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Pace Bias in Non-Handicap Hurdle Races

With the evenings now sadly drawing in, many punters will soon begin to think about the upcoming National Hunt season, writes Dave Renham. So Matt and I felt it was the right time to revisit pace bias in National Hunt racing. In the past I have written several articles for Geegeez on the topic of pace and for this piece I am going to take an in depth look at non-handicap hurdle races.

I appreciate many of you reading this will have read some or all of my previous articles, but for new readers it is important to explain what pace in a race means and how we measure it. Pace in this context is connected with the running styles of the horses. When I look at pace bias my main focus is the initial pace in a race and the position horses take up early on.

geegeez.co.uk has an excellent pace analyser tool and the stats I am sharing with you in this article are based on that tool’s pace data. The data on Geegeez are split into four styles and accompanying points – Led (4), Prominent (3), Mid Division (2) and Held Up (1). The numbers in brackets are the pace scores assigned to each section.

For this article I have only looked at races with eight or more runners – this avoids falsely run races which often occur when there are small fields.

The first set of data contains the overall pace stats from all 8+ runner National Hunt non-handicaps in the UK from 1/1/09 to 31/7/21:

 

It is important to keep in mind that the number of runners in each pace group varies: there are far more runners in the prominent and hold up categories as you can see. 'Leaders' is the smallest group as usually you only get one early leader in this type of race, occasionally two when there is a contested early lead. Hence although raw strike rates have relevance, it is more important to look at Impact Values (IV) and the A/E index (Actual winners/Expected winners).

Leaders clearly have an edge as a whole, with prominent racers the next most successful. Therefore, as a general rule of thumb, in non-handicap hurdle races you want to be focusing on those horses that are the most likely to lead early (or at least race prominently and close to the front end).

When we have looked at draw biases on the flat we became aware that such biases can evolve and change over time. In terms of pace bias, though, I have always hoped (or assumed) that they are less likely to change much, if at all, over time. To check this theory out I decided to split the non-handicap data into two and compare 2009 – 2014 with 2015 onwards. The bar chart below compares the A/E values over these time frames:

 

Excellent correlation across all four pace categories so, because A/E is a measure of market performance, this gives increased confidence that the value in any pace biases is likely to replicated in the foreseeable future. Comparing the strike rates shows a similar level of consistency across the two time periods:

 

So we have a good starting point from which to start narrowing down the stats into different data sets to establish whether front running bias is stronger or weaker under more specific conditions. As the data seems consistent across the years I will analyse these areas over the whole time period (2009 to July 31st 2021).

 

Impact of Run Style by Race Distance, Non-Handicap Hurdles

I always feel distance is the best place to start when drilling down into pace data. A look first at the shorter distances.

2 miles 1 furlong or less

 

These figures are similar to the overall stats for all distances, so let us review by course. The chart below compares A/E values for all courses (min 50 races) – courses with A/E values of 1.00 or bigger are shown:

 

Bangor On Dee has the highest front-running A/E value at 1.48 and when we break the overall course stats down, we can see other metrics which point to that extremely strong front running bias:

 

Not only does the front running edge strengthen, it is clear that hold up horses struggle even more than the norm. For the record, if you had been able to predict the front runner(s) in each race at Bangor you would have made an SP profit to tune of 38 pence in the £. If only it was that easy!

The next chart shows the courses with the lowest A/E values for front runners over this trip:

 

Doncaster racecourse has the poorest figures for front runners and the overall stats for the course are as follows:

 

I think what this shows is that the course and distance stats are definitely worth drilling down on. The difference between Bangor and Doncaster at this distance range is very significant.

Before moving distances I would like to share some stats around performance of "the favourite" based on their running style:

 

Again, this shows clearly the importance of pace and running style. It still bemuses me how certain trainers continue to hold up their runners, when surely it is generally worth pushing them up with or close to the pace.

 

2 miles 2 furlongs to 2 miles 6 furlongs

It is always difficult to group National Hunt distances ‘perfectly’ when analysing large data sets, but for this article I wanted to split the full gamut of race distances into three parts and this seemed like a sensible middle distance grouping.

