Cheltenham 2010 Review: The Toughest Lesson in Betting

Well, dear reader, how was it for you? Somewhat belatedly (more of that in due course), I'm going to share my thoughts on a belting week of b's: bloody brilliant and bewilderingly bruising.

I'm not going to wade through the race-by-race, you might be pleased to know, but I do want to share some of the ups and downs of the week, and - in particular - what I consider to be THE most difficult betting lesson to learn. Master this, and you're a pro.

So, that was the week that was. Four days of mainly good weather, bumper crowds, massive fields, upsets galore, and just the three outright winning favourites. A tough week, huh? Or was it?

My ante-post portfolio was looking fairly reasonable coming into the meeting, and during the week pretty much everything I backed got shortened in odds, making me feel snug that I'd 'got the value'. Unfortunately, if the Channel 4 pre-race betting shows were anything to go by, the bookmakers shamed themselves this week by shortening almost every horse in the first eight in the market, in almost every market.

Now I have no empirical evidence to support that notion. I'm confident the info is available online somewhere, but I'm not sure where. Whatever. The point is that the bookmakers, even when they're caning the punters, still can't balance a book between them.

Or maybe there were much better prices available, and we should blame the odds returners at the track. I don't know about that. But I do know that there ended up being only two ways to play. BOG or Betfair. Betfair needs no introduction (I hope, to a learned crowd such as yourselves), but BOG is Best Odds Guaranteed. This means when you bet the horse, and take the price, if the price gets bigger you get the bigger price. If the price gets shorter, you get the odds you took.

Assuming the bookie with BOG had competitive odds on your fancy, which many of them did I'm pleased to report, then you wouldn't have cared about the on course market.

But that's not my point today, it's merely by way of warming me up!

The single most important lesson in betting

My point is this. In last week's marathon 26 race Festival, where I backed two and occasionally three horses per race, I had four winners. The first was a cursory tenner on Menorah because I couldn't back Dunguib at odds on; the second was a more speculative tenner each way on A New Story at 40/1; the third winner kept me waiting until the second race on Thursday, and was Buena Vista (a score at 23.0 on Betfair); and the final winner was Baby Run at 13/2 in the Foxhunters.

Four winners from 26 races, and I made a small loss over the meeting. But here's the rub. I backed ELEVEN second placed horses. Starting with Somersby in the very second race, and hurtling through The Package, Reve De Sivola, Burton Port, Forpadydeplasterer, Notus De La Tour, Al Ferof, Poquelin, Karabak (4th, backed for a place, logical equivalent of second!), Najaf and finally Radium (I also backed Clova Island,who finished third in that one!).

I was grateful that the final ignominy was that I did not back French Opera, game and gallant runner-up in the Grand Annual and, in doing so, putting up the finest weight carrying performance in the race since Edredon Bleu more than a decade ago. That horse went on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase the following year. Still think you shouldn't have run French Opera in the Arkle now, Nicky?!

But I don't want to bitch here. (That doesn't mean I won't, it means I don't want to!)

My ante-post picks included Albertas Run at 100/1 for the Gold Cup. So he went and won the Ryanair, beating my strong fancy (and commensurate wager), Poquelin convincingly in the process. They included French Opera and Tataniano for the Arkle. The former I've just discussed, and the latter was eventually pulled out of the Grand Annual - I'm sure he would have had a chance in an open Arkle year, certainly better than stable pick, Woolcombe Folly.

They included a triumvirate of top prospects in the Champion Hurdle, all of which are still running. (Well done Binocular, by the way. Awesome performance. I'll want to see you do it again between now and next March before I believe you're the next Istabraq, mind!)

So here's the lesson: there are two parts to betting. The mathematical / financial part, and the psychological / philosophical part.

The first part is easy, indisputable, binary, cut and dried. The horse you backed won (or placed, or whatever you said would happen). Or it didn't.

As a direct result of your precision in the matter at hand, you either got paid, or you didn't. And it is always that way, unless you play the spread markets. But let's focus on fixed odds here for the purpose of Pastor Bisogno's sermon.

