The Beast From The East is doing its darnedest to spoil things. But the Beasts From The West, alias the battalions from the yards of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, will soon be on their way, and the Cheltenham Festival is almost ready to unleash a roar mightier than any Siberian blast of snow, wind and ice can muster.
Yes, racing fans are counting down the days to the greatest jumping show on Turf. Days that will be overflowing with advice, betting offers, tips and titbits, not to mention weather forecasts and going updates.
How much of the information overload will prove to be of use is anybody’s guess. Except, of course, the dreaded announcements from trainers that high-profile horses are set to miss the gig after picking up last-minute knocks. Announcements that are all too frequent in the days leading up to the Festival.
I remember punters were wallowing in a deep pit of depression this time last year after a legion of big names had pulled out. It’s not quite so bad this time round, but FOX NORTON, IF THE CAP FITS and WILLOUGHBY COURT, have already bitten the dust.
Confirmation that the latter misses his engagement in the JLT Novices’ Chase maintains a curious curse that has afflicted so many of last year’s Festival winners, who have performed poorly this term or failed to see the track at all.
And what do you make of this fad for giving the Festival a miss because “it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all” or “to wait for alternative races”? Even worse, such utter drivel is being hailed in some quarters as “refreshing” and worthy of respect.
I could just about put up with OUR DUKE bypassing the RSA Novices’ Chase last year, once he had lumped a hefty weight to land the Irish Grand National a few weeks later. But the probable absence this time round of stars such as WAITING PATIENTLY, arguably the best horse seen so far this season, and GLOBAL CITIZEN, breathtaking winner of the Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday, is making my blood boil.
Whether or not you feel the tentacles of the Festival spread themselves too far and wide across and around our Jumps season, it is a fact that the meeting represents the world championships of Jumps racing. No chaser or hurdler can truly join the roll-call of champions unless they win at the Festival and quite why connections wouldn’t want Waiting Patiently to dazzle on the Ryanair Chase stage or Global Citizen to get the Festival off to an explosive start in the Supreme is beyond me, particularly when both are palpably in blindingly good order.
Only the prospect of fast ground would be an acceptable excuse, but since when has that marred the Festival? Give in the ground is regarded as essential among the Cheltenham hierarchy these days, and quite rightly so given the speed at which some of the races unfold.
Anyway, enough of the moaning. There are still dozens of top-class horses to drool over and 28 thrilling races to look forward to. So let’s make our first tentative punting steps towards the tapes that will rise for the opener on Tuesday, March 13 at 1.30 pm.
Let’s think seriously about trying to make the Festival pay. Not by way of tips. Not yet, anyway. But by means of a cold and clinical assessment of how, as punters, we might actually turn a week that showcases the best, most competitive Jumps sport on the planet into a tasty profit.
I am a veteran now of 33 consecutive Festivals. Never missed a race, stretching back to BROWNE’S GAZETTE winning the Supreme of 1984, just an hour or so before DAWN RUN landed her Champion Hurdle. Over the years, many, many lessons have been learned, some enlightening, some painful. I am still not immune to punting blunders. But the wealth of experience I have garnered has taught me to focus on a golden set of rules for betting at the Festival. They don’t guarantee success, but they provide a reliable ‘route map’ to chart you through a week of punting heaven.
‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is a well-worn maxim that could apply to most tasks in life. Nowhere more so than at the Festival, particularly if you’re spending the week in the Cotswolds. Pre-meeting homework is essential. For every race on every day BEFORE you leave the house. Leave it until you get to Cheltenham and I promise it won’t get done because you won’t have a minute to spare as you find yourself caught up in the hurly-burly of a sporting and social event par excellence, riding a rollercoaster that never stops.
