When assessing races, many punters often use fixed rules which they are not prepared to break. Some are eminently sensible and only serve to improve the selection and betting process. For example, never betting at starting price with Bookmakers is one rule that should not be broken under any circumstances.
However, others are less convincing: always back the outsider of four is one that comes to mind. Many years ago, whilst analysing the form in a local betting office, I was given one of these binding rules by a punter far more experienced than me at the time. It must have been late March, or very early April, and I was peering through the smoke at one of the minor jumps meetings detailed on the pages of the Sporting Life pinned to the wall. Suddenly I was aware of a shop regular moving in closer to where I was seated. I shuffled across to allow him a better look at the form and he stretched out a hand pointing to a runner listed in one of the races.
“Ran at Cheltenham”, he said. Obviously I well aware of the fact because it was detailed in the formguide so didn’t immediately understand his point. “After Cheltenham they need at least six weeks off, I never back a Cheltenham runner in March or April” he added. We chatted for a while and he gave me his reasons for applying this rule. In his view the stiff track at Cheltenham took its toll on runners and they needed longer to recover. But Exeter and Hexham are both stiff tracks, and Towcester verges on a mountaineering challenge for horses, so why would he only apply this to Cheltenham? The other critical element, in his opinion, was field size. The higher level of competition at the Festival produces and stronger pace, and that combined with the stiff track, and often soft ground, was good reason to leave these runners alone for six weeks before backing them, he asserted.
Back then horseracing data was not available for analysis so I had no way to check the validity of his claim, but fortunately lack of data is no longer an issue and I thought this was an ideal time to examine how the Festival runners perform post-Cheltenham.
The first analysis I ran was to confirm or disprove my former betting colleague’s premise that horses need more time to recover after running at the Festival. In general, the win rate for jumps horses making a return within seven days is around 15%, however when I checked the Festival runners I found only two horses which had raced and won within that time scale from a total of 44, producing a win rate of 4.5%. This does seem to partially validate his argument but the sample size is very small and that does cast some doubt over any conclusions. Expanding the analysis to horses running after a break of between 8 and 14 days we get a win rate of 11% for all runners compared to 19% for those which had previously raced at the Cheltenham. Again the sample is not that large, at around 130, but it does suggest that a modest break is all that is required. Finally, for a course absence of between 15 and 28 days the Cheltenham runners averaged a win rate of 13% compared to 11% for all runners.
The higher level of success is probably a result of the fact that the Festival runners are, in general, of a higher ability and are then more likely to score. But is this better win rate reflected in a profitable return? Unfortunately not, the 5000 Festival runners analysed produced an average loss at Bookmakers’ starting price of 22p/£ on their next start which, although better than the figure for all horses regardless of previous track, is still a heavy loss. Analysing by race grade is not that helpful either: the poorest race grade was conditions hurdles races with horses appearing in these events after running at the Festival losing 36p/£. Handicap chasers lost 28p/£, handicap hurdlers 23p/£ and novice chasers 20p/£. Horses contesting National Hunt Flat races performed best losing just 7p/£.
The figures for horses made clear favourite on their first start after the Festival are slightly more encouraging: overall the loss reduces to just 13p/£ and for horses running in novices’ and maiden hurdles a small profit of 4p/£ was returned. The worst favourites to back were those which had raced in a novices’ chase at Cheltenham, these lost 28p/£ on their next run, whist favourites which had featured in a Festival handicap chase lost 16p/£.
The most popular track for horses on their first run after Cheltenham is Aintree. The analysis showed that over 1,500 runners next raced at the Liverpool course achieving around 150 winners and producing a level stake loss at Bookmakers’ starting price of 22p/£, very much in line with the average. Punchestown was the next most popular venue with almost 600 horses combining to lose 27p/£ on average. A return to Prestbury Park produced a similar loss for about 500 horses, but those waiting for Ayr returned even less to backers with a staggering loss of 43p/£. Interestingly Ascot and Haydock both showed a profit from a total of over 250 horses. The top five tracks in terms of win rate were: Windsor, Leicester, Carlisle, Naas and Uttoxeter; each returned a profit and they all had win rates exceeding 36%, though the sample size is again small. One surprising result was that Galway was one of the poorest tracks in terms of win rate and profit but maybe that is related to timing.
Of the variables I analysed, without doubt the most promising trend related to finishing position. The horses which managed to finish in the first three at the Festival returned a 1p/£ profit at Bookmakers’ starting price next time out which would possibly be around 8p or even higher on the exchanges. The sample size is reasonable at around 900 which allows for a break down by race type which shows that horses that made the first three in handicap hurdles returned the highest profit of 33p/£. Switching the race grades around and looking at the type of race in which these horses next ran, clearly shows that novice and maiden hurdles are worth close inspection with a combined profit of 31p/£ from over 120 bets. Horses running in handicap chases made 25p/£ from almost 200 bets and those in Bumpers returned 29p/£ but from only 21 bets.
Essentially I would be wary of horses making a quick return to the track after running at the Festival, but would not impose a six week wait, and would focus on those which ran into the first three at Cheltenham especially if they reappear in the more profitable race grades highlighted.