Hello again! It’s obviously been a while since I last made a contribution here, writes Jon Shenton. These days balancing time is a bit of a struggle due to a change in circumstances. With the pandemic meaning I’m still working from home it’s been difficult to focus on writing after another laptop heavy session in the day job. However, rest assured that I have been keeping the racing cogs whirring during the quiet spell!
For this article, I’m going to have a quick canter around the UK chasing scene. Now we’re into the full swing of the National Hunt season it’s an apt time to focus upon the subject. Let's start with novice chases...
Novice Chase Races
Before rushing headlong into the nitty gritty, from personal experience I initially found the learning curve regarding the complex array of race types and classifications in our sport a tad perplexing (still do, at times!). For those who may be at a similar position here is a link to the BHA’s handy glossary which should assist in understanding what a novice is in the context of the sport.
In fairness, you may still be non-the-wiser after reading that! Don’t overly worry if it doesn’t sink in, what follows will still be useful, I hope!
Let’s begin with a broad-brush check of the best performing Novice Chase trainers by A/E (Actual vs Expected, see this short article for an explanation). Data only includes SP’s up to and inclusive of 20/1. As stated previously that’s a personal choice and something that works for me, especially when trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. The data runs through to 16th November 2021.
The above table lays out performance in the Novice Chase division lock, stock, and barrel. It shows the top dozen trainers, sorted by A/E where they have had one hundred or more runners in this discipline during the period in question.
Immediately, Harry Fry reveals himself as about whom to sit up and take notice (and I’ll briefly return to him later). However, the eye is drawn to the powerful Dan Skelton stable, primarily due to the volume of runners in comparison to rival yards.
The Skelton 2020 vintage included progressive luminaries such as Shan Blue and Allmankind amongst others, underlining that this already high-profile operation is still in the ascendant. The class of ’21 has the headline acts of Third Time Lucki and My Drogo to name but two, both being sure to feature in debate across the land over the coming months.
When mentioning this article to one of my good friends, they pointed out that surmising that Skelton is strong at chasing is like giving insight that Lewis Hamilton might win a few grand prix races. In fairness, he probably has a point; however, in my defence, backing this up with hard data and establishing sub-angles / micros within is still valuable to hone understanding around when best to commit to a wager.
With that in mind, it’s of interest to understand how stables perform based on their horses experience level over the larger obstacles. I dare say that most of you will be familiar with data driven intel such as first-time out stats, or performance of first-time handicappers for example. However, data referencing first time over fences is less mainstream so there is always a potential edge in evaluation. Here is the Skelton record by number of previous chase runs for Novice runners.
The table clearly demonstrates that Skelton novice chasers are worth catching very early in their career over fences: the numbers are very strong for those first time up, as well as those with a single chase run to their names.
Arguably, third time chasers demand respect, too. Although it appears that the market has adjusted and has accounted for this - the first two runs evidently revealing the horses' ability secrets, resulting in a small loss to SP despite a 33% strike rate - the positive A/E figure still implies some betting value going forward.
However, solely focusing on first / second time chasers, and exploring just a little deeper through the prism of race distance seems a sensible next step. The table below illustrates exactly this.
Performance at the shorter end of the distance spectrum is undoubtedly excellent. A total of 29 victories from 67 for those travelling less than 2 miles 1 furlong is mightily impressive. I’ve also highlighted a small pocket of exemplar stats for those at three miles too: although cherry-picking in this way is not to everyone's tastes, it can be seen that the broader range of three miles to 3m 2 1/2f is a strong collective.
My personal betting approach has been modified over the last year or so in that I no longer back angles blindly and have become far more selective regarding when I wager. Ergo, I’m not going to recommend ploughing in purely based on these stats (it’s not the geegeez way anyway). Nevertheless, a first or second time Skelton chaser in a novice, particularly over shorter distances, gets a huge tick in the box and a place on the race shortlist.
Reverting back to Harry Fry, he’s at the top of the overall novice chase tree with a 32% strike rate and an A/E of 1.22, so it’d be remiss not to check-in quickly, especially as there is one very clear (and perhaps somewhat obvious) trait within the data. That is market sentiment, the table below clearly highlighting that a well-fancied Fry runner is generally a very noteworthy thing.
[Just a point of order here: the 5/1 or greater set includes all prices, not just those up to 20/1 as per the rest of the article]
A huge tick, then, for a Harry Fry novice chaser that is prominent in the betting lists.
Based on the data so far, it’s a pragmatic step to survey whether there is further value to be attained in the “first time over fences angle (in novices)”. The table below gives the view from 2016 onwards sorted, as usual, by A/E.
The sample sizes are low in general (compared to the earlier Skelton behemoth at least), though obviously that’s the general nature of the game with racing datasets.
The trick is to assess whether the numbers are driven by chance or whether there might be an underlying performance angle to evaluate. Being data driven punters, we have a clear inclination towards the latter! However, there are several rows in the above table that do need taking with a pinch of salt. Despite this, the stats regarding Nick Alexander, Brian Ellison and the still up-and-coming Olly Murphy merit respect and much deeper consideration (although I'm not going to delve further here today - feel free to do some work and share your discoveries in the comments below!).
