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Kevin Blake takes a close look at the handicap marks allotted to Irish-trained runners at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.

  • Thursday 20 February
  • Blog
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In-depth analysis of the Irish handicap marks for the Cheltenham Festival handicaps

The weights for the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival were released earlier today and as they always tend to do, they have generated plenty of debate and discussion already.

The headline conclusion from statistical analysis of last year’s Cheltenham Festival handicap weights was that Irish-trained horses had been treated more harshly than in 2018. Despite this, Irish-trained horses still went on to win five of the 10 handicaps from 69 runners at the meeting last year. This represented a strike rate of 7.2% compared to 9.4% at the 2018 meeting. The question coming into today’s announcement was whether the British handicapper would go even harder on them in 2020.

So, what are the conclusions to draw from this year’s weights? Well, there is good news and bad news, so we’ll start with the bad news.

For the third year in succession, Irish-trained non-juvenile handicap hurdlers have been treated more harshly than they were the previous year. In 2018, the average differential between Irish and British marks for horses entered in handicap hurdles was 2.8lb. In 2019, it had increased to 3.8lb. This year it has increased again to 4.4lb.

The picture is a somewhat rosier one for Irish-based trainers of handicap chasers though. The average differential between Irish and British chase marks in 2018 was 1.3lb. In 2019 it rose to 2.4lb. This year it has dropped back to 2.1lb.

There has also been some relief for the juvenile hurdlers. All of the Irish-trained horses had been given British ratings that were 4lb higher than their Irish marks in 2018. In 2019, they were given varying adjustments that averaged out at 5.2lb higher. This year that average differential has dropped to 4.6lb.

That is the big picture, but there is plenty to get stuck into amongst individual cases too. In terms of the biggest losers, a horse owned by JP McManus tops the list of the biggest differential between hurdle marks for the second year in succession with the Liz Doyle-trained Gran Geste (+8 to 141) being hit very hard. It isn’t an easy one to fathom, given the seven-year-old has won just one of his eight starts in handicap hurdles and looks exposed. Joining Gran Geste at the top of the differential leader board over hurdles is the Henry De Bromhead-trained Tiger Voice (+8 to 134). While less exposed than Gran Geste, it is again difficult to see anything in his form that warrants such harsh treatment.

The connections of the Irish-trained horses towards the top of the ante-post market for the Martin Pipe didn’t have much to celebrate either, with Column Of Fire (+7 to 143) and Ilikedwayurthinkin (+7 to 139) both getting some heavy-handed treatment.

In the Pertemps Network Final, the connections of Ronald Pump (+6 to 156) are likely to feel hard done by. With 148 being the highest mark that the race has been won off this century, it is no surprise that his connections are reportedly set to run him in the Stayers’ Hurdle instead. Other notables in that race are The Storyteller (+7 to 149), Relegate (+5 to 137) and Tout Est Permis (+7 to 136).

There isn’t quite as much drama to report amongst the handicap chasers. The one that clearly topped the differential table was the Gordon Elliott-trained Dallas Des Pictons (+12 to 147), but we’ll deal with him a little bit further down this piece. The second on the list is also trained by Elliott, with the 11-year-old Out Sam (+9 to 137) seemingly getting rated based on his run in a cross-country chase at Cheltenham in December and a handicap chase at Perth last June rather than his poor recent efforts in Ireland off lower marks.

Incidentally, Gordon Elliott horses occupy five of the top 10 positions in this particular table.
There isn’t much to report amongst those entered in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, as the majority of the Irish entries have been put in at 4lb higher marks than they currently hold in Ireland. The Gordon Elliott-trained Saint D’Oroux (+6 to 133) was one of the more notable exceptions, with the Noel Meade-trained Harvest Bow (+8 to 120) topping the list of the differentials.

The one place that no one wants to find their horse on is The Expunged List. This is the list of horses that are ruled as being not qualified for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey’s Handicap Hurdle, the Kim Muir and/or the Novices’ Handicap Chase due to being given a rating in excess of the cut-off point of 145 to qualify for those races.

