In my last article I discussed the relative merits of graded novice hurdle races in the UK and Ireland based on how well the horses involved performed over the next calendar year, writes Jon Shenton. You can find that here: https://www.geegeez.co.uk/novice-hurdles-whats-the-form-worth/
It wasn’t planned to be a two-part double header, but sheer volume of interesting takeaways has merited it, thus a sequel was hastily commissioned and here it is.
Before commencing it’s worth noting that I won’t be going into details regarding methodology of race scores, rankings and the like. All of that can be found in the original article, linked to above.
First things first, then: let's catch up on the two races from Part 1 which were highlighted as the most accomplished based on my race rankings. Both events have been contested since publication. Of course, it will only become apparent if the usual abundance of talent was present in a few months', or perhaps years', time but we need to have a better idea before then!
2020 Chanelle Pharma Novices' Hurdle (Leopardstown)
This race was comfortably the strongest novice hurdle based on the historical average race rating of 96+. This year's renewal had a very impressive winner who appears to have a strong chance of living up to the general quality of the race. Asterion Forlonge made easy work of, well, Easywork to win by over nine lengths from the Gordon Elliott-trained 5/4 jolly, extending Willie Mullins’ stranglehold on the race by extracting his seventh victory from the last eight renewals. The full result is shown below.
Both Asterion Forlonge and Easywork disputed the lead from the get-go, giving each other little peace throughout. The eventual victor galloped relentlessly, breaking his field one by one and finishing powerfully. A credible case could be constructed to even upgrade the performance given the contested pace and the seemingly tiring nature of the track on Sunday.
The Chanelle Pharma is a proven stepping stone for Mullins charges prior to tackling Cheltenham and it will be of significant interest to see where the winner rolls up in a few short weeks. Ordinarily the Supreme would be top of the list (the route taken by Klassical Dream, Vautour and Champagne Fever). However, the Donnelly’s, owners of Asterion Forlonge, have a decision to make given that the head of the Supreme ante-post market is fronted by their own Shishkin. Add in another Donnelly novice hurdler, The Big Getaway, and possibilities abound. It would be no surprise to see the yellow and black checkerboard silks in the winner's enclosure on more than one occasion, with Al Boum Photo adding a significant further string to connections' Cheltenham bow.
2020 Classic Novices' Hurdle (Cheltenham)
The second race that was discussed in Part 1, as it was ranked 2nd overall (with an average rating of 78) was the Ballymore Classic Novices' Hurdle on Cheltenham Trials day run at the end of January. The result is below:
In truth, it’s hard to assess the strength of this renewal at this stage. Overall, it seems fair to assert that the Irish novices appear to have to an edge over the British crop as things stand. Harry Fry, trainer of the second placed King Roland essentially confirmed this view by questioning his charges participation at the Cheltenham Festival based on not conceivably being able to defeat Envoi Allen. Of course, trainer talk should be often taken with a good pinch of salt and whilst beating the Envoi may be a stretch based on evidence thus far, there is still a case for the King to reign in the future.
Watching the race again, the horse was virtually left standing at the start and gave the early leader, House Island, a 20-length head start. More importantly, the eventual winner, Harry Senior, had a few lengths in hand too. King Roland then breezed into contention on the home turn but didn’t see it through, finally succumbing by three lengths.
The winner barrelled up the Cheltenham hill despite coming under pressure earlier than virtually every other horse in the race. Trained by Colin Tizzard, Harry Senior gave a strong impression that the longer three-mile test of the Albert Bartlett would suit. Consequently, this 6-year-old is on the dauphinoise end of my scale for the potato race shortlist.
Next time out races to follow
There are other races from Part 1 that are worth delving into, notably the Navan Grade 2 run in December, the Nathaniel Lacy (2m 6f) run at Leopardstown as part of the Dublin Racing Festival (both won by Latest Exhibition), and any other novice hurdle ran at Cheltenham. However, this time I want to assess the same races but in a slightly different way. Rather than following the races for a calendar year (like in Part 1), I thought that it may be of interest to appraise by only considering the horses' next time out (NTO) performances.
