The Power of the Negative (2)

The Punting Confessional: at the Festival

PC at the Festival

PC at the Festival

Last week Tony Keenan set about showing us how he approaches the Cheltenham Festival and began to work out whether or not we should treat this meeting any different to the thousands of other meetings we see each year.

He concludes those thoughts this week by summing up his own feelings about the Festival in...

...The Punting Confessional – March 12th 2013

This week bookmakers will make a number of concessions around enhanced prices, money-back offers and extra-place specials; some of these are worth looking at, others are not. In terms of the championship races like the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup, the best time to place a bet may be on the morning of the race itself, unless you are banking on a late and significant withdrawal.

This particularly applies to horses at the front end of the market as the firms will be bending over back-ways to get punters’ money (and by extension future custom at less generous odds); provided you can get on with said company it’s logical to expect the likes of Hurricane Fly, Sprinter Sacre and Bobs Worth to be their biggest price in a few weeks on the morning of their respective races.

Money-back specials on horses winning certain races can be good also; I’m thinking here of the Paddy Power offer on Hurricane Fly. He looks a pretty solid favourite to my eyes but if you’re of a mind that he’s not, it is probably best to back your fancy at bigger odds elsewhere as Powers will understandably be tight about his dangers. Extra-place specials, I’m not so convinced by because I fail to see the benefit of having a few percentage points in your favour in the place market if you don’t actually fancy a horse in the race.

I’m not really a maths-based punter, perhaps to my detriment, but I’d rather spot a rick, a horse at 14s that should be 7s, than bet into a slightly over-broke place market when I don’t have a strong view on the race.

As ever, trainers play a big part of the Festival and it’s important to note that some are Festival trainers and some are not. Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins are obvious positives at the meeting, having secured wins (though mainly in graded races) time and again at the track but more so one needs to be aware of trainers that do poorly at the fixture, Noel Meade being the standout example in this regard.

We have a peculiar situation in Ireland at the minute as national hunt racing is dominated by Mullins and there is certainly a dearth of meaningful runners from the traditionally strong Irish yards of Meade and O’Grady amongst others.

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My thoughts on preview nights were covered here last week; I have little time for it and hate all this talk of trainers having a ‘glint in their eye’ and such like, perhaps a pint they were drinking just went down the wrong way. That said, one learns over time which trainers are spoofers and which are worth listening to; some can get very bullish at this time of the year, coming out with all sorts of fighting talk, which is strange as they are so reserved for the rest of the year.

Avoiding parochialism, where you focus solely on horses from your own jurisdiction should be avoided. Anything that submits to an availability bias of thinking and conforms to the line ‘I was there the day horse X won and he was impressive’ tends to paint an incomplete picture of a race. For instance, you may have been in Leopardstown the day Jezki sprinted from the back of the last to win at Christmas and said he was a Supreme winner in the making but you also have to have seen the rest of the contenders, notably English runners like My Tent Or Yours, so it’s time to get the video and formbook out.

That said, sometimes such ideals are unachievable and one cannot know everything about the form in Britain AND Ireland. Sometimes a strong view on a horse, either positive or negative that may not be apparent to all, is the best way into a race but be careful not to neglect the claims of the others.

I like the whole idea of linked form-lines at the Festival, the belief behind it being that if one horse from the race has been underrated then it is possible another has too. There are a number of examples at the meeting each year and one that has piqued my interest in particular is the At Fishers Cross/The New One race from Festival Trials Day over the course where Coneygree was well-beaten in third. Those horses have different targets at the Festival and tie back in with Inish Island also, an interesting rag in the Albert Bartlett.

Another way of exploiting this approach which was suggested by a bookmaker friend of mine Peter Kingston (they’re not all bad!) is to place such horses in doubles as they are in some way linked contingencies and it might be something worth exploring.

Finally, for all the talk of Festival form working out back at the meeting in the following years, I suspect there may be some value in backing horses that are unproven at the track as sometimes the whole course specialists approach is overdone. There is a big difference between horses that are proven failures around Cheltenham and those that are yet to run there; a number of Irish horses will fall into the latter category each year and can be underbet as a result.

Similarly, those with form at the track may be overbet as all Cheltenham meetings, and not just the four days at the Festival, tend to be high-profile and the form can sometimes be overrated. For all his obvious claims in the Gold Cup, Sir Des Champs may be slightly overdone on the back of his two Festival wins which were in lesser races than he faces now.

Cheltenham is only a racecourse after all, and this stuff about not coming up the hill while having some truth in it can be overdone by the betting market. One needs to be wary of damning a horse off the back of one poor run at Prestbury Park; it is one thing to knock the likes of Beef Or Salmon after a career of Cheltenham failures, quite another to be dogmatic about something like Jezki not acting there after a subpar run in the bumper last year.

That said, and with an eye to the future, there are some horses that just don’t seem to handle the test and there can be value in forgiving a poor run here and expecting the animal to bounce back at Liverpool or Punchestown.

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