How to find handicap hurdle winners at The Cheltenham Festival
The most thrilling punting week of the year is nearly upon us. If you enjoy ‘solving the puzzle’ like I do, then it doesn’t get tougher. I enjoy a challenge. In the last couple of year’s I’ve thrown everything I have at The Festival and it’s gone well.
In this post I thought I’d share some of my own views on how to find handicap hurdle winners at the Festival. I can’t get enough of the handicaps and don’t think they’re the impossible task that sometimes they’re made out to be.
You can also find a video where I look back at the handicap hurdle winners from last year’s meeting, bringing to life the ideas discussed below.
There’s also a link to a stats report that you may find useful.
In recent days I’ve been reflecting on my own tipping performance. For a while now I’ve tried to turn myself into a ‘daily tipster’ but the reality is that for a variety of reasons I’m just not very good. Selectivity and specialisation are often best in this game and it’s the ‘big handicaps’ where I’ve generally done well. In saying that my form since the end of Galway last year hasn’t been much to shout about, although such is the nature of the beast such losing runs are to be expected. This hame is all about long term profit, especially when you play in class2/Grade 3 handicaps.
However, in year’s gone by (well specifically 2017 + 2018 where I’ve upped my effort/focus) I’ve come alive during Cheltenham week and I intend to do so again.
Some historical context…
My Festival Weeks in 2017 and 2018
2017: 32 bets / 4 wins / 13 places (inc wins) / +43 points
(I threw in Chase The Spud at 22/1 on the Saturday after, which is a bonus race for those who join for Festival Week…more on that next week) So, a +62 point week.
2018: 31 bets / 5 wins / 12 places (icn wins) / +69 points
(again I added the winner of the Midlands National, at 25/1, to make it a +92 point week)
Vintage Clouds 3rd / Shantou Flyer 2nd / Knight of Noir UP/ Ms Parfois 2nd / Duel At Dawn UP /Testify UP/ Mr Whitaker WON 9/1/ Bleu Berry WON 28/1 /Barra 3rd/ Fix Le Kap / Turning Gold 5th/ Mastermind UP / Lovenormoney UP/ Sykes UP / Last Goodbye UP / Willie Boy Fell / Sugar Baron UP/ Final Nudge UP/ Missed Approach WON 12/1 / Flying Tiger UP /Whisky Sour 3rd/Brelade UP /Smaoineamh Alainn UP /Discorama 2nd 40/1 /Blow By Blow WON 12/1 /Dresden Fell /Some Plan Fell /Dolos UP /Kilbrichen Storm WON 50/1 / Mulcahys Hill UP/Western Climate /Billy Bronco /Regal Flow WON 25/1
When you’re in a bit of a rut it can help to remember the good times! I’d bite your hand off to repeat those results but that’s enough looking back, I should attempt to share something of use…
To the handicap hurdles…
Of the 15 handicap hurdles run since the start of 2016 I’ve managed to find 5 winners… Diego Du Charmil 8.2 BFSP / Presenting Percy 14.24 / Champagne Classic 16.00 (25/1>12/1) and last year… Bleu Berry 32.88 / Blow By Blow 15.68
If I could find 2x handicap hurdle winners every year, I’d be happy.
So, how did I do it?
A large reason for my success comes from my unique approach to stats/trends and what I’d call the ‘stats foundation’ – which is vital for any Festival in my opinion.
Many of these races are won by horses with similar profiles and a case could be made that the people (trainers/jockeys/owners) are as important, if not more important, than the horses.
With that said I’ve pulled together some top-level notes/stats/pointers, looking at all the handicap hurdles collectively.
You can see below what I mean about ‘the people’…
- JP: 0/62,10p
- Gigginstown: 4/21,6p, +32
- 1x W Mullins, 3x Gordon Elliot
- D Russell: 4/9, 4p
- X2: P Townend / R Johnson / Sam T-D
- G Elliot: 5/36, 15p
- P Nicholls: 5/41,13p
- W Mullins: 5/47, 12p
- D Skelton: 2/16,4p
- P Kelly: 2/2
- N Henderson: 2/45,6p (0/27,4p the last 3 years)
- X1: P Hobbs/ J Harrington / N Williams
You can see how Gordon Elliot, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls have somewhat farmed these races, wining 15 between them at the last 5 Festivals. 9 trainers are responsible for every handicap hurdle winner at the previous 5 meetings and I’d be shocked if those names listed are not responsible for a few winners again this year.