The second part to betting is the woolly, ethereal, difficult to quantify part that defines not just minor details like which horse we bet, but much, MUCH more meaty subjects like the very essence of why we bet.

When I surveyed Geegeez readers over a year ago now (must do that again, great fun and extremely enlightening for everyone), the reasons people bet were manifold. In the chart below (which is a bit small to read - click it and it'll open in another window), we can see that 'to win money' was the number one reason for betting. No big surprise.

But what was surprising, to me at least, was the number of other reasons, and the priority order of those reasons, for why people bet.

Why you bet

Why you bet

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Looking at the top three priorities (the orange, blue and mauve sections of the bars), we can see that large tracts of the respondents loved watching horse racing, did it as a pastime, or were interested in 'solving the puzzle'.

So that goes some way to addressing the psychology of betting, but it doesn't quite capture the philosophy. And don't worry, I'm not about to wander off on some esoteric 19th century German babble-meister's final hypothesis on the gambling nature of the human condition (although I'm sure you'd all be riveted by that... ahem).

The philosophy of betting comes down to why we do this. Sure, we do it to make money. Making money in betting makes us right. It vindicates us, which makes us feel good. We tell people about our winners but less often about those pesky losers. And, because I bet mainly for fun, I want to be right. I am not a professional gambler, though I have a mindset not a million miles from one.

I look at my 'book' of Cheltenham results, and the human in me (greedy, seeking perfection, unrealistic) was thoroughly pissed off with eleven silver medals. But when that passed (it took a couple of days, when I had other things to think about - see below), I was actually extremely proud of my Cheltenham betting performance.

Sure, I didn't get paid out like I might have. But when you take 26 of the most fiercely competitive races run all year, where every horse is trying for its life (a couple, unfortunately, literally), where virtally every non-Championship race has a capacity field, and the best of the best from both sides of the Irish Sea are giving their all to prevail...

When you take those elements into consideration, you start to build a context for betting success and failure; which is very different from betting profit and loss. In pure terms, and at the margins, betting success equates to betting profit and betting failure equates to betting loss.

But as we understand just what we're trying to achieve here, as the full magnitude of the multi-faceted conundrum becomes apparent, those eleven second places feel good!

Of the 26 mind-bending, mind-boggling, mind-melting puzzles presented for us to solve last week, I got in the first two on fifteen separate occasions.

Considering that the average win odds at the Festival were 13.69/1, and the average win and place odds a staggering 17.24/1, that's some achievement.

Now then, I know it seems wrong to gloat, especially about something so translucent as backing losing 'winners', and that's not my point.


My point, and the lesson, is that you need to know when you're doing it right.


When your collective information-gathering and decision-making patterns lead you, if not to the top of the podium, then at least to the peripheral steps for the anthems, you're doing it right. You won't always get paid for it, but you're definitely doing it right.

It can be really tough to take when you're not getting paid, when you keeping hitting the proverbial crossbar. Second places last Friday on horses at odds of 25/1 and 14/1 were scant consolation for beating off thirty-nine rivals and being vanquished by just one in each race. But, honestly, you've got to have something right in your processes to get that close. Wipe your mouth, get over your frustration, and know you're doing it right.

Recognise that as betting success, and you will be a winner in the long term. Get frustrated, irrational or, worse still, change your betting habits on a whim, and you're destined to be a lifelong contributor to the bookmakers' benevolent fund.

[A quick caveat here. If you follow 'unlucky' horses, who always seem to finish 2nd or 3rd, you're NOT doing it right. Unlucky horses make for unlucky punters, and you never get your recompense. Avoid them. Like the plague.]

There you have it: doing it right doesn't always mean getting paid, and nor does it need to. If your methodology is sound, you should expect to be regularly in the photo finish, without having the rosette pinned to your chest (if you'll pardon the bastardised metaphors).

So, how was Cheltenham for you? Let us all know, either by voting in the box top right (for the easy financial / mathematical part) and/or in the comments below for the more opaque psychological / philosophical part. Were you bludgeoned to death by 26 brutal blunt instrument blows? Or did fate and fancy picking find you a fair fortune? Share your joy and despair with others below!


