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Rowleyfile Preview: Betfair Hurdle, Newbury 13 February 2016
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Rowleyfile Preview: Betfair Hurdle, Newbury 13 February 2016

Simon Rowlands previews Saturday's Betfair Hurdle, and fancies two against the field.

How a horseracing enthusiast refers to the big handicap hurdle at Newbury in mid-February probably establishes their age better than most things.

To the newbie, it is the Betfair Hurdle – with that company sponsoring the £155,000-added race again this year – while to those of an older vintage it will always be the Tote Gold Trophy. Going back even further, it appeared to be sponsored by “Abandoned” for much of the 1980s, and definitely was by the soft-drinks retailer Schweppes before that.

One thing that has seldom changed is that it is a fearsomely competitive contest, and the declaration of 22 for this year’s event upholds that tradition. Punters looking for an angle in may well want to consider what the trends tell them.

The following looks at the last 10 runnings of the race (2004 onwards, as 2006 and 2009 were cancelled), measured by number of runners in each category, number of wins and first-four places, the impact value that arises from that (wins and places compared to chance) and % of rivals beaten. The last-named, in which higher is better, remains about the best guide of all.

It can be seen that: five-year-olds are definitely good (only two four-year-olds ran in the period under review and none is entered this year); horses running off low handicap marks have underperformed; last-time winners and last-time thirds have done well; and an absence of more than a month can be considered a positive.

A full dozen of the declared runners this year are five-year-olds, though last-time winners and last-time thirds number just seven, and only four – Dicosimo, Sternrubin, Agrapart and Blazer – fall into both categories.

It is also worth looking at the current form of the various trainers with runners, as gauged by their %RB in handicaps since the turn of the year. Of those with more than 10 such runners, Alan King (67.7%), Tom George (62.3%) and Philip Hobbs (61.3%) come out best, while Nigel Twiston-Davies (39.5%) and Dan Skelton (44.8%) come out worst.

Willie Mullins, who has the favourite Blazer among five entries, has been performing hardly any better than par in handicaps overall (50.5%). That said, Blazer was mightily impressive in victory at Leopardstown last time and clearly deserves to be at or near the head of the market.

The above measures point towards one horse above others, and that is Sternrubin. The Philip Hobbs-trained five-year-old has won all three of his starts this campaign but has not been seen since dead-heating with Jolly’s Cracked It at Ascot before Christmas, thus leading to him qualifying on the “absence” score as well.

Sternrubin has gone up 8 lb for that “win”, but there are a couple of other important things to mention about that effort. Firstly, it came in a good overall time – one which suggests Sternrubin fully merits his mark in the 140s – and secondly Sternrubin shared first despite running very far from efficiently.

Sternrubin went fast – too fast by usual standards – but kept going despite being the only one of the first six home not to be eight lengths or more back jumping three out. It really should have done for him, and that it didn’t suggests he may be a fair bit better than even this bare form implies.

The worry is that the same could happen again, in terms of Sternrubin being forced into going too fast. Dicosimo, Agrapart, Starchitect and (especially) Chieftain’s Choice have all raced close up recently, though they haven’t gone the kind of lick Sternrubin went at Ascot.

Nonetheless, it looks also worth considering one likely to race more conservatively, in case the leaders overdo things. The best contender in this regard could well be another five-year-old in Affaire d’Honneur.

The Harry Whittington-trained gelding made an excellent British debut when a clear second to Zulu Oscar at Kempton over Christmas and looks to have the scope to go well off a higher mark in this. He has had just three runs and looks to have more potential than the vast majority in this field.

Twenty-two runners has tempted at least one of the traditional bookies to offer first-five places already, and that makes an each-way bet on Affaire d’Honneur appealing. Given Sternrubin’s racing style, he is put up as a win-only proposition instead. What’s for sure is that he has plenty going for him in terms of trends.

Recommendations: 2 pts win Sternrubin, 1 pt each way (first 5 places) Affaire d’Honneur

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