The intelligent punter's guide to the 2014 Cheltenham Festival
Who to back and what to look for at jump racing's equivalent of the Olympic Games
SPRING is in the air and it is time for the Olympics of jump racing - otherwise known as the Cheltenham Festival. The four-day event, which begins on Tuesday and features 27 races, provides some great opportunities for punters, but can also be something of a minefield. By bearing certain key factors in mind, punters can push the percentages in their favour as they battle with the bookies.
First, there's no form quite like previous Cheltenham Festival form, particularly when it comes to non-handicap races.
Last year, nine of the 27 races (33 per cent) were won by horses that had already won at a previous Cheltenham Festival.
They included the Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth and Champagne Fever, the winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Horses that win or run well at the Festival tend to come back and do the same year after year, with the best example being the remarkable mare Quevega, who has won the Mares' Hurdle for the past five years.
Secondly, focus on runners from the leading yards. Smaller trainers do still win races at the Festival, but in recent years the meeting has tended to be dominated by the big battalions. Ireland's champion trainer Willie Mullins has been leading trainer for two of the past three years (he had five winners last year) and, ominously for his rivals, says he has "the best team I have ever had for Cheltenham" this time round.
Nicky Henderson was the leading trainer in 2012, and the 'Big Three' of Mullins, Henderson and Paul Nicholls have been responsible for 77 winners at the Festival since 2003, though it‘s worth pointing out that the latter only recorded one victory last year.
Thirdly, keep a close eye on the going. Heavy ground has been the norm for much of the winter, but a drying week is in prospect and so horses who have been winning on the softer ground may find that the going quickens up too much for them, particularly if running towards the end of the week.
Now let's take a day-by-day look at the best of the action, with the key trends to help spot a winner.
DAY ONE: TUESDAY
Highlight of the opening day, and some would say of the entire meeting, is the CHAMPION HURDLE (3.20). This year's race looks set to be a vintage renewal, with Hurricane Fly, successful in 2011 and 2013, going for his third win in the race. He'll be a tough nut to crack, but you have to go back to 1980 to find the last successful ten-year old and he may be vulnerable at the finish to a younger rival. My Tent or Yours and Our Conor, last year's impressive Triumph Hurdle winner, are obvious dangers, but the biggest threat to the reigning champ could come from The New One, who won last year's Neptune Investments Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.
1.30 Supreme Novices Hurdle. There has been just one winning favourite in the last ten years. Four of the last five winners have been priced between 10-1 and 12-1. Nine of the last fourteen winners were Irish-trained. Wicklow Brave and Gilgamboa are two for the short-list.
2.05 Arkle Trophy. This tends to be a good race for fancied horses, and the last two winners have been the favourites. Champagne Fever, the winner of the Supreme Novices in 2013, and the Bumper in 2012, bids to win his third successive race at the Festival and looks a worthy market leader.
2.30 3m 110y Handicap Chase.Weight is the key factor in this and only one horse has carried more than 11 stone to victory since 1998. Concentrate on horses carrying less than 11 stone and don't be put off if your fancy is a big price, in the last seven years winners have been returned at 50-1, 33-1 and 28-1. Fruity O'Rooney, fifth last year and second in 2012, is 7lbs lower in the weights than 12 months ago, and is an each-way possible.
4.00 Mares' Hurdle. The remarkable Quevega bids to win the race for the sixth year running and Willie Mullins' charge looks to be one of the few bankers of the meeting.
DAY TWO: WEDNESDAY
The feature race is the 2m CHAMPION CHASE (3.20). Favourite is [b]Sire De Grugy, but impressive as he has been in his last three victories, Gary Moore's charge has been beaten in his previous two starts at Cheltenham and although he's still the likeliest winner on the form book, at likely odds of around 2-1 smaller stakes punters might prefer to look for each-way alternatives. Kid Cassidy who was second in another race at last year's Festival, and also won at the track in November, and Sizing Europe, winner of the race in 2011 and runner-up the last two years, are two each-way possibles.
