Sporting long shots: Your best bets for the year ahead

Mbappé, Fleetwood and, eh, Donald Trump tickle Malachy Clerkin’s fancy in 2018

In the darkest, nerdiest corners of professional gambling theory, they talk about the Green Lumbar Fallacy. The term apparently arose from a story about a commodities trader who made a whole career out of buying and selling green lumbar while under the mistaken impression that the product he was dealing with was wood that had been painted green.

In fact, ‘green lumbar’ is shorthand for freshly-cut trees. This lack of knowledge - indeed, this thorough ignorance of his product - didn’t stop our hero from becoming one of the most successful traders ever to buy and sell freshly-cut wood. Moral of the story - if you know enough about risk, you don’t need to know very much more.

Serious gamblers live by this sword and aim to invest accordingly so as not to die by it. For the rest of us, the corollary is far more relevant. To wit, just because you know your sport doesn’t mean you know how to gamble on it.

All of which is something to keep in mind when scrolling through this year’s worth of long shots. They are, more or less by definition, bets you should not make. The bar is set at 16/1 and higher, which is to say there is at best a 6.25 per cent chance of each them coming off. The green lumbar guy would turn his nose up at such wanton frippery; thankfully, we can have a bit of a poke in the full knowledge of our shortcomings.


Kylian Mbappé to win the Golden Boot at the World Cup

Best odds: 40/1

Top scorer at the World Cup is frequently one of those bets that you kick yourself for not seeing ahead of time. If we set aside James Rodriguez in 2014 - and we'll come to him in a jiffy - the three previous Golden Boot winners were Thomas Muller in 2010 (28/1), Miroslav Klose in 2006 (25/1) and the original Ronaldo in 2002 (16/1). In hindsight, all three were eminently backable at those prices considering the likely staying power of their teams in the tournament and the straightforward task facing them in the group stages.

If you picked James last time out, fair play to you. He was available at 200/1 ahead of Brazil 2014, with most people presuming Colombia were goosed without the injured Radamel Falcao and James still seen as more of a provider than a goalscorer after leading Ligue 1 in assists the previous season. That’s if anyone considered him at all.

The point is, he was very much an outlier. Outliers can happen - Oleg Salenko only scored five international goals in his career but they were spread out over four days in June 1994 and were enough to make him top scorer in that tournament. But in general, it's better to go more mainstream, especially when there are decent prices around.

Edison Cavani could be a bet at 25/1. Uruguay ought to make reasonable hay in a group containing Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He was top scorer in South American qualifying and has penalty duties ahead of Luis Suarez. But to get a run for your money, you'd want them in the semi-final, with a juicy third/fourth-place play-off to come if they don't make the decider. Uruguay will need to beat most likely Portugal and France to get to the last four - not impossible but still a bit dicey.

His PSG teammate Kylian Mbappé represents not only better value at 40/1 but surely a better chance of going all the way to the tournament’s last weekend. He’ll still only be 19 at the World Cup but his youth has certainly been no barrier so far in his career. France have Peru, Denmark and Australia to contend with in Group C and as long as Argentina don’t implode, their second-round opponents will be Croatia, Iceland or Nigeria. They could make a semi-final facing nobody more testing than Portugal or Uruguay. Long story short, they should play seven games.

Mbappé could explode at the World Cup if he nails down a place in the French attack. At this remove, it looks like Antoine Griezmann plus one or more of Mbappé, Alexandre Lacazette and Olivier Giroud. If Mbappé has a good end to the season with PSG, he will be there or thereabouts. Crucially, the Golden Ball is decided on assists in the event of a tie - Mbappé is second only to Neymar on that score in Ligue 1 this season.

Cause Of Causes to win the Aintree Grand National

Best odds: 33/1

Picking a Grand National winner on the morning of the race is usually hard enough without trying to do so four months out. But we’ll give it a lash anyway, purely because the horse in question is deserving of it. Cause Of Causes isn’t one of Gordon Elliott’s super-duper stars but he keeps popping up every spring to run his heart out at the various festivals. You couldn’t have a more willing runner for your money.