Finally today, an apology for the delay in posting this. I was planning to do it on Sunday, but got stricken (is that actually a word? Surely struck is fine...) by some sort of *very* nasty bug.

Gavin and I were out drinking and gambling on Friday, and were predictably a tad ropey on Saturday, meaning we missed our intended Winter Derby engagement (where I backed 20/1 third, beaten a length, Pallodio - massive price, got it right again, didn't get paid again).

I was complaining to anyone who would listen (i.e. not Gavin and not the missus) about a stiff neck, and that I was feeling rough. Long and short of it is I didn't get up - apart from about fifty (no exaggeration) trips to the small room next door - until this morning. Didn't eat from 7pm Saturday to 9am Tuesday, ran a temperature of 39.4C on Sunday (which is apparently not good, on any day, let alone Sunday!).

Even Carole, my very own Florence Nightingale, comments on how I wasn't my normal cantankerous self. Fully fifteen hours of stomach cramps punctuated by brief and empty squits yesterday afternoon and last night have now mostly abated, and the world for me is a better place.

I've no clue where all that anatomical angst came from, but I'm glad it's mostly flushed away now. Before the imagery has a chance to flourish in your mind, I just wanted to say that the Geegeez community has a habit of pulling me to my senses, and that is one of it's greatest joys for me.

So it was that as I was wading through my swollen virtual postbag, I came across an email from Tony who is currently undergoing radiotherapy for a tumour and had written to ask me about a betting product, with the above comment almost a throwaway line. My extremely uncomfortable, but mercifully brief, period of bed confinement was suitably positioned, and work resumes as of now.

Get well soon, Tony.


p.s. as I said above,

So, how was Cheltenham for you? Let us all know, either by voting in the box top right (for the easy financial / mathematical part) and/or in the comments below for the more opaque psychological / philosophical part. Were you bludgeoned to death by 26 equine blows? Or did fate and fancy picking find you a fair fortune? Share your joy and despair with others below!

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33 replies
  1. Gary says:

    Hi Matt I think it goes without saying and you all probably already know that it was a blinding week for me.Tuesday was the best day punting I have ever had in my 23years it was my 2nd biggest win behind Red Marauder in the National.Wednesday was ok as my ante post wager on Burton Port rescued the day.Thursday was a losing day and friday was one of those close but not close enough.Pigeon Island was on everything but i couldn’t get any winners to go with it,if Gloucester had been 5th and not 6th i would have won more in place money than i did win for CDG and ANS winning which as you say is the equivalent to finishing 2nd.Roll on Aintree.

  2. Gary says:

    Hi all,forgot to say performance of the week for me was Weapons Amnesty put some horse with huge reputations in there place.

  3. Ray says:

    Hi Matt
    The best moment for me was at Cheltenham on Friday cheering with the bookies as my bet on Imperial Commander came to fruition as he passed in front of me (and Denman) up the hill.Then my final big bet on Baby Run to complete a great day (although a horse I have an interest in was pulled up but thankfully came home safely). Biggest disappointment? Tell Mancini which I and a number of much bigger gamblers staying at the same hotel as me thought was already home and hosed!Now its onwards and upwards to Aintree where I hope Snowy Morning gives me a good run.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Well done Ray – yes, we all wanted Tell Massini too!

      As for Snowy Morning, well that one and Character Building are my long range two against the National field, so fingers crossed there.


  4. david w says:

    Hi Matt
    Glad you’re all better, even if that was a bit too much info!

    Thoroughly enjoyed the meeting, yours and Gavins posts and analyses and managed to post some nice wins by being against favs. Unfortunately, fancied a few on Friday and bolstered by a big bank, gave a load back!!!

    Hey ho, onwards and upwards

    See you soon?

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Sorry for the information overload, David. Forgot what a sensitive soul you are (ahem).

      Yes, soon. Trying to organise the Geegeez Spring Club Day, which will be upon us soonest. Will endeavour to give you (and all GGRC members) full info asap.


