Friday, March 06, 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 - early thoughts and handicap hints

It's been a wet winter. With tomorrow's Imperial Cup card at Sandown abandoned, I'm keeping my power dry for next week's jamboree.

In the run-up to last year's Festival I wrote:

"Festival handicaps are an absolute minefield, come with a health / wealth warning and really need to be avoided at all costs."

As a general rule of thumb that advice still holds good but, hell, yet again, I hear those Siren voices starting to call...

It all stems back to a salient piece of analysis Simon Holt produced after last year's event [RP Weekender 20-24.03.19] in which he pointed out that Irish runners 'again performed exceptionally well in handicaps'.

Of the ten handicap races staged over the four days, Great Britain won five, Ireland five.

However Irish trained horses filled the first three places in the following races:

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (this year named the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase):

 1. A Plus Tard 5/1f
 2. Tower Bridge 6/1
 3. Ben Dundee 33/1

Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle:

 1. Band Of Outlaws 7/2f
 2. Coko Beach 14/1
 3. Ciel De Neige 17/2

Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle:

 1. Early Doors 5/1
 2. Dallas Des Pictons 7/2f
 3. Defi Bleu 14/1

The winners of the Close Brothers and the Boodles were both running in handicaps for the first time.

In addition, in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle, five of the first seven home were trained in Ireland:

 1. Sire Du Berlais 4/1f
 [2. Tobefair 40/1] 
 3. Not Many Left 16/1
 4. Cuneo 12/1
 5. A Toi Phil 20/1
 [6. Theclockisticking 25/1]
 7. Thermistocles 9/1

Holt notes that of the 226 runners in ten handicaps, 13 out of 68 Irish runners finished in the first three (19%) compared to 17 out of 158 British runners (10.8%).

Three weeks later Holt doubled up with a piece entitled 'Handicaps at Aintree a rout for the Irish' [RP Weekender 10-14.04.19] with Irish runners winning five of the seven handicaps from just 32 entries, with an additional four runners finishing placed; Ireland returned a 28% placings to runners figure while the British figure was just 9.4%.

To quote Holt directly:

"...there is no parity between British and Irish handicapping systems, and even though British handicappers run their own Irish ratings and generally have Irish horses a bit higher than back home, the returns at Cheltenham and Aintree suggest there is still a significant imbalance."

BHA handicapper Martin Greenwood has recently stated:

"Generally speaking I have the biggest problem with the Irish novice chasers as not everyone knows they go back to a rating of zero when starting over fences, whatever they've done over hurdles.

"That has made the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase the hardest for me this year, and a few...are higher than their Irish ratings."

Esoteric stuff and I'm no expert, not by a long chalk. Perhaps the professional handicappers have sought to address the imbalance referenced above - or maybe they haven't...

Bang on cue, in this week's Weekender [RP Weekender 04-08.03.20], Tom Segal pens a piece entitled 'Handicap grumbles tell a story', focussing on, amongst others, the rather aptly named The Storyteller:

"The extra few pounds didn't stop Presenting Percy or Sire Du Berlais and I doubt very much a horse like The Storyteller will be stopped by a couple fo pounds either. The Pertemps Final is hard to win but the fact many are suggesting he has been handicapped out of it tells me all those connected with him seriously fancy he will go close."     

At this stage, with several runners holding multiple entries, it's not that easy to predict which race named horses will run in, never mind if they're in with a serious chance of landing the spoils.

A few brief notes that might help along the way...

Aramax, currently favourite for the Boodles (4.50 Wednesday), won the same Naas race as Band Of Outlaws last year. The price disappeared a long time ago but in a recent interview Gordon Elliott expressed some reservation about this one on very soft ground and seemed sweeter on the chance of Tronador and possibly Saint D'oroux.

Gavin Cromwell says Alfa Mix is 'one of the few Irish handicappers who can run off his Irish mark'; he holds entries in the Coral Cup (2.50 Wednesday) and the Martin Pipe (5.30 Friday).

Thatsy holds entries in the Coral Cup (2.50 Wednesday), the County Hurdle (2.10 Friday) and the Martin Pipe (5.30 Friday) and is considered 'well handicapped' by Gordon Elliott.

Relegate holds an entry in the Pertemps Final (2.10 Thursday) and is a big loser in Paddy Power's book.

Gordon Elliott suggested Galvin would go well in the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase (Tuesday 4.50).

Just for the record, I've noted that Gordon Elliott's win-strike rate over the past fortnight is just 8% (4-50) which is perhaps a slight concern.

After all that, I'm not really sure I'm any further forward...

As always, I'll aim to post a blog for each day's racing at the Festival. Current thinking, subject to change, briefly outlined below...

Cornerstone Lad overpriced at 33/1 for the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday; an each-way play with conditions to suit.

Soft ground against Altior in the Champion Chase on Wednesday.

Third Wind not guaranteed to stay but of interest in the Pertemps Final on the back of his one length second behind Phoenix Way conceding that winner six pounds (Plumpton, January 2019).

Penhill an each-way play in the Stayers' Hurdle, Willie Mullins talking up his chance in the Weekender.

I was impressed with Sir Psycho's slick hurdling at Haydock the last day.

Mack The Man took a very nasty fall in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury but trainer Evan Williams sounds keen. More work to be done; he's 25/1 with some layers for the County Hurdle but just 12/1 with Coral.

Not long left to wait now...


Anonymous said...

The cloud of COVID-19 hanging over the meeting aside it promises to be another great week’s racing.

Regarding Irish handicap marks. Another complication with the Irish form is, at least as I understand it, the difference in the Jump weight for age scales used by the BHA and HRI handicappers.

I never consider a race until the final declaration stage so no early predictions from me other than that I will certainly be ignoring the Festival handicap health/wealth warning; win or lose I love tackling them.

Given the current going status and the weather forecast I think we should hopefully have decent jumping ground for the meeting.

With 48-hours declarations for all races again this year I’m looking forward to sitting down on Sunday afternoon with a fresh pot of coffee, Johnny Walker & Sound Of the Seventies on the radio and Tuesday’s final cards…..the calm before the storm.

Looking forward to your daily posts and, if it’s O.K, I’ll try and chip in with any thoughts each day.

Best of luck over the four days and let’s hope all horses and riders arrive back home in one piece.


GeeDee said...

As always, TW, look forward to hearing your thoughts, comments and selections.

To quote Ruby Walsh from an interview with Michael Atherton in The Times:

"You can't know form if you are not following form."

Enjoy your form study and best of luck for the coming week!