Matt Tombs / Thursday 19th March 2015 / 16:39
1. Novices Can Win Championship Races
When it was announced that the Bradstock team were going to run their novice Coneygree in the Gold Cup after just 3 chase runs, the reaction from leading trainers and many in the media was politely concealed disdain. Top novices must run in novice Grade 1s, not in championship races, ran the accepted wisdom.
In the majority, probably the vast majority, of cases that’s the right call – many novices will be just be too immature for championship races. What is so flawed is to make it an absolute principle. Common sense says you start with the presumption that the novice race is the right one, but you look at all the factors.
Coneygree was a fragile 8 year old. He’d won a key trial, routing experienced 160 horses. He’d jumped superbly on his 3 chase starts and was an uncomplicated ride from the front. He had shown a liking for cut in the ground and the forecast suggested (correctly) that the going would suit him more in the Gold Cup than in the RSA. The Gold Cup looked an open renewal – next year Vautour or Don Poli might look unbeatable. There were no shortage of reasons why the Gold Cup looked the right choice, even before the event.
Immediately after the race, and in Saturday’s papers, the tone of many commentators was that the Bradstocks were mad, but that it was super that it had paid off – a tone that was faintly patronising. Gradually, as minds settled, tributes came in and both Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls used the phrase “we salute them” which suggested that they acknowledged what an innovative and brilliant decision it was.
I don’t think this was a freak occurrence – I reckon more novices would win championship races than people think. My guess is that Un De Sceaux would have won the Champion Chase had he run in it, as would Sprinter Sacre 3 years ago. Given how he demolished Kauto Star in the 2008 Gold Cup, who’s to say Denman wouldn’t have done the same in 2007 had he run in it rather than the RSA? Would Vautour or Faugheen have won last season’s Champion Hurdle had they contested it?
One particular myth that is used against novices running in championship races is that they couldn’t go the ‘championship’ pace. Looking at Timeform’s sectional analysis, the Supreme was, (not unusually,) run at a faster gallop than the Champion Hurdle. The Arkle was run at a faster pace than the Champion Chase. The sectionals suggest Coneygree went off at a fierce gallop, which broke his rivals one by one.
Every case needs looking at individually, and it should be unusual for the right call to be for the novice to go for the championship race – but sometimes it will be. There’s a balance between the long term and taking your opportunity when it arises.
Hopefully the legacy of Coneygree’s brilliant win will be that trainers will be more open-minded in the future. The sad sight of Sprinter Sacre at this year’s Festival shows how short a time at the top even the very best horses can have. The Bradstocks defied conventional wisdom and outwitted the best trainers around, none of which would have run Coneygree in the Gold Cup – nobody will ever be able to take that from them.
2. Front Runners Can Prosper At The Festival
Every year you hear people say how hard it is to make all at the Festival. On literal statistics of course that’s true. Only one horse can make all per race, and in many races, different horses swap the lead early on, so no horse could make all – therefore you wouldn’t expect it to happen that often given the field sizes.
The most pointless stat I heard this Festival was that Anaglog’s Daughter in 1980 was the last to make all to win the Arkle. I didn’t go back that far but I couldn’t find a horse with any realistic chance that had tried. It may be harder to make all generally at a course like Cheltenham than at other tracks like Kempton, but it’s much less difficult than is perceived.
6 horses made all to win at this year’s Festival. Whilst that’s unusually high, it shows what an advantage it can be if you get into a rhythm out front. It’s not as if the wins were happening in the minor races either. 3 of the 4 championships went to horses that made all – Faugheen, (Champion Hurdle), Cole Harden (World Hurdle) and Coneygree, (Gold Cup.) In the other open Grade 1, the Ryanair, Uxizandre made all. The other 2 winners who never saw a rival were in novice Grade 1s – Un De Sceaux, and Vautour, (and Windsor Park disputed or led all the way in the Neptune.)
3. Softer Fences Produce Different Risks
The fences at British courses are unrecognisable compared to fifteen years ago. The potential for a media firestorm has led to the Grand National fences being replaced by cross-country style brush-through fences, and the stiff fences at almost all the leading British park courses are now much more forgiving.
