National Hunt racing begins its very own period of Lent today as there are now just 40 days until tapes rise on the opening races of the Cheltenham Festival. In recognition of the Festival's proximity, the laymen (that is, bookmakers) are beginning to lower their guard on their ante-post books. Far from abstinence, though, now is a time to begin to build the punting portfolio with some heartening safety nets in situ.
While many firms are non-runner no bet (NRNB) on the four Championship races - Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Stayers' Hurdle, Gold Cup - we are starting to see wider NRNB provisions. As of yesterday, bet365 are NRNB on all Festival races; and they're also offering Best Odds Guaranteed (BOG), meaning if the starting price is greater than the price you take, you'll get paid at the greater odds. Nice.
William Hill also have a broad Festival concession. They will refund stakes on horses that miss the Festival entirely, but will refund as a free bet if the horse lines up in another race, on bets up to £25. Although the 'other race' concession offers less liberty to recycle the misplaced wager funds, say for example on something not related to betting, it is still a far sight better than losing your cash.
At time of writing, Thursday 2nd February, those are the only two firms offering 'every race' concessions, but if you're reading this at a later date do check for more bookies coming on board.
Why is NRNB important for Cheltenham Festival ante post betting?
Since the move to a four day Festival, owners and trainers have often found themselves with multiple big race options where previously there would have been only one. The intermediate distance races, such as the JLT Novices' Chase and the Ryanair Chase, and the Fred Winter, a four year old handicap hurdle, are three such noteworthy imponderables.
From a punting perspective, it was a familiar refrain of punters - who were either loose of trigger finger or simply unlucky - when a seemingly well made wager came unstuck at the changing whim of a big name handler. Worse still in this day of trainer blogs and 24/7 soundbites, not to mention the all-seeing eye of the exchange markets, one or two of those most heavily represented at the Festival skirt dangerously close to actually putting punters away such is the flippancy with which they jettison their verbal debris.
The message is clear: the messages will be unclear. Do not believe the messages. Clear? 😉
Put another way, bet365 and William Hill have presented the required insurance against which to take a contrarian view. Naturally they have taken their own measures, in terms of truncated prices, about such ambiguous propositions, but be in no doubt that this situation favours the backer more than the layer.
When to avail of NRNB in Cheltenham Festival ante post markets?
The simple answer is "always". But there are some situations - especially closer to race day - when the price differential between a NRNB firm and one offering 'all in run or not' (i.e. you do your dough if the nag doesn't show) will make it worth the risk.
But what about if a horse is more likely for another race? Or simply has more than one possible target? Or maybe has been the subject of an injury scare or unsatisfactory work reports?
In any of these scenarios, NRNB is a must, even if it means taking less than the top price offered by an 'all in' bookmaker.
Of course, regardless of bookie concession, we still have to feel there is value in the available odds!
So here follow ten 'no downside' Cheltenham Festival ante post bets...
Supreme Novices' Hurdle
Although Skybet - who sponsor the race - have joined 365 and Hills in going NRNB on the Supreme, there is little point betting ante post on the Festival's opening race. That is because, for recreational punters (up to £25 stakes) at least, there will be so much 'get cash in betting accounts' action going on in the 24 hours preceding 1.30pm on 14th March that you'll probably be out of pocket going in earlier. So let's save that for another day.
Arkle Challenge Trophy
The second race, the Arkle, looks sown up by ante-post favourite Altior who is borderline "bar a fall" material. With that in mind, you might be tempted by 4/6 NRNB and BOG with bet365, or by 8/11 NRNB with Hills. I'm not especially, as I don't have enough sixes to want some more fours!
If ever a race was a prime candidate for NRNB it is this season's Champion Hurdle where no fewer than four of the first five in the market are subject to injury scares or possible alternative targets.
Faugheen has not been seen for more than a year and missed his intended comeback at Leopardstown last weekend with a suspected pulled muscle. Given that Annie Power has yet to be seen this season, seven-time Grade 1 winner Nichols Canyon ran terribly recently as did Vroum Vroum Mag (albeit scraping home in front), and Min missed his late January Grade 1 target it is possible that something is slightly askew at Closutton. NRNB would be the only way I'd entertain a Mullins runner right now.
Yanworth also misses his scheduled engagement this weekend, and has been replaced by the re-routed Buveur d'Air, previously thought on target for the Arkle. And finally Yorkhill is not even entered for the Champion Hurdle and was last seen failing to convince (this eye at least) with his jumping in a moderate Grade 3 over fences.
That leaves Petit Mouchoir, winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle in Faugheen's absence, as the only 'definite' runner from the top quintet in the betting. Alas, he ran no better than mid-division in the Supreme, and may be better suited by a flat track. He's not for me at 5/1 tops.
We have two ways to go here: we either take a punt at a price, mindful that at least some of those making the market will not show up; or we take a chance on one of the possible no shows.
