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The Punting Confessional 28th March 2012

Editor's note: In the first of a brand new series of features, Tony Keenan, Betfair's Irish racing writer, brings his 'punting confessional'. Part diary, part teaching module, I'm really looking forward to this series, as I very much enjoy Tony's frank and generally contrarian outlook. I hope you will too.

The Punting Confessional

Cheltenham, March 13th through 16th

The Punting Confessional

The Punting Confessional

I’ll leave the Dickensian allusions about the meeting to the site owner and simply say the Festival was edging towards the worst of times for this corner; bar the momentary relief provided by Teaforthree and Riverside Theatre it was a disappointing punting week with near misses for Fruity O’Rooney and Tanks For That particularly galling.

The only other bright spot over the four days was Son Of Flicka landing the Coral Cup as it meant I copped on a special bet placed with Ladbrokes around the time of the Open meeting that any horse running in the Paddy Power or the Greatwood would win at the Festival.

The price of 3/1 was a silly one as the bet would have been landed in two of the past three years – odds-on surely more accurate – and called for a decent wager and in fairness to Ladbrokes they did hold the price for much of the day and take the medicine for their error.

There was something poetic about the horse that landed the dough having essentially been lapped in the Greatwood but that was the selling point of the play; one simply had so many horses running for you at the meeting. These bookmaker specials are for the most part unviable for punters with the only special thing about them being they are especially quick to drain your bankroll and should be ignored in the main.

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However, every once in a while a gem does pop up where the odds compiler has had a rush of blood to the head and not done his figures and so can be exploited; the biggest issue then is reacting quickly as the offered odds can be pulled quickly.

Punting at Cheltenham can be fraught with problems, not least the information overload that we are faced with about the runners, especially those in the feature races and we seem to know about every misstep, schooling sessions, racecourse gallop, breathing op and heaven knows what else in the run-up to the Festival.

To be honest, I don’t want to know any of this stuff and am reminded of one trainer’s comment – I think it was Edward O’Grady but am open to correction – that you would never back a horse if a trainer told you everything that went wrong with them at home. Much better to focus one’s attention on racecourse evidence rather than hearsay about events off the track; it is after all the crucible they will be tested in and action from there is much more meaningful.

Shutting off the constant drone of Cheltenham information is nigh on impossible before the meeting as one inevitably has a host of half-baked opinions about races before you have looked at them in real detail and I much prefer approaching a card fresh and without preconceived ideas. Should any reader have a solution to avoid this information, please feel free to comment at the bottom, but I’m not holding my breath.

This meeting may demand a somewhat different approach to exclude extraneous information but it is worth remembering that the Festival horses are still horses and have the same predilections as their fellows running at ordinary meetings; for instance, they are still prone to the bounce factor and tend to perform best off a recent run.

I would put forward those ideas as reasons for the defeats of Hurricane Fly and Grand Crus respectively, a pair of horses that failed to live up to their banker status, a mythical quality ascribed to some horses that seems to make them invincible until we discover, usually post-race, that Cheltenham tends to be much more competitive than to allow bankers free reign.

To these eyes at least Hurricane Fly bounced off a big first time out effort in the Irish Champion Hurdle, a run that surprised his trainer as he didn’t think he was that forward and that was right up with his very best runs in terms of ratings.  Yet because he was a supposed banker he couldn’t be beaten at Cheltenham.

Did Burton Port bounce?

Did Burton Port bounce?

The Racing Post ran a really interesting piece by James Pyman in the lead-up to the meeting about the possibility of Burton Port bouncing where the figures all suggested that it was a distinct possibility, an idea surprisingly supported by a number of industry insiders including vets and trainers who usually would have scant time for punting theories.

In the end, Burton Port probably didn’t bounce – he was a bit below his Newbury form in the Gold Cup though not much – but the significant aspect of the bounce theory is not so much that a horse is sure to regress after a big run off a break but rather that the chances of that happening are underestimated by the market.

This is where the bounce and recency bias (a thinking bias that privileges the short-term over the long-term) intertwine: if a horse puts up a big effort last time it is invariably factored into its price on its next start but it should be much less so if that run came off the back of a break.

And so to Grand Crus who for me could have done with a run in between his Feltham win and RSA disappointment. Yes, I realise he has scoped badly since and is probably better on softer ground than prevailed on the Wednesday but either way he is just the sort of horse I love to oppose in any race, a horse coming back off a break.

There are some horses that are best fresh but on the whole horses run best off a recent run and as a rule I want to be against any horse coming off a break and all the more if they are a short price. These mini-breaks in season are often the product of some sort of training setback and if Grand Crus was really in peak-form in January and February, there were plenty of suitable targets for him to get a prep run in for the Festival.

He didn’t and that was probably his downfall though it must be said it didn’t help me back the winner of the race; I couldn’t have Bobs Worth on my mind after how he’d jumped at Ascot and ended up backing Lambro and Cannington Brook so the less said there the better.

Even so, being against horses coming off a break mid-season is a good stance to take, particularly at the lower levels where I do much of my punting, as they win a lot less often than they should and we might try not to forget it when playing in better races too.

- Tony Keenan

Editor's note: Do leave a comment and say hello to Tony. Like me, he loves feedback, so if you've any thoughts on issues related to betting you'd like covered, feel free to share them in the comments section below. Or just say hi! Thanks. 🙂