Traditional trend analysis for Cheltenham can be quite binary, particularly in the negative sense with comments like ‘horse X cannot win because it is the wrong age OR ran in the wrong prep race OR hasn’t had a recent outing’ not uncommon. Horse races – particularly some of the big fields at the Festival – tend to be more complex than that and while some of those trends have their place (says the fella that’s after writing about 8,000 words for the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide!) it might be more pertinent to consider what has been going on in the current season. I’ve had a look at two patterns from the 2017/18 national hunt seasons, one from the UK and one from Ireland, to see how they might impact Cheltenham 2018. I suspect both will prove more useful for post-meeting analysis rather than be of predictive value ahead of it but are worth considering when that time comes.
Where has all the good ground gone?
National hunt racing is by definition a winter game but in most seasons there are halcyon days where good ground prevails and those meetings are often useful for finding winners at the Festival; conditions for these cards have most in common with the decent ground we get for Cheltenham in the typical year. For seemingly every major jumps meeting in the UK this season however the defining post-race image has been a mud-spattered jockey coming in and saying ‘it’s pretty testing out there today.’
If we take the 26 feature meetings since the start of the jumps season proper in November up to Kempton on Saturday February 25th (typically the last day for meaningful Cheltenham trials) we find that only six of them have been run with ‘good’ in the going descriptions. By ‘feature meetings’ I mean the main Saturday card each week and in some cases there was more than one while I also included the King George card on December 26th and Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Kempton last Saturday was held on good ground and of the other five three were at Ascot (November 11th, November 25th, December 23rd) and one each at Newbury for the Hennessy and Sandown for the Tingle Creek. For reference purposes, the first Ascot meeting saw big handicap wins for Elgin and Go Conquer with Top Notch and Lil Rockerfeller winning Graded races on the second card and Sam Spinner and Hunters Call being the principal Festival fancies from the last one. Total Recall might be the key horse from the Hennessy (now Ladbrokes) meeting with Elegant Escape in there too, while Sceau Royal is the main runner from the Sandown meeting.
What is interesting is that there has been no Cheltenham meeting run on good ground since the start of November so perhaps the key form from that track will prove to be last year’s Festival; it is not unreasonable to think there will be wholesale form reversals from those cards. Furthermore, there have basically been very few good ground trials at any UK racetrack since the turn of the year.
There is a possibility – a good possibility in light of recent weather events – that we get a soft ground Festival and on one level you might expect the form from these meetings to work out. However, those winners and placers may now be starting to go over-the-top after a series of hard races on deep ground, so perhaps we need to look for fresher horses. But those runners coming off a break may struggle for conditioning on the ground! It’s not simple.
When reading through statistics on the Festival you can come across some interesting things about the record of horses coming off the last run on testing ground. Denis Beary (interviewed here last month) recently pointed out horses running in Grade 1 chases that had their last outing on heavy ground in the previous month are 0/43 with 6 places. In the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, Matt Tombs makes the point that in Gold Cups since 1996, the 79 horses that ran on heavy going that season were all beaten.
That may be the case in the top-level chases and it does make sense that horses would find it difficult to overcome a hard race beforehand. Overall, however, a final prep run on heavy ground has not been a negative. Below is a table of the record of UK-trained horses at the Festival since 2010 by the going description of their final prep run. I have focused on the UK-based runners as all the Irish races run are different degrees of heavy ground anyway!
While horses having the final pre-Cheltenham run on soft or good-soft have produced the most winners, it is the heavy going preppers that have the best win strike-rate, place strike-rate, the lowest loss to level stake and the highest actual over expected of those with a decent sample size. It seems a run on heavy ground, or at least a recent one, may not be ideal for top-level chases but it seems not to be a negative for other races.
One interesting side point is the poor record of horses that had their final run on the all-weather. Some will have run on the flat but many took part in ‘jumpers’ bumpers’ and with the weather disruption it seems likely that there will be a few such runners this year; two of those cards are scheduled at the moment. My Tent Or Yours, second in the 2014 Champion Hurdle having won an all-weather bumper at Kempton, is one of only two such horses to place at the Festival from 67 runners.
Dublin Racing Festival – Too good for its own good?
The biggest change in the Irish jumps calendar in 2017/18 was the introduction of the Dublin Racing Festival and this led to some movement, time-wise, of the races at the meeting. While the races on the old Irish Gold Cup/Hennessy were basically where they had been, the Irish Champion Hurdle and Arkle were a week later while the Coral Hurdle and Leopardstown Chase were three weeks later. By and large, the races that made up the weekend were more competitive than they had been in their previous spots as Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott went at it for the Trainers’ Championship.
Perhaps the altered positioning of these races means nothing but how the contests were run could be important and over the two days, overall times suggest that three races in particular were run at championship pace relative to expectations which might be worth monitoring. Those races were the Dublin Chase, the Irish Arkle and the Spring Juvenile Hurdle and the likes of Min, Footpad, Petit Mouchoir, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas all feature towards the top of their respective ante-post markets for Cheltenham.
Leopardstown remains by far the preeminent Irish trialling ground for Cheltenham which is sensible if a little self-fulfilling; the track is left-handed, galloping with a somewhat uphill finish and often produces better ground than other Irish courses through the winter but most importantly it hosts the best races. Below is a table of the courses that the Irish-trained Festival runners since 2010 had their final pre-Cheltenham run at.
Those that ran at Leopardstown dominate with Punchestown next in; I do wonder if we will see a drop off with horses trialling at Punchestown as their programme was weakened by the establishment of the Dublin Racing Festival. The one that stands out as a negative is Gowran Park. There are some decent meetings at the track, notably the Thyestes and the Red Mills day, but it tends to produce its own brand of testing ground – I think the clerk of the course recently described it as ‘heavy to off’ – which might be a negative for Our Duke and Presenting Percy this year amongst others.
Going back to the Dublin Racing Festival, an unusual aspect of the meeting was Willie Mullins running so many horses over the weekend, 42 in total; the trainer actually had fewer runners in some calendar months this season, with May, June and October seeing 40, 28 and 35 Mullins runners respectively. He is generally much more selective, at least at this time of the year, and he may almost have been going against his usual training methods to keep pace with Gordon Elliott who is much more of a volume trainer and used to running his horses more frequently.
None of this may matter at Cheltenham, in fact in probably won’t. It could be a significant factor at Punchestown though. There is a difference between going through the turn of the year from prep run to Cheltenham to Punchestown to going Leopardstown to Cheltenham to Punchestown with an extra hard race in there. I have always thought that horses running at the three spring Festivals of Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown (with Fairyhouse mixed in for some) was a tough ask and now we have an extra Festival beforehand. Some of the Mullins stars like Yorkhill and Vautour struggled at Punchestown 2016 having taken in Aintree after Cheltenham and that might be the case again in 2018.
– Tony Keenan