Cheltenham Preview Nights - A Bluffer’s Guide To Guiding Bluffers

Few parts of the festival build-up are more enjoyable, just don’t imagine you will be given a winner

 At the Cheltenham Festival preview night in aid of Pieta House in Swords, from left, Mark ‘The Couch’ Winstanley, tipster with the Irish Daily Star, leading jockeys Davy Russell and Andrew McNamara. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

At the Cheltenham Festival preview night in aid of Pieta House in Swords, from left, Mark ‘The Couch’ Winstanley, tipster with the Irish Daily Star, leading jockeys Davy Russell and Andrew McNamara. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Mon, Mar 3, 2014, 10:00

‘Tis the season. For half-heard whispers and good things drawn and quartered. For done-nothing-wrongs and wouldn’t-swap-him-anyways, for out-with-the-washings and wouldn’t-back-it-with-buttons. Forests of masts groaning under the weight of colours nailed.

Yep, it’s Cheltenham preview night time. The three weeks from mid-February to early March when men gather in half-lit rooms ostensibly to scour for information about the upcoming festivities in Prestbury Park. Or that’s the idea anyway.

Our photographer came along to one in Swords last Wednesday and, being a sane and cultured woman with far better things to be doing with her life, was unfamiliar with the concept.

“So what is it?”

“Well, they get a few jockeys, a few trainers, some racing journalists and a bookie. They line them up at a table and listen to them go through the races at Cheltenham and say what they think will win each one.”

“But that’s . . . that’s a great idea!”

Well yes, in theory. In practice, you’d imagine it unlikely that the secret to untold riches was to be found in a hotel function room in Swords or an upstairs bar in Goatstown. Or if it was, you can be sure they’d be charging more than a tenner in.

And so. Through courageous field research conducted over many years, The Irish Times has compiled a low-down on Cheltenham Preview Nights (hereafter CPNs). Or, if you prefer, A Bluffer’s Guide to Guiding Bluffers.

They Never Start On Time
Literally never. Weddings, table quizzes, Axl Rose gigs – all of them have a better record of starting close to the advertised time than CPNs. Someone is always stuck in traffic, usually a jockey. In Goatstown last Monday night, it was Barry Geraghty. Patrick Mullins wasn’t slow twisting the knife.

There can be other reasons. At one in Kildare a couple of years ago, Matt Chapman from At The Races was late because he’d booked the wrong flight. Last week in Swords, eight o’clock had long since passed by the time one of the organisers fessed up.

It was the fault of The Couch (English tipster Mark Winstanley, of whom more anon). “He’s watching the first half of the Chelsea match.”

Thing is, it’s self-perpetuating. Nobody expects a CPN to start on time so nobody arrives on time.

A rule of thumb is to take the advertised start time, add 45 minutes and subtract five for every row of seats back from the front you’re unwilling to give up.

If you want to sit up the front, knock yourself out and arrive on time. You can give the video guy a hand setting up.

It Takes All Sorts
A look around a CPN is rarely a pretty sight. A heaving mass of man (the number of women would be a statistical zero), split into subgroups. You have the serious racing lads, who already know what they’re backing next week and who use terms like ‘ante-post portfolio’ with a straight face.

They are only here so they can have their prejudices confirmed or so they can take a set against panellists who oppose their view. You will know these people by the lack of others at their table.

Then you have the half-knowers. Racing wouldn’t be their main sport but they go mad for Cheltenham, they love Christmas and they always back four in the Grand National. They know enough for their families (who know nothing) to ask them for tips.

As the years go by, they gradually come to the realisation that racing people don’t know what’s going to win each race, the same as football people don’t know who’s going to win each match.

This came as a surprise initially, as they assumed looking in from the outside that there was some sort of secret to it. That there isn’t becomes vaguely reassuring. Half-knowers make up a good 75 per cent of most CPN audiences.

Finally, you have the newbies. They are full sure there’s a secret and that a CPN will reveal it to them. They take extensive notes on each race and leave at the end of the night already spending the money they assume they’ve just made. We were all this person once.

