including the wonderful Cue Card. Wonderful he may be but, sent off at 9/2 and pulled up, he was another mug punt for many. Worse than that, though, was the ten-year-old Un De Sceaux, who was turned over at 8/11. He was one of six ten-year-olds beaten last year.

2019 Festival Update: Nine double-digit aged runners in these big six races in 2019, and no winners. Just the still quite mighty Faugheen - who will bid to defy the stat again next week - made the frame, running third in the Stayers' Hurdle.

2008-2019 Picture

Horses aged ten-plus are now 4/121 since 2008 (3.31% SR), A/E 0.42.

[As an aside, the four winning ten-year-olds did so in the Champion Chase (two) and Ryanair Chase (two).]

Starting Price

None of the 238 horses sent off at 25/1 or bigger managed to win an open Grade 1 at the last ten CheltFests. Moreover, only three priced bigger than 14/1 scored, from 335 to face the starter, with this group losing 274 points at SP. Meanwhile, those priced at 14/1 or shorter won 50 races from 300 starters, and lost just two points at SP. That converted to a BSP profit of 51.75 points.

Ignore horses priced at 16/1 or bigger in Cheltenham Festival Open Grade 1's.

2018 Festival Update: Another blank for 16/1+ horses, who went 0/31 in the Grade 1 open races. Of the four who placed, only one was second - Midnight Tour in a lop-sided Mares' Hurdle - with the other three good enough for no better than third.

2019 Festival Update: The bad news is that there was a winner. 16/1 Espoir D'Allen won the Champion Hurdle as the race fell apart. The good news is that there were also 49 losers! Saying that, nine of the 50 made the frame, so these horses (obviously, duh) can win.

2008-2019 Picture

Overall, then, this group is now 4/416 (0.96% SR) with a loss at SP of 338 points (-81.25% !) and an A/E of just 0.32. Even at Betfair SP, the loss is 322.9 points. I remain happy to let these beat me.

Trainers

Paul Nicholls is still the winning-most Open Grade 1 trainer in the past decade, with ten such victories to his name. Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins each have nine, and the next best of Jonjo O'Neill, with four.

But... the denizen of Ditcheat has led just one beast - Dodging Bullets in 2015 - into the winner's enclosure since 2012, with none of his eight such runners at the last two Festivals reaching the first four. Notwithstanding that all bar one of that octet was sent off a double-figure price, he's a trainer about which to be apprehensive in this context.

Philip Hobbs is 0 from 17 in this type of race in the review period, and has only had one horse placed. That was Fair Along, third in the 2008 Champion Chase, and Hobbs tends to fare better at Aintree, though he's had a wretched season blighted - one suspects - by a touch of the virus.

Noel Meade has an infamous record at the Festival and, while he's 0 from 13 in this section of races, his Road To Riches was third in both the 2015 Gold Cup and the 2016 Ryanair Chase.

Nevertheless, Messrs. Hobbs and Meade are 0 from 30, three places, which is hard to overlook. Nicholls' 1 from 30 record since 2013 is equally difficult to excuse.

Tread carefully around Cheltenham open Grade 1 runners trained by Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs and Noel Meade.

2018 Festival Update: Both Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson have usurped Nicholls at the top of the pile, each having now secured 11 such wins since 2008. Last year, Messrs. Nicholls, Hobbs and Meade went 0/4 (three Nicholls, one Meade) though two of them ran fairly well in fourth. Caution remains the watch word.

2019 Festival Update: Four more qualifiers last year, including a Nicholls winner (lovely Frodon), and two further placed horses. The other finished fifth, and I think rather than the 201-mentioned caution being the watchword, I'd be happy to lose this particular element. It will be expunged from the 2021 preview!

2008-2019 Picture

Overall the figures of 11/112 (-65.07) look like keeping on side. But, while there is normally a premium to be paid for siding with Paul Nicholls especially, he seems to have largely overcome a hiatus in fortunes of a few years ago and, as such, should not be opposed lightly. This one is about to be consigned to the dusty bin.