Here are the pace data for all courses for all non-handicap hurdle races over the 2 mile 2 to 2 mile 6 trip:

 

The figures are similar to the shorter distances though possibly the front running bias hass very slightly diminished. In terms of courses, amazingly Bangor on Dee is top again from a front running bias perspective – there is unquestionably a marked advantage to those horses that lead early at Bangor.

 

I thought for this interim distance group I would investigate some run style trainer data. I wanted to see which trainers had been the most successful when sending their runners out into the early lead in non-handicap hurdle races of 2m 2f to 2m 6f.

To that end, below are two graphs – firstly, trainer performance with front runners in terms of win strike rate; and secondly, looking at their respective A/E values.

 

 

As you might expect there are a high proportion of trainers that appears in both charts. Nicky Henderson tops both lists but this does not mean he sends a huge proportion of his runners to the front early; it shows, however, that when he does they fare extremely well. For the record here is Henderson's breakdown by running / pace style over this distance block:

 

His front runners clearly do best in terms of win strike rate, A/E value and IV. It is interesting though that only 11% - one in nine - of Henderson's horses actually take the early lead. But nearly half of them win!

It does make me wonder if trainers are really aware of pace bias... Below is his 'pace pie chart' in terms of percentage of runners that demonstrate a particular pace or running style.

 

44% of his runners raced off the pace early which is far too large a number in my opinion.

 

2 miles 7 furlong or more

The third and final grouping are the longer distance non-handicap hurdle races, from just shy of three miles upwards.

 

There are far fewer longer races as can be seen, but the same pattern emerges. Front runners perform best with prominent runners next best.

 

Trainers by Run Style (All distances)

I have already touched upon trainers but thought it might be interesting to create some trainer pace figures. To create the trainer pace figures I have simply added up the Geegeez pace points for a particular trainer and divided it by the number of runners. The higher the average the more prominent the trainer tends to race his charges. I have created trainer pace figures which cover all distances in non-handicap hurdles. Here are the trainers with the highest averages:

 

Rebecca Curtis tops the list and clearly favours positioning her runners nearer the front than the back. Her 'pace pie chart' below demonstrates this even more clearly:

 

As you can see 25% of Curtis's runners take the early lead, while another nigh on 50% race prominently and close to the pace. Ms Curtis is a trainer who understands the importance of forward run styles. It should come as no surprise therefore that you would have made a profit backing all of her runners ‘blind’ during this time frame. For the record, 53 of Curtis's runners were held up, and only 4 won (SR 7.55%). Compare this to 23% and 21.83% win strike rates for her early leaders and prominent racers.

Let us now review Alan King’s pace pie chart as a comparison to Curtis.

 

His pace average stands at 1.99 with a measly 2% of his runners sent into an early lead. Overall losses for King have been significant especially with runners that raced mid division or near the back early.

*

I do believe that pace in a race is something which must be factored in to your betting. Pace biases vary from race type to race type, distance to distance, course to course, etc. However, if you are prepared to do some digging that other punters are not, you will give yourself a significant edge over the crowd.

This article has hopefully offered a good chunk of information to digest, but in reality I have barely scratched the surface. If you really want to profit from run style/pace then the Geegeez tools are there for you to test your own ideas and crunch pace data to your heart’s content.

- DR

Curtis buoyed by timely return to form of Lisnagar Oscar

Rebecca Curtis can approach the defence of Lisnagar Oscar’s Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle crown with vigour following a return to form at Haydock.

A shock winner of the race last season, the eight-year-old had disappointed twice this season before a problem with his breathing was diagnosed.

Having had a subsequent operation to fix it, Lisnagar Oscar ran right to the line when second to Third Wind – giving him 6lb – in the Rendlesham Hurdle on Saturday.

“He’s come out of the race really well, I’m very happy with him,” said Curtis.

“It was a good run giving the weight away. I know he’s won at Haydock, but it wouldn’t be the ideal track for him so we made plenty of use of him.

“He had a long time off so hopefully he’ll strip a bit fitter for it, but I couldn’t be happier with him – he’s in great form now for Cheltenham.

