Outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland it may have never been heard of but for those who live in one of those two countries, who have the remotest interest in horse racing or gambling per se, The Cheltenham Festival is the Holy Grail of jumps racing and the racecourse itself a Mecca to thousands of punters annually during its four days of racing in mid-March.
The centrepiece race of the Cheltenham Festival is the Gold Cup, a 3-mile 2-furlong (5,230 metres) chase race first staged here in 1924. That meeting, the fourth and final day of the festival, will attract a sell-out capacity crowd of 67,250 people. 240,000 people are expected to attend in total.
This is big business. A business which really took off in the mid 60’s when the Irish-trained superstar Arkle tackled the great English hope Mill House. In the fifty years hence Cheltenham has been very much an English vs the Irish affair albeit in the finest possible spirits.
In this modern era, such is the appetite of Irish race-goers, Ryanair put on an additional 30 flights for their Dublin-Birmingham route and the cost of ferry tickets if you can get one, sky-rocket.
Before the Euro was introduced to uniform Europe the exchange rate between the British Pound and the Irish Punt actually shifted between three and five percent every March – such was the desire of the visitors to buy currency to gamble with.
Relatively speaking the total prize-money is still small, £3.825m (c€5.1m), but factoring in the 235,000 pints of Guinness that are sold, the 12,000 bottles of champagne consumed, 4,500 people that are employed for the week and safe in the knowledge baby Jesus would have little chance in finding a manger within a 100km radius of the racecourse, the value to the local economy is clearly in the tens of millions.
…and yet, that is small change when compared to the betting turnover. This year it is expected to top €1 billion! To coin a phrase, the result is a veritable punting ‘orgy’ and Shangri-La to informed punters.
Outrageous Irish firm Paddy Power normally fire the opening salvo a fortnight before the first race starts identifying the biggest favourite of the opening days racing and declaring all losing bets in that race will be refunded if that favourite wins.
This is just one of several huge carrots that are dangled in punters faces. Those juicy ‘sign-up’ bonus offers bookmakers advertise …these are seemingly on offer on every race to all punters, old and new, every day.
And yet with all this value in your face even the most diligent, dedicated and disciplined punters manage to throw their morals out of the window and get involved in some good old fashioned punting.
Amongst the scores of books already open – in addition to the long-range markets on all 27 Festival races – I’m very taken with William Hill’s market on the number of repeat winners in the four daily feature races: The Champion Hurdle, The Champion Chase, The World Hurdle and the Gold Cup.
Now, statistically a back-to-back winner of a Cheltenham showpiece race is a near formality. Istabraq won three consecutive Champion Hurdles between 1998 and 2000; Hardy Eustace was a repeat winner in 2004/5. There’s been some great World Hurdle winners such as Baracouda (2002/3); Inglis Drever (2005/7/8) and Big Bucks (2009/10/11/12) while Master Minded won back-to-back Champion Chases in 2008/9 and Best Mate owned the Gold Cup between 2002 and 2004.
William Hill are going 5/4 about one of last season’s major race winners going on to enjoy a repeat victory and 8/1 about two or more of them retaining their title. This means you will have:
Jezki in the Champion Hurdle (currently 6/1)
Sire De Grugy in the Queen Mother Champion Chase (currently 7/1)
More Of That in the World Hurdle (currently 6/1 but described by his trainer as a ‘doubtful runner’ just last week).
and Lord Windermere in the Gold Cup (currently 14/1).
all running for you. Personally I much prefer the 4/5 about no returning Champion to prevail and after Day 1. The stats do not know what a major disappointment these horses have been this season and when Jezki gets turned over on Day 1, I expect those with a feint-heart will be able to trade out with a clear profit quite easily.
Personally, as an involved punter, I’ll not be reaching for the cash-out option and plan to be collecting at the end of the week.