How differently would the history of National Hunt racing read if the sport's showpiece event wasn't staged exclusively at Cheltenham?
Time and again, horses arrive at the Festival fancied based on impressive form elsewhere and fail to live up to expectations. A number of factors play their part in this, but it is common knowledge that prior Cheltenham form is a valuable commodity. Severe undulations coupled with stiff, awkwardly-sited obstacles and the famous hill all combine for a complete test of horse and rider. These idiosyncrasies are the making or breaking of festival dreams on a regular basis.
Cheltenham was never a problem for Arkle, however. Timeform's top-rated chaser of all time had the perfect blend of speed and stamina to match his superb jumping technique. Arkle's third consecutive Gold Cup in 1966 marked a significant milestone in the race's history, not only for his personal achievement, but it was also the last edition to be staged on Cheltenham's Old Course.
Having formed and purchased the racecourse in 1964, Racecourse Holdings Trust (now Jockey Club Racecourses) developed the New Course. This was presumably to alleviate the stress back-to-back days of jump racing placed on the original turf.
The current split between the two courses sees the October and November meetings staged on the Old, with all other days outside of the March showpiece being on the New. The Festival itself is now divided equally with the Old course being used on the first two days and the New utilised on the remainder.
The two variations throw up diverging challenges. The major difference for both hurdle races and chases is the nature of the finish. The concluding turn on the Old Course is not only sharper; it is also significantly closer to the finish than its younger counterpart. This can result in finishes with a greater emphasis on positioning. Contrastingly, the run-in on the New course often turns into a war of attrition, largely down to the sweeping final bend allowing a full gallop to be maintained as well as the basic fact that it is a much longer distance.
This variance is even more pronounced in hurdle races as there is only one obstacle down the hill on the New Course (compared to the two on the Old), which can promote an even quicker pace. Races such as the International and County Hurdle tend to lean more heavily on stamina and race pace judgement by the jockey. Going for home too soon is commonplace and can be extremely costly.
Success in races such as the Champion Hurdle and the Supreme Novices, however, rely more on the jockey being poised after the second-last flight to take the sharp bend and allow their mount to climb up the hill.
Ahead of the festival, we have broken down our jockey ratings by performances on each of the different courses. For each category, unless stated, jockeys must have had at least 20 runners and have ridden the course in the last year.
As introduced in a previous article, our ratings are derived from performance against expectation. They are expressed below as +/- lbs vs. the average of the jockey population. As a reminder, only runners with a pre-race Timeform rating are included in the ratings process.
The ratings are accompanied by their number of qualifying runners, number of winners and Impact Value. The Impact Value is a reflection of the number of actual wins a jockey has had compared to an expected win total based on field size.
Using the categorised data, a master Cheltenham rating is derived for those jockeys with over 100 rides at the course:
The more races we can analyse, the more confident we can be about the accuracy of these assessments. There are a number of jockeys who have performed at a significantly high level at the course, but have ridden in fewer races which meant they didn't qualify for a master rating. The top three of these are discussed below:
Robbie Power (41 Runners, 3 Winners, 7.10 Rating)
Although based only on 10 races, Jessica Harrington's stable jockey posts an incredible rating of 17.07 over fences on the Old Course. This includes his 2011 RSA Chase win aboard Boston's Angel and his second place on 66/1 shot Horner Woods in the 2009 edition. In the Champion Chase, he has partnered Big Zeb and Newmill to creditable positions despite both former champions being well past their prime. If he gets a good mount over fences on the first couple of days of the Festival, he could very well be worth siding with.
Miss N. Carberry (46 Runners, 7 Winners, 6.02 Rating)
The Cross Country races at Cheltenham have been shunned by several of the top jockeys in recent years, possibly through fear of costly bans for taking a wrong course! However, there can be no doubt in the level of skill and ridership required to negotiate the course successfully and Nina Carberry boasts an impressive record over the cheese wedges and Aintree fences. Given the right horse, Nina Carberry will again be one to follow in the Cross Country Race.
David England (52 Runners, 3 Winners, 4.85 Rating)
Whereas the aforementioned riders have generated high ratings for excelling in one particular area at Cheltenham, David England is very much an understated all-rounder. Despite limited runs round the course in recent years, England has a superb record of running Nigel Twiston-Davies's horses round their local track to form. Given a suitable partner, he could deliver a big run in one of the large field handicaps.
In the build up to the Cheltenham Festival, Timeform will be analysing the leading riders in greater depth. This will isolate performances at the festival, evaluate strength of previous rides and preview their chances of securing the Thomas Pink Top Jockey Award.