Faugheen is 6/4 NRNB, which is mildly appealing. Willie Mullins has shown many times he can get one ready off a layoff, and it's a shallow-looking edition of the race. He surely won't run if not spot on, and he'll be closer to even money if he does appear.
If Faugheen misses the party and Yanworth accepts his invitation, the latter would be around 5/2. His current NRNB quote of 5/1 with racebets looks very fair. Fourth in the Champion Bumper of 2015, and second in the Neptune last year having received an 'interesting' ride, his beating of The New One in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton looks rock solid in the context of this year's two mile division.
Given that Yorkhill has been training over fences this season, it's a little late to be thinking about reverting to the top table of hurdling. In any case, such notions are hardly a vote of confidence in Faugheen's wellbeing, even from the notoriously inscrutable Mullins camp.
I've perhaps never given Buveur d'Air the credit he deserves. After all, he was a good third in the Supreme last year before winning the Grade 1 Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree. But he too has been chasing this season to date, and reverts to timber-topping at Sandown on Saturday with a fair bit to prove. Even if he beats Brain Power - a general 8/1 chance for the Champion Hurdle - he ought not to shorten much, so there's little upside to him.
16/1 The New One is not as daft a suggestion as it first sounds in what could be a really hollow field, but Yanworth looks a bet with the concession at 5/1.
Not much else to appeal on Tuesday.
Neptune Novices' Hurdle
This looks tricky but Neon Wolf - who has been winning over two miles despite an assertion from his jockey, Noel Fehily, that he wants three - is playable NRNB. A top priced 7/1, he's 6/1 with Hills who will give you a free bet if Harry Fry's rising star diverts to the Supreme.
Finian's Oscar heads the market but he may also head to the Supreme, and anyway I'm unsure of the merit of beating Capitaine versus beating Elgin. Wholestone would also be a player if lining up here rather than the Albert Bartlett, and 12/1 is tempting with the safety net.
I'm loathe to back anything trained by Willie ante-post for reasons I've already alluded to. Apart from an unease about the stable health, I also feel they're generally under-priced because of recent Festival history. Let's be clear: Mullins is not heading into Cheltenham in anything like the form he has done in the last two seasons, and there are question marks about most of his top horses currently. There are still six weeks for that to change, so I don't want to be unequivocal, but at the same time this is a post about future wagers, and most of his charges represent no value in that context.
I'm against Might Bite, the only other horse in this market with a single figure quote, too. Sure, he would have been mightily impressive if standing up at the last in the Feltham at Kempton; but we all know what a different test that is from the RSA. And we mostly know that no Feltham winner has ever won the RSA.
"But he didn't win the Feltham", I hear you say. True dat, as the Hackney kids might retort - those with a form book and an eye for trends at least - but the balance of his form marks him down as flat track bully material. So do two defeats at Cheltenham, in spite of a win in a weak novices hurdle at the track when odds on (second horse has failed to even make the frame in seven subsequent starts, all at Class 3 or lower).
Royal Vacation was the beneficiary when Might Bite came down at Kempton, having not been able to go with that one in the run for home. On the stiffer test of Cheltenham's slopes he lugged 11-09 to victory in a novices' handicap chase last weekend. That race has proven a good portent to Festival handicap winners in recent times, but the last winner to carry near top weight was The Giant Bolster, who went on to challenge in Gold Cups.
Colin Tizzard has some pretty smart staying chasers (understatement klaxon) with which to gauge the merit of this fellow, and his progressive ratings - 121, 128, 131, 136, 144, 149, 155 his last seven on the RPR scale - mean he has more in his favour than many. 20/1 is the best price, but 16/1 can be had with Hills and buys 'other race/no race' insurance.
Cross Country Chase
I love this race and normally have a pretty strong view. But not this year. It reverted to a level weights race last year, and that means Cantlow will be a stone better off with Urgent de Gregaine for a three length beating at the weekend. But 7/4 NRNB is hardly pant-wetting in the anticipation stakes.
One of mild interest given his run style, stamina, appreciation of fast ground and target - I'm told deeply unreliably he's headed for the Grand National - might be Cause Of Causes. He'll have a bunch of other targets at the Festival, by which time his National mark will have been allotted, and he'll be given a "better judged" ride by regular big race pilot, Jamie Codd, next time.
Quoted in three other races, Cause Of Causes makes fair appeal at 12/1 NRNB, given his official Irish mark of 148 suggests he has an 18lb advantage over Cantlow's 130 on these level weights terms, and given that only one horse - from 59 rivals - has beaten him at the last three Cheltenham Festivals!
JLT Novices' Chase
An intermediate distance race, the JLT will accrue runners from both the Arkle and RSA challenges, and many currently quoted will defect to one of that pair of more established heats. As such it is a perfect NRNB punting proposition. Even more so, given that the 2/1 ante-post favourite, Yorkhill, jumps a fence so badly he may be redirected to the Champion Hurdle. Of course, such a detour hints strongly at his level of ability, but he simply pleads to be taken on.