Cheltenham Festival Open Grade 1 Micro System

Pulling all of these negative stats together makes for a nice little micro system. Specifically:

- No horses wearing blinkers or cheekpieces
- No horses trained by Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs or Noel Meade
- No horses priced at 16/1+
- No horses aged 10+

That would have netted 36 winners from 180 runners (20% strike rate, 69% race win strike rate) and a level stakes profit of 46.48 points at Starting Price. That bloats to +69.95 at BSP. Moreover, the approach was profitable in eight of the ten years, exceptions being 2016 and 2009.

2018 Festival Update: The above 'dodge the negatives' angle would have netted you five of the six open G1 winners (excluding the cheek pieced Native River) from just 25 bets. It would have been enough to make you a profit of 6.17 points at SP or a very tidy 13.82 points at BSP.

2019 Festival Update: The mini system had a fine week with wins for Al Boum Photo, Paisley Park and Altior in the big four races, as well as Roksana in the Mares' Hurdle. That was worth a profit of 5.74 points at SP and 6.95 at BSP. Espoir d'Allen was 16/1 and therefore just outside the range.

2020 Festival Angle: We'll remove the trainer element from the above for 2020. Results will be published in due course...

**

Cheltenham Festival Novice Grade 1's (excl. Bumper & Triumph Hurdle)

The novice Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival are the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Arkle Chase, Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle, RSA Chase, JLT Novices' Chase, and Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle: six in all. Across the ten years, that equates to 54 winners (JLT upgraded during the sample window) and 159 placed horses, from 723 runners. To that we add six winners and 17 placed horses, from 76 runners, in 2018.

The Bumper is excluded because it has no obstacles, and the Triumph Hurdle because it is for four-year-olds only.

Here are the negatives...

Headgear

Those wearing no headgear still account for the vast majority of wins - 57 of 60 from 2008 to 2018 - but perform little better than expected, 95% of the wins coming from 93% of the runners.

2019 Update: Headgear is a slight negative seemingly among the novice ranks. In the 12 years from 2008 to 2019, although there were only three winners (from 72 runners), two of them - both in 2014 - returned 33/1, for a profit of 6 points. The starting price A/E of 0.77 suggests these are still types about which to be wary, a feeling which has added credence in the form of two beaten favourites in 2019, Delta Work at 15/8 and Hardline at 10/3.

Age

Again, little of note here except that those novices aged nine or more running in Grade 1 novice races at the Festival have done poorly. They are 0 from 22, though then nine-year-old Whisper nearly benefited from Might Bite's errant course up the hill last year in the RSA Chase. It is worth noting that nine of those 22 were priced at 7/1 or shorter.

Avoid horses aged nine and up in the novice Grade 1's.

2018 Festival Update: No 9yo novices ran at the Festival last year.

2019 Festival Update: Two older novices ran, and were beaten, last year: Articulum ran well to be third at 25/1 in the Arkle (albeit beaten 17 lengths), and the ill-fated Knocknanuss was fifth in the same race.

2008-2019 Picture

These older lads and lasses are now 0 from 24, though Faugheen looks a live chance in a novice chase, probably the Marsh (former JLT) this time around.

Starting Price

There is the occasional shock result in Cheltenham Festival novice Grade 1's. But four, out of 54, is not a percentage on which to hang one's wagering hat. Interestingly, perhaps - or maybe just coincidence - two of the four winners at 16/1 or longer in the last decade came in the Albert Bartlett. It does seem a race where all of the preceding trials have been run on different ground and/or under very different pace scenarios.

Even allowing a little latitude in the 'potato race', the four rags came from a total population of 336 horses sent off greater than 16/1. They were 'good' for a loss of 208 points at SP.

Naturally, then, the other 50 winners came from horses priced at 16/1 or shorter, the 381 such runners losing just 31 points at SP, and breaking even at BSP.

