Not long now. The roar that will greet the rising of the tapes for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and bounce off Cleeve Hill to herald the 2016 Cheltenham Festival is only a matter of days away.
The adrenalin of fans and aficionados the length and breadth of the country is beginning to pump. And the anticipation is reaching fever pitch ahead of the latest renewal of the racing highlight of the year.
But as we count down the minutes to the happy hour of 1.30 pm on Tuesday, March 15, let’s put aside the excitement and 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 31 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 (out now) and ‘Cheltenham: The Ultimate Guide’ newspaper (out this weekend), 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 has become an annual standing-dish. It costs £15.95, but I’ve backed my first winner of this Cheltenham because readers of this column can get a £5 discount, not to mention a free £10 bet with Stan James, by quoting the special code RGC when ordering online at www.bettrendsshop.co.uk or by phone (01933 304776).
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. 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 gig, 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 championship contests since Christmas. Now, one by one, the betting firms are applying it to all races too. Last year, only William Hill resisted.
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. In my view, they cannot be ignored and must form part of your betting armoury, especially at the Festival where many trends are overwhelmingly strong. For example, did you know that 26 of the last 28 winners of the 2m5f Plate Handicap Chase on day three had a maximum official rating of 141? 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 richly 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.
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. Shop around by opening as many accounts as you find feasible and don’t be afraid to take advantage of the offers that appeal. Bear in mind also that morning-of-race markets are fresh and often more attractive than ante-post markets 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, you might not have heard of DIEGO DU CHARMIL, a four-year-old import from France at Paul Nicholls’s yard. And why should you? He’s yet to run in the UK. But at a preview evening at Exeter last Friday, Nicholls’s clued-up assistant, Harry Derham, pinpointed him as a horse who should go well in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
So sad that Salsify can’t satisfy the rules
It’s galling enough that so many top-class horses or previous winners will be missing from the 2016 Cheltenham Festival without the course itself exacerbating the problem.
The roll-call of absent friends already includes the likes of last year’s Gold Cup hero CONEYGREE, Champion Hurdler FAUGHEEN and Ryanair Chase ace UXIZANDRE, not to mention SIMONSIG, ARCTIC FIRE and KILLULTAGH VIC. It’s sad and wrong that SALSIFY, brilliant winner of the 2012 and 2013 Foxhunters’ Chase, must join them. Connections have had to abandon plans to return the 11-year-old to the Festival because they can’t squeeze in the requisite number of races to get him qualified. But surely former champions should be handed automatic entry, especially after fighting back from injury.