“At Newbury you could tell there was a problem, he travelled great to two out then stopped. He’d never had a wind problem before, but it was quite obvious it was catching him out.

“It’s brilliant that it’s worked and we’ve got him back. He’s only eight.”

Rebecca Curtis has high hopes for Lisnagar Oscar at Cheltenham
Rebecca Curtis has high hopes for Lisnagar Oscar at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

Lisnagar Oscar was a 50-1 winner at the Festival 12 months ago and while he may not be as big a price this time around, he will still be among the outsiders. The sponsors currently have him at 16-1.

“He’s never really fancied, I suppose I can see why, for the last two seasons his form in the first half of the season hasn’t been good, but you’d have to be fairly confident after his last run,” she said.

“If he’s in the same sort of form as last year he’d have to have a good chance.”

Lisnagar Oscar to miss Ascot after overreach injury

Lisnagar Oscar will miss this month’s Long Walk Hurdle after suffering a “nasty overreach” injury at Newbury.

Trainer Rebecca Curtis has scratched her Stayers’ Hurdle winner from the Grade One Ascot engagement on December 19 so that he can also have a wind operation in the hope he has recovered in time to head for the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January.

The seven-year-old faded into seventh behind rising star Thyme Hill in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle last week.

Curtis said: “He struck into himself in the Newbury race, and also (jockey) Sean (Bowen) felt he made a bit of a noise, so we’re going to get his wind touched up.

“He travelled into the race really well until two out. I thought afterwards something must be up.

“He gave himself quite a nasty overreach and was very lucky – because he just missed his tendon.”

Curtis is nonetheless optimistic that Lisnagar Oscar will be ready again in time for the Cleeve, in which he outran odds of 50-1 to be third this year – before returning to Cheltenham for his finest hour when he struck at the same rewarding price on his next start.

Reflecting on the Newbury mishap, the Pembrokeshire trainer added: “He made a noise (breathing) – whether that was just because of the overreach I don’t know, but we’re going to get it done anyway.

“He won’t need much time off, but obviously the Long Walk would be too soon.

“I’m just going to get him right for the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham at the end of January, I think.”

Lisnagar Oscar out to prove his class at Wetherby

Lisnagar Oscar gets a first chance to show his victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham was no fluke when he returns to action in the bet365 Hurdle at Wetherby.

Rebecca Curtis believes her shock 50-1 winner of the three-mile showpiece at the Festival in March can dispel the doubters – and is looking forward to the seven-year-old making his seasonal reappearance on Saturday in a Grade Two contest registered as the West Yorkshire Hurdle.

“It’s great to get him out again. He seems in really good form at home,” said the Pembrokeshire trainer.

“Obviously Wetherby is a completely different track to Cheltenham. He loves Cheltenham, but at the same time I think he should run very well.

“He’s got the penalty to give away – but he’s won his Grade One, it’s racing and that’s only fair.

“He was a 50-1 shot last year, but hopefully we can get a better start this year and get him noticed for going back to Cheltenham again.

“He comes to hand quite quickly, so I thought we’d get him out. I didn’t want to wait until the end of November for him to start. It’s nice to get him going.”

Next Destination is a new recruit for Paul Nicholls
Next Destination is a new recruit for Paul Nicholls (Niall Carson/PA)

Next Destination is a fascinating contender on his debut for Paul Nicholls, having been off the track since beating Delta Work in a Grade One novice hurdle at the 2018 Punchestown Festival for Willie Mullins.

Nicholls said: “He hasn’t run for 900-odd days, and we have got to start somewhere.

“I thought the ground will be nice at Wetherby. If he has a nice run and comes back safe and sound and has a good blow, we can then go chasing with him in three weeks’ time, which remains the main plan.

“He is fit, well and healthy – but this is just a starting point. He hasn’t had an away day like I would have liked to have given him, because the ground has been too quick.

“He has had problems, and we have had to train him a little bit with the handbrake on – so whatever he does he will improve enormously.”

The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Wholestone makes his first appearance since winning a novice chase at Cheltenham last November.

