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Read the surprising truth about backing favourites at the Cheltenham Festival

Here's the surprising truth about backing favourites at the Cheltenham Festival

by Aidan Elder | March 9, 2015

We know how it is. Throughout the jumps season, you promised yourself you’d spend some time going through the results and picking out the horses you fancy for Cheltenham. And now the Festival has suddenly rolled around as you’re about as prepared as the Ukrainian Army in Crimea.

The temptation may be to blindly bet on the favourites. ‘They’re the horses the majority of people are backing so clearly they can’t be too bad’ is the logic underpinning that tactic. We’re not saying it’s destined to fail, but also remember that it’s also the general public who made James Blunt’s ‘Back To Bedlam’ the best-selling album of 2005 and thought Nick Clegg was the right man to have influencing key government decisions. The Paddy Power Blog has looked back over the last five Cheltenham Festivals to see how backing favourites is likely to end up.


Like the advice ‘always keep your pants on while handling bleach products’, it tells us something, but possibly not earth-shatteringly stunning. Overall, win rates for favourites at the Festival in the last five years are roughly in the region of what you’d expect to see in horse racing generally – that being favourites win about 33% of the time. There are some important nuances though and in Cheltenham Festival races over the last five years:

  • Overall, 27% of all favourites win, obviously meaning 73% don’t
  • Favourites are more reliable in the non-handicap races, obliging on average 35% of the time
  • Handicaps are the least reliable for favourites with just 15% winning on average

Those figures are helpful to an extent, but what may be more useful are the year on year trends. The 2014 Festival saw a below average rate of victories for favourites in both the handicap races and the non-handicap races dipped below what they had been for the previous three Festival. Admittedly it was always going to be difficult for the favourites in non-handicap races maintain the incredible 50% strike rate of 2013. If the 2015 results are to regress to the mean, we’d expect to see favourites claim slightly more than six races of the 27 they managed in 2014. Identifying which favourites to bank on is entirely up to you.

The Favs and the Fav Nots

One of the limitations of the favourite category is that is applies to such a huge variety of runners, many of whom have little or nothing in common other than they’re the shortest price horse in their respective race. In short, a favourite can be a 1/10 shot in a two runner race or a 9/1 shot in a 30 runner race. If we dig a little deeper, we can start to break things down and hopefully see clearer patterns emerging.


Once again, the data is about as surprising as Kim Kardashian flashing her genitals in front of a camera. Favourites that are shorter prices tend to win more often than those at bigger odds. Quelle surprise; thanks Kim, that really is a well-groomed bush, etc. What may be more surprising is the fall off in win rates from the odds-on side of things to the short odds-against side.

  • 67% of odds on favourites win, but just 29% of favourites at odds between Evens and 2/1 do the same
  • Favourites between the odds of 21/10 and 5/1 do the business about once every four times
  • Any favourite at odds of over 11/2 is a big no-no; 93% fail to get the job done

Looking purely at the last five years of the Festival, if you had a £1 win single on all of the favourites (including joint favourites), you’d currently have the princely sum of £30.09 in your pocket. And that includes getting your stake returned. It’s not an unequivocally successful tactic.

Over the few days of Cheltenham, some favourites will undoubtedly win, but many, many more won’t. It could well pay to avoid some of the hype and look a bit further down the betting.

Get your nerd on. Check out the importance of course form for finding winners are the Festival

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