Cheltenham Festival 2019 may still be months away, but already jump racing's stars are being primed for the four days in March. The question is: what races are they being primed for? And while that is obvious for some, it's a minefield for others. Enter: To Win Any Race At Cheltenham betting markets.
The Cheltenham Festival has changed beyond recognition more than once since its inception in 1911, gradually becoming more competitive - and more professional -with extra days and extra races introduced according to demand.
That process has developed at such a pace that horses who 40 years ago would have had a maximum of two options at the meeting, could now hold entries in multiple contests.
In order to fully appreciate how many options the future will provide, it helps to imagine an, admittedly unlikely, scenario in which a young mare starts her season as a novice over both sets of obstacles.
She then proves herself against the best of either sex over timber and birch (we weren’t too far away from this with Vroum Vroum Mag a few years ago). Should such a super-mare exist, she could conceivably have 15 different Grade 1 options at the Festival, which would give punters a headache to say the least.
Even without such extreme considerations, there are several options at championship level for novices and experienced performers over hurdles and fences, and a fine example of the plight of the 2019 Cheltenham ante-post punter is working out which race to pencil in for the hugely exciting Samcro.
The 2018 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle winner could either stay hurdling (Champion Hurdle, Stayers’ Hurdle), or go novice chasing (Arkle, JLT, RSA Chases), but is held in such esteem that many believe he can take on the very best in his first season over fences (add Ryanair, Champion Chase, Gold Cup). That's eight potential races already.
If he turns out to be a boat, then the National Hunt Chase has gone to connections in the past, while a total loss of form could see Gordon Elliott try to reinvigorate him with a run in the Cross Country (I realise this is getting silly). It’s therefore easy to see why firms offer punters the option of simply backing the horse to win a race, any race at Cheltenham in March. That’s got to be a good thing, right?
Samcro is an example of the kind of horse many punters will happily back at almost any price, believing him to be unbeatable. They would argue that the horse’s brilliance makes him a good thing for wherever he goes - and there is a bit of mileage in that.
Connections have shown they are happy to take the lowest-hanging fruit in the past, with Apple’s Jade taking in the Mares’ Hurdle in March despite showing form which would have given her every chance in the Stayers’ Hurdle, so it could be surmised that Samcro will go for the easiest option, and therefore he represents value at current quotes.
A better example of where the “Any Race” price is flawed comes with the Willie Mullins-trained Laurina, who represents terrible value at Evens with Paddy Power in this special market.
On the plus side, seemingly, the impressive winner of the Trull House (Dawn Run) Mares Novices Hurdle is listed in the betting for five races at next year’s Festival - the Champion Hurdle, Mares' Hurdle, Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, Arkle Chase and JLT Chase.
She’s already ineligible for one of those - so nul points to the traders at William Hill for that lapse - and the fact that she might run in the Champion Hurdle shows the real trap of betting on this Cheltenham market.
Logic seems to dictate that a horse ought to be a shorter price to win any race than it is for a specific contest, given the element of choice, but current rules and Cheltenham programme make it impossible for a horse to win more than once at the fixture - so the idea that a horse could take in race A, race B, or both, is a non-starter.
To further illustrate the point, let’s consider the markets should Laurina start off over hurdles this winter: It doesn’t preclude a switch to fences, but it makes such a path less likely, and as such diminishes her chance of winning any chase. The value, if it exists, now realistically lies in her winning either the Mares' Hurdle or the Champion Hurdle.
She’s a best-price 4/1 (Betfair Sportsbook) for one event and 10/1 (Ladbrokes) for the other, which already makes Evens look a bad bet, but even taking these as the only two options for her, it would be a mistake to assume she should be shorter than 4/1 to win any race.
Assuming these are her only entries, it’s clear her odds of winning either race should be greater than 4/1 if the market is efficient - as she could not possibly run in both races.
She may represent good value at 4/1 for the weaker race, but if her odds for each race are mathematically accurate and her target is uncertain, then her odds of winning any race would logically be greater than they would be for the race which gives her the best chance of winning.
The more connections are willing to shoot for the bigger pot, the worse value Laurina will be in an 'any race' scenario.
You can only back a horse in this market if connections would rather win any race as opposed to having a sporting crack at a championship contest, and that leaves just two trainers in Britain and Ireland – Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins.
With that pair, it is almost certainly better to back the likes of Samcro and Laurina for the most obvious targets, and the total reluctance of the Gigginstown team to consider Samcro for the Supreme last season suggests they will not think about the Champion Hurdle - unless that race falls apart.
Laurina is probably good value at 4/1 for the Mares’ Hurdle, but the worst bet of all time at Evens to win any race. The value exists with the novice chasers, with four separate chances for top-quality horses in the division - before the possibility of handicaps is considered.
Given Elliott’s good recent record with handicappers, and the fact that he has gained control of the Gigginstown juggernaut, he would be the trainer I would focus on to find the best opportunities.
Previous Cheltenham Festival form is always the best guide to future Cheltenham Festival results, so with a progressive profile and a host of opportunities ahead, the horse I would be most inclined to bet in this market would be last season’s Pertemps Final winner Delta Work (16/1 William Hill).
A novice when winning that event in March, he retains a progressive profile, and has not only the scope to make into a top-class novice chaser, but the option of sticking to hurdles, where he could develop into a candidate for an open-looking Stayers’ Hurdle.
Even if things don’t go well in the first half of the season, there is time to prepare him for another crack at the race he won in March, and that contest has seen its share of multiple winners (Buena Vista, Willie Wumpkins) over the years.
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