Why do the leaders have the advantage over the fences at the new Cheltenham course?

Following the international meeting in Cheltenham, Adam Houghton examines the apparent bias towards the first in the fence races on the new course.


The highest-rated hurdler in Timeform history, trailblazer Night Nurse proved invincible during the 1975/76 campaign as he went undefeated in eight races, a streak that included the first of his two wins in the Champion Hurdle for jockey Paddy Broderick and trainer Peter Easterby.

His exploits that season also prompted the inaugural edition of Chasers and hurdles to examine the worn-out cliché that horses ‘do it the hard way’ by trying to do it all:

“There seems to be a prejudice against running with a good horse, or even with a sophisticated horse for that matter.

“In some circumstances the top tactics are very appropriate – in the case of Night Nurse the horse is not only perfectly comfortable up front, but is so fluid that it can take lengths on some of the best in the field. country with its hedges. .

“Why hold him back when he can skip the silly opposition?” To do so is to waste one of its main assets.

Granted, Night Nurse was the first Champion Hurdle winner in 25 years, but Hunters and hurdlers 1975/76 went on to say, “These statistics do not invalidate the argument. Our point is that with the right horse in the right situation, top tactics pay off.

Peter Easterby: The Lost 1979 Ebor and Memories of the Great Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse

Cutting edge tactics have certainly paid off in the fence races at the new Cheltenham course in recent years, a subject which has also been touched upon in the Chasers and hurdles series, this time as part of the Simply The Betts trial in the latest 2019/20 edition.

This was relevant because Simply The Betts had succeeded twice on the fences of the new Cheltenham course that season, first during the Timeform novice handicap pursuit on the day of the festival trials, and then during the disability pursuit Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate at the festival itself. In both races he fought for the lead from the start and recorded an EPF Timeform (Early Position Figure) of 1.

  • Timeform’s EPFs range from 1 to 5 and help explain where a horse was positioned during a race. An EPF of 1 is recorded by a leading horse and an EPF of 5 is recorded by a successful horse.

Of course, a horse winning two races abreast is not sufficient evidence to suggest that there is a bias at play, but the Simply The Betts trial then looked at a much larger sample to point out that horses who are to be expected with have been at a disadvantage compared to fencing on the new course in recent years:

“Those who run prominently have won 55% of all business card pursuits (excluding Gold Cup day) performed on the new course over the past five seasons, compared to a national average of around 20% for the same period.

“Cheltenham’s stat rises to 68% if judged over the past two seasons, while it stands at 73% just for handicaps in that shorter period – suggesting the jockeys are following the trend . “

Recent evidence is equally compelling

Nine more days of national hunting races have been held on the new course since this essay was written – it should have been 11 but New Years and Festival Trials Day matches were both scrapped last season – and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.

Of the eight maps involving professional jockeys during this period – the new Cheltenham course also hosts a hunter map reserved for amateur riders at the end of April – 26 races were run over fences, of which 17 were won by horses that have registered an EPF of 1 (led) or 2 (run in evidence). This equates to a share of around 65%, with the top (10/26) making up 38% of the winners and the prominent horses (7/26) making up an additional 27%.

The international meeting was the first game at Cheltenham this season to take place on the new course, with three races going out on Friday and the same on Saturday. Out of those six races, four of the winners recorded an EPF of 1 or 2 – Commodore, Editor of the Gite and Coole Cody all raced for handicaps with at least eight riders, while My Drogo quickly took the lead over Torn And Frayed. in the novice hunt on Saturday before winning in the eighth.

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Of course, in some of these cases an assumed bias can be partly explained. My Drogo, for example, was always likely to be a class of its own, underscored by an SP of 9/2-on, while the Racing Post Gold Cup won by Coole Cody hardly went against the script, unfolding very similarly to the Paddy Power Gold Cup raced at the Old Course four weeks earlier.

Coole Cody and Midnight Shadow dominated pretty much from the start on this occasion, pulling about 10 lengths ahead of the rest and looking almost certain to fill the top two spots when Coole Cody fell to penultimate. This left Midnight Shadow clearly ahead of the game and while tiring on the run-in, he still did enough to win by three-quarter length.

As for Saturday, Coole Cody and Midnight Shadow once again got closer to the penultimate locked in combat, but this time it was Midnight Shadow who made the mistake, leaving his former rival an advantage he never really seemed to concede. Midnight Shadow managed to stay on his feet but couldn’t hold back the late push from Zanza, who is doing best among those who held off by rising for second place.

The Fourth Raffles Rifle was also important from the start, a far from uncommon situation in which all but one of the main ones registered an EPF of 1 or 2. The first four fell away by eight. lengths of others and more experienced race readers would have concluded that patiently ridden runners were not perceived optimally, Zanza’s effort perhaps worth noting under the circumstances.

Why are patiently ridden horses so disadvantaged?

The layout of the track for the various racing days before, during and after the Cheltenham Festival offers a plausible explanation, with Cheltenham officials having long had a policy of preserving a new strip of land for the last day of the festival. , dusting this inner part of the runway for the rest of its aircraft in the year.

This narrowing of the hunting route is causing a marked shift towards top runners with an inherent advantage. A narrower track allows the leaders to save energy when they might not otherwise have been able. It also gives restrained horses less leeway as they navigate their way, whether negotiating falls or weakening horses.

The safety limits for chases on the new course are presumably established on the assumption that the entire width of the track is used. The peloton of 13 who went to the post for the Racing Post Gold Cup were the largest above the international meeting fences, but on the Thursday of the festival (the first two days are on the Old Course) regularly features two races- maximum handicap pursuits. , so it’s easy to see how the narrowing of the approach to each obstacle might affect the shape of a race.

Holding the Hunting Blue Ribbon event on the best possible ground is an understandable aspiration, but does Cheltenham bypass the horses, their connections, and their bettors in the rest of his meetings?


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