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Cheltenham Festival Staking Plan – A Punting Guide to the 2016 Festival

Things are really hotting up now as we draw ever closer to Cheltenham 2016 as Richard Moore takes us through his punting and staking plan plan for the four day extravaganza.

This blog is really going to be some general observations on betting at the festival, learned through many (sometimes painful!) experiences down through the years.

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Tuesday’s racing currently looks to be a case of deja vu from last year, in so far as the markets are dominated by short price favourites trained by Willie Mullins.

My own preference is for betting on bigger priced horses in the hopes that one or two will click, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from last year is that it is not always necessary to try to find one against these odds on favourites.

Sometimes it is just better to sit these races out if you aren’t comfortable getting stuck in at the short odds.

While Min, Douvan, Faugheen and either Annie Power/Vroum Vroom Mag may indeed all win, there is no shame in taking a back seat from a gambling point of view for these races and simply enjoying the sport for what it is.

No doubt there will be thousands of people getting stuck into all sorts of accumulator bets with these four races, and for small stakes it is probably a good way of getting involved, but going in hard on each horse individually could be potentially ruinous for the betting bank, and with three more days of top class action to follow that isn’t a chance I would be willing to take.

Now we move on to the really tedious part. Discipline is the single most important determining factor in a profitable week.

It can be hard to sit back and just watch races at the festival, especially with such excitement and opinions building around each one, but if you take a moment to multiply your average stake on a horse by 28 races (I needed a calculator!), you will see how important setting a budget is to begin with (this doesn’t even allow for backing two or more horses in some of the bigger handicaps).

This budget can be, within reason, any number whatsoever – the important thing is that it is a number you would be comfortable with losing if you go through the entire week without a sniff of a winner.

This means hugely different things for different individuals – we all know that lad who will be devastated for weeks after his €2 accumulator goes down, but once you are honestly happy with the figure, then you are ready to move on to the next stage of the plan.

I like to roughly categorise the races at the festival into four groups. Group A consists of graded races in open class (Champion Chase, Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup, World Hurdle, Ryanair, Mares Hurdle). Group B is made up of graded novice races (Supreme, Neptune, Albert Bartlett, Triumph, Arkle, JLT, RSA, Four-miler, Mares novice).

Group C loosely collates the handicaps (Festival chase, Festival plate, Novice handicap chase, Kim Muir, Grand Annual, County, Coral Cup, Pertemps, Fred Winter, Martin Pipe).

Finally Group D is best termed ‘miscellaneous’ (Cross Country, Bumper, Foxhunter).

The reason for this is grouping of the races stems from the fact that I like to bet based on finding value.

This means, in general terms, backing a horse that I think is overpriced. This normally arises from a situation where there is either an overreaction to a recent poor run, or where simply not enough is known about potential improvers under different conditions (for example a horse stepping up in trip, or running on better ground than throughout the season so far).

Because so much is known about all the main protagonists in Group A races, it is normally very difficult to find value.

The market for these races has often been in existence since the previous years festival, and these markets are almost always correct.

The one exception from last year’s festival (coincidentally my biggest winner of the week) was Uxizandre in the Ryanair, who was overpriced due to some poor runs on soft ground, and he improved markedly for better ground and application of a visor for the first time.

Group B races aren’t as easily defined.

Hype horses tend to dominate the markets for these races, and are usually priced up on potential ability, rather than proven form.

The results for hype horses are, by definition, a mixed bag – for every Douvan, Vautour and Champagne Fever there must be an equivalent Cousin Vinny, Pont Alexandre or Briar Hill.

Min is the standout hype horse this year, but given the track record of connections in the Supreme novice, it would be a brave/foolish man to take a strong view either way on him.

For me it is most likely a race to sit out, unless something stands out a big each way price closer to the day. It is often possible to find a bit of value by looking at the going conditions angle.

A lot of the novice races (in Ireland especially) are run in atrocious conditions through the winter, and looking for a horse that is bred to appreciate better going can be a nice way to get some value. In recent years, Lord Windermere left his previous novice chase defeats well behind when taking the RSA chase on better ground.

Group C is by far and away my favourite from a betting point of view.

Handicaps are, by their very nature, difficult for the bookmakers to price up.

They have the least time to price up the races, and often they are faced with three or four young improving types that can’t all be favourite.

Punters are often treated to 8/1 favourites with five places for the each way betting – whats not to like!

To be fair, the theories of sorting out Cheltenham handicaps could take up an entire library, but that won’t stop me from trying. In the hurdles you are usually looking for a young, unexposed improving type of horse.

You basically should ask yourself the question “could this horse be running well in grade two hurdles next season?”.

If the answer is yes, move on to the distance/ground/weight/trainer form criteria and try to come up with one where you can convince yourself that even if it goes pear-shaped it was still a decent selection.

Looking at last years handicap hurdle winners, Kilultagh Vic is current favourite for the JLT, Wicklow Brave has run respectably in graded hurdles and at Royal Ascot since, and Aux Ptit Soins was talked about as a leading World hurdle contender until injury intervened.

The handicap chases are a little different.

Experience is much more important in these races, as is course form and exceptional jumping ability.

Stamina is crucial, even in races where the gallop doesn’t appear overly strong, and not many horses finish strongly.

Just have a look back at The Package’s win in the Kim Muir to see horses finishing in the places almost walking over the line. Jockeys in the professional ranks are for the vast majority roughly equal, but choice of jockey becomes very important when looking at races restricted to amateur riders or conditionals.

Personally I prefer the handicap hurdles from a betting point of view, but in general all the handicaps offer a lot more in terms of value picks.

Finally Group D is a category I rarely get involved in, I am convinced the Champion Bumper was a race designed to rid punters of any winnings earned throughout the Wednesday’s racing, and unless you are an expert in point to point form (they are few and far between), don’t even think of getting involved in the Foxhunter.

I will probably lump the new Mares’ Novice race into this category for the time being, until some data becomes available for it. While the Cross Country can usually be narrowed down to two or three quite easily, it is still a race bet on at your peril.

So there you have it, thats the way I will be approaching Cheltenham 2016.

I have no doubt that this way is not for everyone, but maybe some aspects could be adapted to your own approach.

Regardless of the overall tactics, once you have the budget and discipline side of things sorted out before the week begins you won’t go too far astray.

Having the courage of your convictions can’t be underestimated, especially while watching all the odds on shots romping home as you are sitting out to wait for the Coral Cup, but that feeling when you cheer home a double figure price winner at Cheltenham is one that will stick with you for years, trust me.

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