A curious Jumps season, marked by unseasonably Good ground, the apparent demise of many potential stars and an equine flu scare, is finally guaranteed to explode into life.
Yes, racing fans are counting down the days to the greatest jumping show on Turf, the Cheltenham Festival. 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 run-up to the Festival.
In recent days, big-gun fancies such as Penhill, Dynamite Dollars, Le Richebourg, Cilaos Emery and Fusil Raffles have bitten the dust, on top of those already ruled out of the entire season.
One of the best Jumps horses in training, Cyrname, will also be absent, and it remains to be seen how many of the 2018 Festival heroes will be able to recapture their glory day. For the second season running, so many of the previous year’s Festival winners have failed to spark. As many as 18 of the 28 at my last count.
The stage is set for new heroes, however. Whether or not you feel the tentacles of the Festival spread themselves too far and wide across and around the 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.
Ironically, after a campaign sorely lacking rain, particularly in Ireland, Cheltenham is forecast to get bucketloads of the stuff this weekend and into next week. So much so that veteran forecaster John Kettley is predicting Soft ground for the opening-day skirmishes.
Whatever the conditions and notwithstanding the absentees, 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 12 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 34 consecutive Festivals. Never missed a race, stretching back to Browne’s Gazette winning the Supreme of 1984, just an hour or so before the inimitable 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 digital formbook too, my personal preferences being either Raceform Interactive or the Racing Post Members’ Club online offering. The Weatherbys’ guide, now in its 20th year, has become an annual standing-dish. It costs £15.95 but is worth every penny and this year’s whopping issue incorporates the big races from Aintree’s Grand National meeting too. It doesn’t hurt either to catch up with replays of key races through the season via the Racing TV, Racing Post 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 two years ago, particularly in the handicaps. But normal service was resumed last term and, in my view, as a general rule, the trends remain overwhelmingly strong, cannot be ignored and must form part of your betting armoury. For example, did you know that 27 of the last 31 winners of the 2m5f Plate Handicap Chase on day three had a maximum official rating of 142? That nine of the last ten winners of the County Handicap Hurdle on the final day of the meeting, had an official rating between 134 and 139? And that ten of the last 12 winners of the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle on day two had an official rating of between 127 and 133? 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 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 three 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. In 2017, 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.