Irish Invasion – Must be the Cheltenham Festival

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

AS ‘The Voice of Racing’ – Sir Peter O’Sullevan – once said: ‘To end the meeting with a small fortune, you have to start off with a big fortune’. He was, if my memory serves me right, referring to Royal Ascot.

But the greatest ever commentator, now well into his eighties and still almost as active as ever, could, just as easily, have been talking about the Cheltenham Festival – the four-day betting bonanza that is now just around the corner.

The meeting has become something of an annual pilgrimage for both the English and the Irish, but it is the latter who raise the meeting to a completely different level compared with other festivals and big meetings.

The Irish come in their tens of thousands. They bet like men – even the women – and they drink like, well, Irishmen, downing copious pints of velvety black Guinness and virtually anything else that’s alcoholic.

Many save for the whole year for this one big betting bonanza. Even clergymen can be seen with their pockets stuffed with thousands of Punts or nowadays, Euros – ‘offerings’ from their parishioners to be used to back a particular locally-trained horse or horses!

I’ve had some good little touches on Irish-trained runners at Cheltenham. I remember, many years ago, backing Brown Lad – then a novice hurdler and later to become a top-class chaser –in the opening race on the card, patrolling up and down the rows and rows of bookmakers in the rain until I’d got the price I wanted.

Nowadays I wouldn’t have to get soaked running up and down the rails for the best price. Establishment bookmakers such as Ladbrokes or Ireland’s own Paddy Power and many others who serve the members on the rails, have online facilities making them easily accessible to online gamblers in comfort. Alternatively betting exchanges such as Betfair, offer open books on horseracing and sportsbooks. Betfair recently continued their innovative form, by creating the ZERO Lounge, with no House edge for Baccarat, Roulette and Blackjack.

Then there was another occasion when the heavens opened once again and I made the mud-loving Ten Up and absolute certainty in the Gold Cup.

He duly obliged, but thousands of others had come to the same conclusion and he went off a pretty short price. But he loved the conditions – much more than I did – and romped home with plenty to spare. It was at that point that the stewards decided they had seen enough – or drunk enough – and called off the rest of the card.

Still, I didn’t care and spent the next few hours on the journey home drying out my winnings using the car’s heater!

Funnily enough, both Brown Lad and Ten Up were trained by the great Jim Dreaper, Jim being the son of Arkle’s trainer Tom Dreaper, Ireland’s most successful jumps trainer.

But it isn’t always so easy finding winners at the meeting. Just as in life, patience is a virtue in betting. So there’s absolutely no point in digging out your entire betting bank and putting all your financial eggs in one basket – the first race of the meeting.

It’s ‘a marathon not a sprint’ is another sporting maxim, usually used when those rather annoying TV pundits pontificate about the Premier League title race. They’re right, of course, and the self-same viewpoint could, and should, be applied to the festival.

There will be a number of betting opportunities over the four days. It’s just a question of waiting for them. It’s a bit like a batsman building a big innings. He doesn’t try to hit every delivery out of the ground. He plays a straight bat to the difficult balls and leaves plenty of others that, he believes, are sailing harmlessly past the stumps, but he does tuck in to those balls that ask to be hit.

So it is in racing. There might be a day during the festival when nothing jumps off the page and demands to be backed, while the next day two decent bets present themselves.

Too many punters can’t let a race go by without having an ‘interest’. But how many of those ‘interest’ bets come to fruition. I knew a guy who, many years ago, backed every horse ridden by Bob Davies. Now Davies was, in his day, one of the top jump jockeys around. But he rarely made a level-stakes profit for his backers. But my friend said he couldn’t afford to miss one of Davies’s winners. In truth, he never missed any of his losers either!

The result was that he managed to go through a large proportion of his retirement nest egg before bowing out of the betting game. It was a lesson learned, but it cost him a lot of money – and he never went racing again.

It was a sad story. But over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of punters like him go skint. Racing, like all forms of betting, is a hard school. But like very few hobbies or interests, it can pay for itself. Ask a keen football or cricket fan, how much his hobby costs him. And unless he bets successfully on his favourite sport then he’s likely to spend hundreds of pounds a year following his team with a nil return in terms of hard cash.

So selectivity is the key to success at Cheltenham. If you’ve earmarked a particular horse during the build-up to the festival then don’t be afraid to steam in. Putting your money where your mouth is lends itself readily to punting on horses. It’s all about opinions. And yours is the most important.

If you’re right, you win. If you’re wrong, you lose. Simple as. But never be afraid to swim against the tide. If you follow the crowd, you’ll almost certainly end up losing. And the reason is because most punters lose.

You need an edge when you’re betting on the jumps, whether it’s concentrating on the place market which I tend to do or betting in handicaps or non-handicaps. You can stick with hunter-chases where the favourites often come to the fore with a handful of top yards and leading amateurs ruling the roost. You can even bet in novice chases – if you have a strong constitution and don’t suffer from high blood pressure! Here again, there aren’t too many possible winners with many of the runners leaving a lot to be desired in the jumping department.

Whatever your personal favourite way of betting is stick with if it works for you – and don’t be deflected from your ‘mission’ by any well-meaning friends.

Pace yourself, pick your shots and, above all, enjoy the racing. What else are festivals for?

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