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The problem with backing horses is... they're horses


Cartoonist: Jim Cogan

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan

For the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, a friend recruited me as his partner in a massive "league" in the local pub, based on all the results of four days. Depending on the odds, you got a certain number of points for a win or a place, the scores were recorded on a big board on the wall of the pub and there were cash prizes for the top points scorers.

Though I had retired from betting on horses some years previously, my friend insisted that I make the selection for each race, in tribute to my fine judgment and because he could not be bothered. And for the first three days I failed him horribly. Drawing on all my knowledge and experience, we were so far down the table that on the fourth day there was simply no point in trying to do it right, the arithmetic told us we needed several horses to win at huge odds to have any chance at all.

So I just picked out a bunch of unlikely candidates at big prices, based on nothing but the fact that they were at big prices, and not only did we end up picking the winner of the Gold Cup - Lord Windermere at 20/1 - by the end of the day using this "method" we'd had so many ridiculous winners we shot up the table to finish in second overall.

I had been over-thinking it, so then I'd tried under-thinking it, and had discovered a profound truth here, to do with the redundancy of the power of reason in the backing of horses. For I too had once felt that there are patterns or "lines of form" which may be discerned by the human mind, bringing the crowds to hear all that finely argued analysis at those "Cheltenham nights" in country hotels, those extended essays in the incorrigible optimism of Man.

Indeed, as you listen to the wise ones laying out their pre-festival projections, "calling it" with such conviction, sometimes you long for a moment in which one of them pauses and adds: "Having said all that…we are talking about horses here, and human beings, and it is hard enough to forecast the behaviour of a member of either species, let alone the two of them joined together." No they don't bother with that bit, though in truth it was that simple calculation which persuaded me to retire from the racing game and to pursue instead a more conservative "one species" investment policy.

And if somehow I get carried away by the delirium of the festival, I will tend to back Ruby Walsh to be Top Jockey, which gives me an interest in most races, and which can be justified within the parameters of the "one species" rule on the grounds that technically, you are betting primarily on a person there, not a horse. And also because that bet is nearly always a winner.

Otherwise for those who don't know Cheltenham, this can be a dangerous time because they really are out to get you, the betting corporations with their free bets and their amazing offers.

Over the next few days, anyone with the slightest vulnerability in this area will be sucked in by the online betting machine, maybe for life.

Once recruited, they will discover that racing is no longer the only game which is inextricably linked to gambling, that they can bet on a tennis match at 10am once they get the hang of it. For those who do know Cheltenham, it is already too late. Many times they will have known the euphoria of the preliminaries being swept away by the shattering realities of the first race, and maybe the second and the third races… many times they will have backed an "Irish" horse, only for the "wrong" Irish horse to win, and many times they will have listened to the victorious connections in the parade ring after the race, explaining how some 66/1 winner had been totally "nailed on", though for some weird reason they hadn't volunteered this information before the show.

Many times, too, they will have seen the TV pictures of Annie Power coming to the last fence with Ruby on board, victory assured, just the last fence to be jumped… and she falls. Galway hurler Davy Glennon, in an excellent description of his addiction to gambling, recalled how that fall cost him about $50,000, being the last leg of an accumulator which was destroyed right there, in that excruciating scene.

They called it unbelievable, and yet for those of us who couldn't help noticing that one of the parties involved was indeed a horse, and that horses can sometimes be a tad idiosyncratic, it was also quite believable.

And yet Cheltenham is still a beautiful thing on the whole, a powerful declaration of the arrival of spring, despite all that we know and that we have truly suffered, despite the dumbing down of the festival from three days to four.

It is an affirmation of our ancient desire to seek the favour of the gods, to apply our minds to finding a winner at the risk of feeling foolish.

Or to make our selections based on mere peasant superstition which by some miracle may leave us feeling very smart indeed - either way Paddy Power Betfair reported operating profits in 2016 of €330m.

Work it out yourself.

Sunday Independent