One of America’s biggest steeplechase events is set for this Saturday, Oct. 20, and this year’s races at Far Hills will feature an added attraction: betting! For the first time, fans will be able to combine their tailgating with a bit of wagering in an idyllic New Jersey setting. When it comes to handicapping, or studying steeplechase races, there aren’t many mainstream pundits to turn to for advice. Luckily, we know one of the most knowledge analysts in the U.S., Joe Clancy.
Not only is he the publisher of the popular Saratoga Special (which includes coverage of Saratoga’s steeplechase races), Joe and his brother Sean have also been actively involved in the steeplechase scene across the Mid-Atlantic for the past two decades. New Jersey’s Far Hills races are right in his wheelhouse, so we asked him five questions for anyone looking for a betting edge on Saturday. You can also find picks and analysis at Clancy’s site, thisishorseracing.com.
So, what’s the first thing one should look at when betting a steeplechase race?
It depends on what kind of handicapper you are. Approach jump races the same way you would a race on the dirt or the turf at a racetrack. They are essentially long turf races, so handicap it the way you would a long turf race. Trip, pedigree, form cycle, connections, they all matter here the same way they do in a flat race. Assume the horses can jump. If they can’t, they wouldn’t be doing this. That being said, experience matters so a lightly raced horse taking on horses with far more starts over jumps is at a disadvantage. Daily Racing Form past performances have a stat line for jump races only, which is helpful.
Is the class system similar to handicapping Thoroughbreds and is class the most important factor to consider?
Class always matters, and that might be the trickiest part about betting U.S. jump races for bettors. People don’t necessarily recognize the tracks where the races occur (and some obviously card races of a higher class than others). The types of races can also look a bit foreign. Here’s a short primer:
There are maiden, allowance, and optional claiming races (just like on the flat). They are what they say and yes, a horse starts over as a maiden over jumps regardless of what he or she did on the flat – Justify could run in a maiden hurdle.
There are restricted stakes (usually classified as “novice” races that will have the same designation as a restricted stakes on the flat in the past performances). Essentially, fields in those races are limited by the date a horse breaks his or her maiden over hurdles – think of them as the equivalent of stakes restricted to 3-year-olds or 3- and 4-year-olds on the flat, since a jumper’s career can start at ages 3 and up.
Open stakes are graded (Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3) but there aren’t very many so a Grade 1 horse can turn up in a Grade 2 or Grade 3 race, especially as a prep or a comeback race.
Look at purse values. A $40,000 maiden race is usually a better race than a $25,000 maiden race.
The National Steeplechase Association recently instituted a handicapping system much like England and Ireland where all winners over hurdles (4 and up) are assigned a handicap rating and races are written for horses within certain classifications. So far, it’s working. There are fewer claiming races, well-matched fields and theoretically more options for horses. Far Hills cards a 125 and under race with 12 horses and it’s wide open. The list might help bettors compare horses, and can be accessed via PDF at https://www.nationalsteeplechase.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Ratings-10-8-18.pdf.
Is there any point to doing pace analysis considering we don’t usually think of these horses going top speed, or are there established pacesetters who might have advantages in certain instances?
Like class, pace always matters. It’s a little less important because the races are so long and the pace can be much steadier than in a flat race. Still, lone speed can be dangerous. Lone, relaxed speed can be really dangerous. By the same token, a race full of front-runners can set up for closers just like a flat race. In general, as you might expect, it’s a bit more difficult to stay in front for two-plus miles especially in high-class races like Far Hills. Nobody will get an easy lead and be left alone – or they shouldn’t.
The races are charted by Equibase chartcallers so you can see running lines and race flow. Video replay is available on the National Steeplechase Association website and racetrack steeplechase races (from Saratoga Race Course and Monmouth Park this summer) are available via the normal sources. Numerous Far Hills runners prepped at Shawan Downs and Foxfield in the last few weeks so you can watch those races and maybe learn a little something. So, yes, pace analysis helps. Post position really doesn’t matter – the races are long enough that horses and jockeys have time work out good trips from anywhere.
