I sometimes get asked what my golden rule of Cheltenham Festival betting is. I don’t actually believe in golden rules. If your golden rule is to follow horses that have proved themselves on the ground / at the trip, or that are in a certain part of the weights etc – you’re likely to place too much emphasis on that single factor. The reality is that lots of different factors need considering on their merits – and in different years some will be more important than others.
One constant however, and the nearest thing to a golden rule that I have, is to ‘know your race.’ You might think that an odd suggestion – you’re doubtless aware that, for example, the Champion Hurdle is an open, level weights hurdle race run over approximately 2m½f on a left-handed undulating track etc.
One key mistake punters make is not to think any further than that about the nature of the race. They look at the form in the leading 2 mile hurdle races and the only real adjustments they tend to make are for the ground and how horses have run at previous Festivals.
That presupposes that the trials are a good guide just because they also happen to be 2m conditions hurdles, (few of the realistic contenders run in handicaps, except at the start of the season). Of the 4 championship races, the Champion Hurdle is the one where the trials, especially in Britain, are the worst guide to the championship itself. Champion Hurdle winners won only 43% of their trials in Britain this century, (Champion Chase winners won 66%, World Hurdle winners 88% and Gold Cup winners 71%.)
The main reason is that the trials are usually steadily run, small field affairs, (they’re also often run on testing ground, though that could be said for much of the form when analysing Festival races.) By contrast, the Champion itself tends to be a fast run race, with a much bigger field. By understanding that big difference, we can extract value from a market that usually fails to price in how the runners, (ie mainly those that haven’t contested the Champion before,) will react to the likely much stronger gallop.
The reason this is such a factor is that the difference in the pace of the race between the Champion Hurdle and its trials, tends to be much greater than in the other championship divisions. For example, they tend, (subject to differing ground conditions), to go a similar gallop in the Tingle Creek as the Champion Chase, and in the King George as in the Gold Cup. How often do you see a fast run Champion Hurdle trial?
One reason for this, especially in Britain, is that there are so many trials, few of which feature more than one realistic Champion Hurdle contender, and the winners often win on the bridle – so it’s hard to assess the form. The key trials have been the Fighting Fifth, Bula, Christmas Hurdle, Haydock Trial and Kingwell, (and up until recently the Contenders at Sandown.) This century none of those 5 trials has ever produced a double figure field, averaging about 6.5 runners, (less than half the size of the average Champion Hurdle field). Nearly 40% had an odds-on favourite, the majority of which won – sprinting clear off a crawl.
The Irish races are generally more competitive as the programme and attitude of trainers leads to them running their best horses against each other. There are only 3 main Irish trials – the Morgiana, Ryanair and Irish Champion, (with the Red Mills sometimes being used, especially for those with an interrupted preparation.) However, whilst the Irish races ought to be more reliable form guides as the top horses take each other on, (as Jezki, Hurricane Fly and Our Conor did in the Ryanair and Irish Champion last season), they still tend to be run very steadily.
That’s the key point – both sides of the Irish Sea, they usually crawl round and sprint, which is a completely different skill set to racing at a strong gallop and then quickening off it. Some horses are better suited by sprinting off a crawl, others by quickening off a strong gallop. Rooster Booster was a good example of a champion hurdler who was much better quickening off a strong gallop. (Don’t get conned into thinking he was therefore a stayer, he was much more effective at 2m).
By contrast, there are some horses that excel in sprinting off a crawl and therefore look to have a better chance in the Champion than the really do. My Tent Or Yours looked a classic example of that last year, though he ran a good 2nd. Macs Joy definitely fitted that category in his defeats at Cheltenham.
It’s obviously not as simple as badging a horse into one of those two categories. Istabraq was so good it didn’t matter how the race was run. Hurricane Fly, (the next best champion of the modern era,) looked better sprinting off a crawl in Ireland, but his class got him home in two of the four Champion Hurdles he’s contested.
Whilst there’s obviously some value in finding leading contenders who won’t be suited by the likely strong gallop, ideally we want to be finding those at decent prices who haven’t been suited by the crawl-sprint trials.
I put up Jezki last year ante-post. Punters had seen him too keen and not quickening in steadily run conditions races in Ireland. He’d won a Grade 1 over 2m4f and many made the classic mistake of thinking he was therefore a stayer. He’d always shaped as if, and connections had maintained that, he needed a strong gallop over 2m.