Be wary of horses sent off at 16/1 or bigger in novice Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival. (With the exception of the Albert Bartlett)

2018 Festival Update: I think I got some sums wrong in the original above. The 16/1+ brigade were 6/379 (1.58% SR, -217, A/E 0.53) going into last year's Fez. Those priced at 16/1 or bigger were 1/42 at last year's Cheltenham Festival, and it was again the Albert Bartlett that provided the shock, with 33/1 Kilbricken Storm prevailing.

And that's now four of seven winning G1 novice rags since 2008 scoring in the spud race, so I'd be even more apprehensive around that event. Indeed, I might even be tempted to actively target outsiders therein. (Those priced 16/1 to 33/1 in the Albert Bartlett are 4/65, 12 places, +54 SP and +104 at BSP since 2008!)

2019 Festival Update: One more 16/1+ winner last year, and guess which race it happened in... yup, 50/1 (FIFTY!) Minella Indo emerged victorious in the Albert Bartlett. Aside from that race, the numbers were 0 from 29 for bigger-priced horses in the novice Grade 1's.

2008-2019 Picture

The overall figures now stand at 8/467 (1.71% SR, A/E 0.58) since 2008. Ignoring the Albert Bartlett, horses priced 16/1+ in novice Grade 1's are now 3/327 (0.92% SR, -251 at SP) since 2008.

The Albert Bartlett picture since 2008 is thus: 5/140 +30 at SP (+183 at BSP!)

Official Rating

Despite being novices, most horses running in the Festival novice races have an official rating. The 39 in the last decade which didn't were all unplaced bar one. Indeed, horses rated 140 or below, including those without a rating, are a combined seven from 308 for a loss at SP of 185 points.

Those rated higher than 140 won 47 races and lost a relatively small 54 points at SP and 2.75 points at BSP.

Avoid horses rated 140 or below.

2018 Festival Update: Those unrated added another three duck eggs to their collective card, though all of the trio were 20/1+. Meanwhile, those unrated or rated 140 or less went 24 spins without so much as a place at last year's Festival.

2019 Festival Update: Three unrated horses ran last year in novice G1's, Minella Indo winning and Allaho running second in the same race. The Albert Bartlett does seem to be a special case.

Those with a rating below 140 were 0/22 last year, just two placed.

2008-2019 Picture

Overall since 2008, then, they're now 8/361 (2.22% SR, A/E 0.62, -187 at SP). But...

Minella Indo was the first such winner since Martello Tower in 2015. Before that, Very Wood in 2014, Weapons Amnesty in 2009 and Nenuphar Collonges in 2008 made it five Albert Bartlett winners from the eight winners to be rated 0-140. The Albert Bartlett usually asks horses to do something they've not done before and, in trying, the pack gets shuffled with slower-but-stronger-staying types able to show mettle beyond the classier horses that had been winning therebefore.

Trainers

Willie Mullins is the dominant player in this sphere over the last decade, his fifteen winners almost double that of the next man (Nicky Henderson has eight). No other trainer has more than two novice G1 wins in the past decade, excluding as we are the Bumper and Triumph Hurdle.

Paul Nicholls is again a man to treat with caution: his one winner, Al Ferof, from 43 starters came in 2011. In PFN's defence, he only had one runner last year, and just two in 2016.

Other handlers to be given a wide berth may include Colin Tizzard (0 from 15, 2 places), Warren Greatrex and Charlie Longsdon (both 0 from 9, no places), and Venetia Williams (0 from 8, no places).

Keep in mind that Paul Nicholls does not have the firepower he once did in this category (and indeed many others).

2018 Festival Update: Nicholls ran two novices in this context last year, Modus (8th of 9 at 12/1) and Black Corton (5th of 10, 5/1).

2019 Festival Update: Again, Nicholls was resurgent in 2019, with Topofthegame winning the RSA Chase at 4/1. This doesn't look an angle worth persevering with and will be dropped for the 2020 update.

