The gambling turnover is colossal at Cheltenham, which sets it apart from most other meetings.
10 Golden Rules of Cheltenham Festival Betting
1. There is no such thing as a sure thing at the Festival: since 1980, a total of 134 horses have started at under 2/1 with 54 (40.3%) winning, producing a level-stakes loss of -£6.27. If we focus on odds-on favourites (11 wins from 25 for a 44% strike-rate in that same span) the level-stakes deficit becomes -£7.39. Before last year's Festival Dunguib was trading at odds of just 4/6 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, yet horses as good as Best Mate, Kicking King and War Of Attrition, who collectively won five Gold Cups, were all only placed in the Supreme. There was no reason to suppose Dunguib would fare any better and even if the 4/6 was an accurate reflection of his chances, that still represented no more than a 60% chance of success. Dunguib was one of three odds-on favourites to get beaten at the 2010 Festival, along with Master Minded (4/5) and Kauto Star (8/11). Only Big Buck's (5/6) justifed the overwhelming support required to send a horse off at odds-on at the Cheltenham Festival.
2. Cheltenham is an idiosyncratic track which doesn’t suit certain horses and it pays dividends to give extra merit to those runners who have already shown winning form around this unique racecourse. For example, Kasbah Bliss was a terrible bet at 10/11 for the 2009 World Hurdle, largely because he had been beaten on his four previous visits to Cheltenham. Why would you back a horse at odds-on to win a championship race at a course where he has only ever experienced defeat? By contrast, Imperial Commander had won on four of his five previous visits to Prestbury Park before winning the 2010 Gold Cup. To further reinforce the point, 9 winners at the 2010 Festival had won or been placed at a previous Festival.
3. Look to last time out winners in the five handicap hurdle races (Coral Cup, Fred Winter Juvenile, Pertemps Final, County Hurdle and Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys). At the last 10 Festivals since 1990 over 50% (20-38) of handicap hurdle races were won by horses successful on their previous start, from around 20% overall representation. This is an immensely powerful statistic, especially as many of those were priced at double figure odds (including Shamayoun who in 2006 won the Fred Winter Novices' Handicap Hurdle at 40/1). Of late this is of specific relevance to the Coral Cup and Fred Winter - between 2006-2010, 9 of the 10 winners of these two races won last time out.
4. Give serious consideration to French bred chasers in races of up to 2m5f. French breds are all about speed as there are very few races in France beyond 3 miles and French breds posses a glittering overall record in steeplechases at the Festival up to 2m5f (Grand Annual Chase, Byrne Group Plate, Champion Chase, Arkle Trophy, Ryanair Chase and Centenary Novices' Chase). Horses with an (FR) suffix won 4 of 6 of these chases in 2009 and 5 of 6 in 2007, however 5 of the 6 winners in 2010 were bred in Ireland.
5. Beware of top weights in the six handicap chases (William Hill Trophy, Cross Country Chase, Centenary Novices' Chase, Byrne Group Plate, Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup and Johnny Henderson Grand Annual). Weight can be a significant barrier to success in these races and in the last 11 years only 17% (9-52) handicap chase winners carried more than 11st.
6. But don't disregard older horses in these handicap chases. The common perception is that the younger horses fare better in these races, but overall statistics do not bear that out - if we ignore the Centenary Chase (formerly the Jewson, restricted to novices), horses aged 9+ have won over half (24-46) of the handicap chases in the last 11 years.
7. Oppose youngsters in the Champion Hurdle - five-year-olds are 1/86 in the last twenty-five Champion Hurdle's. Whilst Katchit won in 2008, he was the only five-year-old to have won the race since See You Then in 1985, despite the fact that 85 have tried, including such talented animals as Kribensis, Hors La Loi and Punjabi, all of whom won the race in later years with the benefit of greater maturity. The fact that the second, third and fourth in the 2009 renewal were five only reflected the unusually high representation of youth, seven five-year-olds, all of whom found a way to get beaten.
