Prior to this year's excellent Cheltenham Festival, Tony Keenan gave us a fascinating insight into how he prepares for and ultimately tackles the UK's centrepiece of the jumping calendar. Today, Tony takes a retrospective look at how the festival panned out for him and he played it in...
...The Punting Confessional – 20th March, 2013
Cheltenham, March 15th
Cheltenham finished up well enough for me with a few winners, particularly in the novice races, despite not having much serious study done; I wasn’t at my most diligent for the meeting. It could have been better had Jetson got a competent ride in the Pertemps or had I not went off Ted Veale the night before the County but things did go my way with a decent bet on Back In Focus as he looked like coming off third best at the second last in the National Hunt Chase.
As pointed out by Coral odds compiler James Knight during the week, punting the Festival is probably harder than a typical Saturday and certainly more difficult than your average weekday meeting but there are still edges to be had and plenty of lessons to be learned from the four days.
Firstly, one has to oppose hype at the meeting and there were many examples of reputation horses getting turned over during the week, notably Pont Alexandre, Dynaste and Sam Winner. In fairness to the first pair, they had the best form in the book for their respective races but were plenty short enough even allowing for that as there were doubts with both; Pont Alexandre had to prove his speed for the trip on decent ground while Dynaste was one that historically struggled to hold his form past the winter.
Their connections played a big part in their horses being overbet with the Willie Mullins/Ruby Walsh axis talking up the Neptune favourite as their banker of the week while David Pipe spoke in similar tones about Dynaste. Sam Winner was a different case, being more of a plot horse, but they’re the very type one needs to be opposing during the Festival and Paul Nicholls played his part in keeping him at the head of the market.
I think the market almost works off the philosophy of ‘the shorter, the better’ with such horses and it is as if punters cannot countenance defeat for them; it is the myth of the banker in full swing. The information overkill that exists in the weeks leading up the meeting, best seen in the ubiquitous preview nights, leads to a consensus that almost cannot be questioned but it is only by doubting it that one can profit.
The reverse of the idea of hype is also something to watch out for and by this I mean the way in which rumours become overrated by the market. The best example of this were the Twiston-Davies horses at the meeting, a stable that was supposedly under a cloud having had to withdraw a few runners in the days before the Festival. The trainer has openly stated that the sickness only affected a few of his inmates and he was proved right as a he had a terrific meeting with two winners and most of his horses outrunning their falsely inflated odds.
Another case of this was Reve De Sivola about whom gossip circulated that he had met with problems in his preparation; in the end he showed up and while not in peak form (perhaps the ground was against him), he was a hell of a price at an SP of 4/1 for one that had won both the key trials; a horse does not have to win for it to have been a value price.
Markets for the Festival races tend to be very mature by the time the races come around but there are still edges to be found, notably in horses that are only targeted at races near to the event or who have their aims changed at the last minute. Champagne Fever’s move to the Supreme was an example of this in 2013 and he was a big price for a three-time Grade 1 winner before finally settling down at 5/1 at the off; notably this is something his yard is wont to do and took a similar approach with Fiveforthree before his Neptune win of 2008 (As an aside, I backed Champagne Fever for the Neptune this year).
Perhaps an even more striking case was the late decision of Noel Meade to run Texas Jack in the Jewson, only announced the Sunday before the Festival, and he was plainly a rick at prices of around 20/1 at the time, regardless of the result.
Texas Jack brings up another angle that of the in-meeting form boost and this is where mature markets can be exploited as they are slow to react. Following the RSA Chase his form had clearly been enhanced by the runs of Boston Bob, Lord Windermere and Lyreen Legend but there was plenty of time to get on to him for the Jewson before his price shortened. There was however an even more striking line of form that emerged in the novice and handicap hurdles during the week and that involved Albert Bartlett winner At Fishers Cross.
It seemed every horse he ran against in his earlier races was running well at the meeting, the likes of The New One, Medinas, Inish Island and later Salubrious, and while the last pair named didn’t run until the Friday the wins of the first duo on the Wednesday meant At Fishers Cross was a great bet at 7/2 on Wednesday evening and finished off his right price at the off of 11/8, albeit aided by the defection of Ballycasey.
Thankfully I profited from this angle, doubling The New One at 5/1 and At Fishers Cross at 4/1 on Tuesday night and these linked form accumulators are worth a second look; thanks to Peter Kingston for putting me on to this.
A similar approach is to look for where the strong crops of horses at located and this year it was certainly the Irish novice chasers that held away. Simonsig may have won the Arkle for England but he was made work hard by Irish 33/1 shot Baily Green so the signs were there early and it was a harbinger of good runs for the likes of Back In Focus, Boston Bob, Lord Windermere, Lyreen Legend and Benefficient. I thought Alderwood was a rotten price by the off of the Grand Annual but he was another Irish novice who by the result merited his position at the head of the market.
Choosing when to bet is an important consideration and the non-runner, no-bet offer remains a fine concession, particularly about horses that have multiple targets; taking a NRNB price about the likes of Dynaste for the Jewson and Quevega for the World Hurdle in the week or two before the meeting certainly wouldn’t have been the worst move despite one getting beaten and the other not making the race as their prices were wrong at that time. In terms of backing a fancied horse for a feature race, the way to go was to hold fire until mid-morning as the layers were inclined to boost the favourites; both Reve De Sivola and Oscar Whisky were available at 6s for the World Hurdle while Sir Des Champs was the same price for the Gold Cup.
That none of the trio won is irrelevant. With bigger priced horses however, I suspect the best time to play is early in the afternoon the day before they run. After declaration stage the firms push out the runners and extra-place specials become available and one gets chance to get on before the big tipsters have had a go at the prices. One needs to be ahead of the game to get on at this time but the rewards are there as I found out by beating SP substantially on backing horses like Terminal, Houblon Des Obeaux and Jetson at this time.
Finally, remember Cheltenham is only another meeting. I don’t buy all this stuff about taking a break after the four days for all that I was tired as I was working at the same time. On Thursday night I studied the Dundalk Friday card in more detail than Cheltenham and thankfully it paid off. I would certainly have been going punting again at the weekend if only there had been any suitable racing but unfortunately there was no Irish flat racing on offer.