Cheltenham Festival Novice Grade 1 Micro System

Again, we can fashion something of a micro system by dodging these negative angles, thus:

- No horses aged nine-plus
- No horses rated 140 or lower, or unrated
- No horses sent off greater than 16/1
- No horses trained by Paul Nicholls

44 of the 54 winners in the sample came from avoiding these negatives, from just 38.5% of the runners. They were collectively worth a profit of 7.57 points at SP, and a slightly more worthwhile 31.15 points at BSP.

2018 Festival Update: If you'd followed this angle last year, you'd have found five of the six winners, 14 places (exception, Kilbricken Storm - see above) from 46 bets. That would have yielded a profit of +9 at SP and +17.41 at BSP.

2019 Festival Update: Not such good news here, as loads of runners and some short odds winners meant the angle lost 16 points at SP and 7.28 points at BSP.

2020 Festival Angle: We'll again remove the trainer angle but caution is advised with this micro generally. I'll not be following it this year.

**

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Hurdles (excluding Fred Winter)

Let us now take a look at the handicap races, beginning with the handicap hurdles but excluding the four-year-olds-only Fred Winter.

Fred Winter aside, there are four handicap hurdles at the Festival: the Coral Cup, Pertemps Final, County and Martin Pipe. The last named was introduced in 2009, meaning we have a sample size of 39 races with which to work. Those races were contested by 964 runners.

Gender

The fairer sex have recorded just one placed effort from 27 starters in the ten year review period. That 3.7% place strike rate (and 0% win rate) compares with a 16.4% place rate for the boys.

It may be safe to exclude fillies and mares in all age Cheltenham Festival handicap hurdles. (Incidentally, fillies have an excellent record in the Fred Winter).

2018 Festival Update: Fillies and mares were 0/9 (1 place) last year.

2019 Festival Update: The females were 0/6 (1 place) last year.

2008-2019 Picture:

Overall since 2008, that now reads 0/42, 3 places.

Headgear

Cheekpieces are again a negative. This time, 84 horses have worn them without a win, and just six places. Conversely, 11 of the 84 blinkered horses (one also wearing a hood) made the frame, and four won. Two of the 45 hood wearers also won, another eight placing; while the visor went 0 from 21, no places.

Cheekpieces or visors appear to have no positive impact on Cheltenham Festival handicap hurdlers. (This is in line with overall Cheltenham Festival statistics, where visor use has a 2.86% win rate in the last decade, compared with cheekpieces 3.15%, hood 4.92%, blinkers 5.57% and no headgear 5.96%)

2018 Festival Update: Nine more cheek pieced losers last year, and two more visored losers. Blinkered runners were 1/7 last year.

2019 Festival Update: Two headgear-clad winners last year, both in cheekpieces, though those otherwise accoutred were 0 from 17, wiping out the SP profit from the cheeky brace.

2008-2019 Picture:

There have been ten headgear-wearing winners of all aged handicap hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival since 2008, from 293 runners. That's a 3.41% strike rate for a loss of 119 points (ROI -40.61). Those without headgear won 37 from 865 (4.28% SR, -256 at SP, ROI -29.6%).

Headgear seems to be a negative, though ignoring such runners hardly helps the pursuit of winner isolation!

Age

Handicap hurdling at the Festival is a young man's game. Of the 964 runners in such races in the past ten years, 842 (87%) were aged five to eight (ignoring the Fred Winter). They won all bar two of the races (95%), and claimed 92% of the places. The two wins were both achieved by the same horse, Buena Vista, in the same race, the Pertemps Final.

But it is worth further squinting at the data, because it relates that those aged five or six notched 27 of the 39 wins (69%) from just 49% of the runners. Those victories were worth 94 points profit at BSP.

Chuck out horses aged nine and above, and be unforgiving with those aged seven and eight.

2018 Festival Update: All four handicap hurdle winners in this context last year were aged five to seven, with twelve 8yo's beaten, and eleven 9yo+ horses also seen off.

2019 Festival Update: The four winners in 2019 were aged six, seven, eight and nine. Those aged nine-plus were 1/19 for an SP profit of 10 points. William Henry it was who did the business (tipped at 40/1 in this preview), at 28/1.

