Ask any Cheltenham member what the course’s best day’s racing outside of the Festival is, and you’re likely to find the Saturday of November’s Open Meeting nominated by far the most often, writes Rory Delargy.
While that’s probably true in terms of excitement and atmosphere, it’s a dubious claim in terms of the number of subsequent Festival winners who run there. The Open Meeting as a whole tends to get horses launched high up the ante-post leader boards, but the old golf adage is drive for show and putt for dough: those who peak too far from the track’s showpiece fixture have a poor overall strike rate in March.
On the other hand, those who have their last prep run on late January’s Trials Day tend to fare much better, which may be no surprise given the timing. It often comes up in discussion that horses who have run in the calendar year have a much better record than those coming back from longer layoffs, usually because the latter group have had a less than smooth preparation that has stopped them getting an appropriate prep race.
In recent years, Willie Mullins has been bucking this trend (in lots of ways), and the Master of Closutton seems to give his novices a specific number of runs before establishing their place in the pecking order. It’s rarely a negative for one from this yard to have less experience than seems ideal, or to return from a lengthier break than would be expected. He’s a law unto himself, and should be treated as such.
Cheltenham Festival Runners in Grade 1 Races by Days Since Last Run Range (last ten years to £10 level stakes)
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As you can see from the above, there’s a considerable advantage to having had a prep run in January, although that is clearly affected by the vagaries of the racing calendar. The programme book provides the best opportunities for horses to have a prep run within two months of the big meeting, and those who either haven’t been ready to run, or have had to get a late outing in to ensure fitness/qualification, tend to struggle. This isn’t meant to be mind-blowing, of course, it’s merely common sense.
There are two other obvious factors which punters can use to their advantage in March. Strike rates tail off badly as SP increases beyond 20/1 (bookmakers give little away and most 33/1 shots should be ten times that price), and that is also the case with age, with it being very difficult to win with horses who are regressive and/or fully exposed. The caveat here is with outstanding champions, who remain vulnerable as they get older, but can still outclass their opponents in certain circumstances.
Finally, a Trials Day prep run is about fine tuning, not getting back to square one, so those who run poorly/fail to complete should be ignored. Using horses who completed and were beaten twenty lengths or less seems a fair measure.
That leaves us with a list of horses aged eight or younger, who prepped for Cheltenham on Trials Day by finishing within 20 lengths of the winner, and are likely to go off no bigger than 20/1 on the day. Given those filters, here is the performances of such horses in the last ten seasons.
Trials Day Runners at Cheltenham Festival (given above parameters – profit to £10 level stake)
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There is a notion that very soft ground on Trials Day should mean that contrasting conditions in March should render results invalid. That’s illogical, though, as several of those who qualify above would have been running on unsuitable ground in January, and could therefore show improved form come March.
Horses don’t run here primarily because the ground is suitable, but because the timing and the track are suitable, and that should be borne in mind. In 2015, Cole Harden, Irish Cavalier, The Druids Nephew and Peace And Co all improved on the form they showed on Trials Day when winning at the Festival on what was generally quicker ground. That’s an important consideration to look for, and is the reason why we shouldn’t just be following winners in such circumstances. The New One and Sprinter Sacre similarly showed markedly better form at the Festival when racing away from testing ground.
Finally, we shouldn’t just focus on the winners at the Festival, but also on the horses who were placed, as this is a measure of how robust the logic is. Winners and placed horses should be roughly in line, and a big differential between the two should be a warning sign as to how reliable the win percentage is.
By the same token, a poor win record allied to a bigger than usual place record should mean you look more kindly on those individual figures. Once again, this is not intended to be a system as such, but a general guide to which horses we should expect to be competitive at the Festival given their appearance this weekend. It may prove beneficial to concentrate on those who are unimpressive without being well beaten, and have a marked preference for better ground, as that remains the conditions most likely to be faced in seven weeks’ time.
- Rory Delargy