Racing fans have three days of excellent sport to look forward to at the home of jump racing, starting this afternoon at 1.15. Finding winners is sure to be challenging, so I set my mind - and the excellent horseracebase database query tool - to the job of assisting me in the task.
Specifically I wanted to know whether course form was important. It's a widely acknowledged fact that those to have run at Cheltenham before have an advantage at the Festival. But what about the other big meetings at the course? The Mackeson meeting, now known as the Open, is probably the second biggest at the track, so in theory similar principles should apply.
After all, the racing is ultra-competitive, the prizes are well worth winning, and forward-thinking connections will have one eye on a return trip in March. Enough with the hypothesizing, here are some data.
Because of the early juncture in the season, I've limited the parameters to handicap races (i.e. novice and conditions events are excluded) at the November meeting only, from 2010 on.
The obvious starting point is to look at how horses which have at least had a look at the demanding and unique contours of Cheltenham's Prestbury examination room fared. The numbers are revealing:
So what do we now know?
First, note the low win rate of first time visitors to the track. Just 4.12% of handicap starters at the November meeting have won at the first attempt here. They were 'worth' an eye-watering loss of 59% of invested stakes.
Those with some but not bundles of experiences - in the one to five prior Cheltenham starts range - performed best. Indeed, from a win perspective, they out-performed Cheltenham 'virgins' and the seasoned 'cappers (6+ course starts) by more than two to one. As a group, they were still unprofitable to back, but a negative ROI of 7.25% at SP from a single filter is a pretty robust starting point.
A run at the track could have involved anything from a win to a pulled up or way down the field finish. So, clearly, not all course form is equal. This table illustrates the performance at the Open meeting by number of course wins.
Again, we can immediately see the general inadequacy of those without a prior course win, at least relative to those who have won at the track before. Just 5.22% of Cheltenham non-winners managed to get it done, compared with 9.89% of those with a single previous course score.
It should be noted that of the 36 races in the sample, 25 of them were won by horses without a previous course win, but that group was 479 strong. In other words, 69% of the winners came from 79% of the runners. Whereas for winners of one here, it has been 36% of the winners from 15% of the runners.
Indeed, those with one or two wins to their name have scored at a 9.24% clip (11/119), which is 30.5% of the winners form 19.5% of the runners.
The small group with three or more prior course wins has just a single place to its name, and these - usually on the wane - types are probably best avoided, though the dataset is too small to be conclusive.
The problem with course wins is that there are so few of them to share around, so perhaps placed form at the track is a convenient bridge between course runs and course wins. Placed form by definition includes winners as well, so there is some crossover to keep in mind when viewing the table below.
As with course wins, a majority of winners at the Open meeting had yet to make the frame at the track. And, as with course wins, that was from a significant majority of the runners.
In this case, 56% of the winners came from 62% of the runners. That means that the group was not especially under-performing in terms of expectation. However, the painful 38.5% negative ROI and the accompanying absolute loss is something around which to tread carefully.
Those with between one and three previous course places fared best, claiming 15 wins (42% of the available wins) from 197 runners (32% of starters). Proof that the market has these 'known' types pegged can be seen from the chunky negative ROI and, even more materially, from the fact that both backing and laying them would have returned a loss (in other words, they collectively fall within the spread, or the commission takeout).
So where does all that leave us as we look forward to nine more hurly-burly handicaps culminating in the leaden-legged lurch up Cleeve Hill?
It is probably fair to say that there are few strong conclusions to be drawn. However, perhaps the most material factor is prior sight of the track.
Those having a first attempt here won just ten of 243 runs. Those with between one and five prior runs at the course laid claim to 24 wins (67% of the available wins) from just 49% of the runners.
Some horses that may be of interest this weekend in the context of this piece are:
1.15 - Handy Andy
1.50 - Anay Turge
1.50 - Lamb Or Cod, Our Father
2.30 - Eastlake, Present View, Indian Castle
3.00 - Big Easy
1.00 - Home Run
3.15 - Garde La Victoire, Clondaw Warrior
It will be sensible to check the above for their ability to cope with other race conditions, such as soft ground, race distance, and current rating in relation to winning form.