This is the second instalment in my latest series on run style bias in National Hunt racing. After analysing non-handicap hurdles last time, it is time to move onto handicap hurdle races.
Pace, or the running styles of horses, has long been an area of interest as any bias can potentially give us an edge when analysing a race. It is still an area that many punters ignore, and the longer that goes on the better as far as I am concerned!
Apologies for the regular readers of these pieces, but for new readers I must give a quick explanation of pace (or run style, which for our purposes are interchangeable) and how Geegeez can help you.
The first furlong or so of any race sees the jockeys try to manoeuvre their horses into the early position they wish them to adopt. Some horses get to the front and lead (referred to as front runners); some horses track the pace just behind the leader(s); other horses take up a more middle of the pack position, while the final group are held up near to, or at the back of the field. Geegeez racecards have a pace tab which is split neatly into four sections which match the positional descriptions above. So we have: Led (4), Prominent (3), Mid Division (2) and Held Up (1). The number in brackets are the scores that are assigned to each run style, which for a mathematician like myself are really helpful as I can make easy comparisons between different runners, courses, trainers, jockeys, etc.
As with my previous research I have only looked at races with eight or more runners – this avoids many falsely run races which are more likely to occur in a small field scenario.
The first set of data I wish to share with you is the overall run style dataset for all handicap hurdles races in the UK from 1/1/09 to 31/7/21. I have used the Geegeez Query Tool for all my number crunching – the pace section on Geegeez is another area on the site where you can gather individual course run style data from:
These figures are far more even than we saw in the non-handicap hurdle research. In non-handicap hurdles we saw front runners (early leaders) win roughly 18% of the time, form the smallest run style group. Here, though, leaders have won only around 12% of the time. That is to be expected given the generally more competitive nature of handicaps when set next to non-handicaps. Further, before we write off a leader / front running run style bias, it should be noted that the A/E figures still give front runners a positive market edge (1.06), as does an impact value (IV) of 1.35 - meaning early leaders are winning about a third more often than the overall population of handicap hurdlers.
That said, it is clear that the front running bias is weaker in handicap hurdles compared with non-handicap hurdles.
The success for each run style section has stayed extremely consistent over the last 12 years or so, as the following bar charts illustrate. I have split the handicap hurdle data into two in order to compare 2009 to 2014 results with those for 2015 onwards. The bar chart below compares the A/E values over these time frames:
That's an amazingly strong positive correlation across all four categories in market influence (A/E) terms.
Comparing the strike rates give us a similar picture of consistency:
Now it is time to start narrowing down the stats into different data sets to see whether any stronger edges emerge. With the data being consistent across the years I will review the following over the full time period (Jan 1st 2009 to July 31st 2021).
Run Style Bias in Handicap Hurdles by Distance
Let us first look to see if race distance affects the strike rates or A/E values. I have split race distances into three parts as I did for the previous article: the groupings are again 2m 1f or less; 2m 2f to 2m 6f and 2m 7f or more. Here is a comparison of strike rates within each group:
These are a remarkably consistent set of figures for each run style group, regardless of distance.
Below are the Actual vs Expected (A/E) figures*.
Once again, there is correlation across the board: perhaps slightly poorer front running stats for the longer distances, but that is probably not statistically significant. All early leader / front running A/E values are in excess of 1.00, which is noteworthy.
Run Style Bias in Handicap Hurdles by Course
The second area to analyse is by racecourse.
Normally I like to concentrate on positive front running courses but to give readers more useful information I feel it is also worth sharing the course records where front runners perform relatively poorly. These tracks have all seen front running win strike rates of under 10% in the past 12 seasons, which may only partly be explained by field size:
We need to be wary about Cheltenham’s low figure as this is skewed by the fact that the average field size there has been a huge 16.5 runners. Hence, as front running tracks go I would liken it to Wetherby – below average, but nowhere near as poor as the raw strike rate performance implies.
Moving onto to the positive courses in terms of front running (early leaders) performance, and below is a look at those tracks with a handicap hurdle race front running win strike rate% greater than 13%:
14 courses make the list and I want to compare this list to the course list with the highest front running A/E values, with the hope (and expectation) of seeing most of the courses in both graphs:
As can be seen, 13 of the 14 courses appear in both graphs / lists – Leicester and Ayr are the ones to appear just once. This is extremely positive, implying the run style advantage to those who go on from the outset is still not fully factored into the market (insofar as it is predictable before the race begins - nobody said this was an exact science!), and it makes sense to look at a couple of these courses in more detail.
