I have held a bit of a pet theory about the Willie Mullins team for some time now and, when Shaneshill was turned over at odds on, I decided to apply some more objective focus on the matter.
Firstly, looking at Willie's monthly record with his Graded runners 2011 to 2014, December is the low point prior to March
Oct 29% win strike rate
Clearly there's not much in it, but it does seem to be a 'calm before the storm' period, and I've often wondered whether a number of the horses are 'under cooked' ahead of the training regime ramping up for March.
Now, onto the pet theory. My premise was that Willie Mullins' Cheltenham Festival hopes often under-perform in December, and a run below market expectation can be excused in that context. If the theory held water it would mean that there could be some cracking Festival value to be had about beaten Mullins horses during the festive season.
It was a pretty laborious pen and paper exercise to note all the win and placed Mullins horses from the last four Cheltenham Festivals, and then back check their records in the preceding December, and their subsequent performance en route to Festival honours. Laborious, but also interesting. Here's what I discovered:
Of the 43 Mullins horses to win or place at the Cheltenham Festival since 2011, 13 did not run in December (i.e. three months earlier). From the 30 that did run in December, they collectively ran 32 times. The breakdown is as follows:
Won at the Festival and ran in December of same season
11521211112 (bold wins are Hurricane Fly, italics are Faugheen)
Placed (but did not win) at the Festival and ran in December of same season
Those Mullins machines that won at Cheltenham in March recorded seven December wins (64%) and four non-wins (36%), three of which were second places. In other words, Mullins horses beaten in December can still win at the Festival. And there's something interesting about the quartet of Advent flops too:
2014 Don Poli won the Martin Pipe at 12/1
2013 Champagne Fever won the Supreme at 5/1 (but was 16/1 the week before the race)
2012 Champagne Fever won the Champion Bumper at 16/1
2012 Final Approach won the Coral Cup at 20/1
They were all available at double digit odds a few days before the race, if not on the day. Nice.
Of the placed non-winners at the Cheltenham Festival, they collectively ran 21 times in December of the same season, winning just nine times. Indeed, eleven of the twelve losing efforts were third placed finishes or worse.
But how could we know that the above is anything more than randomness? Well, the correct way would be to wade through the Cheltenham Festival unplaced Mullins runners, and compare their December fortunes with those who made the Festival frame. In a blatant attempt to avoid such actuarial tedium whilst not totally devaluing the partial dataset observations, I discovered something quite interesting. Actually, very interesting.
Here is the performance of Mullins horses that ran in December, from January up until the Festival where they won/placed:
As you can see, there is a far clearer winning pattern in the racecourse performances during the ten weeks prior to middle March.
And if we look only at the Festival winners that ran in December, we get this as their collective form string from January to pre-Cheltenham: 1111111111
An unbroken sequence of ten 'prep race' wins.
It is important to note that there is a degree of self-fulfilment at play here. After all, the Festival squad will be naturally selected from the horses showing the best form running up to the big West Country jamboree. Despite that, it is hard to ignore the pattern of unbeaten horses in the year of their Festival win.
Don Poli, for instance, was 2nd in a maiden hurdle in December before winning two subsequent races prior to his 12/1 Festival success. Champagne Fever was 2nd in a December Grade 1 before winning en route to Supreme glory; and, in 2012, he was 2nd in a December bumper before winning a bumper and then taking the Champion Bumper. And Final Approach was 5th in a competitive handicap in December before winning in a field of 26 twice, the second of which was that 20/1 Coral Cup run.
So what are the take aways here?
1. Don't be afraid to back a Mullins horse beaten in December, especially if it finished second, but DO insist on a decent price about it.
2. Know that a further loss between January and the Festival stacks the balance of probabilities against you.
3. Beware of backing a horse for the wrong race. There is no worse feeling than backing a horse for Race A and seeing it lag up in Race B (often despite assurances from the trainer/owner regarding its intended target).
4. Shaneshill may still win at the Festival, but given he's quoted in two markets, the 7/1 to win any Cheltenham race (Hills) looks the most appealing. After all, he started Sunday at that same price with that same firm to win the Neptune on its own, no potato race insurance!
Those December silver medallists from the Mullins barn not to give up on just yet include:
Blood Cotil (2nd in a beginners' chase, and perhaps being targeted at the novices' handicap chase, after a fair sixth in the Fred Winter last term)
Boston Bob (badly hampered when second to Don Cossack, and a 20/1 Gold Cup contender)
Shaneshill (second in the Champion Bumper last year, and can step up when improving his jumping, 7/1 to win any race is a lot better than around 11/2 if dutching across Neptune and Albert Bartlett)
There will be more to add to this list before the month is out...
Onto matters nearer to now, and closer to home, and I think there's a spot of value at Wolverhampton this afternoon.
Firstly, in the 3.40, a mile and three-quarters handicap, the improving filly, Topaling, can notch a hat-trick and a fourth win in five starts. She's got a full 'line of green' profile on The Shortlist and Instant Expert, and she's had a really nice rest pattern between her races.
As a three year old - one of five in the nine strong field - she gets a seven pound allowance that she'll not get in a couple of weeks time. It was a canny ride from Jimmy Quinn last time to get her up close home, and JQ again pilots today under the same conditions. Topaling was rated 49 when winning the first of her three races, and is still only on 61, meaning she has bottom weight.
There are other potential improvers in the field, such as Front Run, though that one doesn't appeal at all on breeding, in spite of the optical impression he made when going close over a mile and a half on his handicap bow last time.
Star Anise had a bit more in hand when beating off the re-opposing Rowlestone Lass et al the last day, and she too bids for a hat-trick. But I think Topaling can run them all down, finishing fast and late under JQ. She's a 5/1 shot with bet365, Boyle and Hills.
Then, in the finale at 5.40, I quite like the top one, Almanack. This fellow ran well to be third the last twice in races that are working out well, and he drops not one but two grades for this. Track and trip are bang on - he's a course and distance winner on the tapeta already - and while stall eleven is sub-optimal, Almanack is a hold up type so should be able to drop in early under Stevie Donohoe.
With Venutius, Comrade Bond, and perhaps Dha Chara setting the speed, things should be truly enough run to allow Donohoe into the fray. The form of the trainer, Ian Williams, is a niggle, but on balance 5/1 seems a dab of value given the class plummet.
And, speaking of value, Statpicks, the value service run by geegeez.co.uk's own Chris Worrall (of Stat of the Day and Double Dutch fame), hit its mark on Saturday with two winners and a short head second from three picks. If you've yet to take a look at this, then you can do so here (and lock in a very attractive trial offer).