It's less than six weeks until the Cheltenham Festival jamboree bursts into life, and now is the time when punters traditionally begin to step up their ante-post wagering. As a consequence it is also a great time to review the overall performance of trainers at the Festival.
We all know that Willie Mullins will have winners, and that Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls are also likely to receive the raucous affection of the Cheltenham crowd at some point during the four day fiesta. But this post might raise a few eyebrows, particularly in the "a winner's a winner" corner, at the overall performance of some of the name trainers... and some of the lesser lights (relatively) in the training ranks.
It's the sort of information all punters should have on recall going into the battles ahead, and shrewd geegeez readers will - as usual - have a bit of a head start.
These data are compiled from the last five Festivals - 2010 to 2014 - and are based on number of winners. [Thanks as always to the peerless horseracebase.com - far and away the easiest system builder tool out there, and I've used most of them, including the expensive 'big boys']
Top Cheltenham Festival Trainers Overall
There is little surprise in the top pair of Mullins and Henderson, who have dominated in the last five years. They have 35 Festival wins between them in that time, albeit from a whopping 356 entries. Given their stratospheric profiles and the amount of (very talented) mud they hurl at the Festival wall, it is little surprise that following 'Mullderson' blindly would be expensive. Very expensive.
Interestingly, blind faith in Mullderson would have yielded no joy for either backers or layers on Betfair, with commission sufficient to ensure both groups were in hock to the marketplace.
And it gets worse before it gets better. Paul Nicholls, the Denizen of Ditcheat, has had a seriously testing time of it in the past half decade, netting 'just' nine wins from his 152 Cheltenham Festival entries. That lowly 6% strike rate is matched only by Donald McCain in the Top Ten list, and has been a boon to the layers since 2010.
Jonjo O'Neill is perhaps the Crown Prince of recent Cheltenham Festivals. His nine wins in that time have come from just 69 runs, making for a hit rate of 13%, comfortably the pick of the top ten pile. Moreover, Jonjo's elite band of Festival snipers have ambushed the bookies to the tune of a 55% ROI at SP, and a 73% ROI at BSP.
Futher down the list, David Pipe, Gordon Elliott and especially Colin Tizzard are worthy of serious note for their recent Festival exploits. More on those in a mo...
Top Cheltenham Festival Non-Handicap Trainers
Looking specifically at non-handicap races at the Festival, we see a familiar hierarchy at the summit: Messrs Mullins, Henderson and Nicholls (Mullderscholls?! pronounced Mull-duhr-skorls) have notched 32 collective non-handicap wins since 2010. But, again, they've used a heck of a lot of firepower to record those victories. 291 horses have lined up for an overall 11% strike rate.
Materially, as punters we need to be aware that this group represents a layer's fantasy, with 75 points profit emerging from blanket opposition of Mullderscholls in the non-handicaps. But what about more selective support or opposition?
The above table shows that there is no significant advantage to be gained from support or resistance of Mullderscholls at the top of the market. The public have that trio in their pocket. And, as we deviate gradually away from the top, so the layers begin to hold sway.
It should be noted, though, that a single winner at 22/1 or bigger would have swung things violently against indiscriminate layers, with the 'sweet spot' from an opposition perspective being four or six points plus or minus 12/1. That mid-range seems to be the place where Mullderscholls runners are overbet with the least justification.
Getting back to the wider group of winningmost trainers, Jonjo again looms large. Five non-handicap winners from just fifteen entries is a remarkable return, backed up by an additional pair of placed runners. Albertas Run (twice), Synchronised (RIP 🙁 ), Taquin De Seuil and More Of That attest to the target training abilities of the Master of Jackdaws Castle.
And, from a wagering perspective, the fact that none of Jonjo's quintet was sent off shorter than 6/1 is pertinent. Here is a trainer whose ability can sometimes still be underestimated by the Festival crowds, outside of handicap company at least.
Top Cheltenham Festival Handicap Trainers
The very nature of the handicapping system - where all horses are weighted to achieve a theoretical dead heat - means that this top trainer list must have a more fluid (and less reliable) look to it. Nevertheless, it is certainly not without note, as we will shortly discover...
Evidence of the more competitive nature of the Festival handicap scene comes in the dethroning of Wullie from the top of the tree. Indeed, he's usurped by two other handlers: Hendo and David Pipe.
Following in his old man's footsteps, Pipe Jr. has proven himself to be perfectly adept at handicap plots with a very tidy table-topping six handicap wins since 2010, from 83 runners.
Breaking his 83 entries down by odds range is interesting, even if danger lurks in trying to be too definitive on the output.
We can see that, although Pipe can win with shorties, it's not a good approach overall. We can also see that those runners between 8/1 and 20/1 do well both in terms of win and place strike rates. Just two placed runners from 30 starters at 22/1+ means they're worth avoiding.
The sweet spot is where there's market meat on the bone and the horse is feasible on form.
Top Cheltenham Festival Non-Handicap Chase Trainers
We're slicing and dicing into the realms of very small sample sizes now, so caution is the watchword. But, just for fun, let's dissect the data a level further, beginning with the non-handicap chases.
This list includes all non-handicap chase-winning trainers since 2010. Whilst Nicky Henderson again tops this table, his nearest pursuers are not from the Mullderscholls triumvirate this time. Indeed, though Mullins is in a grupetto on two wins, his 5% strike rate in that group makes for grim reading - and painful backing.
That Mullins' place strike rate is only 20% cements the perception that his chasers are significantly overbet, and this looks an area to take our Willie on, notwithstanding the presence of both Un De Sceaux and Vautour at the head of their respective ante-post chase markets.
