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Cheltenham Betting Tactics: Favourite-backing

by Aidan Elder | March 11, 2013
FLIGHT OF FANCY - Hurricane Fly is many people's banker of the Festival (pic: Inpho)

FLIGHT OF FANCY – Hurricane Fly is many people’s banker of the Festival (pic: Inpho)

By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer

Ahead of the Cheltenham Festival, dedicated punters pour over the form, trends and pedigrees for days on end. They’ll hunt for discrepancies in the ratings, rumours from the yards and signs from the heavens in search of value and winners. That’s one approach, but the ‘F*ck that. Life’s too short, I’ll just back the favourite’ approach also has a lot going for it.

Favourite backing is a tried and trusted tactic for plenty of people. It’s based on the sort of ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ that was popular with ‘trendy’ middle managers who used to say stuff like ‘yeah, a fussball table would totally improve the vibe around the office’ and ‘hey guys, screw casual Friday, let’s have casual every-day’. You know the type of person we’re talking about – I think these days they’re known as ‘the unemployed’.

‘He’s the favourite, so he must be good’ is the underlying belief governing blind favourite-backing. The weight of money coming in for one horse has elevated horsey him or horsey her to the top of the market so clearly a lot of people think the horse is going to win. It’s not without logic and it’s got the added bonus of knowing plenty of other people out there support your view, if it’s later proven to be completely misguided. Kind of how it must feel to be a Scientologist.

But it’s also an approach that can be easily debunked. Just because lots of people do something, doesn’t make it right. Steps had 13 top five singles for God’s sake and clearly handing over hard earned money to hear Ian ‘H’ Watkins or Lisa Scott-Lee ‘sing’ was never an acceptable thing to do.

The Paddy Power Blog has looked back over the recent record books to explore the likelihood of getting success from favourite-backing at the Festival.

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At the Cheltenham Festival, it’s a tactic that has generally led to success, but not success of the resounding variety. In the last ten Festivals, slightly over one in four (26 per cent) of favourites have obliged. That’s a touch below the general trend of favourites winning roughly a third of the time across racing in general, but on account of Festival favourites regularly going off at odds of 5/1 and bigger, you would still show a profit over the course of the last decade.

Festival legends give bookies a kicking

There are some remarkable peaks and troughs for the tactic in the last 10 years. Back in 2003, Paddy Power endured the most unpleasant three days of his life until his Sky Box got stuck on ITV2 for a The Only Way Is Essex marathon. On that occasion, half of the favourites came out on top with Festival legends like Moscow Flyer, Best Mate and Baracouda giving the bookies the kind of kicking you normally only get if you’re a Swansea ballboy when Chelsea are in town.

On the flipside, 2008 was the low point for the method. Just eight per cent of the favourites prevailed and it’s difficult to pinpoint why. It was the year we lost a day to high winds, but how does the upper class missing out on a day of quaffing champagne in the hospitality tent would translate into substandard performances from so many favourites? You could possibly argue that some horses were trained to peak on the Wednesday, but that means only seven races should have been affected as Thursday and Friday’s races went ahead pretty much as planned thanks to super-mega-bumper cards.

The truth is the Festival was littered with a lot of favourites who – with the smug wisdom that comes from hindsight – can retrospectively be described as ‘uneasy’ and ‘vulnerable’. It was the year Sizing Europe went off favourite in the Champion Hurdle, Voy Por Ustedes somehow went off more fancied to win the Champion Chase than Master Minded (who eventually won by a resounding 19 lengths) and Kauto Star was not especially surprisingly deposed as Gold Cup champion by Denman.

Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig and Quevega look nailed-on

So without the benefit hindsight-inspired ‘know-it-all-ism’, how do we view this year’s leading favourites? With course and recent form, Sprinter Sacre, Quevega and Simonsig look nailed-on. After that, the waters start to muddy. The noises are all positive for Hurricane Fly’s return to glory, but he’s got a race on his hands against a couple of former champions and some rising stars. Support for Bobs Worth and Oscar Whisky is no doubt warranted, but in open races, is there more chance for egg on your face than frying eggs on a trampoline?

The last couple of years have been on the more successful end of the scale for favourite-backing. Around 33 per cent of favourites have triumphed in the last two Festivals, which may not be the most spectacular, but is above average for the last 10 years. Favourites winning at rate of 33 per cent – aside from Jordan’s marriages, where else would that count as success? It may provide plenty of nail-biting and a few dollops of frustration, but backing favourites over the next few days could see you come out on top.

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