1.30 Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle. Four of the last six winners have been between 5-1 and 7-1 in the betting. The unbeaten Red Sherlock, who has already won over course and distance and the Willie Mullins' trained Rathvinden, are two who should be in the mix.
2.05 RSA Chase. Irish-trained horses have won four of the past five runnings and Irish-breds have won nine of the past ten. Willie Mullins won the race with Rule Supreme in 2004, and could do so again with Ballycasey, a winner of both his starts over fences. Carlingford Lough also has ticks in the right boxes.
2.40 Coral Cup. A potential minefield for punters with just one horse in single-figure odds obliging in the last nine renewals. The race tends to be won by horses that have had a relatively light season, so focus on runners that have had run no more than four times and don't be put off if your selection is a big price. Whatever you back in this race, make sure you back it each-way with a bookmaker that pays out for at least five places.
DAY THREE: THURSDAY
The championship race today is the 3m WORLD HURDLE[b] (3.20). The big question is whether [b]Big Bucks, a four-times winner between 2009-12 but who missed last year's race due to injury, be able to regain his crown at the ripe old age of 11? His comeback run in January, when he finished second, was satisfactory, but age may be against him. The unbeaten Annie Power is sure to go well but she has to prove she stays this trip so the percentage call is an each-way interest in At Fishers Cross, who won the Albert Bartlett at the Festival last year.
2.05 Pertemps Network Hurdle Final. Favourites have a very poor recent record with none obliging since 2003. Since then we've had two winners at 50-1 and an average SP for the winner of 23.3-1. Given those stats it makes sense to look closely at the outsiders, especially those with a low weight. Imperial Leader and Home Run, representing trainers who have won the race three times between them in the last six years are interesting contenders.
2.40 Ryanair Chase. Eight of the past nine winners of this race have been 6-1 or shorter in the betting, so it makes sense to concentrate on the market leaders. Winning form at Cheltenham is important too: eight of the nine winners had already won at least one race at the track.
4.40 Byrne Plate. If you like backing outsiders, this is a great race for you as the average SP of winners over the last ten years is 26.35-1, with winners at 66-1, 33-1, 25-1 and 50-1 in the last six years. Go for a low weight, as only one winner has carried 11 stone or more to victory in the last decade. Pay close attention to the runners of Venetia Williams as the Herefordshire trainer has won the race three times in the past seven years.
DAY FOUR: FRIDAY
THE GOLD CUP (3.20), the Blue Riband of jump racing, is the centre-piece of the final day of the Festival. Though there were upsets in the 1990s - 100-1 shot Norton's Coin triumphed in 1990 - since the turn of the century market leaders have fared well, with six winning favourites in the last nine runnings and the longest priced winner being War of Attrition at 17-2 in 2006. Bobs Worth, last year's winner, is a worthy favourite and should take plenty of beating having won races at the last three Festivals. Since 1988 only three horses have won a Gold Cup having been beaten in a previous running, suggesting that the threat to Bobs Worth is likely to come from a horse having its first run in the race.
2.05 County Hurdle. The percentage call is to go for an Irish-trained horse (six of the last seven winners were trained in Ireland) with a low weight (only one winner has carried more than 11 stone since 2003), and which is 10-1 or higher in the betting (there's been just two winners shorter than 10-1 in the last ten runnings).
2.40 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. The Willie Mullins-trained Briar Hill, who won the Festival Bumper in 2013, and who is still unbeaten, looks sure to give us a good run for our money if he lines up here.
5.15 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual. As might be expected considering the race is named after his father, trainer Nicky Henderson has a great record in the event, with ten of his 32 runners in the last decade having won or been placed. So it makes sense to include at least a couple of Henderson runners each-way in your betting, with preference for those carrying less than 11 stone, as only one horse has carried more that to victory since 1998.