Jockeys Hate Preview Nights
Actually, no. Hate is the wrong way of putting it. A better way would be to say that jockeys would rather strap a saddle to their own back and take their chances carrying the horses around the Cotswolds themselves than sit through these nights. They start late so they end late, meaning a post-midnight drive home and four hours’ sleep before they’re up riding out.

The more CPNs they go to, the more opinions they hear about horses they’ll be racing against. After a while, it becomes a woods-for-the-trees problem.

As a younger man, Ruby Walsh used to do seven or eight of them in the lead-up to the festival until one year he found himself down at the start of the Supreme Novices’ giving three-quarters of the horses a chance in the race. The following year he did two and no more.

There was a time when they would get a thick enough envelope to throw into the glove box for their troubles but those nights are few and far between any more. Most of them are for charity so a meal and few quid for petrol is about as lucrative as it gets these days.

Jockeys Are Terrible Tipsters
It’s a rule as old as racing itself. Partly, it’s because they’re compromised. Their livelihood depends on keeping owners happy so they’re hardly going to go spouting off to the public that the apple of their meal ticket’s eye wouldn’t win with a fence headstart.

When they say their lad would have a decent each-way chance, very often they’re thinking, “Yeah, as long as half the field falls while I’m out the back.”

The other side of it is that they want to believe. In Swords the other night, Andrew Lynch was putting forward his horse Sizing Europe for the Champion Chase. Sizing Europe hasn’t won at Cheltenham since 2011. At Christmas, he was 15 lengths behind two Irish horses that aren’t even at the head of the betting. No 12-year-old has won the race in 37 years. Yet with Sprinter Sacre gone, everybody wants to think they have a chance. Even cold-blooded professionals like Andrew Lynch.

Better Gags Than Tips
A selection . . .

“You’ve got Ruby Walsh up against Tom Scu. That’s a choice between Cheryl Cole and Old King Cole.” Mark Winstanley on the Albert Barlett duel between Briar Hill (Walsh) and Kings Palace (Scudamore)

“These horses had a choice in life. They could run in this race or they could become Tesco burgers.” Davy Russell on the Triumph Hurdle

“If Tony Martin had Last Instalment, he wouldn’t have been going for the Gold Cup - he’d have been running off 10st in the Grand Annual.” Patrick Mullins ribs the Meath trainer about his liking for a handicap coup

“Yeah, but he’d have f**king won!” Martin doesn’t miss a beat in reply

“They dressed him up in more headgear than Hannibal Lecter.” The Couch dismisses The Giant Bolster’s Gold Cup chances.

“I spent an hour looking at this race and I came up with Broughton but I can’t for the life of me remember why.” Andrew McNamara’s red-hot tip for the Triumph

“If Sire De Grugy was a young lad, you’d have the shit bet out of him, he’s that lazy.” Russell on the Champion Chase favourite

“Iriving’s been winning around flat tracks in Germany. Mind you, they’re all flat tracks over there, ain’t they? Bomber Harris took care of that.” The Couch on the favourite for the Supreme

You’ll Not Make Your Fortune
Remember this above all else. These people do not know the results ahead of time. They have theories and ideas and strong opinions but Cheltenham is a book with not a single drop of ink committed to it yet. These nights are enjoyable and you will usually pan a nugget or two.

But nothing’s gospel and no good word should be treated as such.

For what it’s worth, here are the results of the juries at the two CPNs The Irish Times went to last week . . .

Bobs Worth will win the Gold Cup. Faugheen will win the Neptune. Nobody knows who will win the Champion Hurdle. Nobody fancies Big Buck’s for the World Hurdle.

Carlingford Lough is a great bet for the RSA (“If JP [McManus] gets a hold of that 12/1, he’ll make pure shit of it,” says Russell).

In the handicaps, Tony Martin says to back Living Next Door in whatever race he decides to put him in.

Mossey Joe will win the Foxhunters. So will On The Fringe. Le Rocher will win the Triumph.

So Will Royal Irish Hussar. Sea Beat is a smashing bet if he gets into the Fred Winter. Mr Mole will save us all in the Grand Annual on Friday evening.

Pay your money, take your chances. Just don’t say you didn’t see the government health warning.

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