Caution always the key when backing a 'banker'
In a recent biography, Harry Findlay, the legendary gambler and part-owner of the equally legendary Gold Cup winner Denman, said that Cheltenham is like nowhere else on earth. Not just for the buzz or all the great horses - the unique Cheltenham atmosphere, he reckons, is because it has the most knowledgeable crowd on the planet.
Findlay, primarily from a greyhound background, said: "Royal Ascot, World Cup Finals or Wimbledon - every event had a fair percentage of people in the crowd who didn't know that much about what they were watching - but that was almost nil at Cheltenham…everyone knew exactly what was going on".
Findlay became most famous for backing odds-on shots during a time when it was frowned upon, as so-called 'value betting' became fashionable. In that sense, I'd agree with Findlay that value can be found at both ends of the market, including odds-on. But as knowledgeable as the Cheltenham punter can be, there are always a few 'dead certs' each year that are backed like they've no possibility of losing and so many Irish punters go home on the boat or plane skint, often after day one.
Perennial I've said it before and I'll say it again, the formbook is a man's best friend in racing and that's especially true at Cheltenham. Back your horses based on what you've seen, rather than what you've heard, and you won't go too far wrong. Another perennial piece of advice is to remember that the biggest advantage a punter has over the bookmaker is that the bookmaker has to bet in every race. We don't.
I'm not saying you should avoid short prices, I'm keen on them myself in 2018 - but if you are happy to back the odds-on 'good things' at the Festival, just keep in mind that Cheltenham has a somewhat poor record for such horses compared to other festivals. I analysed data from 32 various high-profile meetings in the UK and Ireland and Cheltenham (March festival), comes 19th in the table of how well or otherwise odds-on horses perform.
There were 17 winners from 29 bets since 2008, and a loss of just over 1pt to SP at level stakes. Interestingly, the Aintree National meeting tops the table with 18 wins from 22 bets and a profit of 4pts, while Newbury's Dubai Duty Free meeting sits at the bottom with 11 winners from 26 bets, and an 8pt loss. But some have outstanding chances this year and I guess the message is not to go 'all in' on a single horse.
That brings me nicely to the Champion Hurdle, for which last year's winner Buveur D'Air is trading around 8/15. It's very short, but Faugheen is not the force of old and it's hard to see anything else getting the better of the jolly.
Some will put him in a multiple bet at that price, others will avoid - but the fact that the favourite is so short should mean there's decent value on some others for the each-way backers. The one I'm most excited about on day one, however, is Footpad in the Arkle. Willie Mullins reckons he could be a Gold Cup horse eventually and he's been absolutely sensational since switching to fences.
Getabird will be warm in the betting for the Supreme Novices' and he looks the real deal but so too does Kalashnikov, which would surely be shorter than 9/2 if trained by one of the top yards. Gordon Elliott's Apple's Jade is the one to beat in the Mares' Hurdle but will also go off at a restrictive price.
On Wednesday, all eyes will be on Samcro in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, and Gordon Elliott's six-year-old is considered by many to be the Irish banker of the Festival. With six wins in as many races, he's one of the most exciting horses I've seen in ages although his critics will say that he hasn't really been tested in Ireland, and all of those wins were at odds-on prices. I'm having none of it can't wait to see him put his rivals to the sword. But once again, he'll be a short price, so backers will be left holding their breath.
Presenting Percy could be worth a few quid in the RSA Chase. Trained by Pat Kelly, he was hugely impressive in the Pertemps last year, and his second place to Irish Grand National Winner Our Duke is a strong piece of form. Altior has had a few setbacks but looked as good as ever when winning the Game Spirit last time and deserves his place at the top of the Champion Chase market. In the bumper, consider Acey Milan, trained by Anthony Honeyball. This could be competitive, but he's won here before and should go off at a nice price around 9/1.
I simply can't make up my mind on the Ryanair Chase and will have another look on the day itself, but one that catches the eye on Thursday is Terrefort in the JLT Novices' Chase. This renewal looks quite open, but the softer ground will be ideal for Nicky Henderson's charge and I thought he jumped really well when winning the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase last time out.
In the stayers' race, Nigel Twiston-Davies' The New One looks a decent bet at a double-figure price. Described by his trainer as "the horse of a lifetime," he's as tough as nails and he's still quite consistent, despite his age.
We've the Gold Cup on Friday and I've finally settled on Might Bite, which trades around 100/30 at the time of writing. Even though Sizing John is out of the race, it's certainly not one-sided and you can't help wondering if Might Bite will get up to his old tricks.
A quirky but hugely talented sort, he nearly threw the RSA Chase away last year when he virtually pulled himself up before kicking on again in an otherwise brilliant performance. He gets the tentative vote, but I think I'll be somewhat conservative with my stakes.
In the Triumph Hurdle, Apple's Shakira might be the one to side with around 3/1. A full sister to the aforementioned Apple's Jade, Nicky Henderson's four-year-old has raced three times in Britain, all at Cheltenham, and she won each of them including a couple of Grade Twos.
Henderson knows exactly the sort it takes to win this having tasted success no less than six times, although this is another case where her opponents will question just how much we learned by her facile victories in her latest couple of races. But as the old saying goes, she can only beat what's in front of her, and she absolutely hacked up with some fine displays of jumping.
Away from the races themselves, I'm having a bet on Nicky Henderson to become top trainer. I've mentioned a few great horses here, but he'll also have some outsiders with live chances including the handicappers. A price of 9/4 looks fair, with Willie Mullins even-money and Gordon Elliott 2/1.
Arkle Chase, Tuesday (2.10)
It's hard to find anything negative to say here, and he's definitely one of the best novice chasers we've seen in quite some time. He had a bit in hand when beating Petit Mouchoir in a Grade One at Leopardstown last time, and he's surely going to improve even more. His jumping is superb, and he will take some beating. My Festival banker.
Champion Hurdle, Tuesday (3.30)
Likely to be a very short price, but last year's winner is impossible to oppose. He didn't need to be at his best to win his three races this term, and perhaps he could have done with a bit more of a challenge. But Nicky Henderson said he's still improving, which is quite remarkable given how fast he travels and accurately he jumps.
Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Wednesday (1.30)
Can he live up to the hype? I'm convinced he can. He absolutely destroyed the field in a Grade One at Leopardstown last time and although he was priced 4/6, he never gave his backers a moment's worry. Already being tipped as an all-time great.
Queen Mother Champion Chase, Wednesday (3.30)
Described by his trainer as "pure class", he was top-notch over hurdles winning the Supreme Novices' race in 2016 but he's even better over fences, winning all seven races including the 2017 Arkle Chase. He's had a few issues and required a wind operation, but he was as good as ever last time, and easily dismissed Politologue.