8. Stick to seven, eight and nine-year-olds in the Gold Cup. 16 of the last 18 Gold Cup winners were aged between seven and nine. In 2010 that correctly excluded Denman and Kauto Star, both of whom were 10. For months, the race was talked of as a two-horse race and yet both horses were trying to do something that has been achieved by less than 6% of recent Gold Cup winners. There have been a good handful of 10-year-old winners of the race, in fairness. The most recent was Cool Dawn in 1998, while Desert Orchid was one of three in the 10 years before that. Silver Buck was 10 when he won, as was The Dikler, which makes six successful 10-year-olds in 40 renewals. But there hasn't been a Gold Cup winner older than 10 since 1969, back in a time when very few of the runners would be regarded as properly fit by today's standards.
9. Always check the Tote pools on-course, especially if your selection is a double figure price. Betting with the Tote really comes into its own at the Festival due to the pools attracting far more liquidity than usual and the fact that the Tote's take out from the win pool is only 13 per cent, which gives them more generous margins than bookmakers. The bigger price the winner, the bigger the difference tends to be - for example 2008 Festival Plate winner, Mister McGoldrick, had an SP of 66/1, but you'd have been paid out at 146/1 by the Tote.
10. Don't go too mad too early. Put a bank together that you're comfortable with and have a staking plan sorted out that suits your particular style of betting. This is a 27 race meeting and the final day is the strongest for trends followers - so keep plenty back in reserve.
The on-course Tote bookmaker, which operates on a pool system and pays out according to the number of winning bets placed, alone takes upwards of £2.5 million a day throughout the Festival. Together with other on-course bookies, those who operate off-course and betting exchanges it is reckoned that well over £500 million is gambled in total over the four days.
In fact, Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham’s managing director, believes that some spectators come just to watch the more fearless punters in action. “When people come for the first time they say they’ve never physically seen so much money change hands,” he says. “In our daily lives we don’t often see such handfuls of notes.” These punters include the Geneva-based Irish financier and racehorse owner JP McManus, who has been known to wager more than £500,000 on a race.
Leading owner David Johnson recalls taking at least £500,000 out of the bookies’ “ring” when Well Chief won the Arkle Trophy at the Festival in 2004. “Everyone was on big time,” he says. “We backed him down from 33-1 to 12-1 and then we ran out of money.”
Such bold betting is down to the strength of the market, explains Gillespie. “Put on several thousand pounds at Cheltenham and a bookie doesn’t flinch.” Certainly, if you tried that on the average racecourse on a mid-season Saturday, you’d be lucky if he allowed you £100 each way.
For the average Cheltenham spectator, however, a fiver or tenner each way brings much the same thrill. It is not betting for a life-changing gain but purchasing an interest in the race, a brief share in “ownership”, the right to roar on a particular set of colours, and the chance to celebrate the victory afterwards.
And sometimes, the little man wins too. Regulars won’t forget how Welsh farmer turned trainer, Sirrell Griffiths, won the 1990 Gold Cup with the 100-1 shot Norton’s Coin, having started the day by milking his herd of cows in Carmarthen.
In 1934 Fred Varney, a coach operator, was on the verge of bankruptcy when he wagered all his money on five time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Golden Miller. The horse won, restoring his fortune and Varney repaid the favour by naming his company after the racehorse. The company still operates in South-West London under the name Tellings-Golden Miller.
Legend too has it that the Irishman who won enough on Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle of 1998 to pay off his mortgage, then proceeded to lose his house on Doran’s Pride in the Gold Cup a couple of days later. “It was only a small house anyway,” he is reputed to have said.
There are totepool betting windows situated in every enclosure at Cheltenham racecourse and they are normally open one hour before the first race. There are betting shops in the Best Mate enclosure, Tattersalls, the paddock and for the Festival, in the Guinness Village and the Centaur.
The Tattersalls Grandstand provides a betting hall, betting shops on Levels 1 and 3 and totepool windows in all areas, including table service in the Panoramic Restaurant. The Centaur includes a betting shop.
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