Bangor on Dee
Bangor-on-Dee tops the front running list in terms of strike rate and lies second when comparing A/E values. You may recall from the first article in this series that Bangor also topped the front running charts in non-handicap hurdles over 2m 1f or less. I did not look in detail at other distances at Bangor in that piece but I can reveal that the 2m4f trip in non-handicap hurdles saw a front running win strike rate of 32.6 % with a huge A/E value of 1.79. This add further confidence to the very positive looking handicap hurdle data here.
Let me break the Bangor handicap hurdle data down. I am going to be looking at percentage of winners from each run style section. Here is how the percentage split looks for all courses. This will help us when trying to appreciate the strength of any bias:
Over this trip the front running bias is moderate – the percentage figure for winning front runners is 16% compared to the all courses average figure of 15%. The one group that has performed above the norm here is the mid division group – 23% of the winners at Bangor compared with 18% for all courses.
Over two and a half miles, we see a big difference with front runners winning roughly a third of all races: 33% compared with the overall course average of 15% is a very significant finding and a very strong looking front running bias.
Onto the longest Bangor hurdle distance now of three miles:
Again, a decent enough front running bias over this trip. 22% of all winners have been front runners which gives them a solid edge of around 50% on the average front running strike rate at all courses across all distances. The A/E value for front runners over this trip is an attractive 1.66.
At Bangor therefore, potential front runners over 2m4f and beyond are definitely worth noting.
I was quite surprised to see Ascot as giving front runners such a clear edge in handicap hurdles. I had perceived Ascot handicaps to be very competitive and thought front runners might actually struggle. However, at all distances Ascot’s front runners perform extremely well. Below are the two mile data:
23% of two mile Ascot handicap hurdle races were won by front runners – remember the average all courses figure stands at 15%. The A/E value is strong at 1.68.
I have lumped the intermediate 2m 4f and 2m 6f data together as they are similar distances and give us a bigger collective data set:
There is a stronger edge here with 27% of races won by front runners and fully 60% won by front runners or prominent racers. The front running A/E value is a huge 1.83.
Over the longest Ascot hurdle range of three miles, the figures are thus:
Again, there is a really solid front running edge (A/E 1.70) and, related, it seems harder for hold up horses to prevail (22% strike rate compared with the all courses average figure of 32%).
I have one final stat to share regarding Ascot handicap hurdles: fancied front runners, whose price was 6/1 or shorter, won 15 of 41 races. If you had been able to predict that these 41 horses would lead early, backing all of them would have returned you an impressive 88p in every £1 bet. Oh, for a crystal ball!
Other strong course / distance front running biases
Below is a list of other course / distance combinations where front runners have done especially well in recent years:
Sedgefield 3m 4f
The marathon distance of 3 miles 4 furlongs at Sedgefield would not necessarily be a track and trip where you’d expect handicap hurdling front runners to thrive. However, the stats suggest otherwise – the bar chart below compares the win strike rate percentage for each of the four run style categories:
Front runners have enjoyed a massive edge, backed up by a huge A/E figure of 2.26. It also can be seen that hold up horses have a miserable record showing that is extremely difficult to make up ground here over this distance. Most lower class marathon handicap hurdlers lack a gear change: who knew?!
Not quite as strong a bias as the Sedgefield one, but a significant advantage to the front again nonetheless:
Front runners with this kind of strike rate coupled with an A/E of 1.92 is not to be sniffed at!
Cartmel 2m 1f
The final course/distance combo to share graphically is Cartmel's 2m 1f win strike rate, which demonstrates another strong looking front running bias:
Front runners in this context have produced a very satisfactory A/E value of 1.63.
Sticking with Actual vs Expected, there are five other course and distance combinations whose A/E value for front runners is in excess of 1.50 – they are:
Ffos Las 2m
Newbury 2m and 2m 1f
Exeter 2m 1f
Musselburgh 2m 4f
Those are well worth noting, and may provide a starting point for your own Query Tool research should you feel so inclined.
Hold up horses
For fans of hold up horses, there is a handful of course and distance groupings where the late runner A/E sneaks above 1.00. The A/E values are in brackets in the table below:
In races at these tracks and over these distances, front runners do not enjoy the advantage, conceding that to hold up horses. For the record, the Lingfield Park data in each grouping is very small indeed so caution is advised.
Run Style Bias in Handicap Hurdles: Summary
To conclude, front runners enjoy far less of an edge in handicap hurdle races when compared with non-handicap hurdles, but there are still a number of courses (and/or specific course/distance combinations) where we need to be aware of a possible edge.
Elsewhere, there is a smaller number of track/trip combinations that tend to favour hold up horses.
Knowing how a race may pan out from a running style perspective is always an important factor to consider, and the knowledge of any potential biases a significant bonus. Hopefully the information above, allied to specific race pace maps found on this website, will give you a leg up with your handicap hurdle betting.