You can see how well certain jockeys do and how Gigginstown like to have the odd winner. On the flip side it doesn’t appear that JP McManus has targeted these races, but of course that could always change.
Such a stats foundation is vital to being successful in Festival Handicaps as many of the trainers especially, are creatures of habit.
On top of this work I have extensive trends for each handicap, creating a ‘winning profile’, the qualifiers giving me a good starting point, as well as noting those trainers that have won the race previously.
I also have a few trainer and jockey based micro angles and stats looking at the prep tracks that point the way to Festival winners. These always throw up a few winners and can help when trying to make a final decision on what to back.
So, that’s the foundation, but stats can only get you so far and they should only ever be a guide or a ‘way in’ . A focus on trainers, jockeys and to a lesser extent owners (Gigginstown!) is worthwhile.
To the horses…
To win a Festival handicap you clearly need a fair bit in hand – some would argue upwards of 10-12lb. My job is to spot them and work out why a horse may suddenly improve for today’s conditions.
Cheltenham is unique, as are many of the big festival handicaps. Here we have a set of special conditions that many horses are facing for the first time in many runs, sometimes the first time this season or indeed in their career… mainly the field size and the pace they go. Rarely do they hang around in a Festival handicap hurdle. Even if the pace isn’t that strong you really need to see out the trip still.
The impact of this relentless (or stronger) pace is twofold…
firstly, along with the testing nature of the track, stamina is stretched to the full. Many horses haven’t had such conditions in which to demonstrate their true stamina, which has often been hidden.
Many horses simply haven’t been running in races that tap into their stamina – many have been competing in small field races run at a dawdle, where they have been outpaced near the business end, and never really in it, sometimes on softer than ideal ground. Of course many of them will have been primed for this week and will be the fittest they’ve been for a while! : )
The pace of these races also helps those strong travelling horses settle, switch off, and allows them to finish their races off at the business end. This is vitally important as many have been running in races where they’ve been unable to finish, due to the slow pace, often having over-raced/done too much, or not had the change of gears to pick up when asked. Some have decent small field form but improve even further for a stronger pace. This is especially true for chasers of the future, running in handicap hurdles – Gigginstown have plenty of those.
The Jennie Candlish winner of the Ladbroke Hurdle at Kempton (Big Time Dancer) would be an example of what a strong travelling horse can do when faced with a large field, going a proper gallop. He was able to switch off and cruise around, coming with a devastating run after the last. It did help that he was also in form and progressive of course. (I didn’t back him that day sadly) Watching his runs back in smaller fields it was clear why he enjoyed those conditions.
This season is stranger than most, in that usually they’d have been a plethora of small field races run in heavy ground… and as well as those two factors above, many horses would clearly improve for facing decent ground for the first time since October. It has been a very dry winter so that may not be a factor as such this year, and it could be that those with proven form in these conditions do best. Time will tell, but I’m conscious of that.
Class… some of the winners will have been competing in Grade 1 or 2 novice races also and will have a touch of class. Some have a novice G1/2/3 win to their name, demonstrating that they have plenty of ability, and could be well handicapped. Some run in Grade 1s but without the ability to compete, but then seemingly relish running in a handicap, as per the conditions above.
I do also like to see if they have any form in big fields. Some of them have won or gone close early on in their careers, in big field novice/maiden hurdles at decent tracks- this is especially true of some of the Irish raiders. They will have then been running in smaller fields before rocking up at Cheltenham.
Finally, you do want a horse who jumps well, and it’s only by video analysis that you can spot those. But again, the unique conditions of Festival handicaps can help a horse improve it’s jumping, (esp better ground/faster pace) but generally scrappy jumpers should be treated with some caution.
So to conclude, in general you want lightly raced/unexposed horses that at some point has shown some ability but hasn’t played their full hand yet. These horses may improve for today’s unique race conditions, the pace, the track, the ground and the distance – stepping up or down in trip.
To finish, it may be best for me to demonstrate with a few examples…
In the video below I look through the profiles of last year’s handicap hurdle winners… Blow By Blow, Bleu Berry, Vaneer of Charm, Delta Work, Mohaayed
Popcorn at the ready! 🙂
Thanks for reading,
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