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Tuesday 15 March 2016

Cheltenham Festival 2016 - Day 1

The roar of the crowd for the start of the opening race can’t come soon enough.
Last year, Mullins got off to a flyer taking 3 races on the opening day and sending bookies heading for the shelter.  Can he do it again?
Before we get stuck into the runners & riders for Day 1 of the Festival a quick reminder that the most important Festival trends to take account of are:-
A)     The performance of ”Last Time Out” (LTO) winners – over 55% of races are won by a LTO winner. In the past 10 Festivals of the 260 races run, 150 were won by a LTO winner, which is 57.70%.
B)      Weight carried in handicaps – it used to take an exceptional horse to carry more than 11st to victory in a chase handicap, it has been done but not by many, but that mould may have been broken.
C)      The number of days since a horse last ran – the average break from the last run is 35-days, and very few races are won by horses off a break longer than 84-days (12 weeks).
Since 2002, of the Only 32 races (from a total of 344) have been by a horse off a break of more than 84-days.  This is mainly in the “weakest” races: the “bumper” (x4 in ’03, ’07, 09, ‘15); the “Foxhunter” (x3 in ’07, ’08, ’09); the “Mares” hurdle (x5  in ’10, ’11. ’12, ’13, ’14) and the X-Country Chase (x4 in ’09, ’12, ’14, ‘15).

My stats go back to 2002, which was when the Festival re-started after we lost the 2001 Festival to the outbreak of Foot & Mouth disease.

1:30pm Supreme Novices Hurdle, 5yo’s plus (2-miles & 110 yards)
Always an eagerly anticipated race, and the quality of the field is usually exceptional. It pays to play it safe and stick to tried and tested rules, to half-stakes if you are having a wager.
LTO winners have provided 12 of the last 14 winners.
An interesting observation is that only 3 of the last 14 winners ran more than 40-days previously (Captain Cee Bee in 2008 @ 115-days; Cinders And Ashes in 2012 @ 52-days; and Douvan in 2015 @ 59-days). So it may prove to ensure your selection has had a run in the past 40 days.
This race rarely goes to a horse with an SP longer than 14/1, so concentrate on those at the head of the market.  And finally, don’t bother considering anything older than 6yo as 7yo’s and older have an awful record in this race.
Interestingly, that leaves a shortlist of just 2 and excludes the fav MIN who last ran:-
Charbel @ 25/1; and William H Bonney @ 66/1. Given that CHARBEL wasn’t beaten much by the year-older Yanworth in December, at 25/1 he looks the eachway value wager in the race.

2:05pm Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase, (2-miles)
The “Arkle” is one of my favourite races, but isn’t one that I’ve had much luck in.  The race is usually run at a searing pace and, on undulating track like Cheltenham, it is stamina sapping. As such, I also like my selection to have winning form in a chase further than 2-miles.
You have to go back to Moscow Flyer in 2002 for a winner older than 8yo.
The likely winner will have finished either 1st or 2nd in every completed chase start.
Novice chasers capable of winning the “Arkle” have usually shown their hand early in the season.
This year’s race is all about DOUVAN and he looks the real-deal.  I thought the race may have only a handful of runners and there may be only 2 realistic rivals for DOUVAN: Vaniteux and The Game Changer.  We’ve not seen The Game Changer since October, but he looked potentially high-class then and comes into this race a relative “dark horse”.  I think Vaniteux will be a better chaser than hurdler and he may not be far behind DOUVAN in ability. It will not be the walkover the odds suggest, but it is difficult to envisage DOUVAN not winning this.

2:50pm Festival Handicap Chase (3-miles & 1-furlong)
This is perhaps my favourite chase handicap of the jumps season (excluding the Grand National), and this year the trip has been extended by 110 yards to 3m1f. We are seeing a shift in the quality of the race as it is heavily over-subscribed. As I write (Sunday) there are still 57 entered – but only the top 24 in the handicap can run.  This popularity has resulted in the race becoming more competitive, and 3 of the last 5 winners has carried more than 11st to victory – something that would be unheard of 5 years ago.
This is a race for an improving horse, either a novice or 2nd-season chaser with fewer than 10 chase races.  Only 2 of the last 8 winners were rated under OR142, and they were 14/1 winner Alfie Sherrin and 28/1 winner Golden Chieftain.
With 9 of the last 14 winners priced at odds of 8/1 or under it pays to look at those at the head of the market. 
Pay attention to LTO winners in the race (7 of last 14 winners won LTO) and also those that were placed LTO (only 3 of the last 14 winners ran unplaced LTO).
Also look at those with a recent run. The “mean” period is 39-days, but 5 of the last 6 winner ran no more than 24-days previously. 
Personally, I’d put a line thru’ anything which has not run in the past 45-days, and anything 10yo or older. I’m also questioning all those with a rating under OR140.
After applying those filters, THE YOUNG MASTER is interesting and still relatively unexposed.  BEG TO DIFFER is improving quickly and only 6yo, though his regular rider has been claimed by his trainer to ride Kruzhlinin. Another 6yo is BALLYKAN who loved the quicker ground LTO at Kempton, but he may have to settle for a place.  The 7/1 fav OUT SAM is also on my shortlist, but his experience doesn’t look strong enough.
BEG TO DIFFER, £5 eachway @ 14/1 (William Hill (4-places), others go 12/1 but offer quarter-odds a place 1,2,3,4,5)