Jim Culloty's remarkable feat with Lord Windermere (two from two) is matched by Rodger Sweeney's Salsify, and both were fortunate to win on the second occasion. It may be that both are here again in 2015, with the good Lord bidding for a second Gold Cup and Salsify attempting the hat-trick in the Foxhunters' Chase.
Rebecca Curtis, hitherto without a mention, deservedly gets a first call in the roster of top Cheltenham Festival trainers, courtesy of the non-handicap chase wins of O'Faolain's Boy (2014 RSA Chase) and Teaforthree (2012 National Hunt Chase). Curtis also claimed a third non-handicap prize when At Fisher's Cross cruised to victory in the 2013 Albert Bartlett, so her non-handicap runners demand at least a second glance.
Finally, the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that multiple Gold Cup-winning trainer, Paul Nicholls, has failed to saddle a non-handicap chase winner in the last five Cheltenham Festivals. That's not a typo.
In fact, during that time, Nicholls is actually a horrific 0 from 46, with only five even placing. That list of under-performers includes Silviniaco Conti (11/4 and 4/1 in the last two Gold Cups, 3/1 in the GC this year...); 5/2 Unioniste in the RSA; 8/11 and 3/1 Kauto Star in the 2010 and 2012 Gold Cups; 3/1 Al Ferof in the Arkle; 2/1 and 11/4 Poquelin in the 2010 and 2011 Ryanair Chases; and 4/5 and 2/1 Master Minded in the 2010 and 2011 Champion Chases.
14 of those 46 beaten horses were 5/1 or shorter... OUCH!
Top Cheltenham Festival Non-Handicap Hurdle Trainers
This is the area where Mullderscholls has been most dominant, boasting a 57% strike rate in all non-handicap hurdle events at the Festival since 2010. That's 20 of the 35 non-handicap hurdle races going to just three stables. Wow.
Naturally enough, they account for the guts of the main protagonists in each event, and that's no different this time around. The challenge for punters is that, given their true odds of 4/7 to prevail, there don't seem many places left to go; and the logical end point may be to either take a strong view with one of their entries, or swerve this quintet of heats from the 27 on offer in March. I've backed a couple in these markets already (Alvisio Ville and Kalkir, probably the wrong ones!) and won't be looking to expand my portfolio.
Top Cheltenham Festival Handicap Chase Trainers
And so to the subsets of handicaps, hurdles and, firstly, chases. Perhaps the most ecumenical of all groups, nowhere is Mullderscholls less dominant than in the six handicap chases.
Nicky 'Hendo' Henderson has managed to squirrel away a pair since 2010 - from 51 goes - but both Willie and Paul have failed to score in that time.
It may come as little surprise that their absence from the list prepares the way for David Pipe to perch himself atop the pile. Pipe's four wins have come at the expense of 47 runners, a 9% win rate, and have represented virtual punting parity for blanket Betfair support.
With two shorties getting their jobs done - 10/3 Junior and 9/2 Salut Flo - it may be worth watching for plunge horses from the stable. Both horses were available at double those odds and better in the early markets, and there's highly likely to be another such tilt this time. Recent history suggests this is one of the rare occasions where following the money (the most crass of misguided punting principles) will actually reap a dividend.
It's also well worth touching on again that a pair of Pipe's pole positionists (terribly laboured alliteration, a-pologies) were in double digits, but all bar one of his 18 nags priced bigger than 20's have been out of the frame.
Further down the table, Messrs Hobbs, O'Neill and Tizzard have highly reputable place rates, and runners from these yards should be considered carefully.
Top Cheltenham Festival Handicap Hurdle Trainers
This table is perhaps the most curious of all. I'll display it now, to allow you to absorb the evidence for yourself.
Look, it's the old Mullderscholls cartel at the head of affairs once more. They account for ten of the 25 handicap hurdles run in the last five years. That's 40% of the winners.
But here's the weird bit: punting them blindly was worth a profit of 67 points at BSP, and over thirty at starting price! And, whilst Une Artiste at 40/1 is responsible for a chunk of those returns, it's well worth looking at the performance of the 10/1 to 20/1 group in isolation.
That knocks out the big-priced skew, and also takes out a pair of sub-5/1 winners. But from the remaining 51 runners, seven won, and another seven were placed.
The septet of scorers accumulated 53 points at SP (over 68 at BSP), and backing these horses each way would have provided a 27% strike rate (win and place) and a profit at SP of 69 points, albeit from twice the stakes (a point win and place, as opposed to a point win).
The rest of the table is chocka with plotters, including Malcolm Jefferson (two-from-two), David Pipe (2 from 36!), and Gordon Elliott in its multi-winner ranks. But it's Mullderscholls who command the most attention here, for my money.
When betting at the Cheltenham Festival, most punters tend to make blithe assumptions that what holds in the rest of the season is equally applicable at the Fez.
The data above imply that this is far from the truth, with target trainers like Jonjo O'Neill standing out, and seasonal perennials such as Paul Nicholls reflected in a slightly different light during Cheltenham week.
It hopefully goes without saying that past results are not a guarantee of future performance, but they do offer some clear indications of what we might expect.
Paul Nicholls is 0 from 46 in non-handicap chases in the last five years, a horror sequence which includes stacks of shorties in Grade 1's. But he remains a brilliant trainer, and he doesn't determine the prices of his horses. I personally hope he gets this monkey off his back; however, I certainly won't be wagering that way.
Elsewhere, I'll be keeping close tabs on the handicap hurdle entries of Mullderscholls, in what appears the last remaining bastion of value for the trio at the top table of trainers at the Festival.
In handicap chases, David Pipe is the man, and plunge horses may especially be heeded.
Rebecca Curtis is another trainer to keep onside when it comes to the non-handicap events.
I hope this little deconstruction gives pause for thought. 2015 may fly in the face of what has gone before, but that is not the way to bet it...