The speculative dart here lands on the five year old Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon. He fell when appearing not to stay in the Feltham at Christmas, but before that took out a competitive Grade 3 handicap chase against far more experienced rivals at Cheltenham. And before that he was still cruising when making a howitzer of a blunder four from home at the same Festival track.
This looks his trip and he acts at the course making 20/1 NRNB BOG with bet365 well worth a penny or two.
Another middle distance race, the Ryanair dilutes the Queen Mother and Gold Cup - according to its detractors at least - and makes life difficult for 'all in run or not' punters.
Un De Sceaux heads the market after his rescheduled Clarence House win at Cheltenham last weekend. There he beat a fast-closing Uxizandre, who was returning to the track after close to two years off, over the minimum distance. This extra half mile-plus is likely in Uxizandre's favour, but I do have a doubt about the dreaded 'bounce' (when a horse underperforms second time off a long layoff having run very well first time back).
Six weeks between runs is probably enough for Uxi to recover and, if he brings his A game, 7/1 with Hills is big. A Cheltenham record of 2112, including a second in the JLT of 2014 and a win in this race a year later, adds further lustre to his claims.
It's really not a great race, though one who is definitely worth the 'money back as a free bet' chance is 14/1 Djakadam. Far more likely to head to the Gold Cup, for which he's a general 6/1 chance and in which he's been second the last two years, there was talk from the Mullins team of a tilt at the Ryanair. If he were to run here, he'd be more like a 5/1 chance, and if - as is likely - he doesn't, we'll get a free bet opportunity on something else.
Unowhatimeanharry is a legitimate favourite and a strong contender for staying honours, but that is borne out in a top quote of 7/4. He's unbeaten in eight since Harry Fry acquired him from Helen Nelmes, and his rating has soared from 125 to 167.
While Fry may have left something to work on at Cheltenham last weekend, he only had a length and a quarter to spare over 2015 World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden. What is most noteworthy about the former champ's performance is that he was expected to hate the soft ground and was sent off a massive 20/1, having been much shorter in the morning.
Warren Greatrex's runner is a bit of a hostage to fortune in that he likes to lead in his races, and there will be challenges for that honour in March, but so too were there here and yet he ran highly creditably. The form looks very solid with West Approach and Ballyoptic filling the next two places at respectful distances, and the old guard - including the still quite young Old Guard (!) - were well beaten off.
Hills are joint top price at 14/1, and that looks a perfectly palatable win/place play.
The Triumph Hurdle becomes increasingly impenetrable for those of us without a handle on the French form book, and I will defer in favour of more approachable puzzles, like the...
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
Let's go long here if we can. Like the race itself, where horses are usually asked to do something they've never done before, I'm looking for a horse that has thus far been taken out of its comfort zone in Graded company: horses at the head of the market, like West Approach and Wholestone, may just have too much class and not enough stamina for the spudsfest.
Invitation Only is a little shorter than I'd like, at 12/1, but he fits the bill having been badly outpaced in a Navan Grade 2 over two and a half miles last time when sent off at even money. That effort, allied to his barreling win in a three mile point suggests he'll love this longer trip, and he's likely to prove more courage than class in the fullness of time. Just the sort that wins your average Albert Bartlett.
The Blue Riband has looked a buggers' muddle all season, and I struck my first - and only meaningful - ante post wager on Djakadam at 14/1 back in November. The logic was clear: plenty had participation doubts, not least Coneygree and Don Cossack.
We now know neither will show, and Thistlecrack's hitherto aura of invincibility has just dissipated sufficiently to envisage another usurping his presumed procession to top honours.
But race looks sewn up from an ante post perspective, the bookies having a half nelson on the form.
But there might just be one at a huge price that could play a hand. Last year's RSA Chase winner, Blaklion, was less than eight lengths behind Native River in the Hennessy off level weights (less a pound).
He's had one disappointing run since, at Wetherby on Boxing Day, and on ratings he's probably ten pounds below making the frame in a normal Gold Cup; but I'm not convinced this is the deepest renewal.
Nigel Twiston-Davies' eight-year-old stays well, handles the track and goes in any ground. There's a good chance he lacks the requisite class but at 50/1 he's worth a tiny dabble BOG NRNB with bet365.
From here, all roads lead to the Cheltenham Festival and, with bookmakers finally lowering their guard by offering non-runner no bet across all races, it may be time for some preliminary skirmishes. Most, if not all, of the ten horses flagged above will either start shorter or not run - triggering cash back or a free bet in lieu - and a single winner would at least go close to covering the losers.
p.s. those are my plays in the NRNB markets. What truffles have you snouted out from your own ante post foraging? Leave a comment and share the hope!