Yesterday, February 27, the weights for the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival were revealed. History has shown that this can be a controversial occasion, with the unveiling of the weights in 2017 being greeted with particular ire after the pot had already been stirred by a contentious set of Grand National weights a couple of weeks earlier.
Mercifully, last year’s weights didn’t elicit nearly as severe a reaction and what panned out on the track backed up the general view prior to the meeting that the weights were fair. Irish-trained horses won five of the 10 handicaps at the meeting, but it took 53 Irish-trained runners to achieve that. This represented a win strike-rate of 9.4%, which is lower than the overall 11% win strike-rate of Irish-trained horses in British National Hunt handicaps that the BHA expressed satisfaction with as being fair in a statement they released in the aftermath of the controversy after the announcement of the Grand National weights in 2017.
Thus, based on their own criteria, there was no evidence from last year’s Festival that should have influenced the British handicappers to do anything overly different this year.
However, quiet concerns had been expressed in Irish racing circles in recent weeks about this year’s weights for the Cheltenham Festival handicaps. It is fair to say that the recent domination of the Cheltenham Festival by Irish-trained runners which has seen them win 15, 19 and 17 of the 28 races in each of the last three years hasn’t gone down well with everyone in British racing.
Indeed, comments made by a BHA official at the backend of last year’s Festival led to an article in the Guardian headlined “British Horseracing Authority may use barriers to keep Irish raiders in check” One suggestion made by that official was that Irish-trained horses had been let in too lightly by their own handicappers.
Another factor to consider is that there has been a major change in the world of British handicapping since the last Cheltenham Festival, with Dominic Gardiner-Hill having taken over as the BHA Head of Handicapping from Phil Smith. While Gardiner-Hill has over a decade of experience as Smith’s deputy, he would only be human if he felt the weight of such comments about the handicapping of Irish-trained horses from within his own organisation on his shoulders. All these factors raised concerns that Irish-trained horses would be treated more harshly by the British handicapper for this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
So, what do this year’s weights tell us?
First and foremost, the headline conclusion drawn by the analysis of the weights is that Irish-trained horses have been more harshly treated than they were last year.
In 2018, the average differential between Irish and British marks for horses entered in handicap hurdles was 2.8lb. This year, that has increased to 3.8lb.
In the case of handicap chases, the average differential between Irish and British marks in 2018 was 1.3lb. This year it is 2.4lb.
In the juvenile handicap hurdles, all the Irish-trained horses had been given a blanket rise of 4lb in 2018. This year they have gone up varying amounts that average out at 5.2lb.
When one assesses the marks and differentials individually and as groups, it seems clear that the increased averages have come about as a result of a general rise in ratings rather than notably big individual increases skewing the averages.
While it wasn’t unexpected, it would be interesting to hear the BHA handicappers explain the rationale behind it given that last year’s results didn’t warrant different treatment this year. Regardless of the reasons behind it, we are where we are with it, so let’s have a look at individual cases of interest.
Amongst the hurdlers, the BHA handicappers seem to have taken a particularly dim view of horses once rated significantly higher that have recently shown signs of rejuvenation. The biggest differential between Irish and British hurdle marks is 8lb in the case of the former Triumph Hurdle winner Ivanovich Gorbatov, while the joint-second highest differential is 7lb in the case of the former Champion Hurdle winner Jezki.
A horse of serious interest to many is the Willie Mullins-trained Uradel who is currently the ante-post favourite for the Coral Cup. On the face of it, his supporters may have been relieved to see him rated 137, 4lb higher than in Ireland. However, historical analysis of the race suggests he might struggle to get into the Coral Cup. He is currently in 80th position on the entries and in four of the last five years, the horse in that position at the entry stage failed to get into the final field.
On a more positive note, his connections have the option of running him in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle instead.
One of the more talked-about cases in the hours following the publishing of the weights was that of the hurdle rating given to the Gordon Elliott-trained The Storyteller. The eight-year-old is currently rated 161 over fences in Britain, but there were hopes that he would be given a mark in the mid-to-low 140s over hurdles, as he had been given 142 by the British handicapper for the Martin Pipe in 2017 only to miss out due to a late setback. Having had only one run over hurdles since then that didn’t advance his rating in Ireland, the thought was that he would be given a similar hurdle rating this year.
However, this was never a realistic possibility, as the rules in Britain that deal with cases such as this are different to in Ireland, with the British handicapper not being obliged to leave a horse’s rating over hurdles untouched if they show improvement over fences. So, the Martin Pipe was never really on the cards for him and it wasn’t a surprise to see him given a hurdle rating of 156. For information purposes, as The Storyteller doesn’t have a published hurdle mark in Ireland at present, he was not included in the overall analysis of the differentials between British and Irish marks.