What’s the best way to actually bet a steeplechase race? Do you like to play exotics or keep it simple with a simple win or place bet?
In big fields, I like to play exotics. That can be difficult at Saratoga and Belmont Park where it seemed like the field sizes were small this summer. I was on the NYRA Talking Horses program with Andy Serling, and I did the best with bigger fields and looking at exotics like a $131 trifecta box for 50 cents in the New York Turf Writers at Saratoga and an $834 superfecta box for $1 in the Lonesome Glory at Belmont. Field sizes are big at Far Hills, so exacta, trifecta, and superfecta should be in play though the pools probably won’t be huge so keep that in mind. I try to find value when betting individual horses, and don’t chase too many favorites (unless my value picks end up the favorites after I’ve picked them).
Do you have any particular angles for the Far Hills course that might be useful for people who plan on betting this Saturday?
First of all, admire the athleticism and versatility of the Thoroughbred. Steeplechasers can run, jump, lead wire-to-wire, come from way back, whatever. Far Hills is the best meet we have, with seven races worth an American record $900,000. It’s a big deal.
Second, if you’re betting – look for horses rounding into form or coming off a good effort. Far Hills is a demanding course that takes loads of stamina. You don’t see a lot of after-the-last-fence closing kicks, but you also don’t see many on-the-pace winners either.
Far Hills 2018 Analysis
We’ll handicap and give picks for all the races at thisishorseracing.com, but here are a few quick thoughts:
• First race (3-year-old hurdle stakes): Take a stand against Roller Rolls On, the race’s only winner, and look for big improvements from Snowie Hill, Knockholt, and Flushed.
• Second race (maiden hurdle): At $50,000, it’s the richest maiden race in the game. Khafayya and Motivational lead the field in starts, not necessarily a good thing. Special Relation is sitting on a big effort. Snuggling won but was disqualified here last year.
• Third race (handicap hurdle): Anybody can win. Mercoeur gets class relief, Invocation will be very tough, Orchestra Leader is as cool as they get, Salix could pull a shocker.
• Fourth race (novice hurdle): Here’s where pace scenario matters. Will Boss Man be alone on the lead and allowed to dictate? Surprising Soul is 2-for-2 this year and lightly raced by design to get to this spot in top form. City Dreamer could improve off his Belmont win. Does he want 2 ½ miles? Deep race.
• Fifth race (novice hurdle split): Probably the weaker division. Cite has been awesome, but gives away heaps of experience. Gibralfaro must improve off Belmont run. Amschel could be any kind and gets a weight break. Ice It is always close. I prefer Invocation in the other spot, though he’s live here too.
• Sixth race (Grade 1 Grand National): The race lost its best American hope when Zanjabeel was injured late last week. Fascinating to see 2015 champion Dawalan try to make a comeback. If he’s ready, look out. Jury Duty will be very tough. Hammersly Lake flopped in this last year but returns. Clarcam will like this much better than Saratoga and Belmont. Tricky race. Will depend on odds for me.
• Seventh race (timber stakes): And now for something completely different. Races over timber, post-and-rail and/or board fences, are the sport’s roots. Distance is 3 ½ miles so the pace is slow but the jumping matters more. Winner will be Kings Apollo or Top Man Michael. I’ll lean toward the former.
And finally, connections, connections, connections. The Far Hills card includes horses owned by Gary Barber (of Wonder Gadot fame and so on), Lee Pokoik (Sippican Harbor) and Woodslane Farm (Sadler’s Joy) among others. Breeders include Claiborne Farm, Kinsman Farm, Chuck Fipke, Winchell Thoroughbreds, Gainesway Farm, Dixiana Farm, Juddmonte Farms, Shadwell, Calumet Farm, Spendthrift Farm, the Aga Khan, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and others.
Steeplechasing is Thoroughbred racing. Enjoy it.