In my previous article I confidently put up several reasons why I didn’t think Goshen could prevail in the Triumph hurdle, writes Jon Shenton. I guess on a technicality I was correct as he unseated at the last when bounding clear in a freakish incident. A hollow victory, even more hollow if you consider that this left Burning Victory – a filly, more on those below – to saunter home, another horse who was consigned to the discard pile for the race, predominantly due to the trainer’s (Willie Mullins) poor Juvenile record at the festival at 0-from-41.
Despite the back to the drawing board nature of the result, research in one area can pay dividends in another. Penicillin was discovered by accident, after all! Hopefully, a poor one-off result in the Triumph can be appeased through a steady stream of winners inspired by some of the research that went into it… if we ever get any more racing here in Britain.
The juvenile hurdle programme covers racing for three-year-olds only (before January 1st) and four-year-olds from the New Year when all horses age by a year. The data in this article relates to the juvenile programme only where horses are racing against the same three or four-year-old age demographic. It excludes three- or four-year-olds running in all-age novice or open company.
Let’s first consider three general pointers to help assess a juvenile field. All data in this article has been generated through the excellent horseracebase.
Fillies underperform in Juvenile Hurdles
The first consideration relates to the gender of the horse and their relative performance.
The message in the table above is crystal clear in terms of the fairer sex paling in comparison to the males in juvenile contests. Basically, a filly is little more than half as likely to win as a colt or gelding based on Win% (Strike Rate). Amazingly, by backing all male runners you would have out turned a small profit to Betfair SP (based on 2% commission), albeit there are some very juicy prices on the machine propping those numbers up significantly.
Clearly the rough and tumble of juvenile hurdling seems to be more of a stretch early in the career of a female horse. Whether this is physiological or mental in nature I don’t know, but the statistics are unequivocal. In fact, the true picture is actually slightly worse as the data table includes all juvenile races, some of which are for fillies only (so there must be a female winner). Analysing the races where both male and female horses compete against each other the picture is even bleaker, see below.
Fillies are gifted a seven pounds weight-for-gender allowance too. These numbers suggest that is not enough to level the playing field amongst the juveniles. An A/E of 0.67, strike rate of 6.3% and a loss of over half of stakes at SP means such runners have to overcome a huge red flag in terms of general punting. However, as mentioned in my introduction, Burning Victory is a filly. One with a trainer who had a pre-festival record of 0-from-41 in juvenile races. There are general trends and pattern-busters. C’est la vie.
Headgear on Juvenile Hurdlers is sub-optimal
Another area worth looking at is the application of headgear, usually in the hope of focussing the equine mind on the matter in hand. For whatever reason, these go-faster stripes have often attracted my attention. As a result, I’ve frequently bottled a potential bet because my fancy is up against a runner in first time headgear. However, in the case of the young hurdle division I won’t be bottling it next time, not based on headgear at least.
This table shows performance by the accoutrements worn (excluding tongue-ties). Those without headgear clearly fare better than adorned rivals. Quite like playing golf in my limited experience! Cheekpieces are only a minor negative but as the more extreme headgear is applied, the lower a performance in general is delivered.
[It should be noted that the massive Betfair figure (P/L (BF)) comes from a quintet of massive-priced winners, including one that returned a Betfair SP of 1000!]
Whilst this is interesting enough, there is some deeper info which can further help with context.
This table shows results by the number of previous runs a horse has had with the exact same headgear arrangements. It relates that if a horse is wearing headgear for the first time (Prev in Hdgr = 0), performance is moderate, with a strike rate of around 7.5%. Once headgear has been worn more than once, the numbers equate more to the unaccoutred level of performance. This makes sense: if an animal runs badly in headgear the first time it was applied, that plan is likely to be consigned to history for subsequent runs.
The bottom line is that first-time headgear is a substantial negative on a juvenile hurdler: if connections are reaching for such a solution in a juvenile campaign it suggests in broad terms that they feel there is a problem to solve. Not even Burning Victory was wearing headgear!
French-Bred horses are more mature and race ready
One thing that’s mentioned in the racing media frequently is a belief that horses bred and/or taking their formative racing steps across the other side of the channel are more mature. The argument thus goes that they perform better as juveniles than the British and Irish competition in the UK.
Here is the performance picture based on breeding origin.
As can be seen, the win rate for French-bred juveniles is notably higher than British- or Irish-bred runners in such races: chapeau to the French.
