COUNTDOWN TO CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: golden rules for a successful week of punting

Favourite Thistlecrack, who has been ruled out of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup because of injury.
Favourite Thistlecrack, who has been ruled out of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup because of injury.

As the mighty THISTLECRACK becomes the latest casualty, the battered and bruised Cheltenham Festival is limping into view on crutches.

The Timico Gold Cup favourite, who has suffered a tendon tear, joins a yawning list of high-profile absentees from the 2017 Festival. A list sure to test to the limit the popularity and quality of an event that has developed into one of Britain’s great sporting institutions.

The defection of Colin Tizzard’s superstar means that the 2016 winners of all four of the Festival’s championship races are now sidelined, or worse. And the withdrawal also this week of Champion Hurdle outsider SUPERB STORY, holder of the County Hurdle crown, means as many as ten of last year’s 28 winners might not be back this time round.

Thistlecrack’s injury underlines the fragility of the modern-day racehorse, particularly those being fine-tuned to compete at the highest level. It also magnifies the harsh unpredictability of the Jumps game when even the best-laid plans, mapped out long in advance, can be sabotaged by just one false step on the gallops.

The lesson is surely to take your chance when fit and healthy, which leaves much to ponder for the connections of those who have exacerbated the absentee agony by opting to bypass this year’s Festival for fear their charges might not be suited to its rigorous demands. Let’s hope the cotton wool that is being wrapped around the likes of high-class quartet SUTTON PLACE, OUR DUKE, DON BERSY and CLAN DES OBEAUX does not prevent them missing their big boat.

The roll-call of missing stars means that not since 2001, when the week was called off altogether because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, has such a depressing pall of gloom hovered over the build-up to the Festival

However, the show must go on. And the punting will certainly go on. So let’s try and lift the mood as we count down the days to the roar that will greet the rising of the tapes for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and bounce off Cleeve Hill at 1.30 pm on Tuesday, March 14.

Let’s ditch the dejection and think seriously about trying to make the Festival pay. Not by way of tips. Not yet, anyway. But by means of a cold and clinical assessment of how, as punters, we might actually turn a week that showcases the best, most competitive Jumps sport on the planet into a tasty profit.

I am a veteran now of 32 consecutive Festivals. Never missed a race, stretching back to BROWNE’S GAZETTE winning the Supreme of 1984, just an hour or so before DAWN RUN landed her Champion Hurdle.

Over the years, many, many lessons have been learned, some enlightening, some painful. I am still not immune to punting blunders. But the wealth of experience I have garnered has taught me to focus on a golden set of rules for betting at the Festival. They don’t guarantee success, but they provide a reliable ‘route map’ to chart you through a week of punting heaven.

1. PREPARATION

‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is a well-worn maxim that could apply to most tasks in life. Nowhere more so than at the Festival, particularly if you’re spending the week in the Cotswolds. Pre-meeting homework is essential. For every race on every day BEFORE you leave the house. Leave it until you get to Cheltenham and I promise it won’t get done because you won’t have a minute to spare as you find yourself caught up in the hurly-burly of a sporting and social event par excellence, riding a rollercoaster that never stops.

2. AMMUNITION

As you’re probably already aware by now, the road to the Festival is littered with preview publications and products, in print and online, all purporting to enhance your chances of finding winners. My advice is to stick with three tried and tested goldmines of advice and data -- the Racing Post’s ‘Cheltenham Festival Guide’ book (out now) and ‘Cheltenham: The Ultimate Guide’ newspaper (out next weekend), plus the Weatherbys ‘Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide’ book. If you can afford it, subscribe to a formbook too, my personal preference being Raceform Interactive.The Weatherbys’ guide, published by Bettrends, has become an annual standing-dish. It costs £15.95, but it is worth every penny.

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3. NON-RUNNER, NO BET

Every year, I’m convinced they’ll scrap it. But every year, nearly all the major bookmakers offer the magnificent Non-Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession in the days leading up to the Festival. Do not fail to take advantage. It means you can place a bet with the added insurance that if your horse doesn’t make the gig (and let’s face it, there are plenty of those this time round), you get your money back, and it is particularly attractive for fancies engaged in more than one race, which is becoming more and more commonplace. The concession has applied to the big four championship contests since Christmas. Now, one by one, the betting firms are applying it to all races too. In recent years, only William Hill have resisted, but even they have joined the party this time round. It still remains imperative to shop around for the best value. To accommodate the NRNB concession, bookies will often shave two or four points off the standard price. But my view is that, in the long term, that is far more acceptable than losing your money altogether because your fancy does not run. If in doubt, wait until the morning of the race when, increasingly, firms are creating fresh markets, aimed primarily at casual punters and complete with prices more tempting than those offered ante-post.

4. TRENDS

Few subjects are more divisive among serious punters than race trends, the facts and figures that relate to previous runnings. Some loathe them as an illogical abuse of stats, others are slaves to them. In my view, they cannot be ignored and must form part of your betting armoury, especially at the Festival where many trends are overwhelmingly strong. For example, did you know that 27 of the last 29 winners of the 2m5f Plate Handicap Chase on day three had a maximum official rating of 142? Where to find such gems? Your best bets are the aforementioned Weatherbys or Racing Post guides.

5. DIVERSIFICATION

So richly competitive are most of the Festival races, which is so beautifully reflected in the betting markets, that backing more than one horse per race is often a no-brainer. By all means budget to suit your means, but construct a portfolio that aims to make a profit on each race via win singles, each/way singles or a combination of the two. You’ll be amazed to find that there is such room for manoeuvre in so many of the week’s markets, particularly in the handicaps. At no other meeting do so many good horses go off at such good prices.

6. SHOPPING

The warning ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ does not apply to Festival week! As the bookies scramble over themselves for your business, some of their money-back, free-bet or enhanced-price offers cannot be resisted. Shop around by opening as many accounts as you find feasible and don’t be afraid to take advantage of the offers that appeal. As I alluded to earlier, bear in mind also that morning-of-race markets are fresh and often more attractive than ante-post markets which that might have gone stale after several weeks of traction.

7. INFORMATION

Preview evenings proliferate in the run-up to the Festival, and reports from most can easily be located, even purchased. Most should be treated with caution. I never cease to be amazed by the lamentably lazy views expressed by so-called experts who have clearly not done any homework. But every now and then, golden nuggets of genuine inside information can prove useful. For example, this time last year, you might not have heard of DIEGO DU CHARMIL, a four-year-old import from France at Paul Nicholls’s yard. And why should you? He had yet to run in the UK. But at a preview evening at Exeter Racecourse, Nicholls’s clued-up assistant, Harry Derham, pinpointed him as a horse who should go well in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. He duly won at 13/2.