A three-time winner at the Cheltenham Festival, his aim for the season will be the defence of the Cross Country race in March. Cause Of Causes is already as short as 4/1 for that race, which is fairly tight for a horse that hasn’t raced since last April’s Grand National. And yet, such is the fondness with which he is held among festival bettors, it’s conceivable Cause Of Causes could go off around even money on March 14th.

One way or the other, a Grand National assault - if it happens - will be a by-product. Jamie Codd, who rode him into second place last year, has already said that the plan will be to try to win at Cheltenham and then, assuming that all is well, go back to Aintree. Given that the Grand National is a race that is virtually impossible to plan to win, keeping it as a second option might not be the worst approach in the world.

If he gets to the starting line, the one worry would be that his best chance has been and gone. Codd jumped the second last fence in 2017 looking like a potential winner but got bumped by Gas Line Boy on his outside and lost a stride of initiative to eventual winner One For Arthur on his inside. Four horses jumped the last a distance clear of the field and most observers have taken Blacklion as the most likely to make amends in 2018.

But the best price around for Blacklion is 12/1, whereas Cause Of Causes can be backed at 33s. Now’s the time to take a swing at it - if he’s there on the day, he won’t be anywhere close to that.

Tommy Fleetwood to win the British Open

Best odds: 50/1

It’s slightly baffling that Tommy Fleetwood doesn’t get more buzz. He just won The Race To Dubai after a year that contained two victories and six other top-10s, including a second in a WGC and a fourth in the US Open. He jumped 80 places in the world rankings inside 12 months and is more or less nailed on for a Ryder Cup place in 2018. All indications are that he isn’t just a coming player - he’s here.

Granted, this could be a tricky year for him. As Shane Lowry and Rafa Cabrera-Bello found in 2017, the first year that you try to split your time between Europe and the US, you invariably end up chasing your tail a bit. Fleetwood has already said he intends parlaying his stellar 2017 into taking up more playing opportunities across the water so how he handles that will obviously have to be taken into account.

But still, it feels a bit odd that you can have the best player in Europe last year at fairly hefty prices for the majors in 2018. Okay, so he’s unlikely to go from missing the cut at the Masters one year to contending the next but at the very least, he’s a better chance than the 50/1 shot some firms have him down for at the British Open.

Even if you leave aside his Race To Dubai win, the host course for 2018 gives him a serious chance. Fleetwood has been by some distance the most consistent player of Carnoustie in the Dunhill Links tournament over the past five seasons. His last five competition rounds on it read 65, 70, 67, 69, 66 - that adds up to 23-under-par. The closest to him over those five years is Frenchman Gregory Bourdy at 14-under.

While there will obviously be a huge difference between conditions at an early-October Pro-Am and a mid-July British Open, the very least we can say is that Fleetwood will be more comfortable in his environs than a lot of the players who tee it up this summer. If he continues his ascent, he really ought to be a contender.

White House to confirm Donald Trump had a hole-in-one in 2018

Best odds: 16/1

Let’s break this down. The man plays golf every weekend, give or take. By the annotated estimation of, he has played at least 65 rounds of golf since his inauguration in January 2017. There is no suggestion anywhere that this tonnage of golf is going to let up any in the coming year.

On top of which, he plays golf at the same three courses all the time - Trump International in Florida, Trump National in New Jersey and Trump National in Virginia. All of which he owns. All of which he knows.

On top of which, he is by all accounts a fairly handy player. Rory McIlroy called him "pretty good for a guy in his 70s". Senator Lindsay Graham played with him during the year and swore he shot a 73 in the wind in Virginia, "74 tops." The Sports Illustrated piece during the year on Donald Trump, The First Golfer, said plenty of uncomplimentary things about him but at no stage was he made out to be anything less than a perfectly good golfer.

On top of which, you know for damn sure that he would never get a hole-in-one and not tell the world about it. Last March, he interrupted a round-table meeting with a load of CEOs to get one of them to tell the rest about the time he (the CEO) witnessed him (Trump) making a hole-in-one. If it happens some afternoon, Fox News will lead the nightly news with it.

And of course, on top of it all, the man is a noted, proven, notorious liar. The bet is not that he will have a hole-in-one, only that the White House will say he had one. At a conservative guess, they must say 50 things a day that are less believable than Trump having a hole-in-one. Odds of 16/1 are highly generous.