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Here we are – just days away.
Have you zoned out of your 9-5? Have you begun to optimistically imagine the amount of taxis available at Cheltenham Spa racecourse about midday on Tuesday? Me too.
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In one sense, this is a layman’s guide to the most manic week of the year. In another sense, it’s a survival guide for those who want to avoid unnecessary scorn.
Consider this your one-stop-shop to racing terminology and general pointers on how to not stand out like Santini in a quick pace. As we’re now just seven days away, here are your seven things you need to know before braving the Cheltenham Festival.
Narrative dictates the Cheltenham Festival. There’s been a lot spoken about the treatment the BHA handicapper has given British horses this year, in theory making them more likely to win handicaps. With this already in people’s heads, it’s entirely possible that Irish horses drift – especially if Britain take the first two races of the Festival like they very well could.
For example, Wille Mullins is the 1/3 favourite to win Best Trainer. If Sir Gerhard bombs out in the Supreme and Blue Lord takes a tumble in the Arkle, will that put you off backing Appreciate It in the Without Honeysuckle market when the Champion Hurdle comes around.
The advice is to try and take runners on merit – a week is a long time anywhere in the world, but it’s twice as long in Gloucestershire in mid-March.
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‘Sure he’ll run on anything,’ is something you’ll hear a lot of, but it’s a load of nonsense and you should absolutely be paying attention to the raindrops if they’re falling on your head.
Referred to generally as ‘the going’, Cheltenham will list its ground by certain classifications – ranging from firm to heavy, and certain horses simply won’t put their best foot forward in certain conditions.
Always check if the horse you fancy has form on better/softer ground before punting it. For example, if the Tuesday came up soft, Constitution Hill absolutely hosed up in the Tolworth Hurdle on bottomless ground and he’d be well fancied to overcome some give underfoot in the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle.
This stuff matters.
Commonly referred to by the old adage ‘horses for courses’, there’s a lot to be said for horses who have Cheltenham for their name.
It’s generally overlooked in favour of flashy types whose aesthetically-pleasing displays throughout the season have their highlight reel looking swell, but don’t actually add up to much when they land in the Cotswolds.
For example, Put The Kettle On won an Arkle trial at Cheltenham back in November 2019 before claiming to actual Arkle four months later at 16/1. There were sexier types than her in last season’s Champion Chase but she won it. Another you can comfortably make a case for under these circumstances would be the likes of Sire du Berlais who ran well in the Martin Pipe Conditional Hurdle, before winning the Pertemps Final twice in a row and then coming second in the Stayers’ last year. He races in the Pertemps again with a notable leading claimer booked. And we haven’t even mentioned Tiger Roll’s attempt at a sixth course win.
As you should know by now, handicaps are designed to give all horses an equal chance of winning. The weights allotted to each of them to carry are framed by the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) handicapper’s perception of their ability.
For example, if a horse is perceived to have run to a mark of 150, he would then carry 5lbs more than a horse who adjudged to be able to run to a mark of 145.
And that’s easy and formulaic – no bother. But allowances often come in to play and they’re generally distributed as follows: sex, age and jockey. So, what does this mean?
Most commonly in open company, mares get a 7lb allowance. It’s part of the reason why Honeysuckle is such a daunting task for many to overcome as she’s probably half a stone (7lb) better than any other horse in the division, yet they’ll still have to give her 7lb sex allowance. There’s a flip side too though in the novice division, where the age and weight allowances contract as the season progresses. Note Blue Lord who will have to concede less weight (7lb) to Riviere D’etel in the Arkle Chase on Tuesday, despite conceding 9lb and still beating her at Leopardstown.
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For age allowances, four-year-olds often get a weight allowance going up against older horses. While some trainers will opt to use a claimer for horses who may be near the top of the weights to enhance their chances. In a lot of cases you’re trading inexperience in the saddle for a weight allowance, however some of the Irish amateurs have ridden 100s of winners in the point-to-point fields are are worth every pound – and more – of their claim. Note Gordon Elliott availing of Rob James’ 7lb claim on Sire Du Berlais in the Pertemps Final.
Pace is the speed at the which the race is being run at. A lot of horses want to lead from the start and set their own fractions. A lot don’t. Off a slow pace., the race can turn into a sprint as everyone has lots of energy left for a final lung-bursting climb up Cleeve Hill. Off a fast pace, the wheat gets separated from the chaff a long way from home with only the toughest of those left to battle it out over the final obstacles.
For a lot of jockeys, the ideal scenario is you have a horse that possesses tactical pace. It can travel quickly without exerting too much energy and then pounce when the moment is right.
That’s what we’re looking for next week.
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