Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer, Kevin Blake has numerous reflections on the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, from how the Irish handicappers performed to Coronavirus.

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CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL REFLECTIONS  

The 2020 Cheltenham Festival is likely to be remembered for many years to come for all sorts of reasons. Such is the sheer volume of top-class action to pick through, I’m going to hold off dealing with individual races and performances until The Flip Side on Wednesday. Before then, there are more than enough wider talking points to fill this particular space.  

ODDS-ON FAVOURITES  

In the weeks that followed Christmas, we were in the unusual situation of still not having an odds-on favourite in the ante-post markets for any of the races at the Cheltenham Festival. As it transpired, we ended up with six of them, namely Benie Des Dieux (4/6), Carefully Selected (10/11), Envoi Allen (4/7), Defi Du Seuil (2/5), Tiger Roll (8/11) and Paisley Park (4/6), which tied the 2018 record for the number of odds-on favourites at the meeting.  

In 2018, four of them got the job done for their supporters, but this year it was only Envoi Allen that succeeded in landing the odds. Short-price punters have rarely taken such a clipping at a Cheltenham Festival as they did in 2020.  

THE STARTS  

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.  

As has consistently been the case at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years, the weak points of the current starting procedures were exposed for the world to see. Eight of the 28 races including four Grade 1 contests had false starts resulting in standing starts which look horrendous, frustrate everyone and are fundamentally unfair.  

I won’t repeat the case that I laid out in detail here a few weeks ago, but this really is something the BHA should make a move on.  

The current procedures have been given more than a fair go in the five-and-a-half years since being introduced. They work well most of the time, but they clearly aren’t compatible with the biggest occasions in the sport.  

It’s time to try a different way.  

IRISH-TRAINED HANDICAPPERS  

The success of Irish-trained horses in handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival continues to be a sore point for many observers, but last week panned out much as has come to be expected in that area.  

The previous four years had seen Irish-trained runners win 21 of the 40 handicaps at the meeting and last week saw them win five of the 10 handicaps. Those five winners came from a total of 74 Irish-trained runners in those handicaps which translates to a strike-rate of 6.8%. It might come as a surprise to some, but this represents another drop in the strike rate of Irish-trained handicappers at the meeting compared to 7.2% in 2019, 9.4% in 2018 and 12.1% in 2017.  

The data summarised here shows that the BHA handicappers have been giving the Irish-trained handicappers as a group increasingly higher rating differentials compared to their Irish marks at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years, but this seems to have been somewhat offset by an increase in numerical representation of Irish-trained runners in the handicaps.  

Ironically, it seems that an unintended consequence of giving Irish runners higher marks has been that more of them have got into the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival at the expense of British-trained runners.  

Interestingly, it is worth noting that four of the five Irish-trained handicap winners last week were given marks that had below-average differentials relative to their Irish marks when compared to the full group of Irish-trained handicappers.  

The only one that had been given a mark that had a higher differential than the average was Milan Native, who was rated 3lb higher in Britain compared to the average of 2.1lb higher amongst the Irish-trained chasers.  

None of those that were singled out for notably tougher-than-average treatment by the British handicapper were able to overcome it to win. That other Irish-trained handicappers that escaped harsher treatment went on to win at the meeting won’t be any compensation to the connections of those that were singled out for comparatively heavy-handed treatment. Thus, the controversy and debate as to the fairness of the current system is sure to rumble on unless it is changed.  

While it is inevitable that the focus of the conversation around Irish-trained success in the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival will be on the marks they were given, it has to be acknowledged that there almost certainly are deeper environmental issues at play.  

In a nutshell, as well as the obvious selection bias at play, the Irish success in handicaps is almost certainly a reflection of the best trainers in the country having greater depth of talent at their disposal and the races they run in being on average of much deeper quality than the equivalent contests in Britain.  

When one looks at the profile of the Irish-trained handicap winners last week such as Aramax, Saint Roi and Chosen Mate, they were all openly campaigned and had won their latest starts prior to Cheltenham by wide margins in non-handicaps.  

Had they been trained in Britain, there is more than a fair chance they would have won a few weak races at short prices, been given lofty ratings and run in Grade 1 options rather than handicaps.  

In contrast, due to there being so much depth in the Irish races they contested and in the yards in which they reside, they fell down the pecking order and ended up in handicaps. Even a more obvious “plot horse” like Sire Du Berlais would more likely have run in (and quite possibly won!) the Stayers’ Hurdle had he been trained in Britain.  

Food for thought.  

BRITISH NATIONAL HUNT RACING  

That point leads us on to the elephant in the room, the state of British National Hunt racing. The Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of British National Hunt racing, yet the last five years have seen Irish-trained runners win 15, 19, 17, 14 and 17 of the 28 races at it.  

There seems to be precious little self-examination in the British National Hunt ranks as to why this is happening and what they can do to make up the vast amount of ground they have lost to the Irish.  

Of all the best trainers in Britain, Nicky Henderson was the only one that really competed with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott last week. That surely can’t be considered good enough for such a proud racing nation?  

CHELTENHAM AND CORONAVIRUS  

There is only one place to finish this wrap up and that is the question of whether the Cheltenham Festival should have happened either entirely or partially behind closed doors. The very real doubts about the meeting going ahead had been debated in racing for the fortnight leading up to it, but Cheltenham and the BHA opted to take the easy option of following the lead of the worryingly laid-back response of the British government to Coronavirus.  

They can’t be condemned for doing so in the circumstances at the time given the wider implications of putting the Cheltenham Festival behind closed doors and turning away 250,000 racegoers. However, as the meeting progressed and the situation deteriorated on both sides of the Irish Sea, the irresponsibility of staging such a big event in a town that already had confirmed Coronavirus cases became more difficult to avoid.  

One can only hope that the ramifications of Cheltenham going ahead won’t be too severe on both sides of the Irish Sea, but being realistic, it seems sadly inevitable that it will contribute the spread of the virus.  

Issues such as this can often seem very far away from us as individuals. Unfortunately, they only become real when they arrive at our front door, affecting us or our loved ones. Those that attended Cheltenham may not be subject to any official self-isolation instruction, but one can only hope they are sensible enough to practice social distancing from potentially vulnerable people. Doing so won’t cost a thing and could save lives.

Kevin Blake
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