How to Bet the Cheltenham Festival

Denis Beary is a punter of many Festivals past at this point and someone who thinks deeply about form and betting. With Cheltenham less than four weeks away now, I caught up with him to see what he is expecting from this year’s meeting, and to discuss the Festival betting landscape in general, writes Tony Keenan.


Are you looking forward to Cheltenham this year, be it from a betting or racing perspective? There’s a sense that this has been the season when people have tired a little of the 12-month build-up to the meeting, the incessant ante-post quotes, the endless preview nights. What do you reckon?

Although I agree that Festival hype is completely overdone these days, the year I don’t look forward to Cheltenham I’ll know it’s time to pack it in and take up growing vegetables or something. I’ve blogged that this is the first year I won’t be there in quite a long time but that doesn’t mean I won’t be clearing the decks to allow full immersion for the four days. Of course I still enjoy the spectacle; it’s still the highlight of the National Hunt season even if they have diluted the quality considerably by adding the extra races and a fourth day.

In terms of punting it’s a chance to have a “Super Saturday” for 4 straight days – by that I mean a high turnover day with the firms betting to very competitive percentages and laying plenty of horses so they really don’t mind taking your business. A bet that would typically require a phone call, probably followed by a stake limitation on a normal weekday, barely gets glanced at – that’s a big plus.


Is ante-post betting on the meeting dead or dying? Perhaps it’s the romantic in me but I seem to remember times past when you would try to find something at 33/1 for a race like the Gold Cup, watch it shorten all winter nursing your docket tenderly and it with pitch up on the day at 6/1 and regardless of the result you got some value. I have barely even tried to find a bet like that this season. Furthermore, the biggest betting firm in Ireland, Paddy Power, went non-runner, no-bet for all races at a ridiculously early stage (January 9th) and basically said we don’t want ante-post money. What are your thoughts on the early NRNB? 

I largely agree. The Paddy NRNB prices are laughably awful and I’ve hardly bothered to go through them. I preferred when the firms used to go NRNB more or less together usually at the end of February or early March. I used to find that a few firms didn’t fully understand the difference that NRNB makes, especially in the handicaps. That hasn’t been as evident in the past few years. From a time where I’d be flat out going through every race at this stage 10 years ago, I’m far more relaxed about it now and I don’t expect to have nearly as many bets ante post as I did back then. The fact that there are multiple targets for every horse now complicates the picture considerably and in a lot of cases you’re better waiting until the smoke clears. I’d only bet one ante post now if a) its target is in no doubt and b) I’m getting double what I’d expect the SP to be. That’s not easy to find these days.

Ante-post wise these days I tend to concentrate on the three big championship races mostly on Betfair trying to make a book over the season backing and laying. My entry point is often a returning hero that I want to be against – for example this season I was heavily against Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack before the season started. I’m generally looking to take on older horses (ten-year-olds plus) and those returning from injury. They are usually bad bets for the championship races in March. If you get one in the book at a nice price you can back a few against them and end up with a few cheap greens. That’s the theory anyway.


What are you expecting betting-wise at the meeting? Last year was the first Festival in a while when the big firms didn’t go crazy in terms of overrounds, perhaps due to some poor results at previous meetings.  There was value but it wasn’t the dead giveaway that might have been expected. I think lots of us – myself included – are waiting for a beano on the day of the race that may not materialise. 

I don’t think it’ll be much different. They’ll still bet very well in the morning and it’ll be the usual choice between taking the best morning price and waiting for Betfair near the off. I assume there will be some crazy Powers offer on the Supreme as usual but they usually limit stakes which makes it not worth that much unless you’re prepared to spend the whole day touring shops; there are better uses of time that week.


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One of the problems punters face in the run-up to Cheltenham is information overload. I often think people would be better focussing on three or four key criteria when trying to find a bet rather than trying to throw 20 variables into the mix as this just becomes confusing. There’s lots of stuff we will read or hear over the next month or so that may be of dubious value; what’s the best way to sift through it?

It is a problem. Between podcasts, blogs, Twitter, preview nights, the trade paper and the racing websites you could spend twelve hours a day reading opinion on the Festival every day between now and then. I like to read factual information regarding targets and state of fitness and very little else. I don’t do podcasts or previews. It’s better to form your own opinion and stand or fall by that.

I have a routine that hasn’t changed much in the past few years: I make a point of watching last year’s Festival at least twice in the weeks beforehand. It’s amazing how you forget what ran well there and I think course form is still underbet. I tend to look at one or two of the conditions races per day in the run up and start to form opinions on the main chances. I leave the handicaps a bit later as the entries at this stage would frighten you. During the Festival itself I try and stay a day ahead; I’ll have gone through the Wednesday card before watching Tuesday. That’s one thing I’m looking forward to this year, being at home and being able to do that properly every day – some of my best scores have been spotting an early rick for Wednesday while everyone’s eyes are on Tuesday!


Are there any in-season angles you are looking to exploit at the Festival? For instance, do you think the Irish novice hurdlers are particularly strong or weak? Is there a trainer that has been going particularly well or badly that could be worth following or opposing next month?

