Timeform's stats whizz Michael Williamson crunches the numbers and evaluates the 'top jockey' market...
For many, this year's Festival banker is not an equine superstar. Ruby Walsh, who sits atop Timeform's Cheltenham Festival Jockey Rankings, currently trades at 4/6 to take the Thomas Pink award for leading rider and, injury aside, looks a pretty sure bet to take the honours for the eighth time. But is he invincible? We'll use our Jockey Rankings to help us find out.
For those new to Timeform's Jockey Rankings, we believe that when evaluating performance there is much more to consider than simply numbers of winners, strike rates or returns to level stakes, whether it be for horses, trainers or, indeed, jockeys.
While a jockey goes out with the goal of winning, independent of the quality of horse or its chance, all they can realistically aim for is to ensure that it runs to the best of its ability. At Timeform we measure that by assessing a horse's post-race rating against its pre-race one to formulate performance against expectation, adjusted for context with statistical techniques.
Timeform has already undertaken a wholesale study using jockey ratings which, with a sense of inevitability, showed that Ruby Walsh was statistically dominant across almost all facets. Where the Festival is concerned, it's a case of different survey, same result.
Below are the top 10 jockeys with over 50 runners currently in action, based solely on rides at the Festival:
The 2009 Festival, when aboard seven winners, was a watershed for Walsh, while in 2011, he had a treble (Al Ferof, Hurricane Fly and Quevega) on 'Ruby Tuesday'.
Astoundingly, the latter feat was repeated last year, with the racing equivalent of football's perfect hat-trick, bagging the Supreme on Champagne Fever (master-class from the front), the Champion Hurdle on Hurricane Fly (well-judged ride in a race run at a break-neck pace) and the Mares' Hurdle on Quevega.
Walsh is head and shoulders above his contemporaries in terms of Festival winners, out clear on 38, with 22 of those coming over hurdles, and his record is, unsurprisingly, just as impressive measured by other established statistical methods, such as Impact Values (evaluating total wins vs. expected wins), percentage of rivals beaten and Market Value (expressed as the factor by which the % chance of a Betfair Starting Price exceeds random, as implied by field size).
Walsh's Rating and Impact Value in bumpers is even more impressive, albeit from a smaller sample.
While Walsh can no longer call on the battalions of runners from Paul Nicholls (provided 21 of his 38 Festival winners), the firepower at his disposal remains much the same due to his powerful alliance with Willie Mullins. Mullins, who has won 22 Festival races, is mob-handed, with no less than 21 horses in the Supreme, Baring Bingham, Albert Bartlett and Triumph Hurdles alone.
But with all this talent to choose from, is there a risk of Walsh getting it wrong?
Probably not. In Graded races, he has only ever twice selected the wrong option from the same stable, famously siding with Kauto Star over Denman in the 2008 Gold Cup and then opting for Sam Winner instead of Zarkandar in the 2011 Triumph Hurdle.
Most evidence, then, suggests that Walsh is as good as past the post and could even have it wrapped up by the end of day one, with his mounts including Hurricane Fly, Quevega and Champagne Fever.
One of the pieces of trivia doing the rounds in the build up to Cheltenham, however, is the fact that Walsh hasn't had a Festival Chase winner since landing the Gold Cup on Kauto Star in 2009 - that's a 35-run losing streak against an expected 2.87 winners.
By his own very high standards, the last four years have been below expectation as far as chases on the Old Course are concerned, with a % of rivals beaten of 35% in all races and just 30% in championship events. But overall it's as much a case of his hurdles record being exceptional rather than his chase record being below-par, with a creditable average rating over Festival fences of 3.02.
* Walsh won the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup aboard Blowing Wind on 13/03/2002 (25/1). This is not included in our ratings as no Timeform rating was available pre-race.
So, what is the point of this article? To spend 1000 words telling you that Walsh is the top jockey at the Festival and that he's a fair bet to land the prize again?
No. What if there was a jockey that could boast a Festival rating on a par with Walsh's and a book of rides at least comparable with Geraghty (doesn't have either Sprinter Sacre or Simonsig this year, nor another Henderson stable star in My Tent Or Yours) and McCoy (has a rich selection of handicappers but few obvious bankers).
If we reduce the qualification limit for a festival rating to 20 runners and caveat that the small sample size may be misleading, one jockey doesn't just match Walsh, he comprehensively outguns him.
Step forward Bryan Cooper, who was only one win off taking the Top Jockey award last season despite being freelance. Now the main man for the considerable Gigginstown string, which scores highly for both quality and quantity, Cooper might not have the same ammo on paper as Ruby Walsh, but he does have the pick of an arsenal that includes big-guns Last Instalment, Trifolium and First Lieutenant. To boot, if any spare rides do crop up, as happened in 2013 with the last-named in the Ryanair, then Cooper is an obvious go-to jockey, still keeping close ties with the Dessie Hughes and Tony Martin yards.
Bryan Cooper is the up-and-comer, with an even better Festival record statistically speaking than Ruby, so is worth a few quid at 16/1 to topple the master.
Back Bryan Cooper to be Top Cheltenham Festival Jockey