By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
Everyone has their little superstitions they think will help the charge for success. Whether it’s wearing your lucky pair of pulling pants, using your ’40 per cent of the time it works all the time’ chat-up line or simply the venue or public car park in which things tend to go particularly well for you, there’s something comforting about re-using the familiar elements that go into success. It’s a similar story for horses, except maybe for the car park bit.
Cheltenham is a unique racecourse. It’s more up and down than Cheryl Cole’s popularity. Its undulations and idiosyncrasies make it one of the most picturesque sporting venues in the world. And also one of the trickiest to master. It’s not quite the total chaos of Mariokart’s Donut Plains, but not far off. It presents a set of challenges horses don’t tend to encounter very often.
Before the energy-sapping run up the hill, there’s the frantic descent from the course’s summit and the general difficulties of keeping your footing on the bumpy ground. Plus there’s the unforgiving fences, trying to trip you like you’re a politician filing an expenses claim. When a horse proves he or she can handle it, it’s worth taking note of, particularly if you’re looking for interesting outsiders when Festival time rolls around.
There’s a general theory that horses who have proven themselves at Cheltenham are worth looking at for outsider value, even if recent form provides all the encouragement of a ‘I’m doing just super’ endorsement from George Osbourne to George Osbourne. For some reason, certain horses just come alive when they’re in the Cotswolds and if you can spot them, you could make hay. The Paddy Power Blog has examined to trend to see if our ‘scrawled on the back of a beermat’ theory can be backed up with any real evidence.
Before we start, it’s important to acknowledge that the idea of ‘form’ opens up a jumbo sized can of worms. Finishing a close fifth in a Grade One contest is much more significant than winning an egg and spoon race with your nearest challenger half a mile behind you wheezing heavily into an oxygen mask. That said, we need to apply some parameters and in this case,
‘Cheltenham Form’ refers exclusively to horses who have won and/or placed at a previous visit to Cheltenham.
Using that admittedly less than bulletproof criteria, we can see that Cheltenham form counts for a lot. 55 per cent of winners at the Festival since 2010 have a previous win or place at the course to their name. Obviously superstar names like Big Buck’s, Sprinter Sacre and Quevega were clearly fancied to do well and backed accordingly, but there are also examples of bigger priced winners who remember that they like the Gloucestershire air. Rock On Ruby put the proof into the pudding when he turned some good Cheltenham form into a Champion Hurdle victory at odds of 11/1 twelve months ago.
It’s the larger odds that are the prime motivation to look through the form for a snippet of course form. In the last three seasons, 18 of the 44 winners with previous Cheltenham have returned odds of 10/1 or more. It may not happen very often, but it doesn’t have to with odds like that. The average Starting Price of Festival winners with Cheltenham form in the last three years is around 19/2 (9.5/1) and that figure is somewhat compressed by the contributions from aforementioned regular short priced Festival winners like Big Buck’s and Quevega.
The figure of 45 per cent of Festival winners with no significant Cheltenham form is also surprisingly high, but to somewhat explain it, the figure includes the bumper along with the novice and juvenile hurdles in which most of the competitors will have had little or no experience of the Cotswolds track. There are however plenty of younger horses who have had a bite of the cherry at Cheltenham before, so those races can’t be discounted entirely. Plus some horses just take to Cheltenham the first time they set hoof on it. The great Moscow Flyer is arguably the best example of that, running out the convincing winner of the 2002 Arkle at his the first time of asking for Cheltenham glory.
If you’re looking to oppose some of the market leaders at this year’s Festival, course form is a good place to start. It may not work all the time, but when it does it can pay handsome dividends.