It’s fairly likely that the Irish novice hurdlers are ahead, but that looks factored into the prices at the moment. Something you’ve alluded to before is worth bearing in mind – if results during the Festival start to hint that a certain form line or group of horses might be better than previously thought then it can be worth jumping on that train before the market catches up. Even the result of something like the Supreme could tell you how well or badly in the Irish novices might be in the likes of the County for instance. I’d like to see more signs of life from Philip Hobbs in the next few weeks as he’s been unusually quiet – he could be worth watching in the handicaps if his form picks up.


How do you expect the Dublin Racing Festival form to work out? I know it’s basically an amalgam of races that were already there but a large proportion of them seem to have been run at a proper gallop which may be a less than ideal prep. The racing was good but was it too good? Willie Mullins did something that he hasn’t really done before pre-Punchestown in running 42 horses across the two days. That was largely to get back into the trainers’ race but one wonders if there might be a price to pay down the line, if not at Cheltenham then perhaps at the later spring festivals. 

I would be betting that plenty of Cheltenham winners will come out of that weekend, but perhaps not all of them will be ones that won. A last-time-out prep at Leopardstown has previously been a big plus so I don’t see why that shouldn’t hold true again just because it’s now a “festival.”  There’s enough time for a horse to recover from a biggish run there.


What do you think is the most underrated thing at the Festival? And the most overrated thing? For me, current season form, bizarrely, might be the most underrated thing while past Festival form (and by that I mean the form that isn’t working out) seems to be overvalued. Obviously the strong Festival form is some of the best on offer but I wonder if people are too forgiving of past form from the meeting that really amounts to little. 

As I’ve said already I still think previous festival form is underbet. That doesn’t mean high profile winning form but I love realising that the horse I like in the Coral Cup ran a nice seventh in the bumper two years ago. It means the horse has been through the whole festival hoopla before and managed to cope and run a race. The opposite also applies; I couldn’t entertain Foxrock for a Foxhunters for instance as he’s been over twice and flopped badly, reported as having not eaten or drunk well on his travels.

The other thing I think is underrated is the preparation.  I like horses whose season has gone to plan; they don’t need to have won all their races but they’ve appeared when they were supposed to and run their races. I’ll be against horses like Altior who had a big hiatus and surgery mid-season and Sizing John who ran a shocker and then hasn’t had a prep race since. In terms of overrated factors, old form comes to mind; Faugheen romping home in the 2015 Champion Hurdle is still fresh in people’s minds but it is three years ago and he’s ten now and has had almost two years off the track in the interim.


I know from chatting to you over the years that you often tend to pick out some mad horses that the market and most other punters hate. Is this a by-product of an increasing reliance on Betfair SP markets (those horses tending to drift to massive prices at the off) and how do you think this approach will play out at Cheltenham? 

The way I see it you have two goes at the markets: in the morning, with the pick of the earlies, then the Betfair market near the off. The skill is in knowing which way to jump and it’s not easy. You tend to know which ones will be easy to back based on their profiles and connections. When you wait for the live market you also have the advantage of knowing the earlier results and the way the ground is riding. I’ll do less Betfair than normal days but it’ll still be a significant percentage.


Models and stat-based betting are hot topics at the moment. I don’t know whether you use a model as such but I know stats and systems are something you are interested in. Are there any systems that you think could be useful at the Festival? 

The stats-based approach to the Festival used to be punting gold in the early years of the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, to which I know you contribute. Like all systems though, its growing popularity has lessened its usefulness. I still keep profiles on every festival race from a stats perspective which I update every year – pretty similar to the methodology in the “Guide”, I still find it valuable though you need to be flexible. I wouldn’t back a five-year-old in a Champion Hurdle, for instance, though I remember Paul Jones getting panned when Katchit won!


Pool betting opportunities can be infrequent on day-to-day racing but with all the money being bet at Cheltenham there can be some value on offer. How do you approach the Tote and have you a favourite bet? Are there days when you prefer to bet and others to stay away from? In recent history, Tuesday has tended to be quite predictable in terms of outcomes with cards like Friday tending to throw up more wild results. 

I used to use the Tote for outsiders 12 or 15 years ago but it’s no good now; I don’t even look at the win pools. Fred has also ruined the Jackpot by putting races from away meetings into it. If there is a carryover and it’s restricted to Cheltenham, I’ll look at the Jackpot especially on the Tuesday. I think they’ve ruined the UK Tote but I’m hopeful that might change with the new consortium coming in this year.


Finally, you strike me as a good judge of judges who reads anything that is worth reading. Is there anyone out there that punters should be reading or following on Twitter?

Polzeath Ratings (@PolzeathRatings) does really good time analysis as interprets it sensibly. The Helpful Punter (@HelpfulPunter) is worth a follow; he has some interesting ideas.

Tony Keenan (@racingtrends on twitter) was speaking to Denis Beary (@carvillshill on twitter)

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