The Irish Outsider – October 30th 2013
Next week, among these pages, I’ll be beginning a new fortnightly series of articles on the Irish Road to Cheltenham, taking in the key horses and races that are likely (and unlikely) to impact on the four days that dominate national hunt racing in March. Before looking at specifics however, it is necessary to cover a few generalities.
The Festival has become a behemoth, dominating the jumps season horizon to such a degree that it is arguably to the detriment of other meetings, races that were once valued in their own right and not just Cheltenham trials.
It’s worth reiterating the fact that the a 3/1 winner at the Festival pays the same as a 3/1 winner elsewhere though that can be counterbalanced by a Cheltenham winner bringing far more bragging rights; this is one of two times in the year (the Grand National being the other) when non-racing people may look for a tip and your status as horse racing nut, in their eyes at least, may hinge on a small sample size of selections.
Just try to remember that there are plenty of other great meetings over jumps, meritorious in their own right, and aim to keep some sort of level-headed approach to staking Cheltenham, both in the run-up to the meeting and the four days themselves.
In the ante-post markets for the Festival, selectivity is important. It seems that every semi-decent jumps winner throws up a Cheltenham quote these days – after Naas and Galway on Monday, the likes of Twinlight, First Lieutenant, Defy Logic and Don Cossack had prices offered up – but most of these are insulting and bear only a vague reflection of their true chance.
It might be best to focus on the open championship races rather than the novice events at this early stage; with the former, you can be pretty sure where a horse is going to run. A top two-mile hurdler is only intended for one race at the Festival, the Champion Hurdle, ditto a good staying chaser. With the novices, the options are too wide with races available over two, two and a half and three miles both over hurdles and fences. We saw with Dynaste last year that a horse can switch at the very last minute.
If you are intent on backing one ante-post after a big run in a trial race, a decision needs to be made on taking a price quickly or waiting a few days to let the dust settle. Taking the former approach and pulling the trigger on a price that just looks too big relies largely on gut instinct and in this regard your gut needs to be highly trained; there is probably a small window for taking the price but a big chance of value and the risk versus reward needs to be weighed up.
Striking a bet here runs the risk of recency bias and buyer’s regret. Personally, the last horse I did this with was Novellist for the Arc after his King George win when 8/1 was available and we saw how that turned out!
The other option is taking a few days to reflect on what happened before making a play. Here you are invariably taking a shorter price but you have more information to hand such as a better idea of the level of form, times, trainer comments, even trends if they’re your thing. In the main, I suspect this is a better approach long-term though it is a question that cannot be answered definitively as such opportunities are best judged on a situation to situation basis.
Should you want to back a fancied horse for the Festival, a horse in the front two or three of the betting, it is probably best to wait until closer to the off. The big firms invariably push out the fancied runners on the day of the race, keen to get turnover up, and while plenty will knock how much you can really get on in such situations, by being artful in spreading your bet a decent stake can be raised.
Backing before the day of the race, or at least before the non-runner no-bet concession, requires that you get big value and it is probably best to look at horses that are trading at double figure prices in this case.
For instance, Hurricane Fly is a horse I could see myself backing for the Champion Hurdle provided he has a decent run-up to the meeting but he’s probably a horse that is best supported at 3/1 on the day of the race when you know he is going to get to post rather than at 5s early on in the season given there are months to the race itself and he has had problems in the past.
Obviously this can blow up in your face should a big non-runner – not your own pick, obviously – come out but how do you allow for that?
Getting back to the Irish horses for a moment, it is worth pointing out the all too prevalent belief that a horse won’t be suited by the track, often paraphrased by ‘he won’t get up the hill’, can be overdone.
Hurricane Fly is one that has suffered in this regard down the years, knocked on this angle prior to both his Champion Hurdle wins, and while perhaps small-field, soft-ground Irish races show him at his very best, the level he ran to at Cheltenham was still good enough to win.
Jezki is an obvious horse where I can see the same happening this year – full disclosure, he’s the only ante-post bet I’ve had for Cheltenham 2014 at this point – though quite how one can say he doesn’t handle the track having finished a close-up third in the strongest Supreme in years, I don’t know.
With the Irish horses, in most cases, they simply don’t get the chance to run at Cheltenham before March so it might be best to take their ability to handle the track on trust unless there are strong reasons for believing otherwise; Beef Or Salmon was one that clearly didn’t like it but he was an extreme case that comes along rarely.
As a rule, I’m not a huge believer in the horses for courses angle though it probably applies more at Cheltenham than most places as it presents a unique test; like Galway, with its hollows and turns, it is probably worth forgiving a bad run here.