Make hay in the handicap chases at the Festival....

Last Updated: 06.02.2019

Wednesday, 6th February 2019

Make hay in the handicap chases at the Festival….

There are quite a few handicap chases to target at the Cheltenham Festival in March….

Each will see a big-field go to post – a big-field of horses each of a similar level. All of them will be trying. Some of them will have been laid out specifically for the job. Nothing is being saved for another day....

You rarely see an easy winner of a Festival handicap. The pace is always red-hot. Challenges come thick and fast from start to finish. As one challenger  falls away, another invariably comes with its run and replaces it....

These are tough races in which to come out on top. A horse can run the race of its life in a Festival handicap – and still not win. A punter can place a cracking bet at a big price and still not be rewarded with a pay-out….

But it is the live contenders at big prices that make the handicap chases must-play events for me. Tough as they are, they cannot be dodged….

  • A quartet of handicap chase targets….

I don’t get involved in the novice handicap events. I prefer the open-events where I know a little more about the individual runners, their quirks, preferences and peculiarities….

  • On day 1, we have the Ultima Handicap Chase over 25-furlongs....
  • On day 3, we have the Brown Advisory Plate over 21-furlongs and the Kim Muir over 26-furlongs for amateur riders….
  • On day 4, the Grand Annual over the 16-furlong trip is the feature for handicap buffs….

None of these events is easy to solve. There are no guaranteed winners. There are no guaranteed placers. It is a case of spot the undervalued horse, take the price and then hope the horse justifies your faith on the day….

At least things will be made a little easier by the fact that 48-hour declarations were introduced for the first time at last year’s Festival ….

It gives us a little more time to scrutinise the form of 20-odd-runners. Even the most devoted formbook aficionado struggled to do a proper form-reading job of all the runners with just the previous 24-hour notice of the runners and riders....

In advance of the final declarations, the statistical record does at least offer pointers that might come in useful when splitting fields and reducing the number of runners of interest….

I’ve been studying the last 12 renewals of each of the 4 handicap chases I’m interested in at next week’s Festival….

  • Official ratings – your first port of call….

The first thing of interest to note is this: just two of the individual 48 winners of those races was rated higher than 148 on the official scale.

Un Temps Pour Tout won the Ultima for the second year in succession in 2017 for David Pipe off a mark of 155 – 7lb higher than when winning the year before. It was a hell of a performance....

Last year, the Pau-Nicholls trained Le Prezien came out on top in the Grand Annual off a mark of 150....

Charlie Longsdon summed things up nicely ahead of the 2017 Festival, when saying: ‘You need nearly a stone in hand to win a Festival handicap.’

Not many horses running in handicap chase events off official marks of 150+ are in fact 160+ horses....

In other words, the 150+ horses are handicapped up to the hilt. They don’t have much, if anything at all, in hand. Hence their poor collective performance in Festival handicaps over the last decade or so. Such horses are always vulnerable to the progressive types that the handicapper hasn’t quite got hold of yet….

38 of the 48 handicap chase winners over the last 12-years were rated between 134 and 148 on the official scale.

If you’re looking for a quick and dirty method of splitting this season’s handicap chase fields at the Festival, that last statement wouldn’t be a bad place to start….

  • Additional field-splitting pointers….

Only five horses aged 6 or younger have managed to win one of our handicap chases over the last 12-years....

Just six have won a handicap chase event aged 10 or older.

The other 37  were aged 7- 8- or 9-years-old. That band is the clear percentage play….

Only six horses have managed to win one of our handicap chase events having raced only 3 times or less over fences prior to showing up at the Festival. Four of those horses were trained by David Pipe….

39 of our 48 winners had raced between 4 and 12 times over fences or were 3-run chasers trained by David Pipe….

43 of our 48 handicap chase winners had been off the track for at least 20 days before showing up at Cheltenham. Nobody has trained more Festival handicap chase winners off a break of 5-weeks+ than David Pipe. He’s trained 8 such winners over the last 12-year-period.

Claimers don’t have a fabulous record in handicap chases. They have produced 8 wins from 244 runs. Three of those wins were produced in the Kim Muir by amateur riders....

First-time headgear must be viewed with a little caution too…. Only 3 of our 48 winners were wearing some form of headgear for the first time….

  • Yards that don’t deliver – and two that do….

Of the last 43 beaten favourites in a Festival handicap chase 24 were trained by Alan King, David Pipe, Jonjo O’Neill, Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls. Horses from the ‘name’ yards frequently fail to live up to their market billing….

Throughout the year, Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson & Philip Hobbs win plenty of big races – and more than their fair share of handicaps. Punters like to back their horses.

But it’s not been a great move in handicap chases at the Festival over the last decade. Between them those three headline-act trainers have produced just 4 winners from 175 runners….

Maybe these trainers try so hard with their handicappers throughout the winter – chasing the big Saturday prizes – that there’s little margin left by the time they get them to the Festival? Maybe the Festival is just that bit more competitive….

I don’t know. All I can tell you is that the stats suggest those three big handlers are not the best source of bets in handicap chases at the Festival….

David Pipe and Jonjo O’Neill are the guys with the numbers on the board when it comes to the big handicap chase events run at Cheltenham in March.

Pipe has won with 8 horses and hit the top-5 with another 14 over the last 12-years – from a total representation of 82 runners….

O’Neill has won with 4 and hit the top-5  with another 9 from a representation of 55 runners….

  • The stats are only a guide….

The stats, of course, offer no cast-iron guarantees. They merely tell us what happened in the past.

The stats can assist and guide us. They offer us a starting point. They can direct our attention to horses that tick all the right boxes – as judged by the historical record.

But, you can never take the individual horse out of the equation.

When it comes down to it, the individual horse must be able to do the job in the circumstances and conditions served up on race day.

In other words, the stats do a decent job of splitting-the-field. They are the first port of call. But when it comes down to isolating your specific bet, nothing beats a detailed appraisal of the horse in question….

The stats above will lead you to horses worthy of that closer inspection come March....

  • The last word….

That’s all from me for today.

Tomorrow we’ll have a look at some pointers for the handicap hurdle events run at the Festival....

Until then. Stay tuned.

Nick Pullen

Against the Crowd