Cheltenham 2017: Mid-morning punt on favourites can pay dividends
Tony Keenan says firms love being standout top price on headline horse in feature races
Bookmaking firms attract punters with loss leaders such as money-back offers, enhanced place terms and lower margins.
As well as being the pinnacle of the racing calendar, Cheltenham is the high point of the betting year and that applies to both punters and bookmakers.
Along with the Grand National and biennial international soccer tournaments, the Festival is the industry’s shop window, a crucial time in customer acquisition.
And like any other retail industry looking to gather customers, bookmaking firms attract them with loss leaders such as money-back offers, enhanced place terms and lower margins. If it seems like these companies are intent on losing money over the four days of the Festival, that’s probably because they are, in the hope they will gain enough long-term business to sustain them through the rest of the year.
Punters should look to exploit these offers and the most straightforward way to do this is by betting at the right time. Mid-morning on the day of the race makes the most sense as the theoretical edge is biggest; play too early and you don’t have the full menu of prices on offer, play too late and you’re the shopper running around on Christmas Eve trying to get a present with limited options.
One of the main features of these morning markets are favourites drifting in price; the firms love being standout top price about the headline horse in the day’s feature race. That hasn’t been the best strategy at recent Festivals as the numbers suggest the meeting is becoming more predictable.
In the 18 conditions races at last year’s meeting for instance, the races where the best horse should win granted luck, there were 10 successful favourites along with 4 second favourites winning.
There are a few reasons for this increased predictability, chief among them being the extension of the meeting to four days and the brilliant record of Willie Mullins with short-priced horses at Cheltenham; since 2010, the Champion Trainer has run 34 horses priced 3-1 or shorter at the Festival with only 4 failing to make the frame.
The former conditions still apply in 2017 but I’m not so sure about the latter. Relative to previous seasons, it’s been a disappointing campaign for Mullins with the loss of the Gigginstown horses and a batch of injury misfortune that the yard had hitherto avoided.
This type of season-long pattern should matter, though it doesn’t seem to be fully reflected in the markets; plenty of the Mullins horses look artificially short, particularly in the handicaps, and the trainer has only had one handicap winner in Ireland since October 17th last.
Trends are often referenced in the run-up to Cheltenham as a quick way of culling through a big field of horses but it pays to be sceptical of these oversimplifications.
Some are useful, like the record of horses returning to the Gold Cup after being beaten in the race previously; that group are 0 from 62 this century which might give backers of Cue Card and Djakadam cause for concern. Many of these patterns suffer from all the problems of small sample size and statistical insignificance so it might be better to focus on what has been going on in the current campaign.
In Ireland, it’s been Gordon Elliott’s season, the trainer currently odds-on to win the championship and seemingly landing valuable prizes every Sunday. It was a surprise to read that he only plans on running around 30 horses at the Festival however given he has broken the 1,000-runner mark for the season, a feat only matched by Martin Pipe previously.
Despite the loss of the Alan Potts horses, Henry De Bromhead has had his best season judged on winners and prizemoney and has chances with the likes of Petit Mouchoir and Champagne West in the feature races.
Noel Meade too has had a fine season, his best since duelling with Mullins for the title in the middle part of the last decade, and has depth in the novice chase division with A Genie In Abottle and Disko.
Tony Keenan writes a weekly Irish racing tipping column for Betfair as well as data-driven racing analysis on Geegeez.co.uk. He will be a guest tipster for The Irish Times during the Cheltenham Festival.