2008-2019 Picture:

Age remains a factor, younger horses have much more improvement potential than their elders. William Henry was the first winner for the older battalion since that Buena Vista brace in 2010/11. Overall, the numbers read 3/148 (2.03% strike rate, -55% ROI, A/E 0.6).

Compare that with those aged eight or younger: 44/1006 (4.37% SR, -29% ROI, A/E 0.77).

And, further, with those aged five or six: 30/560 (5.36% SR, -8.7% ROI, A/E 0.83).

Starting Price

506 of the 964 starters in all-age Cheltenham Festival handicap hurdles since 2008 have been sent off at greater than 20/1. Five have won, at a collective loss of 343 points.

It follows then that the other 34 victors were priced at 20/1 or shorter, of which there were 458 runners. Remarkably, backing all such runners returned an SP profit of 35 points. That mushroomed to 127.5 points at BSP.

Only five of the 102 horses sent off shorter than 9/1 prevailed, for a 66 point loss at SP (60 points at BSP).

Make 20/1 your cutoff in all-age handicap hurdles, and beware the shortie.

2018 Festival Update: There was a 33/1 winner last year (Mohaayed in the County Hurdle), but the other three were 20/1 or shorter. Even allowing for the County winner, those priced at bigger than 20/1 were loss-making at SP (though an enormous BSP of 70 ensured a profit for intrepid exchange punters). Overall, the 22/1+ brigade are now 6/555 since 2008 in handicap hurdles at the Fez (Fred W aside).

2019 Festival Update: William Henry was again the blot on the copybook, he being the one bigger than 20/1 poke, from 47 to run, to win.

2008-2019 Picture:

Even with William limiting losses last year, outsiders continued to struggle. The long term picture now reads 7/602, 1.16% strike rate, -62.5% ROI, A/E 0.45. Compare that with 20/1 or shorter horses: 40/556, 7.19% SR, +0.18% ROI at SP (!), A/E 0.86.

Trainers

Willie Mullins has a fantastic record in open handicap hurdles at the Fez, scoring seven times from just 60 starters in the past decade. He's also added another ten placed horses for a brilliant 28% place strike rate. Gordon Elliott has performed even better in place terms, hitting the frame with twelve of his 34 such runners (35%). He also has a win and two places in the Fred Winter, from 11 starters.

Paul Nicholls has a very good record in handicap hurdles, too, in contrast to his Grade 1 performance in recent seasons. But the likes of Evan Williams and Charlie Longsdon (0 from 31, 0 places, between them), Noel Meade and Dr Richard Newland (0 from 27, 3 places, collectively) are probably best passed up.

Approach Messrs. Evan Williams, Longsdon, Meade and Newland with caution.

2018 Festival Update: Only the 40/1 shot Prime Venture represented this angle last year; he ran well enough in 8th of 23 in the Pertemps Final.

2019 Festival Update: Another barren year for the quartet with four mostly quietly fancied (16/1, 2 x 20/1, 33/1) runners finishing no nearer than 14th.

2008-2019 Picture:

That's now 0 from 63, just three places, with a remarkably even split between them: Longsdon and Meade are 0/15 each, Newland is 0/16 and Williams 0/17.

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Hurdle Micro System

Throwing all of the negatives into a mixer gives the following:

- No female horses
- No horses wearing cheekpieces or a visor
- No horses aged nine or above
- No horses sent off at greater than 20/1
- No horses trained by Evan Williams, Charlie Longsdon, Noel Meade or Dr Richard Newland

Applying those negative filters would have left 375 qualifiers. They collectively won 32 of the 39 qualifying races, for a profit of 80 points at SP, and a tasty 165 points at BSP.

2018 Festival Update: Even missing out on the County Hurdle last year, meaning there were only three winners to get, this angle made a profit at SP. In fact, it nailed three winners from 36 runners for +4 at SP and +18.07 at BSP.

