Matt Tombs / Friday 7th November 2014 / 15:05
I’ve long had a theory that form when winning handicaps off high marks tends to be underrated compared to conditions events. There are ever more Grade 1s so the quality is diluted and they get easier and easier to win. I mentioned a couple of years ago that there were 34 Grade 1s in Britain in 2011/12 compared to 21 fifteen years previously. That rose to 38 last season with even more planned for this season. Grade 1 form, (away from the big traditional championship events), is usually weaker than is perceived.
A mark in the early 170s is the average required to win one of the 2 championship hurdles, (ie Champion Hurdle and World Hurdle). In the 2 championship chases (ie Champion Chase and Gold Cup) the average is mid 170s. The Ryanair Chase generally requires a mark of about 170.
In order to win a run of the mill handicap you might need to be around 7-8lb well in; to win a top handicap, it’s often around 15lb. Every race is different, but I reckon if you are winning a handicap, (especially a top quality handicap,) off a mark in excess of 155, then the form ought to be putting you right in the mix for the open Grade 1s at the Festival.
You might be thinking that stacks of horses win handicaps off marks over 155. In fact, in the previous ten seasons only 82 horses even won a handicap off 150 or more, (ignoring cross country races) – ie there are typically just 8 horses a season who show anywhere near this type of form. When you raise the bar to a mark in excess of 155, its just 32 in those ten seasons. Of course, part of the reason for this low number is that, with so many soft conditions events, most of the best horses don’t contest handicaps.
What we’re looking for is a method of weeding out the handicaps won by exposed, highly rated horses, who are in reality 160odd horses, and so a bit below winning the open Grade 1s at the Festival. To test my theory and find the horses that are using a handicap as a stepping-stone to those Festival Grade 1s, the obvious place to start is chasers who were novices the previous season.
During the last decade, 8 such horses have won a handicap chase in the season after they were novices, off a mark in excess of 155. Two, Al Ferof, (won the Paddy Power off 159,) and Diamond Harry, (won the Hennessy off 156,) got injured and didn’t run again that season.
The other 6 made it to the Festival, and I’ve set out below how they fared:
Sire De Grugy won at Chepstow (161) and won the Champion Chase @ 11/4
Cue Card won the Haldon (157) and won the Ryanair @ 7/2
Bobs Worth won the Hennessy (160) and won the Gold Cup @ 11/4
Kalahari King won at Doncaster (157) and was 3rd in Champion Chase
Denman won the Hennessy (161) and won the Gold Cup @ 9/4
Well Chief won the Victor Chandler (176) and was 2nd in Champion Chase
That’s 4 winners out of 6, and a profit of +9.25pts, ie 154% profit on SP prices. You would often have got much bigger prices ante-post after their wins – Sire De Grugy was 20/1 after his win off 161 last season - though you’d have had two more losers in the form of Al Ferof and Diamond Harry.
If, like me, you believe that winning handicaps off these sort of high marks is harder than winning many Grade 1s - the phenomenal record of these 2nd season chasers on the upgrade shouldn’t surprise you. Interestingly, the 4 Festival winners all contested handicaps in the autumn, whereas the 2 losers, (even they were placed,) contested them in late January / early February. The 4 who won handicaps in the autumn obviously had more time to continue their steep upward curve by March.
Any statistical cut off point tends to be arbitrary and Haldon winner God’s Own (155) only just misses out. He’s still eligible for novice events though and is effective at intermediate trips so isn’t currently an attractive ante-post proposition. There are some possible candidates in the Paddy Power – Champagne Fever (158) and Uxizandre (158) heading them, (Champagne Fever is also entered in the Hennessy.) The problem is that horses like Denman and Bobs Worth were pretty short, (not dissimilar to their SP,) after winning the Hennessy, so there’s unlikely to be value in backing the winner of such a high profile event afterwards.
Rather than try and find a horse that’s going to win both a major autumn handicap and then at the Festival, I’d much rather back one of the two horses that’s already achieved this sort of handicap form this season. The one I don’t want to back is Wishfull Thinking who demolished the Old Roan field off 162. In theory that’s Ryanair winning form, but he’s rising 12 and is just the sort of exposed type winning off a high mark who’s an unlikely Festival winner.
A key reason I’m so keen on the other horse to have won a handicap off a big mark this season, is that it’s in the Champion Chase division - which is much weaker than usual at the moment. I looked at this recently in the context of accumulators.
The much maligned form of last season’s 2m novice chasers got a boost in the Haldon and if I had to back a horse win only it would still be Balder Succes (16/1). However, he ran well on his comeback in the Haldon without looking a world beater and there’s a reasonable chance one of Nicky Henderson’s superstars will turn up and run close to form, which gives the market more of an each-way feel, given the real lack of depth in the division.
What I mean by an each-way feel is not simply that there are few contenders so a good long-shot has a chance of being placed – but also, crucially, that the win bet is realistic. It’s quite likely that neither Sprinter Sacre nor Simonsig line up, (in any sort of form), and Sire De Grugy looks beatable if a young horse really progresses. (By contrast, each-way bets where you don’t really think the horse can win are rarely good value.)
Balder Succes doesn’t feel like an each-way proposition though – he has been on the floor on each of his 3 runs at Cheltenham and, whilst I’m not overly worried about it, he doesn’t look cast iron to be in the 3.
This all bodes well for the horse I want to back each-way - 4l Maghull 2nd Simply Ned, (33/1). He’d been contesting decent handicaps in the north and unlike the two horses he split in the Maghull, (Balder Succes and Trifolium,) it was his first run in a graded race. He ran a blinder, looking very much at home with the test of jumping at speed round Aintree’s sharp track. He made a mistake 5 out, which cost him momentum, otherwise he’d probably have got closer to Balder Succes.
He clearly needs to improve to reverse that form – but considering he was taking on battled hardened horses, (Balder Succes and Trifolium were both running in their 9th graded race,) he can be expected to do so. He’s also come out and proved his wellbeing by winning a Kelso handicap easily off 157, (2m1f, good to soft.)
Many punters will look at that form and dismiss it in the context of Grade 1s. His opponents were ordinary handicappers and it was run at Kelso. Of course it’s not as strong as a Paddy Power or Hennessy but it was still a classy effort to give 32lb to the fit and in-form 2nd and 22lb to the 3rd who was 3 from 3 at the track.
Of course you need more in hand to win a race like the Hennessy than a Kelso handicap, but this marks him down as an early / mid 160s horse already. That might well be enough to sneak a place in this season’s Champion Chase and you’d have to hope there’s lots of improvement to come between early October and the Festival for such an unexposed 2nd season chaser.
Simply Ned hasn’t run at Cheltenham so needs to prove he handles the course. He’ll get the chance in the Shloer Chase next week and if he performs there as his form suggests he should, he’ll be half the price or less – so this is the time to be backing him.
Nicky Richards has said the Champion Chase is the plan if he’s good enough (quote - "it will be very interesting to see how far he can go.") – so he’s much more likely than most to line up, (a fast run 2m at a stiff track looks to suit ideally, so his defecting to the Ryanair looks unlikely, especially as the stable have Eduard for that.) He’s just over 8/1 to be placed, despite already having the sort of form to achieve that in a weak renewal - and with significant improvement likely. He’s a cracking each-way bet in a race that could fall apart.
1pt each-way Simply Ned in the Champion Chase @ 33/1