That about covers the “best” trainers by A/E. And there is also merit in making a quick tour of the high profile, high volume stables to aid general awareness of the novice chase landscape. With that in mind, here are the 'first time in novice chase' stats for those yards that seem to have runners in every race.
It's not a huge surprise that our mate Dan Skelton has the most runners. However, it is interesting - to me at least - to note that the master of Seven Barrows, Nicky Henderson, has a marginally profitable record, with a third of his debut novice chase runners prevailing. With Best Odds Guaranteed and general offers (or exchange betting) there is likely to be some value on offer here.
At the other end of the profitability line, giving a wide berth to Evan Williams first time novice chasers seems a sensible general play: mental fortitude is required in spades to knowingly weigh in with a 4.4% strike rate and a moderate place record to boot.
The next table is an education on volume versus value through the Henderson data. It’s immutable that the strike rate in non-handicaps at over 37% is top-class. However, in such races it appears that there is a paucity of value (with a negative 20% ROI). I’d imagine smallish fields and an attraction for punters to a Hendo hotpot results in these often becoming heavily overbet. Conversely, a debutant chaser in a handicap appears to offer value despite the reduced strike rate (still a mighty 26%).
Originally, this was going to be a two-part article broadly split into a first submission on novices, with a sequel covering open company. However, researching both simultaneously there was time-relevant data that I wanted to share now as it’s especially pertinent to this time of year. What is lost in flow, I hope will be offset by good solid insight!
One variable that I often evaluate but seldom find any notable output from is consideration of the age of runners. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time panning for angle gold in this area: searching for snippets regarding weight-for-age, performance of the youngest horses in handicaps, and such like. Success has largely been limited, however I’m optimistic that there is something of at least some interest here. The following table shows performance by age in handicap chases using data from slightly earlier, 1st October 2015, to cover the full 2015-16 season. This data relates to and includes 20th November 2021.
Despite the small sample size, the four-year-old data are interesting (however, will park that for now).
Further exploration of the six-year-old information is the direction of travel I want to take. Whilst not being profitable as this level, I’m drawn to the c.2+% better strike rate than the other ages, better A/E and only a small loss to SP. Most importantly, though, perhaps is the chunky sample size of nearly seven thousand within which to delve more deeply.
In general terms horses tend to work their way up in trip throughout their careers. On that basis it’s a pragmatic step to inspect the 6yo performance by race distance. The theory being that they’ll outperform at either end of the distance spectrum: shorter distances as that’s where they’ll start their careers, unexposed to the handicapper, or longer trips where they are not fancied in the market due to their relative fledgling career.
The table can be broadly segmented into two. The green banded area represents short through to intermediate distances and the red box contains data for longer trips. There is more than an inference of better performance (in relative terms) over shorter distances, with strike rates, place rates, ROI, and A/E all consistently a tick or two above the longer counterpart info. I have ignored a small number of runners at beyond 3m 2.5f, incidentally.
Whilst this is not “angle” material per se, it’s an interesting backdrop to aid understanding of the outcome of a given handicap chase.
Taking these 6yo’s over the shorter/intermediate distances and evaluating by the length of time they’ve been off the track opens another potential door. As you might expect by now, there is a table below showing the data!
The obvious area of significance is within the green box: the aggregated numbers for this area are 496 runs, 109 wins (22.0%) and a 26% ROI, 1.27 A/E.
That pocket of enhanced performance in relation to horses having their first run between six months and a year since their last spin feels like valuable insight.
It may be speculation, but I’d posit that this age is typically of particular importance to an animal's chasing development. Absence may improve the level of capability / ability through maturity, schooling or another unknown change - wind surgery, for instance. Whatever the reason, that green box shows something worth knowing in my opinion!
Taking this one small step further, one of my favourite “against the market plays” is to back specific horses who endured a poor run last time out. Often the market overreacts which, coupled with a horse being off track for six months or more (still a potential against the market play as punters tend to like the assurance of a recent run), can be punting heaven.
Taking the 6yo chase handicappers after a layoff and evaluating whether they hit the frame last time out the below differentiation emerges.
There is a negligible variance in strike rates between the two datasets. However, A/E and ROI is much enhanced for the horses that failed to place in their last visit to the track.
In summary, keep a track on 6yo’s in chase handicaps, particularly if they’ve had a spell off the course and especially, for potential value, if they also underperformed last time out. I’ve checked and this does also apply to non-handicap chases, although to a much lesser extent.
The rationale of inclusion of handicap data in this article is that being that we’re now into the National Hunt season 'proper', and plenty of horses are hitting the track after a prolonged absence. Of the 496 runners in the off-track 6yo dataset, 415 of them relate to the months of October, November, and December. And of course, all these 6yo’s become 7yo’s in the new year. So, whilst the clock is ticking on 2021, this is something that will form a backbone of my chasing race evaluation in future seasons.
It won’t be so long until the next article, I promise! Until then, thanks as always for reading.