2019 Festival Update: More losses on this angle with well backed winners spoiling the party. Still, figures of -13 at SP and -5.61 at BSP were not terminal.

2020 Festival Angle: A great angle down the years, I'll be rolling the dice for small stakes on this approach once more.

**

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Chases

That leaves us with the handicap chases: Festival Handicap Chase, Novices' Handicap Chase, the Festival Plate, the Kim Muir, and the Grand Annual. With all five races having been run throughout the review period, that gives us fifty races to go at. (I've excluded the Cross Country, which has been run as a handicap but is currently framed as a conditions race).

A whopping 1,086 runners have contested these handicap chases.

Gender

As with the handicap hurdles, it's been hard work for the girls. Only 19 have shown up but, while they have failed to win, they have recorded an impressive five placed efforts (26.32% place rate vs 18.18% for the boys).

Nothing especially of note.

2018 Festival Update: Just one unplaced female last year.

2019 Festival Update: Three more unplaced mares in 2019, all at big prices.

2008-2019 Picture: The handful of girls to run in Festival handicap chases are 0 from 23 but there's nothing really to write home about.

Headgear

Bizarrely given what we've seen hitherto, the fitting of any kind of headgear has outperformed the large 'no headgear' group in terms of win percentage. Cheekpieces, up until now shunned as a universal negative, have been worn by no fewer than seven of the fifty winners, at a rate of 5.26%. Blinkers have been worn by nine handicap chase winners, a 7.5% clip; and the visor and the hood were responsible for a win apiece from 22 and 23 runners respectively. Crikey!

Those unaccessorized won 32 handicap chases from 786 runners (4.07%, the lowest in the sample).

I'll stop short of saying that no headgear is a negative (!), but suffice it to say that the sporting of any kind of 'go faster' kit has not been a portent of failure.

2018 Festival Update: A blinkered runner, Missed Approach, again scored last year and, while cheek pieces went 0/14, four of them made the frame. Allied to Native River's Gold Cup win, I'm warming to the idea of cheekies on a chaser.

2019 Festival Update: Another cheekpieced chaser scored at huge odds, this time the veteran Croco Bay at a monster 66/1 (180 BSP). Two blinkered runners joined in as well, Any Second Now (6/1) and Beware The Bear (10/1) making it a great Festival for the headgear fencers.

2008-2019 Picture: Without getting too gung ho, it remains the case that chasers sporting headgear should not have their chance belittled on the basis of accoutrement.

Age

Although most winners were clustered in the six to nine years bracket, neither youth nor experience has been a killer blow in handicap chases. Winners have emerged from across the spectrum, with the winning-most ages from a number of victories perspective being the losing-most from a betting perspective.

2018 Festival Update: Last year was non-standard in that all five handicap chase winners were aged six to eight. You'd have still lost money even focusing on that age bracket.

2019 Festival Update: The full spectrum was again covered, with Croco Bay's win at 12 being counter-punched by A Plus Tard's score as a five-year-old. The other three winners were aged six, seven and nine.

2008-2019 Picture: Very little in this angle, from a handicap chase collective perspective at least.

Starting Price

Again we see winners up and down the odds boards, with the sweet (but highly unpredictable and potentially coincidental) spot being north of 25/1 and south of 80/1. Those unconsidered athletes have bagged nine of the 50 races for a profit of 23 points at SP and 331 points at BSP (thanks almost entirely to one enormous return).

Just too unpredictable to work with.

2018 Festival Update: Incredibly, all five handicap chase winners last year were priced at single figure SP's. That's probably never happened before and will probably never happen again!

2019 Festival Update: After 2018's chalky quintet, 2019 largely followed suit with winners at 9/2, 5/1, 6/1, 10/1... and 66/1!

2008-2019 Picture: Backing all handicap chasers at 10/1 or shorter in the last two years would have won you nine of the ten main track races, and a profit of 20.5 points at SP (30+ at BSP). But longer term, since 2008, this no-brainer angle would have lost 10% ROI at starting price, though it would have made a small profit at exchange odds.