You often here people say “nobody wants to see fallers”, which is similar to a pollster asking you whether you’d like to see more done to help the poor. It’s impossible to disagree with the sentiment but how you approach achieving it has consequences.
Flattening the drops and lowering the National fences made the course more dangerous as everyone went quicker down the inside – which led to the fences having to be softened so much that the race is unrecognisable now. It looks as the Cheltenham fences have been softened even further this year and whilst that led to very few falls this time, that might not be the long term consequence.
Incredibly, more horses fell over hurdles this year (10) than fences (8). There wasn’t a single faller in the 6 Grade 1 chases, and half the 8 fallers were in amateur rider’s races. Last year there were 22 fallers over fences at the Festival.
It might just have been a freak statistic, but the jockeys will know – and if they realise the fences are materially softer, they’ll be going quicker. When combined with the success of front runners this year, it might make for horses going too quickly which, as the National proved, creates its own dangers.
Having horses and jockeys respecting the obstacles is generally the best safety measure, not a race to the bottom with ever more forgiving fences.
4. Limited Handicaps Are A Different Punting Challenge
The Festival handicaps are evolving rapidly. Everyone wants a runner and the rating required to get a run in some of the handicaps continues to climb. The following are the ratings needed to get a run this year with the rating needed a decade ago in brackets afterwards: Kim Muir 130 (117), County Hurdle 134 (128), Novice Handicap Chase 134 (123), Pertemps Final 135 (119), Plate 138 (120) & Coral Cup 138 (123).
Some are still akin to ordinary 26lb or 28lb handicaps – there was a 22lb range in the 3m handicap chase and a 20lb range in the Coral Cup. But others are now really limited handicaps – the weight range in the Novice Handicap Chase was 6lb, in the Martin Pipe 9lb and in the County 12lb. There’s a lot of dead wood in these races now, as exposed, badly handicapped horses are run to give owners a day out.
Some of these races are becoming much more like the Grade 1s in that it’s a case of finding the best horse, not the best handicapped horse – as there’s very little difference between the two. This year the winners of the 3m handicap chase, the Kim Muir, the County Hurdle and the Novice Handicap Chase were, on RPRs, the best horses in the race.
5. Jockey Bookings Are Crucial In The Amateur Riders Races
Having mentioned it so often in the past, you wouldn’t think this was a lesson that needed learning, but it clearly needs drumming into my head. I still can’t believe I tipped Current Event for the Foxhunter on some sort of lazy assumption that champion point-to-point jockey Will Biddick would ride because of his association with the Nicholls stable.
This is no criticism of his jockey Bryony Frost, it’s self-criticism. She’d ridden Current Event when he hacked up in the race at Musselburgh that led to me tipping him, (her first win under rules.) She might be the next Nina Carberry for all I knew – the point was I knew nothing about her and broke the golden rule of betting on these races. Needless to say, Nina won the race by the length of the straight on On The Fringe, with Current Event trailing in 12th. Lesson re-learned. Hopefully.
You never stop learning about the Festival. That learning curve is particularly steep at the moment with many of the races evolving quickly, and some traditional betting systems breaking down.
I think this evolution gives me a big edge and I expect to win at about 9 out of 10 Festivals - this column has made good Festival profits in each of the 4 years its run. 2015 profits were 22pts (62%,) following 34pts (130%) in 2014, 8pts (25%) in 2013 & 14pts (67%) in 2012 - a total of 78pts (68%) profit over the 4 years, (comfortably outperforming Pricewise's 22pts (15%) profit over the same period.)
If you'd like to win at the Festival virtually every year too, then I can tell you how to do it in my new book about how to win at the Festival, which will be published in the autumn. It'll be available via Weatherbys online book shop priced £12 (+£2.95 P&P).
If you'd like to pre-order the book, you can do so at the discounted price of £10 (+£2.95 P&P) before 31/3/15. For details please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, (quoting Ref "5").