The ones the bookies like to tempt you with...
If you thought that Brexit uncertainty was the main source of tension between Ireland and Britain at the moment, think again. It is an absolute lovefest compared to the tetchy skirmishes that have broken out between our nations in recent weeks over the handicapping of National Hunt races.
Our main guns are being manned by Michael O’Leary and his annoyance with his perceived bias against Irish horses by the British handicapper, Phil Smith. He vented his frustration last week by withdrawing eight of his Gigginstown Stud entries from the Aintree National - a protest now known as ‘Giggxit.’ Smith’s intent is to remedy what he believes to be a disproportionate success rate for Irish stables. Ten years ago, 18% of Irish-trained runners in British Handicaps were successful, compared to a home rate of just over half that figure.
Ever since that time he has been framing alternate assessments of Irish horses, adding subjectivity to our objective science. On his terms the tactic has worked and the share of victories has been increased.
What Mr. Smith hasn’t factored into his equation is that it is risky, expensive and inconvenient to transport an Irish horse to race overseas. The ones that do tend to be carefully prepared, in good form and will obviously be disproportionately successful. Otherwise, it would be a stupid decision to travel and say what you like about Irish trainers, very few are stupid.
Notwithstanding this unpleasantness, it is, as they say, what it is and since the weights were framed for the festival handicaps a couple of weeks ago, anticipation has gradually migrated from of Grade One excellence to the complex intrigue of large field handicaps.
Ten of the 28 races this week fall into this category and will generate monstrous betting revenues, which is why big bookmaking firms spend so much of their marketing budgets advertising them.
This is money wisely spent - handicap races as an aggregate are a turkey shoot for the bookies.
No favourite has won one at the festival since Fingal Bay took the Coral Cup in 2014. Repeat: three years, 32 races, one winning favourite.
Despite this, there are some hidden value opportunities in all of this. The bookmakers’ frenzy for your betting euros mean they often offer attractive each way conditions to tempt them into their hungry satchels.
In most of the big handicaps, they are offering a quarter the odds the first five and sometimes even pay all the way down to sixth. So despite what the statistics say it could be prudent to carve out a hopeful each-way handicap Yankee in the week ahead.
Ultima Handicap Chase, 3m 1f, Tuesday 2.50.
Trends: Aged between seven and ten who has run at the festival previously, an official rating 140-148, runs no more than five times so far this season and been at least placed on their last start. Maximum weight of 11-3, has won at 3 miles or further, unlikely to be trained in Ireland, novice chasers doing well recently.
Even by Cheltenham standards, this race is particularly unrewarding for favourite backers with only two winning in the last forty years. However, 12 of the last 18 winners have started at 10/1 or less so it’s okay to stay with the fancied horses.
The race this year is a complete minefield as usual but one who sits amid most of the trends is Singlefarmpayment.
Aged 7, rated 142 he has won both his completed starts at the track, one of them over today’s 3M 1F distance so he clearly likes the place.
Still technically a novice chaser, he’s had four prep races this season and was unluckily brought down when travelling strongly in a highclass race here in January.
Trained by Tom George he should be fresh and could still be several pounds ahead of the handicapper.
Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle, 2m 5f, Wednesday 2.50.
Aged between five and seven, with an official rating of 135 or higher, who has run no more than five times so far this season. Maximum weight of 11-2 and has won at least once over hurdles at 2M 2F or further, likely to be British trained, but Irish horses are usually competitive.
Automated fits most of the trends and Gordon Elliot’s sixyear old comes here following a nice rest since Christmas and he’s very battle hardened, winning his most recent race at Navan over two and half miles.
He now races off a mark 10lbs higher, but that is a mixed blessing as he wouldn’t have a hope of getting into the race off a lower weight.
Trainer Gordon Elliot, who will saddle about 30 runners this week, won this race last year with Diamond King. Automated has been well backed for this in the antepost markets which is an indicator of stable confidence in his chances.
Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle, 3m, Thursday 2.10.
Trends: Aged between six and eight, run at the festival previously, official rating 135148, no more than five runs this season and at least ten times in career. Maximum weight of 11-3, won at least once over two and a half miles or further. Likely to be trained in Britain.
Impulsive Star began his career under rules with a win in decent Cork bumper a couple of years ago.
Now trained by Neil Mulholland and running in the familiar Long Run colours of the Whaley Cohen family he has only been beaten once in five starts, improving with each run in races that have thrown up decent animals.
Aged seven, rated 140 he is guaranteed conditions that play to his strengths - a strong pace and a grinding uphill finish look made for his strong stamina reserves.
Likely to be ridden by the owner’s son Sam who although a little ungainly has proved he is more than able to get the job done at festival.
County Handicap Hurdle, 2m 1f, Friday 2.10.
Trends: Aged five or six, not run at the festival previously, official rating 132-143, run no more than five times so far this season, but no more than 12 times in career to date. Maximum weight of 11-4 and not necessarily placed last time out. Trained in Ireland.
Mick Jazz is a six-year old gelding trained again by Gordon Elliot, rated 143, who has run four times this season and who won last time out at Punchestown in early February. This one was originally with Harry Fry but Gordon Elliot has improved him since he moved over. Mick Jazz is developing into a solid and robust handicapper winning or being placed in seven of his nine races to date.
Although he only won his latest start by a neck, he beat Cilaos Emery a highly-regarded inmate of Willie Mullins yard with grade one entries this week.
That win was on soft ground, but he looks equally at home on the slightly better ground he is likely to encounter in Friday’s renewal of a very tough race to win.
Handicaps can often prove fruitful for bookmakers and this week may not be any different.