I am probably the last person to listen to about Cheltenham 2018 having got just about everything wrong at the meeting, writes Tony Keenan. But, in the belief that most people are better at hindsight than foresight, I will attempt to sum up what happened last week from a racing and betting perspective.
In the week that Stephen Hawking died, it was jarring to hear so many of the Festival participants described as geniuses. Jack Kennedy is a genius, Gordon Elliott is a genius, Davy Russell is a genius, Pat Kelly is a total genius, not least because he doesn’t really talk to anyone in the media. Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson, not so much, but when you’ve trained 61 and 60 Cheltenham winners respectively, it’s come to be expected.
There is more to genius than the purely academic, that is for sure, but racing will never suffer from lack of self-importance and one was reminded of Philip Hobbs’ comment that galloping them up and down a hill twice a day isn’t really that complicated; no jokes please about how his week went, though. Let’s just cool the overreaction theatre for the time when it is really needed.
SHOCKER: MULLINS DOESN’T SCHOOL DOUVAN!
Douvan hadn’t schooled over fences ahead of his run in the Champion Chase and nor had Rathvinden before the Four-Miler despite coming off two non-completions. The former jumped brilliantly until he didn’t and the latter overcome a few slow leaps to win. Apparently, this lack of schooling isn’t news to those associated with the yard and Mullins seems to balance the risk of injury in the practice run against the reward of keeping them sound for the race itself.
The form figures of his chasers at the Festival read 115PFFFF2P42F5FPP and even that is being kind about their jumping: Pylonthepressure completed in the National Hunt Chase but in Timeform’s words ‘put in as bad a round of jumping as has been seen by a horse completing at Cheltenham for many a year’ while the pulled up efforts of Demi Sang and Invitation Only were arguably caused by jumping errors. Furthermore, four of his hurdlers fell! When I looked at the fall/unseat rate of Irish trainers back in 2015 he was in the lower half of the table though not markedly so; but perhaps things have changed since.
In any case, the trainer can point to the facts: 61 winners and the all-time leader in that regard, a notable achievement even in the modern, diluted Festival era. Maybe he has figured out, counter-intuitively, that jumping isn’t really that important in jump racing, or at least is an overvalued aspect. Now that might actually be genius.
Fake News 1: Bookies versus punters
The bookies against the punters is one the great false dichotomies of the game. You won’t meet too many punters who care about what the man/woman beside them has backed and they’d be right to take that approach; in the main, betting is an inherently selfish pursuit. The assumption that all punters are lemmings who bet on short-priced favourites, the sort that won over the first two days, is a lazy narrative and peddled by far too many lazy narrators.
Fake News 2: Ireland dominates the Festival
Much has been made of the relative health of the Irish and UK jumping scenes after the meeting with the general perception that Ireland thrived while British runners waned; again this is overly simplistic. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott will be delighted with their week as will Pat Kelly; Henry de Bromhead will be happy enough, but I wonder how do the 98% of other trainers, with or without runners at the meeting, feel?
There has been lots of discussion over here that the major handlers and owners are too dominant and the middle class of Irish trainer has been decimated in the last decade or so. Incidentally, Ireland had fewer winners than 2017, 17 against 19, while UK trainers won the three big races at this year’s Festival.
Favourites static in the market (with one notable exception)
The ten Festival bankers – Getabird, Footpad, Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade, Samcro, Presenting Percy, Altior, Un De Sceaux, Apple’s Shakira and Might Bite – were largely static in the markets from ante-post to day-of-the-race; that is hardly news as their prices should be mature with betting on these races available for months. Footpad may have drifted after rumours of ill-health before the meeting but there was lots of late buy-back on him while Altior didn’t go off an awful lot bigger than he had been despite a late ‘puss-in-boots’ scare and the addition of Douvan to the field.
Un De Sceaux shortened up though that might have had more to do with sheer percentages as only six ran in the Ryanair; but the one big mover was Apple’s Shakira, sent off 6/5 having been available at 11/4 in the days beforehand. Her defeat was a good result for the layers if you buy into that type of story!
Ground schmound 1: Good ground horses offer value
Looking back at results, it is hard to pick out a genuine soft-ground boat that won a race. Kilbricken Storm perhaps or maybe Native River though that would be harsh in the extreme about the Gold Cup winner whose best previous effort had come on good ground in the same race last year. Backing Cheltenham winners was the same as it was before: find the best horse.
In fact, the boats may actually have been overbet in some cases and there were opportunities to back horses that weren’t totally proven on the ground but with prices big enough where you could take a chance. Balko Des Flos and Mohaayed, two horses well-fancied by connections ahead of the meeting, were massive drifters on the day of their races. The point is not that all these horses won but rather that as a group they offered some betting value.
Ground schmound 2: Play up, not down
There were murmurings ahead of the meeting that there was little point in betting before the ground was known and that this unusual Festival ground, the softest in 23 years, was going to produce some weird results. We know the second part of that didn’t come true – ask those poor bookies about results over the first two days – and the vast majority of the trials were run on soft anyway.
Furthermore, cutting back stakes in these circumstances might all be a little faux-shrewd. When there is chaos in the betting markets as there was last week, there is also opportunity. Maybe these are just the conditions where you need to try and land a touch rather than sit back and be cautious.
Ante-Post Betting may not be totally dead
I did very little ante-post betting before the middle of February this year with laziness being the main reason but one thing I noticed in the fortnight before the meeting was the amount of value around. At this point some firms are non-runner, no-bet while others are still ante-post and this is just the period when targets begin to clarify and you can take a chance playing the different opportunities against each other.
Certainly there is the chance to beat starting price and by some distance. Rathvinden was a general 16/1 shot for the National Hunt Chase when Willie Mullins said at his stable tour that he was a likely runner (not a cast-iron guarantee, I’ll grant you) before returning 9/2. Terrefort was an uncertain runner at the meeting but was 8/1 NRNB for the JLT with that doubt and was sent off 3/1. That point again is that not all these horses win but if you are beating the final price you are much more likely to win over time.
Extra Places Everywhere
One of the main developments in the betting landscape this year was the increased number of races where the big firms offered extra places. Per the Pricewise tables in the Racing Post from last year, there were seven races where at least four bookmakers offered at least one extra place on each-way bets, this year that number was up to 13, allowing that some (but not all) of those were smaller firms.
Those extra places were welcome, especially if like me you backed horses such as Lagostovegas, Road To Respect and Diese Des Bieffes on the final day, all of whom finished in the extra place slots. However, plenty of good judges maintain it is not worth losing the quarter odds on four places to gain the fifth position concession at the fifth odds. Beware bookmakers bearing gifts.
By far the most interesting story to emerge after the Festival was that the BHA had conducted unannounced testing of Irish-trained horses ahead of the meeting. Many on this side of the Irish Sea have viewed this news as sour grapes and the timing was certainly off; this should have been put into the public domain ahead of last Tuesday. That there is more out-of-competition testing being carried out however is excellent news; more testing, regardless of where it takes places or who undertakes it, is never bad.
Ireland does have questions to answer on drug testing – there remains no effective anti-doping operation in our bloodstock industry and recent weeks have seen a false positive case emerge from a meeting at Roscommon last September – and to say there are no performance-enhancing drugs or medicalisation in racing would be to ignore recent history lessons from numerous other sports. Regardless of your parish, you want to be able to trust what you are watching and testing is one way of ensuring this.