The nine-year-old has his first race over hurdles since April 2019 and was a force to be reckoned with in this discipline, having finished third in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 2018 and won three Grade Two races.

Twiston-Davies said: “It looks a hot race, but they all are! It’s a competitive race, but we’re always hopeful.

“He’s had a very minor problem. It was nothing serious, but he’s in good form now.”

Chapmanshype takes a big hike in class in the bet365 Hurdle
Chapmanshype takes a big hike in class in the bet365 Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Chapmanshype takes a huge leap from handicap company but arrives in good form, having won his last two races.

The six-year-old is also tackling three miles for the first time, but his trainer Jamie Snowden cannot wait to see how he gets on.

“It’s a big step up in class, but he’s won seven of his 13 starts,” said the Lambourn handler.

“He’s progressed well through the handicap ranks, and the form of his Kelso win looks good. He broke the course record carrying top weight, so he’s been progressing nicely.

“The step up in trip is a little bit of an unknown, but he’s bred to appreciate it and we go there with a horse in form.”

Decor Irlandais makes the journey from Northern Ireland, and his trainer Noel Kelly believes his regular traveller has each-way prospects.

The seven-year-old won at Catterick and was second in the Grade Two Leamington Novices’ Hurdle at Warwick last winter, but fell short in the Ballymore at Cheltenham on his last trip across the Irish Sea.

However, he has shaped well in both his outings since having a break, to be placed at Galway and then win at Killarney.

Kelly said: “Everything is good. He ran very well the last day at Killarney. Three miles and a bit of nice ground should suit him over there.

“He travels very well – he’s been over to England a few times. He should have an each way chance, definitely. He’s in good form.”

Nicky Henderson with Verdana Blue
Nicky Henderson with Verdana Blue (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Verdana Blue is the star attraction in the bet365 Mares’ Hurdle. Nicky Henderson’s nine-times winner is rated upwards of 22lb superior to her six rivals and will be a red-hot favourite to go one better than when runner-up to Silver Streak at Kempton a fortnight ago.

Henderson said: “They just went quite slow at Kempton last time, and it turned into a sprint, which didn’t quite suit her. She had all the conditions in her favour, with the ground and the weights, and she did nothing wrong – she just got caught for a turn of foot.

“There are not many races for her – and as she came out of the race so well, this seemed an obvious race to have a crack at.

“You would like to think this would be easier, but there is no such thing as a penalty kick in racing like there is in football!

“The softer the ground gets, the worse it is for her, but you would like to think against this opposition she would get away with it.”

Lisnagar’s title defence to start at Wetherby

Rebecca Curtis is mapping out a Stayers’ Hurdle title defence for her Cheltenham Festival hero Lisnagar Oscar.

The seven-year-old was last seen defying odds of 50-1 to land the Grade One feature at Prestbury Park in March.

Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle on October 31 will be his first target this season, with a string of graded contests then on his schedule before the 2021 Festival.

“He’s going to go to Wetherby for his first run,” said Curtis.

“He’s ready to run, and there was nothing else for him until the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury – which is at the end of November. He’s come to hand, so we thought we’d give him an outing in that Grade Two three-mile stayers’ hurdle up there.”

Lisnagar Oscar was third behind Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham in January, and that is a race he could contest again.

“We’ll do the normal stayers’ hurdle route,” added Curtis.

“We’ll probably start at Wetherby, then Newbury and then the Long Walk hurdle at Ascot. He’ll then possibly go for the Cleeve and then straight to the Cheltenham Festival after that.”

Smiles all round for the Lisnagar Oscar team at Cheltenham
Smiles all round for the Lisnagar Oscar team at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

This time last year Lisnagar Oscar ran twice over fences before reverting to hurdles, and that is a route Curtis is not discounting in future campaigns if he does not prosper at the highest level this season.

“I think if he can retain his ability from last year then he’ll be looking like one of the best staying hurdlers about,” she said.

“He’d stick to hurdles in that case. But if for some reason he didn’t end up keeping that Grade One class over hurdles then we may, next season, have a think about fences.

“It depends how this season goes – I wouldn’t completely rule it out.”