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STATS: Should I back favourites at Cheltenham?

A look at the success or lack thereof of backing favourites at the Cheltenham Festival

by Aidan Elder | March 10, 2014

For some people, picking winners at the Cheltenham Festival involves hours of painstaking research, poring over the results, the form lines, the ratings, the pedigrees and trainer stats.

For others it involves saying ‘balls to that. I’ll save myself all that time and just back the favourites. That should bring me a reasonable amount of success’.

And it’s hard to argue with that logic because in the last few years, it’s actually been quite a profitable approach. If you’d a tenner on each of the favourites in the last three festivals, you would have ended up showing a tidy profit of £390.32. Admittedly that would realistically have to be nudged down to £330.32 due to the number of joint favourites you would have also had to back if you adopted that strategy, but whatever way you look at it, it’s a nice profit.

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Overall, favourites have won about a third of all the races at the Festival over the last three years. That’s pretty much the same as racing in general. So far so underwhelming, but stick with us.

The tricky part is actually picking out which favourites are likely to do the business and in which races. For that, there’s no concrete strategy, but as you might expect, favourites tend to deliver more often in the high-calibre, non-handicap races rather than what we’ll euphemistically call the more ‘competitive’ contests.

In the non-handicap races, backing the favourite yields far more success. The market leader tends to deliver the goods about 42% of the time, disappointing on a comparatively small 58% of occasions.

Favourite worst nightmare

The handicaps are a completely different story. At 21%, that means roughly one in five of handicaps go the way of the favourite. With 11 handicaps per Festival, that means you normally only see about two favourites prevail. That’s clearly not much, but it’s when they do, it’s normally at a fairly tasty prices – for example Sunnyhillboy and Hunt Ball both obliged at odds of 13/2 in the 2012 Festival.

It’s worth noting, because in a lot of handicaps, the pundits jabber on about the favourite as if victory is nailed on and defeat is as unthinkable as Vladimir Putin actually being power-hungry enough to take a large part of Ukraine because he feels like it. In reality, they’re wide open and if the horse performed well last time out, he or she is going to have their work cut out to repeat the performance in such a wide open race. Upsets – much like incidents of Russian aggression – do happen and it’s best to be prepared for both.

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That leads us on to the question of ‘which favourites should we back?’. Again, looking back over the last three Festivals, there is a clear tend. Odds on favourites have been pretty reliable, winning 80% of the time. In this bracket we have Sprinter Sacre, Quevega, Simonsig – proven winners at Prestbury Park who the punters can normally rely on to avoid the overconfidence that often comes with the tag of such hot favouritism.

After that, there’s a marked drop-off in success rates. Despite being just a few points on the other side of Evens, the success of favourites with an SP of between Evens and 2/1 drops markedly to 29%. In what would seem to be the stats giving two fingers to probability, backing favourites with SPs of between 21/10 and 5/1 has actually been more successful than their shorter odds counterparts. That works 31% of the time, ever so slightly suggesting that hype may be at play at the shorter odds.

Logic isn’t completely ignored however as favourites with an SP of 11/2 or more win substantially less. That sounds vaguely critical, but it’s not – it’s just what you’d expect. Favourites in this category deliver 13% of the time, which is on the low side, but normally at odds that make the occasional win quite profitable.

So, in conclusion, there is no conclusion – just a load of numbers about stuff that has happened in the past and may or may not be indicative of future events – we just don’t know. That and some pretty pictures.

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