An important distinction is that Part 1 contained five years' worth of data, whereas the table below relates to the entire history of the race contained in horseracebase.com’s database, going as far back as the late 1990’s in some cases. I’ve used the “follow” capability from the big trends page on HRB to then manually compile this output.
The table below presents the data for next time out performances.
The columns starting with the notation “Win” show the fate of only the horses who won the race in question on their next outing. The columns beginning with “All” represent the performance of every runner that competed in each race on their next visit to a track. The data is sorted by the AllNextPL which shows the £1 level stake return if you’d backed every horse from the race next time out. The data is complete for races run up to January 16th 2020.
National Hunt Novices' Handicap Hurdle Final (Grade 3, Sandown)
Reviewing the “All” data in the first instance, perhaps surprisingly, at the top of the tree is the Grade 3 March Novice Handicap Final from Sandown. Contested over 2m 4f, this event usually attracts a large field. In terms of measuring the subsequent overall form of the race it is on the lower end of the scale with a race rating of 46.6 (see Part 1) and isn’t generally a race to follow.
However, by checking race ranking data there are clues as to why this race might be of interest for NTO runners but not overall form. Using the same table format as part 1 here are the Sandown G3 Novice Handicap individual yearly race ratings and ranks.
Immediately, it can be seen that the ratings are relatively low due primarily to poor performance in subsequent Graded races: in total, 27 runs had followed in Graded company (GPrun), producing a solitary Grade 2 victory in 2017. However, it is clear from the OthrW column that there is a healthy abundance of future winners exiting this race. It may be a case of quantity over quality for this event from a Graded perspective, but it remains a solid barometer.
This all makes a degree of sense; after all it is the one and only handicap on our list and it is usually staged the weekend before Cheltenham. Ergo, it may be a fair assertion that “not quite top level” novices are targeted at this race as an opportunity to secure a sought-after Graded prize. It is also plausible that a greater number of horses than average are well handicapped improving types given the novice element of the contest. So, even if it is not their day at Sandown in early March, they may still be in a strong position to strike next time.
Evaluating next time out performance by the class of race competed in demonstrates that the vast majority of animals drop several rungs of the ladder to class 3 or 4 races, and by and large perform competently at this earthlier level.
The elite level G1 results notwithstanding, the rest are solid. It must be stated, however, that there is outlying SP of 50/1 (Time For Rupert who finished 10th in the Sandown race and then won a Listed race at Aintree the following month) which obviously gives a flattering edge to the overall P&L number.
I’m not sure that I’d advise backing all runners coming out of Sandown blindly but, with a strike rate of over 23% for next time outers, I will certainly be adding horses from this race into my geegeez tracker for further evaluation.
Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, Haydock)
Another race worth quickly noting due its recent running and propensity to deliver next time out winners (again, despite its relatively uninspiring race ranking) is the Grade 2 Rossington Main staged at Haydock. Horses exiting this event are 26/109 with a profit of £24.79 to £1 level stakes on their next run; that’s a better than 20% rate of return. That needs caveating with the fact that pickings have been slim in the past five years with only a handful of short price next time out winners. However, in the 2020 renewal, run at the end of January, the trio of Stolen Silver, Thebannerkingrebel and Edwardstone fought out a tight finish with all three looking to be the type to keep on your side. The first two named are entered in the Betfair Hurdle this Saturday.
Cheltenham Festival Novice Hurdles
For this edition most of the focus on novice hurdlers has been on evaluating a Graded race with an eye to its future form. But, of course, at this time of year all roads lead to Cheltenham, so as a final set of analysis below is a brief appraisal of the three Championship Novice Hurdle races staged at the Festival.