As I mentioned, you shouldn’t be dogmatic about a horse just because of a single factor – like the race being run to suit. There were other key reasons for backing Jezki. He’d been running on testing ground for most of the previous two seasons and had a strong preference for good ground, (backed up by his breeding as his brother Jenari and half-brothers Jered and Jetson also liked quick ground.) As well as the ground being too soft in the previous season’s Supreme, connections had decided not to run him since Christmas and he was too keen and rusty in his jumping, (mistakes at the last two,) which strongly suggested he was better than the result. Put that together with the fact a fast run race over 2m was likely to suit, and it made him a great bet.
The bigger disparity between the nature of the Champion Hurdle compared to its trials, (when compared to the other 3 championship races), suggests there ought to be more upsets. If you look at the results this century, it backs up this theory.
Lord Windermere was the first double figure priced Gold Cup winner. Only Newmill has won the Champion Chase at bigger than 10/1. The biggest price World Hurdle winner was Solwhit at 17/2. By contrast, 8 of the 14 Champion Hurdle winners have gone off at 9/1 or bigger, including Hardy Eustace (33/1), Punjabi (22/1) and Sublimity (16/1). The average SP of the winners of the other 3 championships has been between 4/1 and 9/2 – whereas for the Champion Hurdle it’s nearly 10/1.
So with that nature of the race in mind, how do the main contenders stack up against Jezki? With Vautour, Annie Power and Un De Sceaux unlikely runners, its 28/1 bar 3. Jezki’s main opponents are clearly Faugheen and The New One.
Faugheen has only run in novices so far and his 3 runs prior to his Neptune win came in muddling races over longer distances. He’s bred for 2m and good ground and, with the experience of jumping at speed for the first time in the Neptune under his belt, he decimated the field in the 2m Grade 1 at Punchestown. Given the unusual route he’s taken he isn’t the easiest to weigh up, but my instinct is a Champion Hurdle pace will suit. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him beaten by the more streetwise Jezki in the Irish conditions events over the winter – bigger prices than the current 7/2 might become available.
The New One was hampered by Our Conor’s fall in the Champion, but as the early frantic pace steadied, he was able to get back to within a couple of lengths of Jezki at the top of the hill. Whether he’d used too much energy up getting back into contention or just didn’t have the toe to quicken going down the hill – he got left behind only to finish strongly once the race was over. All his winning form is in steadily run races, (including an unusually pedestrian Neptune), and he has to prove he can cope with a race run at Champion Hurdle pace. He looks too short at 7/2.
Irving had looked a seriously fast horse in his novice races and had a reputation at Ditcheat to match. He was never going in the Supreme, (reportedly coughing afterwards,) looking ill at ease either with the gallop, track or both. Fortunately he emerged unscathed from his Wincanton fall but still has to prove himself at the track and in a fast run race. His price (33/1) reflects that though and he’s fair value.
Vaniteux was an immature type being given the kid gloves treatment by Nicky Henderson last season. He was only a late addition to Seven Barrows Festival team and ran a blinder to be 3rd in the Supreme. He looks the classic Henderson type who’ll improve out of all recognition in his 2nd season jumping. Under the circumstances he looked to cope well with a truly run race. He’s 7/2 for the Greatwood off 147 (10/1 bar) at the time of writing, which suggests he’s working really well at home. 28/1 for the Champion looks decent value.
A couple of outsiders I like are Arctic Fire (50/1) and Zamdy Man (66/1). Arctic Fire is a free going sort, (has always worn a hood for Willie Mullins,) who has always looked suited to a fast run race – and has the experience of the County Hurdle where he was just edged out as a novice off 141. I wouldn’t be put off by his recent defeat at Down Royal, (in the race Jezki won en route to the Champion last season.) He came to win his race but blew up badly. He’s ground dependent so might be one to look at closer to the time – if he looks like lining up on a sound surface he could belie big odds.
Zamdy Man’s a much more unknown quantity. He looked a fast horse when winning the Haydock Grade 2 over 2m that The New One and Cinders And Ashes had won before him, beating 150 rated Un Temps Pour Tout comfortably. He was reportedly still strengthening up last season and deliberately bypassed the spring Festivals. He might take on The New One in the new conditions race at Haydock and, whilst he has a lot to find to trouble that top class rival, a big run would be no surprise.
I’m not dipping my toes in the ante-post waters just yet, but if you are – have it in the forefront of your mind how different the Champion is likely to be run compared to the trials. By knowing the nature of the race, you can hopefully extract value in what’s the least predictable of the four championship races.