Betting over the sticks: what should you consider when betting at the big festivals?
The UK Jumps Racing season begins in earnest in October, ushering in another campaign of National Hunt events, and for the first time in 2020, will be accompanied by a parallel set of Point-to-Point fixtures, starting on October 24th.
Punters rejoice at this time of year as the days grow shorter, cooler, and, often wetter heralding the holidays of top-of-the-ground horses and the emergence of the big battalions ready for the Saturday prizes. From October to April, every Saturday is filled with top flight racing, making for an exciting few months for any enthusiast of the sport.
For anyone new to the eccentricities of Jumps racing, it may take a little more research to understand how to bet on the sport. Horse racing fans and punters alike are anticipating the new season, and this year, its emergence has coincided with the Kentucky Derby on the other side of the pond. The American horse race is one of the biggest sporting events in the world and Kentucky Derby betting information and odds can be found in the lead-up to the Run for the Roses, which hopefully next year will find its usual place in the May time calendar.
The differences between Jump and Flat racing alter the ways in which experienced punters wager on the sport. Festivals and events cannot be bet on in the same way as mid week racing either, and strategies must change when racing under National Hunt rules.
Horses for courses
There's no doubt that amongst the older horse generation that is the core of the National Hunt horse population, horses show a marked likeness for specific courses. Bradbury Star, winner of 18 of his 58 races under Rules in the late eighties, won no less than 8 at Cheltenham, including back-to-back Mackeson Gold Cups in 1993 and 1994.
Istabraq won at no less than four consecutive Festivals from 1997 to 2000, the last three being back-to-back victories in the Champion Hurdle. These are the traits of horses that remember where they enjoyed the experience of winning previously and translate this into improved performance.
The same is also the case for trainers who are often (not always) traditionalists at heart. They follow the same preparation plans for horses toward the season's top races, and buy progeny of the same bloodlines that have been successful for them previously. They may also see a win in a prep event mid-week as a bonus in the wider pursuit of championship success in the Spring.
Seeing C & D against a horse's name is definitely an important guide to future performance at that particular course.
Every trainer's first line of defence is the state of the going; it's a default excuse, even though the going applies equally to every runner in the race.
But just as trainers tend to select progeny from the same family, they also steer toward times of year when their horses are most likely to get the ground they deem most suitable.
You can rely on Venetia Williams not to run much, if anything, before November, and her horses generally come to hand in the big races when the mud is really flying in January - March.
Jenny Pitman was just the same. She almost always enjoyed a purple patch in December and January, when everything she ran struck the front.
Young trainers keen to make a mark often show prominently early in the year, when they can advertise their talents with low grade horses before those same horses arer swallowed up by the big money horses from the leading yards. Look at Amy Murphy this year for example.
What may become very interesting about the early start to this Pointing season is the ability of early season horses prepared for mid-winter racing to cope with fast ground at the end of October, dried by strong grass growth and a dry autumn.
Of one thing you can be sure when it comes to the big betting events of the season. An overnight alteration in the going becomes a bookmaker benefit as form is turned on its head. Caveat Punter.
The orthodox chaser's career path starts as a youngster in a Bumper, graduates through Novice then Handicap Hurdles, and progresses through the Novice chasing ranks to handicap or Conditions races.
However, as with so much in racing, subtle nuances are designed to confuse!
It's become a trend for Grand National contenders to be prepared over hurdles before venturing to the big fences, as these slightly faster races sharpen their fitness and mental appetite for racing. Tiger Roll's campaign toward his second National in 2019 included a tilt at Cheltenham's November Cross Country, followed by a pipe-opener in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan in February, and a winning return to the cross country at the Festival the following month.
The National Hunt Chase, and the 3 mile handicaps at the Festival used to be leading trials for the National; nowadays, the Grimthorpe Chase or the Cross Country is as likely to disguise the winner.
In short, whilst orthodoxy still prevails most of the time, quirky preparations can sometimes pull off the most unlikely results.
One trait of the recent Behind Closed Doors racing has been that the SP will remain off course for the foreseeable future. Previously, relatively small volumes of on-course cash were needed to manipulate a horse's price downward, but punters are now getting better value with the SPs decided away from the racecourse.
One trend you'll find at the bigger events is that those volumes become a great deal larger. As a result, the betting markets are generally much more competitive, with lower margins for layers, based on greater volume.
It's therefore well worth while hunting around for a price in the ring at the bigger meetings, where the pricing will be more uniform at mid week events. And of course, a particular trait of the Festival is the string of account offers presented by all layers in an effort to secure your business through the four days.
As bettors at Pointing fixtures will know, it takes remarkably little to shift the price of a Philip Rowley fancied horse, or anything from one of the leading yards - sadly purely a function of the low demand from punters.
Ultimately, success comes down to natural aptitude and mental ability in the horse. As they say, you can take a horse to water... Whatever his or her ability, if the spark is gone, they won't win wherever you take them.