  5. martin says:

    Hi Matt, started the first day off with 5 seconds (had them to win) and 1 winner that i picked from the look of it, 2nd race i think, but betfair was being an arse as usual at the critical moment, think it won at 12/1. This gave me confidence for the rest of the meeting where I went on to get my arse severly smacked. I know now why I normally avoid cheltenham :~(

  6. Ronnie Nicolson says:

    I followed mainly festival winner in Weapons Amnesty and several placed horses kept me about even till the very last race when £20 ew on Pigeon Island at 28/1 ..a tip from another source.. made my Cheltenham.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Well done Ronnie. Yes, Bet Catalyst were due a winner, and rather a nice one it was too. Glad you were on. 🙂

  7. Paul says:

    Hey Matt,

    I lost a bit at Cheltenham but for the first time I was backing justifiable horses.
    A year or two ago I was the most undisciplined idiot throw money away buy the next big secret e-book chump ever 🙂
    Then without boring details afew things happened that humbled me greatly and put things in perspective.
    I know have a much more disciplined approach, and I enjoy it alot better, whereas before after losing I’d be upping stakes etc… now I just look back and realize why I lost, learn and use it.
    This is in no small part to useful websites such as yours and gavins and a couple of others.
    So, I lost a small bit at Cheltenham this year, but like you say so well in your post, I know I’m doing it right.
    Not only is there tomorrow, there’s also next week, next month and next year 😀
    Regards and Thanks.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      That’s good to read Paul. 🙂

      Really pleased you’ve learned the lesson.

      The flat season (and the Grand National, and Punchestown, etc) awaits!


  8. John Welsh says:

    Most (2/3) lost on Antepost by horses not running or running in a diferent race with no refunds!

  9. maneman says:

    Interesting reading your article and you were frustrated as many were whilst the bookies made a fortune.
    As a layer (primarily) Cheltenham this year was an absolute blinder, Dunguib (McCririck comments were spot on), Master Minded and Kauto Star were real cheap lays. Yes, I layed Kauto Star and the only horse that I backed all week was Imperial Commander @ 10’s. A layers dream was this years Festival. Now I look forward to the Flat Season and all the thrills and excitement that may bring but alas I doubt there will be another Sea The Stars this year. Oh I shouldn’t forget Aintree of course but the greatest steeple chase alas is not what it was in the good old days of Red Rum!

  10. Colin says:

    Why do punters always play into the hands of bookies at the biggest bookies benefit of the year! Ask any bookie if they had a bad Cheltenham? Surely backing horses win only at Cheltenham will be financial suicide for most punters. With such big fields is it worth considering laying horses, or backing each way or even backing for a place? On a negative position how about ignoring Cheltenham altogether? On each day of Cheltenham I gambled on horses but only one at Cheltenham. I laid it to lose and it duly lost, so in the main by ignoring all the Cheltenham hype I did have a good Cheltenham! The biggest lesson to learn is knowing when and how to bet.

  11. Ian Synnott says:

    Hi Matt,

    I also had “seconditis” at the festival this year, backing no less than 7 of them. Highlight of the meeting for me was Weapons Amnesty destroying the hype horses in the RSA. Surely he is a massive Gold Cup contender next year!! Also, I noticed something of interest (or not) in the Champion Hurdle… Binocular finished 3rd as a 5yo last year and went on to win this year. Last year Punjabi won having finished 3rd as a 5yo the previous year… Zaynar for next year anyone?? :)… Roll on Aintree

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Ah, so that’s what I’ve had these last few days. Seconditis. Nasty business indeed!

      Re 5yo’s, 3rd, then 6yo champs, there’s something in that. Maybe not that specifically, obviously, but we’re probably looking for a talented ‘baby’ (i.e. horse hitting the board in the Triumph), who then runs well in senior company before fully ‘growing up’, and being ready to kick ass. Or hoss, in this case.

      The fate of 5yo’s in the Champion used to be a well worn stat, but then Katchit went and won, and all of a sudden every 5yo was the next Pegasus. I think what we’re seeing is as described. They still need to be exceptional (or exceptionally lucky) to win the Champ as a 5yo.

      In my opinion, Katchit was exceptional and precocious, and I’m afraid this is the second year of what will hopefully not be too long a downhill run for him. He was my favourite horse in training when winning the Triumph.


