Cheltenham 2016 - What now?

The All-weather championships from Lingfield are doing very little for my Festival hangover this glorious Good Friday afternoon. I’ve ‘hearted’ a few of the pretty pics on Twitter of racegoers sunning themselves at the track. That’s as far is it goes.

Uttoxeter’s fine Midlands National meeting the very day after the Gold Cup struggles to hold my attention for long, so a smattering of tapeta action in rural Sussex doesn’t stand a chance. This is the trouble with buying in to the Festival heart and soul. Nothing else comes close.

In the cauldron of the Barley Mow, deep into the afterglow of Don Cossack’s authoritative  victory in the Blue Ribband last Friday, Bacchy looked at me through the alcoholic hubbub and asked,

“So what now Davoski?”

He knows very well the post-festival void, but has a much stronger flat hinterland than I do.
“I’m not having the Lincoln meeting!”

“The Lincoln’s shite. What about the Dubai World Cup?”

The finest horses in training competing for the richest prizes at the most opulent track in the sport. It should be an easy sell. Bacchy is all over it. Despite his love for the jumps game, I swear finding flat winners comes easier to him. In the run up to the Festival he facebooked a link to some horse running the next day in Japan, FFS! Duramente it was called. It won.

So whilst Duramente lines up in the Sheema Classic tomorrow night at 10/3 and the £4m World Cup field has only two horses I’ve ever heard of, I’m still picking over the Festival.

Rare, as mentioned in a mid-Festival blog, for me to finish in healthy profit at the same time as the bookies take a hit. Like a punting see-saw, backing value usually means I’m down when they are up. So no surprise that when the dust settled, the bets that put me in profit were actually horses towards the top of the market. In order of profitability: Altior - 2nd fav, +19pts; Don Cossack - fav, +15 points; Sprinter Sacre - 2nd fav, +5pts; Yorkhill – 2nd fav, +3.5 pts.

Compared to other years, I got the staking right. The biggest bets were on the biggest winners – Altior and Don Cossack. That they were also in races where I had never before reeled in the winners was doubly pleasing.

The Gold Cup was a shade disappointing in hindsight. Cue Card coming down at the third last robbed us of a thrilling finish. Plenty are saying he would have won had he been able to lay down a challenge. I can’t have any of that talk. Having grappled with the race for 30 years before finding a winner, I’m not about to meekly hand over the moral victory to a faller. Don Cossack is a thorough stayer and was barely pushed out coming up the hill. Was it only December when shrewd commentators were calling Cossack the likeliest winner of the King George had he not come down at the final fence?  There are no stamina doubts about Elliot’s charge. Still, I wish Cue Card had stood up.

The value aspect didn’t yield any win results (place returns are discounted for this analysis). The closest, and it was bloody close, was Battleford in the Bumper. Struck at 28/1, Ballyandy’s nose deprived me of a big winner.  Even in a successful campaign that reversal was hard to take.

Every year I have a facile debate about the ante-post strategy. It’s time to come clean. On the whole, my approach is not profitable. Once or twice I’ve landed a big touch with one at fancy prices. But they haven’t paid for the losers. Apart from those who fall by the wayside before the Festival starts, my stats show that those who do turn up at big prices aren’t winning often enough. This year Yanworth was the best example of that (backed at 8/1). Zabana (backed at 22/1) in the JLT was worse, unshipping Davey Russell during a farcical standing start.  Identity Thief ran no race at all despite the double SP I had in tucked in the locker.  

When we get nearer the big days, there is value to be plundered from the NRNB markets, particular where combined with best odds guaranteed and the plethora of free bets sloshing around. Following this argument through, even though they were towards the head of the market when I backed them, Altior was two points shorter on the day and Don Cossack three.

So the only reasons to continue with a pure ante-post strategy are emotional ones: to enjoy the cut and thrust of the markets during the winter; and to celebrate wildly the big winners when they do go in. Is this sufficient justification to continue? Yes, probably…

The final analysis is encouraging enough, though. A smart 23 points profit at a 45% ROI. That comes in as my third best set of results since, er, records began, as they say. 2009 remains the Daddy of Festivals at +31 points when I managed to snag good wins with Punjabi, Cooldine and Big Buck’s in his first World Hurdle win. All with decent ante-post bets, I might add.

This isn’t smugness. I’ve had some shocking years with barely a win to scrape over the four days.

Yet again, the 2016 renewal yielded not a single handicap win to add to the stash. Some trends really do scream out a warning in capital letters: just two wins in the handful of handicap chases annually across 16 years. That’s 2 out of something like 80 races - an estimate because there hasn’t been five handicap chases every year, where conditions of races change. The point is clear, however. Minimum stakes only, if that. The handicap hurdle return is hardly copper bottomed. A mere five wins across the same period. A lot more place returns have offset some of the damage.  Nevertheless, stick to the conditions events, lad.

So the prepping for the colossus meetings of Aintree and Punchestown begins, with lively Spring festivals at Ayr and Perth in between. There’s plenty to focus on over the jumps at this time of year. It means I’m a slow starter on the flat. Too slow. That’s Bacchy’s point. Maybe I’ll have a quick look at Meydan tomorrow.


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