By understanding the routes that the winners have taken through their novice campaigns there may be some clues as to where to start looking for this year's bounty.
Supreme Novices Hurdle – 2 miles ½ furlong
First up is the Supreme: in a few weeks' time the Festival will open with a spine-tingling roar as the Supreme protagonists take their first steps toward potential fame and glory. Given its opening berth I suspect that more time and effort is expended on predicting the winner of the curtain-raiser than any other race over the course of the week (or is that just me?!). Other (more qualified) people will commit their thoughts to paper with interesting and informative race form previews, but the below table may offer some historical pointers on where to start evaluating the contenders.
The table is fairly basic, illustrating the winners of the Supreme, their SP and a record of all graded race performances in the same season prior to the Cheltenham event. This campaigns winner has been added to build a ready-made shortlist for further analysis!
It is not a shock to note that there isn’t a single case over the past nine years where the winner of the Supreme has not already tasted Graded success during the same season. This is of interest, particularly as the head of the ante-post market at time of writing is the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin.
Shishkin has yet to dip his hoof into anything above Class 4 novice waters and, with only one entry before Cheltenham (a Listed race at Huntingdon), it’s very unlikely he’s going to get that Graded experience prior to the Festival. Stats and trends of course are there to be broken, and it may be that we have a trend buster in the making here. That said, whilst taking on a Hendo hotpot is not for the meek, I think I’d much rather side at the prices with a horse with greater experience - and winning Graded form - especially after referencing the data in the table above.
The Chanelle Pharma features prominently, three times in total, with the Mullins trio of Champagne Fever, Vautour and Klassical Dream all taking the Leopardstown G1 route to subsequent Prestbury Park glory. The complexity regarding the same ownership of Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge will play out in due course, no doubt. However, if they both line up on the big day my money will be on the latter: the Chanelle Pharma / Supreme double is historically compelling.
Ballymore Novices Hurdle – 2 miles 5 furlongs
Graded experience is again important in the case of the Ballymore. Aside from City Island last year, all winners have finished at least in the top two in a Graded event, the lone exception having taken the scenic route via an £11k Naas novice event. City Island's trainer, Martin Brassil, had had up to that point only two previous runners at the Festival which may explain the slightly unconventional path to victory.
In terms of the remaining winners, the Chanelle Pharma is preeminent again and, along with the Leamington, two victors have prevailed from each to take the Ballymore in the past nine years.
The current 2020 ante-post favourite, Envoi Allen, is a slim 5/4 poke largely due to being a dual-Grade 1 winner already this season. The market historically looks to be there or thereabouts too. It’s not a tip but in terms of ticking the boxes the Envoi appears to be an identikit winner
Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle – 3 miles
Finally, the gruelling three-mile trip of the Albert Bartlett has borne witness to some Hollywood-priced winners recently. All bar two (Minella Indo and Very Wood) had already tasted Graded victory in the same season, and even both of the non-Graded winners ran second in such an event.
Two horses prominent in the Albert Bartlett betting are the Willie Mullins trained-Monkfish and Colin Tizzard-conditioned The Big Breakaway. Like Shishkin in the Supreme, both animals lack Graded miles on the clock, leading to a question on whether they can step up to the Festival plate. In fact, thus far, neither have competed in any race close to Graded level.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find commonality in the routes to Albert Bartlett glory, with seemingly the whole array of novice races listed above. As mentioned previously, the names in the 2019/20 column are essentially a shortlist of potentially where to start more detailed analysis; although it could easily be argued that checking the market gives a similar result. Nevertheless, given the propensity for unfancied horses to win, my starting point in the spud race will be to evaluate the chances of some of the unheralded names in the table above, Redford Road perhaps being a case in point.
That’s it for this novice hurdle deep dive. I’ve enjoyed putting it together and it’s been highly educational in terms of attaining a greater appreciation of the novice roadmap and its leading pathfinders. Hopefully, it will result in some punting improvements too!