In the Martin Pipe, last year’s winning trainer Joseph O’Brien will have two less potential runners in it as Top Moon (+4 to 146) and Embittered (+5 to 146) were both given marks just high enough to make them ineligible. Both of them have alternative engagements in the County Hurdle and the Coral Cup. Others that might have hoped to sneak in but missed out by much wider margins were Eglantine Du Seuil (+6 to 149), Run Wild Fred (+6 to 149) and Franco De Port (+6 to 148).

While Willie Mullins had four and Gordon Elliott had three horses expunged from the Martin Pipe, one suspects they will be satisfied in the main given that they both have four horses each that were put in on the ceiling mark of 145.

Willie Mullins is likely to be particularly happy, as his group of borderline cases that have been allowed into the race include Canardier (+2 to 145) who shaped better than the bare result when fifth in the Coral Cup last year and has joined Mullins since his latest start.

However, the most surprising inclusion is Stratum, whose mark of 145 is the same as what he currently holds in Ireland. Out of the 93 non-juvenile Irish-trained hurdlers with entries in handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival, Stratum is one of only four that have been given the same mark in Britain as they currently hold in Ireland. Given his overall profile, last year’s Cesarewitch winner stands out like a sore thumb as one that has been particularly kindly treated.

On that note, not one Irish-trained horse entered in the handicap hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival was given a lower mark in Britain than they currently hold in Ireland. Of the handicap chase entries, just one was given a lower mark than they have in Ireland, the Willie Mullins-trained Voix Du Reve (-1 to 156).

Two that were expunged from both the Kim Muir and the Novices’ Handicap Chase were Dallas Des Pictons andEarly Doors. These are similar cases in that both have run well below the level of form they reached over hurdles last season since switching to fences this season. Dallas Des Pictons is currently rated 135 over fences in Ireland and while Early Doors doesn’t have a published chase rating in Ireland at present, he was allowed to run in a novice chase restricted to horses rated 140 or under on his latest start. Thus, it will catch many an eye to see the chase marks given to Dallas Des Pictons (+12 to 147) and Early Doors (149).

Mind, neither mark came as a big surprise, as the fact that the BHA handicappers based Dallas Des Pictons’ mark over fences on the form he has shown over hurdles from last year’s Cheltenham Festival when he was entered for a handicap chase in Britain in January shone a light on their methodologies in such cases. However, while it wasn’t a surprise, whether that is the fairest way to deal with such cases is very much open to debate.

Finally, 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 average British/Irish rating differentials are broken down by trainer, Gordon Elliott’s hurdlers (including juveniles) have tended to be treated significantly harsher than Willie Mullins’s hurdlers. In 2016 and 2017, the difference between the Irish and British hurdle marks for Elliott-trained horses was literally double that of Willie Mullins-trained horses. Comparisons against the full sample of differences in marks confirmed that it wasn’t so much a case of Mullins being well treated, but more so a case of Elliott’s horses being treated notably harshly.

While the gap between them in this regard has been reduced in the last two years, the 2019 weights revealed that Elliott’s handicap hurdlers were rated an average of 3.8lb higher than in Ireland, with Willie Mullins’s hurdlers of the same profile being rated an average of 2.7lb higher. This year, the average differential of Elliott’s handicap hurdlers was 4.5lb while Mullins’ was 3.2lb. Unfortunately for Elliott, the gap between them is on the increase again!

To conclude, such is the subjective nature of handicapping, there will always be plenty of debate on occasions such as this. While evidence-based objections can be raised to how Irish-trained horses are treated in British National Hunt handicaps, this hasn’t and won’t stop Irish horses winning handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival. The trouble is finding the ones that will do the business beforehand!

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.
Many thanks to the excellent Matt Tombs (@thespieler) for his help in compiling the above data.

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