In terms of the Irish-trained chasers that have fared the worst, the Tom Gibney-trained Ah Littleluck has been given a mark of 135 which is no less than 9lb higher than his Irish mark. It seems that the cause of this is a major difference of opinion between the Irish and British handicappers as to the merit of his easy win in a maiden chase at Navan in January. At least it won’t have been a surprise to his connections, as they already ran him off 135 at Haydock last time where he unseated his rider at the second fence.
The Noel Meade-trained Getaway Kid has been given a mark of 132, 8lb higher than his Irish mark. They are likely to feel hard done by, given he has been well beaten in two starts in novice handicap chases off marks of 127 and 126 in Ireland.
Speaker Connolly, likely to be fancied for the novices’ handicap chase, has been given a 7lb higher mark than in Ireland. That said, his connections are unlikely to complain too loudly, as the extra poundage has lifted him to a mark that should ensure he sneaks into the race.
Another fancy for that race that has been dished out heavy treatment is the Gordon Elliott-trained Campeador. His mark of 145 is 7lb higher than his Irish mark and will ensure that he carries top weight in the race.
While the ante-post favourite for the Kim Muir Its All Guesswork is rated 7lb higher over hurdles in Britain than in Ireland, his chase mark of 133 is only 2lb higher than his mark in Ireland. This will lead to his connections being likely to have to sweat if he is to get into the Kim Muir, as historical analysis suggests his current position in the entry list will leave him right on the edge of getting into a typical renewal of the race.
De Name Escapes Me warrants a brief mention as he has the distinction of being at the very top end of the rating differential table both over hurdles and fences, having been given a 7lb higher mark in both disciplines.
A specific mark over fences that will have been dreaded by any connections with entries in the novices’ handicap chase or the Kim Muir is 146, as both of those races are in the 0-145 bracket. Blow By Blow (4lb higher than in Ireland) and Some Neck (2lb higher than in Ireland) were the unfortunate ones that were given marks of 146 and thus are now ineligible for those races.
There was an even tougher example of such a case in the Jessica Harrington-trained Whisperinthebreeze. He won a valuable handicap chase at the Dublin Racing Festival off a mark of 130 last time and is currently rated 139 in Ireland. His connections gave him entries in both the Kim Muir and the novices’ handicap chase, but the British handicapper has given him a mark of at least 146, as he has been expunged from both those races.
Given the average differential in marks amongst the Irish-trained handicap chasers was just 2.4lb, his connections are likely to feel very hard done by to be denied a run in such a manner, especially considering he has been very openly campaigned and would likely have been near the front of the market in either race. As the exact mark the British handicapper has him on hasn’t been revealed, he was not included in the overall analysis of the rating differentials.
Regarding the entries for the juvenile handicap hurdle, the harshest treated of the group was the Noel Meade-trained Lignou with his rating of 124 being 7lb higher than his Irish mark. Amongst the market leaders for the race, Band Of Outlaws, Gardens Of Babylon and Surin are rated 5lb higher than in Ireland and Lethal Steps is rated 4lb higher than in Ireland.
While it is a bit mischievous, it is always interesting to break down these numbers by individual trainers. A trend that has generated plenty of chatter in recent years is that when the British/Irish rating differentials are averaged out by individual trainer, Gordon Elliott’s hurdlers (including juveniles) have tended to be treated significantly harsher than Willie Mullins’ hurdlers.
Indeed, in 2016 the Elliott hurdlers were rated an average of 5.6lb higher than their Irish ratings compared to the Mullins horses being rated an average of 2.7lb higher. In 2017, this comparison had dropped to 4.1lb versus 2.1lb. Last year, it had dropped to 2.6lb versus 1.8lb.
This year, the across-the-board increases in ratings given to Irish-trained horses have been reflected in the Elliott versus Mullins comparison too, with Elliott’s hurdlers with published marks in Ireland being rated an average of 3.8lb higher, while Willie Mullins’ hurdlers of the same profile are rated an average of 2.7lb higher than in Ireland.
All told, handicap marks are a subject that will always lead to debate as the whole process will always have subjectivity in the mix. While the British National Hunt handicapping team have seemed to set out to raise the levels of the ratings for Irish-trained horses, one suspects that the rises won’t be enough to stop Irish-trained horses being very competitive in the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival.
One thing that has been starkly illustrated over the years is that it takes more than a few extra pounds to anchor a well-handicapped horse that meets their preferred conditions at the Cheltenham Festival. The odds are that there will be at least a few of them amongst the vast Irish contingent this year.
The time for talking is nearly over. 11 days to go!
While many of the Irish handicap entries every year are entered in more than one handicap at the Cheltenham Festival, for the sake of this analysis each horse is only counted once each year. The entries are divided into three categories, namely hurdlers, chasers and juvenile hurdlers.
Lethal Steps was entered in both the juvenile handicap hurdle and the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle this year, but was only counted in the juvenile category.