Matt Tombs / Monday 18th March 2013 / 15:10
By the time the jumps season gets going again in the autumn, I’ve often forgotten some of the lessons learned from the previous Festival. In case you’re like me, I’ve set out 5 things to take into the Festival next season.
1. You can’t win regularly at the Festival if you don’t follow Irish racing
For the first time Irish trained horses won the majority of the races at the Festival. Yet many punters ignore Irish racing other than a few high profile open Grade 1s during the season. (C4’s inexplicable decision to drop Ted Walsh from the pre race paddock analysis of each horse went badly wrong, as there was a lack of knowledge of the Irish form.) I love Ireland and Irish racing so it’s natural for me to focus on it but if you’re one of the many jumps fans who doesn’t – make a resolution to follow it next season.
The great advantage of Irish racing is that there are relatively few meetings so the quality of the day to day racing (especially the novice events) is much higher. That makes for better punting opportunities on those races but also makes it simpler and less time consuming to assess the form. The main meeting is often on a Sunday when there’s rarely decent British racing so it just extends the enjoyment at the weekend.
2. The top novices are out earlier than you think
Unlike me, most jumps fans also follow the flat and with the Arc, Champions Day etc little attention is paid to jumps racing in late September and October. There are relatively few events for the top horses in open company, but many of the best novices are racing.
Over the previous decade you’d have made a profit by backing blind every horse in the 6 all-age graded novice races, that had run over those obstacles that season by 31st October that had a realistic chance, (SP shorter than 50/1 or in the more specialist Arkle shorter than 20/1.) If you add in the 4 miler, where 6 of the 10 winners had run by then, that profit was bumped up further.
I haven’t analysed the P&L on all the runners yet but The New One (first run on 1 October), Back in Focus (20 September) and Benefficient (22 September) all won such Festival races, with Jezki, Baily Green, His Excellency, African Gold, Changing Times, Tofino Bay, Rule The World and Lyreen Legend being placed. The likes of Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins often don’t start their good novices until later but few trainers follow that example.
Of course its not easy (especially in novice hurdles) to know which are the really good horses at the time, but if you’re following the form you’ll be miles ahead of those who are focussed on the flat at that time of year. Even a short summary of the action highlighting 17 winners of novice events before 31st October, picked out 2 of the winners and another 2 placed horses.
3. Old Taboos About Championship Races Are Breaking Down
Training methods are advancing all the time. In the ‘90s most horses needed a run or two to get them fit. To win any race, let alone a Championship race, off a long break or after a serious injury was deemed virtually impossible. Yet this year Bobs Worth won the Gold Cup off the longest break in modern times and after only 5 chase starts, (only 1 in open company.)
Solwhit had been off for 2 years with a tendon injury before returning on New Year’s Eve and having just a couple of runs before winning the World Hurdle. It used to be said that once a horse had lost its Championship title they never regained it. Hurricane Fly’s regaining the Champion Hurdle title completed the set in the last decade, (after Moscow Flyer, Inglis Drever and Kauto Star.)
So far, novice races still appear to be different, especially staying events. As mentioned above, a long season with plenty of experience is still preferable as shown by At Fishers Cross (6 runs), Benefficient (5), Lord Windermere (5), Champagne Fever (4), The New One (4) & Back In Focus (3). Only Simonsig was relatively inexperienced (2 runs) and a lack of match practice nearly told.
4. Races That Cut Up Favour Each Way Long Shots
With fewer horses and more races it doesn’t take a genius to work out that fields in the non-handicaps are going to be much smaller. Whilst inflated non runner, no bet win prices (with no rule 4) are a great medium once they become available, I’m starting to think there may be value in each way long shots that are being targeted at the race.
I don’t bet much each way as I tend to lose focus on the win part of the bet – and try and find something I’m convinced will be placed. The crucial part of an each way bet is that you think it can win.
However, bets like For Non Stop (3rd of 8 in the Ryanair at 20/1) and Lyreen Legend (2nd of 11 in the RSA at 16/1) could have been struck each way. As those fields looked like cutting up, they had a great chance of being placed. Given the over-generous place terms of each way bets, (especially ante-post and non runner, no bet, where its usually ¼ odds for the first 3 places in non-handicaps) – would each way have been a better medium?
I can see myself losing discipline on the win bet, but for those whose punting style suits each way betting it’s worth considering, especially in events that look like cutting up. By way of example, this year, with the 2 winners, the 2 above and Jezki, Kid Cassidy and Drumshambo, the portfolio profit would have been around +25pts rather than +8pts had I backed every double-figure priced bet each way.
5. Heads In The Sand?
As someone whose column is focussed all season on the Festival, perhaps I could be forgiven if I saw it through rose tinted glasses. In fact, my concerns for the health of the Festival, that have been building over the last couple of years, are developing into a belief that it could be heading for a crisis.
It ought to be plainly obvious now that there are too many level weights races for the number of horses – if we want a Festival with the sort of level of competition there was in the last decade. Like many industries the Festival expanded just as the long boom was collapsing, leaving a chronic shortage of good horses for the expanded number of level weights races.
The problem is biggest in the novice races. There used to be 2 level weights novice chases, (the Arkle and RSA,) but there are now 4 (the Jewson was introduced in 2010 and the 4 miler has been amended to make it a novice chase, now run at level weights.) In the first decade of the century the average field for the Arkle was 14 and the RSA 13. Last year the Arkle had 6 runners and this year 7. Last year 9 went to post in the RSA, this year 11 did. In fact the two winners of the supposed main RSA trials (the only 2 Grade 1s at the trip before the Festival) ran in the Jewson and 4 miler.
There used to be 2 level weights novice hurdles (the Supreme and Neptune – now there is also the Albert Bartlett). In the first decade of the century an average of 18 runners ran in the Supreme and 17 in the Neptune. This year 12 lined up in the Supreme and 8 in the Neptune.
Penalties in the novice chases may be part of the answer to deter the top horses from running in the Jewson or 4 miler, but the underlying problem is that there aren’t enough horses for the races to be as competitive as they used to be. The economic reality is that the extra top class horses required aren’t going to appear in the next 5 years and probably not the next 10, so it’s not a temporary phenomenon we just have to ride out. In fact the post-crash concentration of the best horses in far fewer hands means more will be kept apart from each other, which just reduces competitiveness even further.
So if we have a choice between a Festival with more, less good races or fewer, better races – which would you vote for?
During the economic boom, many ordinary people’s standards of living increased significantly through credit. Greed persuaded people that their having ever more of the best things in life was sustainable, even when common sense dictated that they were living way beyond their means. Even greedier bankers (who were in charge of the supply of credit) fuelled this boom and even when they realised that it was unsustainable, they carried on preaching that more and more was the only way. Sound familiar in the context of the Festival?