  12. Kevin says:

    Financially I came out just ahead but like you had so many seconds and plenty at good prices like Arcalis and Dee Ee Williams in the County.

    My confidence was given a boost on the Tuesday by backing Chief Dan George and I stuck with my game plan there after of concentrating on backing e/w chances rather than trying to find the winner and getting sucked into the short priced obvious ones which this year failed more often than not.

    I’ve spent the last year completely recalculatinging my speed ratings and Cheltenham has confirmed there pretty good now. I could understand every result from them. You couldn’t always pick the winner as in some there were six possibles or more.

    But my best moment was watching Albertas Run win as I’d told everyone to back it if the ground came up good or faster.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      I don’t remember you telling me to back Albertas in the Ryanair, Kevin! 😉

      More seriously, great work on using speed ratings, which are massively underrated (no pun intended) on the jumps. In a two bit six runner selling hurdle, they won’t tell you much, but in the true run championship events and big field handicaps, they’re gold dust.

      Nick Mordin did a piece in last week’s Irish Field, where he named his ten to back at Cheltenham, based on speed. His list included Menorah, Big Zeb, Imperial Commander, and Weapon’s Amnesty. Not bad from ten picks!

      Like you say, sometimes they gather at the top, but that’s true of any ratings system, and generally means you either leave the race alone, or tickle the longer priced ones.

      Good work.


  13. nick vint says:

    hi matt

    another great blog alot of home truths, blew my bank last winter had 15 seconds when put on the nose and 17 4th place when eway, took a month off and came back at end of jan refreshed and all has clicked into place, i think a lot is confidence in your selections, having the right bank and staking plan
    anyway enpugh of my sermon i had a great cheltneham starting off with binocular win and eway (decided all bets to be eway) going on thurs and not getting a winner!! and ended with imperial and baby run on friday for very profitable week, and obviously the highlight also going to kempton to see always de one finish a gallant fourth behind two very useful horse. i also have to confess i backed the winner having spoke to pat edderywho told me it wouldnt lose!!!

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Yep, it’s a tough old lesson, Nick. Ultimately, you either go on blaming other people or ‘bad luck’, or you get smarter.

      As for Always, she ran well and tried her heart out again and I wish I could have been there. They were too good, and the front two are better than that grade. Balding planned to take the second for the German Derby in due course, and Eddery has a nice one in the Recluse (glad you backed it). I remain very hopeful, as I’m sure we all do, that Always will pick up a little race somewhere before end of June. It’s to be hoped that she’s at least as good on turf.

      Catch you soon,

  14. John Evans says:

    Hi Matt,
    I had 4 Winners and 12 Placed one Finished 5th and I got paid E.W.
    I bet E.W. above 5-1. a bet to nothing. Any profit even your money back carries you to your next bet. Small profits accumilated, lead to a nice Pot after time.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi John

      I know from when I met you and your mate (I’m sorry, I can’t quite remember his name) that you boys had the gambling game sorted. I think your last horse was running onto a double in the Irish Lotto or something 😉

      Hope to see you at the Spring Club Day (details to follow – must sort that this week).


  15. fred says:

    chel was alright for me, i was maybe the only person who layed kauto, as I advised you to do before the race, something about ruby that upset me a few weeks ago, he was on a red hotter then and fell at the last fence , I had a gut feeling about the gold cup, takes me back to the 1950s, Ayala was the name of the national winner, and I had a gut feeling about it, weeks before , you could say thats why I still bet today after all these years and losing thousands, AYALA was owned by a famous hairdresser teasy weasy, he won at 66-1 and I had five bob each way. I was too young to bet so my dear old dad put it on for me. And guess what he laughed when he put it on, but not when it won he did not take my advise.

  16. SEAN says:

    and ZAIDPOUR, ante-post I ended up with only 1 runner, one horse won the wrong race, another finished placed in the wrong race, and the third fell at the 2nd fence – A good week?


