Friday, March 10, 2023

Cheltenham Festival 2023 - some handicap hypotheses...

Following the infamous drubbing of 2021 when Irish trained horses won 23 of the 28 races at the Festival - after the event Alan King talked of 'taking Ferraris on with Fords' - the BHA undertook a review and applied certain 'tweaks' to the way in which British horses were handicapped.

With those BHA adjustments in situ, last year British trained horses won five of the nine handicap races at the Festival, Irish horses four.

In the preceding three years the number of Irish trained runners to record a top three finish in a Festival handicap were: 2019: 13 from 68 entries (19.12%); 2020: 17 from 73 entries (23.29%); 2021: 13 from 65 entries (20%).

10 Irish trained horses from 100 runners (10%) recorded a top three finish in one of the handicaps last year.

Dominic Gardiner-Hill, head of handicapping at the BHA, expressed satisfaction with the outcome. 

Ben Pauling, trainer of Grand Annual winner Global Citizen, said: "The results show they were right to look at the handicaps."

Irish pundit Kevin Blake pulled no punches, describing the changes as 'a substantial and calculated intervention by the British handicapping team to try and tilt the tables in favour of the home team.'

Twelve months on you can read Kevin Blake's reaction to this year's weights here

In summary:

Irish chasers appear to have been treated leniently;

Irish trained juvenile hurdlers that have already competed in a handicap have been treated quite harshly;

Irish non juvenile handicap hurdlers have been treated more leniently than expected.

Layers have priced Irish trained runners odds on to turn the tables and win more handicaps than British runners this year.

One of the main adjustments made by the BHA as a result of the review was to drop a horse's mark more quickly during the season. 

As an example, the winner of the 2022 Pertemps Final, Third Wind, won off a mark of 141, having started the season in the Long Walk Hurdle on 149. 

Second Alaphilippe, beaten a neck, raced off 138 having finished fifth behind Vanillier in the 2021 Albert Bartlett when rated 143. 

British runners filled five of the first six places - the Emmet Mullins trained Winter Fog claimed fourth spot off 138.

The current benchmark differential between Irish and British handicap ratings is generally accepted as five pounds over hurdles, three pounds in chases. 

Potentially well handicapped Irish runners at this year's Festival include:

Punitive 137c (Ultima / Kim Muir) - goes off current Irish mark; Grand Roi 144h (Coral Cup, County, Martin Pipe) +1; Pied Piper 154h (Champion Hurdle, County) +1; Adamantly Chosen 153c (Ultima, Brown Advisory, Turners, Magners Plate) +1; Escaria Ten 151c (Magners Plate) +1; Haut En Couleurs 157c (Magners Plate) +1; The Goffer 149c (Ultima) +2; Tax For Max 137h (Coral Cup, County, Martin Pipe) +2; Scaramanga 147h (Coral Cup, County) +2 - yet to race over hurdles for W. Mullins; and Winter Fog 152h (Coral Cup, County) +3.

By way of contrast, Kevin Blake highlights the fate of those juvenile hurdlers that finished to the fore of the Naas Racecourse Business Club Handicap Hurdle a couple of weeks back: Thetys +9; Port Audemer +10; By Your Side +10; Libby +6.  

Last year Irish runners comprised roughly two thirds of the field in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle and, looking at the six day declarations, a similar ratio looks quite possible this year.

In 2017 the Boodles was known as the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle; at the time I wrote:

"Often a lottery, in the past decade no winner has had an official rating higher than 133."

That year Flying Tiger, a 33/1 chance, won off 134 - and three of the five subsequent winners have been rated above the benchmark I quoted: 2019: Band Of Outlaws (139); 2020 Aramax (138); and 2022 Brazil (137).  

Perseus Way, a good second to Nusret in the Adonis at Kempton, is the only British trained runner rated above 130 for this year's renewal.

Prior to 2017 Paul Nicholls sent out two winners, Qualando (rated 131) in 2015 and Diego Du Charmil (rated 133) in 2016, as well placed horses Caid Du Berlais and Pit Zig (second and third in 2013); Katgary and Keltus (second and fourth in 2014); and Bouvreuil (second in 2015). 

Last year his Bell Ex One was third and I thought his entry this year, Afadil, worth a second look. 

I can't quite remember the last time somebody asked me to mark their card but, having received such an ill-judged request - the fixture in question was the Grand National Trial meeting at Haydock last month - I quickly pounced on the opportunity and suggested Afadil for the opening Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle to the unsuspecting racegoer, adding a degree of value with the informative snippet that Victor Ludorum translates as 'Winner of the Games'. 

Naturally, money came in spades for the Gary Moore trained Bo Zenith and that beast duly obliged; Afadil, sent off 3/1 second favourite, trailed in sixth, beaten 49 lengths. 

Surprisingly the novice racegoer didn't show an awful lot of interest but I noted the following comment in the post-race analysis: 'The trainer's rep could offer no explanation for the poor form shown other than race may have come too soon for gelding.' 

I certainly think Afadil, a 255,000 euros purchase, ahead of his mark (123); I think I'm correct when I say no horse rated lower than 125 has come home in front.           

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to bring to your attention a couple of apparently well handicapped British runners:

Fantastikas 132c (Ultima) - rated 142c in November; War Lord 144c (Magners Plate) - rated 149c in November; De Rasher Counter 140c (Kim Muir) - rated 149c in October; Milkwood 141h (County, Martin Pipe) - rated 148h in October; and Rouge Vif 137c (Grand Annual) - rated 153c when fourth behind Greaneteen in the Celebration Chase at Sandown last April. 

Curiously, Nicola McGeady has named Rouge Vif as Ladbrokes' biggest single liability over the four days, referencing an update from trainer Harry Whittington

I confess I'm a Rouge Vif fan and his sixth at Doncaster last time hinted at a return to some sort of form; Malystic, Saint Segal, Before Midnight and Mackenberg were all less than seven lengths to the good and the handicapper has dropped him three pounds for that run. 

Unfortunately I missed the fancy prices and he's now generally a 12/1 chance. All that said, he needs decent ground to be seen at his best and Turftrax now reports the current going on the Old Course as soft.

Soft ground mudlarks, so disdainfully discarded earlier in the week, now merit much closer inspection following recent precipitation, including Protektorat, Sounds Russian (Gold Cup); Teahupoo (Stayers); Love Envoi (Mares); and Tahmuras (Supreme).

Not long to go now; with new whip rules in place, what price a disqualified 'winner'?

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