The Punting Confessional: Tackling Cheltenham.

Tackling Cheltenham

Tackling Cheltenham

Much is (quite rightly, of course!) made of the four-day racing jamboree better known as The Cheltenham Festival. After all, it is jumps racing’s Wembley or Wimbledon and this leads Tony Keenan to ponder whether or not we should approach this meeting any different to our normal betting approach in…

The Punting Confessional – March 6th 2013

Is punting Cheltenham different? Yes and no. Playing the four days at Prestbury Park is seen as the apotheosis of gambling by many, a meeting where the stakes are higher in every sense, but maintaining the consistent approach that works for the other 361 days of the year should be an aim. This isn’t easy however as there are a number of complicating factors at work, some of which I’ll explore this week and next.

One of the most interesting of these is the idea of ‘the banker’, an apocryphal horse that ‘cannot be beaten.’ At no other meeting do punters seem to lump on horses and make their odds contract, working off the idea the shorter, the better. I suspect much of this is bookmaker-driven and media-supported fallacy that has made its way into the public consciousness.

Again in 2013 we’ll have a host of such horses – My Tent Or Yours, Simonsig, Hurricane Fly and Quevega on the first day alone – and bookmakers love this sort of hype as it encourages punters to partake in multiples, a bet-type that by definition are more difficult to profit from and that combined odds of the above quartet comes out around 22/1 tells you plenty about the chances of all the bankers ending up in the bank.

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The reality for most punters is that they simply do not lump all their chips onto one or two horses to make or break their meeting.

They should prefer to have a number of plays over the four days, spreading relatively small percentages of their betting bank around. If they are anything like me, the bets they enjoy most will be the ones where they have a stab at a price when the risk and reward ratio is decent; the biggest and most memorable bets I have placed at the meeting came away from the front end of the market on the likes of Solwhit (2010 Champion Hurdle), Dunguib (2009 Bumper), Snowy Morning (2007 RSA) or Tiger Cry (2006 Grand Annual).

Not all of them won or even went close but I enjoyed the build-up and the possibility of a big pay-off.

Another issue Cheltenham punters have to consider is the maturity of the markets in the open Grade 1 races; for races like the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup there is betting 12 months in advance and sometimes even longer. This gives the layers more time to correct pricing errors they may have made; I suppose the counter-argument to this is that hype can still dominate and the layers can exacerbate their mistakes but in most cases correction is the norm and any value is squeezed out long before the day of the race.

There is also the excess of information to consider; in the weeks and months leading up to Cheltenham we get an almost forensic analysis of the training regimes and missteps or otherwise of the leading fancies and sometimes not so leading on slow news days. We hear and read about wind ops, racecourse gallops, viruses in yards and schooling sessions; the ubiquitous preview evenings, for all that they do great work for charity, have a lot to answer for.

For me, all this information is too intangible to be of use to the punter; we don’t rarely have such data when punting day-to-day and for the few days of the year when we are presented with it, we simply do not know what value to accord it. Racecourse evidence should continue to be the fulcrum of analysis but with so many conflicting sources of data is becomes difficult to decide what is valuable.

With the markets for the Grade 1 races matured, the best place to look for punting value is the handicaps; the horses here are less well-known by layers and with the weights only out last week there is much less time for correction. I can understand someone having an early bet on an English runner before the weights are revealed as they know what their mark is and in most cases if a horse is well-handicapped and handles conditions, it should go close.

Irish runners are a different story; one simply has to wait and see what rating they get in the Phil Smith lottery to ascertain it they are nicely treated. Indeed, I am suspicious of the whole idea of pricing up the handicaps early in the season; the attrition rate in terms of horses in the betting not making the day must be huge. It is hard enough with a graded horse to be sure what target it will take in at the diluted four-day Festival and all the more so for a handicapper where the options are greater.

One useful way of getting into the handicaps is to be sceptical about plot horses; for every Junior in the 2011 Kim Muir there are plenty of King Revos (2007 Jewson). Such horses tend to come from a handful of connections, the likes of JP McManus, David Pipe or Ferdy Murphy say. They are often overbet and create value amongst the other horses.

The majority of races at the Festival are won by in-form types particularly the handicap hurdles; Paul Jones’ excellent Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide has some great patterns on the last time out runs of the recent winners in handicap hurdles, such horses punching way above their weight in the main.

On the subject of trends, this is the one meeting where the pro- and anti- brigade come out in force. A number of key patterns have been broken of late, notably the record of five-year-olds in the Champion Hurdle, and I’d be more in the latter camp, despite a Twitter handle that reads @RacingTrends; I was a devotee of them in the past but have seen the error ways yet have been too lazy to change the name.

I feel they suffer from a deficiency in sample size but that doesn’t mean they are totally useless and I would advocate buying Jones’ book all the same; he does quite well in explaining the thinking behind the trends and flags up those he thinks are red herrings but more than that his writing style is excellent and I feel he interprets form well, often offering up a nugget that one may have missed in his profiles of the big race contenders.

One such pointer this year is about Aupcharlie, one of the favourites for the Jewson, as he points out that while he should prove suited by a drop back to two and a half miles on the basis of his runs over three, there is also a suspicion that he finds little, regardless of trip.

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