Cheltenham handicapping system could put British stables back in the race

Tweaks made to ensure horses arrive at festival on competitive marks

The nine handicaps at the Cheltenham festival later this month may offer some hope for British stables to recover their shattered pride, after Martin Greenwood, Britain's senior jumps handicapper, said on Tuesday his team is doing what it can to ensure the home team's horses arrive at the meeting on competitive marks.

Irish-trained runners finished 7-2 in front in the festival's handicaps last year, when Ireland had a record 23 winners from 28 races, despite fielding only a third of the runners in what are, in theory at least, the meeting's most competitive events. The three previous seasons saw a 5-5 draw in the handicaps – one was dropped from the programme in 2021 – and a similar return at this year's festival, which opens on March 15th, would be a significant step forward.

Some of the British-trained runners at least may be aided by some tweaks to the handicapping system, which will see some Irish novices given a little more to carry than might have been the case in the past, and some older British-trained horses dropping down the weights more rapidly than before.

"It's not necessarily pull the UK down and shove the Irish up," Greenwood said, "because we've always taken a higher view of the Irish novices anyway. It's not concentrated on Cheltenham or Aintree, it's an organic thing that we're trying to do over the year.


“We’ve got a lot of statistical evidence with a new IT set-up, and we noticed a bulge in the 130/140 [rating] area compared to 10 years ago. We decided to try and remove it a bit and bring it back to where it was by dropping the older, more exposed horses a bit quicker.

“From a handicapping point of view, last year was a bolt from the blue, but it was a funny season with Covid and so on and some of their results, fiddling about with a couple of pounds here or there would have made absolutely no difference. They’d have still streaked ahead. Whether that was just a blip, two weeks’ time will tell us more.”

Perhaps the most interesting snippet at a press conference as the weights for this year’s festival handicaps were published on Tuesday arrived via a phone link to Gordon Elliott’s stable in Ireland.

Elliott, who saddled nine handicap winners at the festival between 2018 and 2020, suggested that Death Duty, who is due to run in the Ultima Handicap Chase on March 15th, could be "the best handicapped of all of mine". The 11-year-old is currently the 8-1 second-favourite, a point behind the favourite, Does He Know. – Guardian