• Cheltenham Festival Handicapping with Dan Munn

    POSTED Mar 9, 2011
    With the Cheltenham Festival just around the corner, UK horseracing expert Dan Munn shares his thoughts on the premier jump meeting in the world.

    On a day when Zarkava’s half-brother was introduced to winning over hurdles, five other runners in the same race were having their third and final run before Cheltenham. Their aim? To qualify for a handicap hurdle. Zarkandar, a four year old son of Azamour, was bred for Derby and Guineas victories but he may just have to settle for victory in the feature novice hurdle on Gold Cup day, the JCB Triumph Hurdle, for which he is now a live 14/1 shot. However, five of his rivals have also earned a handicap mark to allow them to run in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle on day two of the Cheltenham Festival.

    To run in a handicap at the Festival a horse must complete three runs over obstacles to be allocated a ‘handicap mark’. A handicap mark is the rating that the horse will race off of in such races. Of the 27 races run at the Cheltenham Festival, 12 are handicaps — five over hurdles, six over fences and 1 over the cross-country course. In each race, the top weight (the horse rated highest of the pack) totes 155 lbs., with the lowest-weighted horse slated to carry 130 lbs. Any horses with a rating lower than 25 pounds off of the top weight will still carry 130 lbs. and, therefore, runs ‘out of the handicap,’ which means that it will be burdened with more weight than it would otherwise be expected to carry.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    Horse D in the above table is rated 46 pounds inferior to the top weight. However, under handicap rules if a horse scrapes into the race off such a rating, it can only carry 25 lbs. lower than the top weight unless an amateur rider’s claim has been used.

    Handicap races are competitive and it’s no surprise to see the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle being worth just under £45,000 to the winner compared to the £57,000 offered to the winner of the JCB Triumph Hurdle, a Grade 1 hurdle at the festival. Similarly, handicaps are the subject of yearlong plots with trainers, whereby handicap marks are cleverly protected with a particular race in mind. Take for example the Aintree Grand National.

    The National is run three or four weeks after the Cheltenham Festival yet regularly involves runners who have not run over fences all season and have been protecting their marks with preparation runs over hurdles. Runs over hurdles do not affect a mark over fences and a horse that may win by 10 lengths over hurdles will not have his fences mark altered for such a win. An example of how this is plotted over the flat would be the preparations for the Melbourne Cup, horses who thrive over the 2 Mile Melbourne Cup distance regularly run their first races in a season over the mile distance and other inferior distances to get keep their fitness up and protect a handicap mark.

    So where are these plots likely to come from at the Cheltenham Festival? Who really wants to win one particular handicap? Two of those are simple and well publicised. The final races of the Cheltenham Festival are the Martin Pipe Conditionals Hurdle and the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual and both David Pipe and Nicky Henderson have yet to win their fathers’ race. Entries were released for all of the handicap races this week and Henderson is responsible for eight of 58 entries in the Grand Annual compared to Pipe’s seven entries in a 164-strong Conditional Handicap.

    Henderson is honest. He states that this has always been the plan for his horse Tanks For That (142). However, he also enters Anquetta (132), French Opera (164), Giorgio Quercus (no current rating), Osric (133), Pepsyrock (130), Mad Max (155) and 2007 Champion Chase winner Voy Por Ustedes (160).

    Voy Por Ustedes is interesting — he’s mixed it with the best and he’d be competitive in the Grade 1 events but is likely to be the top weight if allowed to run and that may open the door for Osric and Anquetta, who has been the subject of a big gamble in the future wagers this week. Needless to say, Henderson has his best chance yet of winning his fathers’ race and is ensuring he has the strongest team possible to do so.

    As for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, Molotof and Kumbeshwar – 2nd and 3rd behind Zarkandar – will both re-oppose in a bid for victory in the race at Cheltenham and they look exceptionally hard to beat if given a kind rating by the handicapper. But whether either of them can emulate the stunning victory of Sanctuaire last year is debatable.

    Sanctuaire came into last year’s contest with a mass of strong ‘words’ behind him and won doing handstands carrying 140 lbs. — he cruised by 7 lengths and just failed to back up his victory three weeks later at the Aintree Festival (which brings to mind a theory that’ll be saved for another blog post). In the meantime, one handicapper with a purpose that cannot be ignored in whatever race he turns up in is Nicky Henderson’s Aegean Dawn; entered for the Coral Cup (2m5f) and Country Hurdle (2m) Henderson’s charge has risen 36 lbs. in the ratings since November and has already been victorious up the Cheltenham hill this season. His trainer outlined a plan this week to reappear in the Sandown Imperial Cup (12th March) before a probable tilt at the County Hurdle where a victory off the back of an Imperial Cup win would earn connections a massive £75,000 bonus.

    Dan Munn's blog can be found at http://danmunnhorseplayer.blogspot.com.
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