As an interesting aside, the record of fillies originating from France is relatively strong, despite the generally moderate overall performance of females, something worth bearing in mind.
Trainers of Juvenile Hurdlers
The below table shows the records for UK Juvenile Hurdles from 1st Jan 2010 to present day by trainer. It contains the top dozen in terms of victories over that period. The table is ranked by number of wins.
Alan King is comfortably the winning-most trainer on the list with approximately 50% more victories than the behemoth Henderson and Nicholls operations. Despite the glittering array of winners, profitability appears to be limited, King’s runners generally very ‘well found’ in the market.
However, whilst panning for precious metal I found a potential nugget worthy of closer inspection.
The above data displays the yard’s juvenile record by the number of previous runs the horse has had over hurdles (in the UK). One line stands out, markedly so and just to be clear, it’s the top one: King juvenile debutants over hurdles have a strike rate of over 30% and are profitable to SP. Whilst performance is perfectly respectable in subsequent outings for the horses, the numbers do regress in a somewhat linear fashion from that initial watermark and are subsequently overbet, with very heathy strike rates yielding losses.
If you want to play with fire, for the first-time hurdlers there isn’t a winner at a price bigger than an SP of 10/1 from 10 attempts (with only one placed horse). For me though, any King juvenile runner is on the radar for their first spin over jumps regardless of price; I’ll leave the 10/1 threshold to you to decide.
Next, it’s appears to have been a valuable exercise picking out Gary Moore for due consideration. Exceeding market expectation with an A/E of 1.19, this yard is clearly one worth following in terms of juveniles. Notably, as with Alan King’s runners, it appears that catching Moore entries in their fledgling hurdle days is the optimal time. The table below supports the assertion.
That is quite a stark difference between the two rows of data, leaving little doubt that Team Moore have their young hurdlers ready to compete at a relatively early stage in their development.
I wonder if this is due to the many new hurdlers from the yard that go into a National Hunt career off at least a run or two on the flat given the dual-purpose nature of Moore’s operation. In fact, evaluating some of the juicier priced winners contained in this potential angle, a fair number appear to have had at least one, sometimes several, uninspiring runs previously on the level (or in National Hunt Flat races) before winning first time up over jumps.
These numbers relate to Gary Moore-trained horses making their debut over hurdles where they have run in the UK previously but have not won in their career to date. It’s certainly a micro with too-good-to-be-true numbers and only a handful of qualifiers each year, and it may well be one or two years between drinks; however, ignore a flat maiden Moore debutant over hurdles at your peril.
Finally, it would be slightly remiss not to mention the Henderson and Nicholls yards, as backing both blindly in juvenile hurdles has yielded a small and surprising profit.
For Henderson, a couple of huge priced winners (Une Artiste at 40/1 and Protek Des Flos at 25/1) add a shine to the numbers which may or may not be sustainable over time. However, using some of the themes from earlier in this article it may be a worthwhile exercise paying close attention to his first-time hurdlers that have been imported from across the English Channel.
Although it must be said that two thirds of the profit to SP has been delivered from the aforementioned Protek Des Flos, the figures still stand up fairly well excluding that skewing winner.
Another way to play Henderson juveniles might be sticking to the big races with them.
The competitive Class 1 races yield reasonable returns, with a lower, but still highly respectable, strike rate than other classes. This table perfectly illustrates the difference between backing winners and seeking long-term profit: if you want winners then backing Seven Barrows runners in lower-class races will pay out over a third of the time, but long-term profit will be tough to attain given the magnetic attraction of punters to the Henderson brand in these shallower contests.
In terms of Ditcheat trainer Paul Nicholls, performance is solid across the board. While it’s tough to find a specific edge based on the data, it (obviously, perhaps) remains a sound approach to treat juveniles from this yard with respect. Backing Nicholls juvenile hurdlers is not a get rich quick scheme, but nor is it a get poor quick one!
The below summarises a few specific Juvenile Hurdle angles to back where desired.
- Alan King first time juvenile hurdle runners in the UK
- Gary Moore first or tecond time juvenile hurdle runners in the UK
- Gary Moore first time over hurdles with no previous career victories on the flat (or National Hunt Flat races)
- Nicky Henderson first time juvenile hurdlers originating from France
- Nicky Henderson runners in all Class 1 juvenile hurdle races
I hope that this gives you a head start for the resumption of racing, whenever that may be. Until then, keep well.