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Is weather a relevant factor or a ringer at Cheltenham?

25-February-2022
25-February-2022 16:50
in General
by Peter McNeile

With Cheltenham races on the horizon, the experts at Mansion Bet explain how the weather could determine who gallops to victory this year.

Anticipation is mounting for the return of the Cheltenham Festival, which will take place from 15 - 18th March. Candidates for the Gold Cup were priced up within minutes of passing the post last March, so if you're only just picking a winner for Cheltenham, now is the time gather as much information as you can before making your decision — including how much the weather can impact performance on the track.

Known by bookmakers, trainers and riders as 'the going', the condition of the track is a vital component to a race and can play a huge part in determining the outcome. When conditions aren't safe for both horse and rider (such as frozen ground or a waterlogged track), races will be postponed or completely abandoned. The state of the going is a discussion point for all cognoscenti throughout every big fixture.

With 28 races taking place over four days at the Festival, knowing how each horse performs under different conditions can help you make more informed choices when placing your bets at Cheltenham this year.

 

Will it be a wet Cheltenham?

The Jockey Club, ultimate owner of Cheltenham Racecourse closely records temperature, humidity, rainfall, and the gust and direction of the wind across the Old, New, and Cross Country courses as part of its risk assessment, the last especially since "Windy Wednesday" in 2009. The going is released six days before major races so that horses, trainers, and jockeys alike can assess wwhether their chances have been enhanced or diminished by prevailing weather conditions.

Unsurprisingly, rain results in wetter, muddier, and heavier conditions on the track, so riders and horses generally tend to prefer dry weather. However, some chasers respond better than others to heavy going, and some have even been known to relish the challenge. 

I don't know a horse who really enjoys deep ground. it's just that some cope with it better than others. This is why a mid-winter winner, say of the Welsh National in December, may not always excel in the lighter soils of Aintree, which dry out quicker. 

Some stables seem to perform better in wet weather, not so much because the horses love it, but because their trainers seek out types with abundant stamina or a pronounced rounded knee action that best copes with soft ground.

A wet Cheltenham is loved by bookmakers as it leads to unpredictable results. It's not generally loved by others who have to find shelter from the rain amidst the crowds!

Warm weather is every Clerk's nightmare

According to recent research from Roehampton University, it would seem that humans are actually better adapted to warmer temperatures when exercising than horses: in fact, for every degree warmer, horses can perform an average of 0.11 km/h slower (Experimental Physiology). This is because we sweat more readily and have a much smaller body mass than horses, so we can regulate our body temperatures more easily when exercising.

You'll have seen more attention being paid in recent years to cooling horses off after their races, with buckets of water available and hosing down in the Winner's Enclosure. Because the races are run at such a fierce pace at Cheltenham, the heat stress on the horses is magnified, so temperatures over 20 ? are pretty unwelcome.

Shirtsleeves are fine for spectators, even welcomed in the Guinness Village; less so by the veterinary teams. 

This means that if the sun decides to make an appearance over Cheltenham racecourse this spring, betting on lighter horses with less body mass to regulate could give you a slight impercetible advantage. As the Festival doesn't take place in the height of summer, soaring temperatures won't be a major concern for punters: but for those hoping to make well-researched betting decisions this year, it's always worth keeping the temperatures in mind as well as the track conditions.

 Does wind come into play?

Riding into a tailwind can be helpful and provide a boost in speed, whereas facing gusts in the opposite direction can increase resistance. But this is a factor common to all, and there's no obvious research to suggest it affects certain types of horses more than others.

It may certainly affect the fixture at large though. Wind forced the abandonment of a single day of the Festival back in 2008. 

More critically, wind affects the travel prospects of overseas runners from Ireland. Strong gales that prevented sailings from Ireland from the Thursday previous would hand the British home advantage once again.

 

March is a fickle month for weather

Races are often cancelled due to frost, snow and ice. Aside from making a day at the races less attractive as an outdoor entertainment, cold weather can also affect race times due to stiff muscles, and the horses may require a longer recovery time afterwards. Put simply, do you perform better at room temperature or sitting in a fridge? Horses are little different.

March and April are perfidious months for weather. Many is the time you may have left home wearing just a jacket under bright skies and mild temperatures, only to wonder why on earth you didn't bring a coat later on. You can see how a horse is feeling from the lustre of its coat. If it is gleaming all over, then it is in top condition, and unfazed by the temperature. Stary coats are a sign that a horse is enjoying the cold about as much as you in your shirtsleeves.

Like any athlete (and the jockeys too), horses must warm their muscles up before a race to avoid injury and this is particularly important during cold weather. Breed is also a large factor here; whilst Thoroughbreds are the only breed used in professional racing, being warm-blooded they are less resistant to the cold than hardy British breeds like the Shire. Some horses are undoubtedly better under Spring sunshine than others, and a Spring horse is often fresher, having likely not run since October. 

Snow has only affected the Festival twice in 45 years. In 1987, Gloucestershire woke up on Gold Cup day to several inches of snow which forced the Gold Cup to reschedule into April, when Midnight Court won under John Francome. 

Nine years later, the horses were already at the start when a  blizzard set in, making the snow stick in the horses' hooves. The runners were sent back and a tense wait of over 2 hours took place, after which Ridley Lamb and The Thinker prevailed in a memorable Gold Cup against a white backdrop. Guinness sales that year reached an all-time high with an additional 2 hours drinking time.

 Long range weather prospects

At the time of writing, most long-range weather predictions suggest that Cheltenham will experience mild spring temperatures of around 11 ̊C hardly a forecaster's hardest guess.  Despite this, some forecasts also report the possibility of scattered showers on the first two days of the Festival.

The simple reality is that if you're not going to run at the Festival for a big prize just because of the weather, when are you going to run? Most are long committed to running, and take their chance whatever. There is, still, only one Cheltenham. 

However, we all know how unruly and unpredictable the British weather can be at the best of times, and long-range forecasts can only be approximate a month in advance, and most aren't worth the paper they're written on. So, be sure to check all reputable weather channels in the days preceding each race for the most accurate figures.

By the very nature of the races, the weather can play a huge role in determining victory at major events like Cheltenham Festival. Whether it's raining or blue skies, heavy or soft going, keeping up to date with the conditions and state of the track this year could help you make the most informed bets and predictions you can.

Please gamble responsibly, and remember: when the fun stops, stop. For help and more information visit www.begambleaware.org

 

1987 Cheltenham Gold Cup The Thinker Includes Replay - YouTube

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