As you’re probably already aware by now, the road to the Festival is littered with preview publications and products, in print and online, all purporting to enhance your chances of finding winners. My advice is to stick with three tried and tested goldmines of advice and data -- the Racing Post’s ‘Cheltenham Festival Guide’ book and ‘Cheltenham: The Ultimate Guide’ newspaper, plus the Weatherbys ‘Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide’ book. If you can afford it, subscribe to a formbook too, my personal preference being Raceform Interactive. The Weatherbys’ guide, published by Bettrends, has become an annual standing-dish. It costs £15.95, but it is worth every penny. It doesn’t hurt either to catch up with replays of key races through the season via the Racing UK and At The Races websites, but don’t rely too heavily on them unless you can put the action into context and perspective. In other words, what might appear to be an impressive victory possibly wasn’t regarded so at the time because of the weak opposition.
3. NON-RUNNER, NO BET
Every year, I’m convinced they’ll scrap it. But every year, nearly all the major bookmakers offer the magnificent Non-Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession in the days leading up to the Festival. In fact, this year, some firms have extended it from days to weeks! Do not fail to take advantage. It means you can place a bet with the added insurance that if your horse doesn’t make the Festival, you get your money back, and it is particularly attractive for fancies engaged in more than one race, which is becoming more and more commonplace. The concession has applied to the big four or five championship contests since Christmas. Now, one by one, the betting firms are applying it to all races too. It still remains imperative to shop around for the best value. And it still remains important to remember that, to accommodate the NRNB concession, bookies will often shave two or four points off the standard price. But my view is that, in the long term, that is far more acceptable than losing your money altogether because your fancy does not run. If in doubt, wait until the morning of the race when, increasingly, firms are creating fresh markets, aimed primarily at casual punters and complete with prices more tempting than those offered ante-post.
Few subjects are more divisive among serious punters than race trends, the facts and figures that relate to previous runnings. Some loathe them as an illogical abuse of stats, others are slaves to them. It has to be said that many key Festival trends took an absolute battering last year, particularly in the handicaps. But in my view, as a general rule, they remain overwhelmingly strong, cannot be ignored and must form part of your betting armoury. For example, did you know that 27 of the last 30 winners of the 2m5f Plate Handicap Chase on day three had a maximum official rating of 142? That all of the last 24 winners of the Grand Annual Handicap Chase, the last race of the meeting, had a maximum official rating of 147? And that the last 67 horses to be pitched into the County Handicap Hurdle on Gold Cup Day for their handicap debuts have been beaten? Where to find such gems? Your best bets are the aforementioned Weatherbys or Racing Post guides.
So richly competitive are most of the Festival races, which is so beautifully reflected in the betting markets, that backing more than one horse per race is often a no-brainer. By all means budget to suit your means, but construct a portfolio that aims to make a profit on each race via win singles, each/way singles or a combination of the two. You’ll be amazed to find that there is such room for manoeuvre in so many of the week’s markets, particularly in the handicaps. At no other meeting do so many good horses go off at such good prices. And don’t complicate matters by being lured into attempting the impossible with doubles, trebles, accumulators, exactas and trifectas. Keep it simple. Keep it single.
The warning ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ does NOT apply to Festival week! As the bookies scramble over themselves for your business, some of their money-back, free-bet or enhanced-price offers cannot be resisted. Be sensible, of course, but shop around by opening as many accounts as you find feasible and don’t be afraid to take advantage of the offers that appeal. As I alluded to earlier, bear in mind also that morning-of-race markets are fresh and often more attractive than ante-post markets which that might have gone stale after several weeks of traction.
Preview evenings proliferate in the run-up to the Festival, and reports from most can easily be located, even purchased. Most should be treated with caution. I never cease to be amazed by the lamentably lazy views expressed by so-called experts who have clearly not done any homework. But every now and then, golden nuggets of genuine inside information can prove useful. For example, this time two years ago, you wouldn’t have heard of DIEGO DU CHARMIL, a four-year-old import from France at Paul Nicholls’s yard. And why should you? He had yet to run in the UK. But at a preview evening at Exeter Racecourse, Nicholls’s clued-up assistant, Harry Derham, pinpointed him as a horse who should go well in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. He duly won at 13/2. Last year, it was a similar story with TULLY EAST, for whom whispers from informed sources at Irish preview evenings were constant and irresistible. He was duly backed from 20/1 and won the novices’ handicap chase on the opening day at 8/1.