    Hoping BIG FELLA THANKS or BACKSTAGE, both @ 25/1 can recoup some losses for me!! 🙂

  17. tony says:

    Won a bit would have been more except for this flaming brain tumour striking in late December meaning not worked since so have to watch the pennies unfortunately backed copper bleu 12-1 but only 2quid ew also pigeon island 33s once again only 2quid ew one or two other small bets came in also!!!!!!! but its not the betting for me at chel its the watching its awsome sends tingles down my spine always has from god only knows how long ago,did mention pigeon on a comment not by name but by trainer said he wouldnt run it against long run because that horse was a machine unless it got better ground (guess what he didnt he ran it in the last race on Friday. Keep up the good work pal,Regards tony

  18. Jack says:

    My Cheltenham philosophy is bet small or not at all – likewise for Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and any York meeting.
    I laid Binocular, backed Imperial Commander each-way and backed Soldatino for a place, so not a bad result. Backed Alberta’s Run ante-post at 63 on Betfair, then missed him on Thursday. A small profit, though if I say a return on investment of 42%, that makes it sound very grand.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      We’re all about the ROI here, Jack, as well you know, so topper performance young man. 😉

  19. john murray says:

    hi matt,
    did,nt have a good cheltenham, a saver on two each way doubles helped me not loose badly. the each ways only placed, but was a big help. however, saturday,s racing was not good, i have my line in my hand, right now, could not see the fav. loose the winter derby, i had it in a 3x with classic colori 7/1 and synchronised 15/2. what a result. the biggest being the price of synchronised. he was down to run at the festival, but did,nt ran saturday a. p. mc,coy 15/2. brilliant. ended up a great week.
    john murray

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Ha, great stuff John. Just shows that whether it’s Cheltenham or ‘Leafy’, or Uttoxeter, or anywhere else, a winner’s a winner’s a winner.

      And, as for all that ‘McCoy can’t ride steeplechasers mumbo-jumbo’ that was being peddled, per-leaze! Four words to the doubters:

      Albertas Run, Denman, Synchronised.

      ANOTHER masterclass from the best race rider ever.

      Great to hear from you, John.


      p.s. for info, I made Pallodio a cracking bet in the Winter Derby, and was flabbergasted to get 20/1 for my money. Should have been about 6’s. Doubt he’d have beaten a good winner who idled in front, but with a better ride, he’d have gone even closer than a length third.

  20. David Bird says:

    Hi Matt, I had an enjoyable Cheltenham, I had the 3 David Pipe winners and Imperial Comander (ok I also backed the star & denman) I really enjoyed the racing, roll on Aintree.

  21. chris says:

    hi matt, i always read and enjoy this website and look forward to ur emails and views. I can honestly say it was my best ever cheltenham, iwas there wed,thurs and friday and i had numerous winners. im a sml stake gambler and the results were very gud for me as i like betting outsiders at nice prices. the highlight of my week was on wednesday when i backed 5 horses ew in 5 folds, 4 folds, trebles and doubles at 25p and they were poker de siviloa @16/1, peddlers cross at 8/1, burtons port 10/1, spirit river 12/1 and (unfortunately) open day 12/1 so i won over £700 for the day paying for the whole week and some gud nites out! roll on aintree chris

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      That’s some mighty fine picking there, Chris! You must have been screaming at Burton after the first two had gone in. Well done on a lovely pot, and it sounds like a cracking week was had. 😀


  22. stuart payne says:

    Hi Matt
    Fantastic Cheltenham which started from day one by making the most of the stunning money back offer form Paddy P should Dunguib win. Read it as a 4 horse race and got stuck in on Menorah. Also had Sizing and Quevega – ( Bensalem cost me a lump). Went on the Wednesday and had Spirit River and Peddlars and lost money on the day (sign of a mug who has a 14/1 and 8/1 winner and loses on the day)and got murdered on the Thursday. Then topped up winnings with Baby and Pidgeon on Friday. Despite the wins I am left angry with myself for being lazy. Had lumpy bet on Kayf Aramis and couldnt be bothered to transfer money into Bet 365 who had the price and paid first five. A lesson that cost me over £400 – idiot!! Biggest dissapointment Tell Massinii – Highlight (no not Katy Walsh but sliding into Club with Tats ticket).
    Gotta be Black App for National and Summersby for 2011 GC.

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