3:30pm Champion Hurdle (2-miles & 110 yards)
This Championship has been thrown into turmoil with the withdrawal of last year’s winner Faugheen. His trainer, Willie Mullins, has supplemented Annie Power for the race, but I do not think the mare is good enough, even with a 7lb mares’ allowance.  If she runs to her rating of OR162 then she wins, but I have her at about 155.
As such, there looks to me to be a value wager opportunity amongst her rivals.  I don’t think the winner will be The New One as he hasn’t shown himself better than his OR161 rating.  Nicholls Canyon will not be far away and his defeat of Identity Thief in December is perhaps the best form this season in the race. It goes against the grain for many, but I like 5yo’s in the Champion Hurdle especially when they are good ones. For me, TOP NOTCH ticks a lot of boxes and I think he will go very well in this race. His only real failure was not staying 2m4f here in January when well beaten.  And that race points the way to another who could spring a huge surprise, as the winner CAMPING GROUND looked immense that day.

4:10pm David Nicholson Mares Hurdle (2-miles & 4-furlongs)
Possibly the weakest race of the Festival and if I had my way it wouldn’t be run here. .
Thankfully, it is more interesting this year as Annie Power is running in the Champion Hurdle.  However, Mullins has sent VROUM VROUM MAG and although not as good as Annie Power, she should be better than anything else in the race by some way.  At the official ratings, Polly Peachum trained by Nicky Henderson is the best of the British mares’, but do not ignore THE GOVANESS who didn’t stay the 3-mile LTO when beaten by Vroum Vroum Mag at Ascot but will really appreciated this trip and looks the value in the field at 16/1.

4:40pm National Hunt Challenge Cup for Amateur Riders (4-miles)
This race is the oldest race of the Festival.
The first point to note is that this is an amateur riders race, and so jockeyship and finding the right jockey is as much a part of winning as finding the right horse!
The second point of note is that this is a Challenge Cup were every horse carries the same weight (11st 6lb) excepting mares which receive a 7lb weight allowance.
The horse with the highest Official Rating (OR) has won this for 3 of the past 5 years and last year’s winner Cause Of Causes was only 2lb off being top-rated (in 2014, top-rated Shotgun Paddy was 2nd). I think the top-rated horses is the first place to start when looking for the winner – it really is that simple.  This year it is Paul Nicholls 7yo VICENTE.
This race is dominated by 7yo’s and 8yo’s.
No 5yo has won in 38 years, and there is only a single win for a 6yo in 26 years.
There is a bit of a worry that VICENTE has not run for 95-days but this is not usually a strong race, and he’s just below the ability to gain an entry in the RSA Chase for the top novices.  LOCAL SHOW is another sure to run well, but I worry he may not stay this 4-mile trip.
VICENTE, £5 eachway @ 16/1 (quarter-odds a place 1,2,3,4)

5:15pm Centenary Novices Handicap Chase (2-miles & 4½-furlongs)
I think it is a tremendous race, and it is a great shame that organisers have this as the last race on a 7 race card.  It should be swapped with the Mares Hurdle given the prominence it deserves.
This is a very competitive race and a real head scratcher. However, no horse has won this at odds longer than 14/1 so the market is a good guide.
Being a novice handicap chase, the statistical trends are fairly obvious;
less than 5 chase runs; and…
less than 2 chase wins; and…
having won LTO – these 3 factors ensure that the selection is unexposed and improving;
I’ve narrowed down the field of 20 down to 10, but this is still too many. Three of the list are at odds of 20/1 or longer and they are Katgary, Fine In A Row, and Fourth Act – as I like the latter couple, especially Five In A Row, I’m not sure excluding them solely on the odds is a good idea. The other 7 are Thomas Brown, Rezorbi, Bouvreuil, Javert, Double Shuffle, and Aloomomo.  If I leave out the 3 who last ran over 84-days ago (that is Double Shuffle, Javert, and Katgary), and it is FIVE IN A ROW who I keep coming back to.  He won a competitive race LTO just 17-days ago and has only been raised 6lb for that. I think he should be one of the market leaders and odds of 20/1 look much too long.

FIVE IN A ROW, £5 eachway @ 20/1 (quarter-odds a place 1,2,3,4)

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