Trainers

David Pipe has a terrific 8 from 75 record in the last decade in Festival handicap chases, for a small SP profit. On the flip side, Nicky Henderson's two winners have come from 83 runners (-45 at SP); Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Philip Hobbs are an aggregate of five from 153 (-68 at SP); and poor Charlie Longsdon is 0 from 23 (two places, -23 at SP) to make the cold list once more.

Steer clear of the volume boys: Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Philip Hobbs and Charlie Longsdon.

2018 Festival Update: A good strategy this, as between them they saddled 30 runners in handicap chases, with just 15/2 Le Prezien in the final race of last year's Festival doing the business. Six of the 30 hit the frame.

2019 Festival Update: Again swerving this high profile quintet would have saved you money: their 21 runners yielded one winner - Beware The Bear (10/1) for a loss of 11 points.

2008-2019 Picture: Overall these chaps have nine handicap chase winners between them since 2008, from a whopping 310 runners! That's a 2.9% strike rate, an ROI of -54% and an A/E of 0.46. Compare that with all other runners in the handicap chases in the same period: 5.2% strike rate, ROI of -15% and an A/E of 0.87. Dodge these chaps.

 

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Chase Micro System

Very little to go at here. We have some negative trainers, and we could try ignoring those:

- No horses trained by Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Philip Hobbs and Charlie Longsdon

That gives a fat 827 qualifying runners for a loss of 104 points at SP. A bumper profit at BSP was secured courtesy of Mister McGoldrick's 66/1 victory which returned 310 on the exchange!

Perhaps, just for kicks, we could add a long-odds SP range:

- No horses trained by Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Philip Hobbs and Charlie Longsdon
- No horses shorter than 28/1

We now only have eight winners, from 291 runners, but an SP profit of 40 points. At BSP, for the reason highlighted above, it becomes a juicy 341 points.

But we all know that there's nothing really of use in this section. The handicap chases are a crap shoot and, in negative elimination factor terms, should be avoided at all costs.

2018 Festival Update: The comment directly above was spot on. Just for the record the long-odds angle suggestion went 0/18 at last year's Cheltenham Festival.

2019 Festival Update: Surely nobody in their right mind would have followed this approach. But, if there was a contrarian nuts enough to have at it, he or she would have comfortably recouped last year's losses thanks to 66/1 winner, Croco Bay. He paid 180 at Betfair SP. That meant a profit of 32 points at starting price, and a monstrous one hit wonder return of 146 points at Betfair SP.

2020 Festival Angle: Nothing much really, though swerving the five named trainers will make life more manageable.

**

Summary

Ignoring the highly unpredictable handicap chase segment, there are some consistent negative factors worth keeping in mind throughout Cheltenham Festival week.

Firstly, don't get too gung ho by ploughing into the longshots. Unless you fancy one to shorten to 20/1 or less, there is a strong likelihood you've done your money.

Secondly, favour unexposed youth over established age/experience.

Thirdly, cheekpieces have been more about futility than utility outside of handicap chases.

Fourthly, beware Paul Nicholls outside of handicap hurdles, and Charlie Longsdon and Noel Meade universally.

The micro-systems above will provide plenty of action for those who like a mechanical approach. Better yet, they may assist in whittling fields to more manageable numbers with a view to poring over the form on the remaining runners.

However you choose to use this information - indeed, whether you choose to use it or not - enjoy the Fez. There's nothing quite like it!

2018 Festival Update: Nothing to add to the above, which pretty much nailed it at last year's show and may again provide valuable guidance this time around...

2019 Festival Update: These principles - they are guidelines rather than hard and fast rules - still largely hold true. I'd not be so negative about Paul Nicholls any more, with the exception of his (and those four other named trainers') handicap chasers; and I'm very interested in that emerging them in the Albert Bartlett: of all the Festival races at which to have a swing at a long price or three, that one is tops in my book.

However you play things, enjoy the ride, and be lucky!

Matt

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