Don't follow the odds, follow the trends

These days, the entire horse racing calendar revolves around four days in March for many. The greatest show on turf, the Cheltenham Festival, is the pinnacle of jumps racing and is long anticipated from the moment the prior Festival ends. Ante-post bets are placed up to a year in advance, and a mass of preview evenings has created a budding circuit to talk all things Cheltenham.

Whether an experienced punter, or just a racing enthusiast, the idea of a Festival ‘banker’ is highly sought after each and every year. Compile a number of these bankers together across the four days, and these multiples conjure up a dream for people up and down the country. The first couple come in and bettors have already spent the winnings in their head; booking holidays, buying a new car and even planning retirement for some of those life-changing accumulators.

However, racing is never that simple; whilst many of the short-priced favourites appear as if they cannot be beaten, that is seldom the case. The Cheltenham Festival is the Olympics of National Hunt racing and the competition is always rife, one jumping mistake or an off-day, and there is plenty of other runners who will pick up the pieces; they aren’t just there to make up the numbers for a favourite’s procession.

As we stand at present, there are four odds-on favourites in the ante-post markets, and we are still over two weeks away from the roar. There are also two, Galopin Des Champs and Dinoblue, who are just holding on as they trade at even money, and it would be of no surprise if they shorten into odds-on as we approach the Festival - especially if Willie Mullins continues to fire in the winners as expected!

Rather than simply backing the favourites blind, it is vitally important to do the due diligence. The 2024 Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide will provide you with every fact, stat and trend to help you make the most informed bets throughout the best week of the year.

We’ve trawled through the data over the past ten Cheltenham Festivals and in the past decade there have been a whopping 40 odds-on favourites. Whilst these have been termed ‘good things’ over the years, just 21 (52.5%) of those have justified the odds and cashed for favourite backers; following all 40 over the last ten years to a 1-unit stake would result in a loss of 6.26 units. Whether it be a final flight fall, a complete blowout on the day or others simply overlooked, the Cheltenham Festival has been home to many a heartbreak.

Let us begin on a positive note, and the races in which the market has told the truth in the last decade. There are just two races with more four or more qualifiers that hold a 100% strike rate for odds-on favourites, and both of those occur on the first day as punters bid to get off to a dream start. The Arkle, the premier two-mile novice chase, has been won by odds-on favourites five times in the last ten years, the latest of which was Shishkin’s comfortable success in 2021 as he completed the lauded Supreme/Arkle double (more on his chase for the Festival treble later!) The likes of Altior and Douvan have surged to victory at skinny odds of 1/4 and whilst this may be plenty short for your regular, small-stakes bettor, no doubt formed part of many accumulators.

The Arkle pretty much looked like a done deal prior to the Dublin Racing Festival, and the presence of a short-priced favourite again looked ever likely. However, we now find ourselves with a wide-open market after Marine Nationale’s colours where lowered; there won’t be another odds-on shot adding themselves onto the illustrious roll of honour this year.

A dream Tuesday continues, as the Champion Hurdle has been landed by the last four odds-on favourites. Nicky Henderson has trained two of those, Constitution Hill and Buveur D’Air, and the former looks to emulate the latter this year and collect his second Champion Hurdle prize. He was sent off at 4/11 last term as he cruised to victory and cemented his superstar status, and the bookmakers are unlikely to take him on whatsoever this term and may in fact be closer to 1/4 by the time they head down to the start.

Now, the Mares’ Hurdle is where things have gone terribly wrong in the last decade. Short-priced trebles are sitting with two ticks following the Arkle and the Champion Hurdle, and whilst the cash-out button has looked tempting, the final leg banker simply just wins, doesn’t she? Well, no. If recent results are anything to go by, that conclusion couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In fact, five of the last seven odds-on favourites in the Mares’ Hurdle have lost, letting down lucrative accumulators as bookmakers across the country breathe a sigh of relief. Undoubtedly the most famous of all occurred in 2015, and the infamous Annie Power fall. The imperious duo of Walsh and Mullins had begun the Festival with a bang, landing the Supreme, Arkle and Champion Hurdle and the final leg of the popular four-fold was 1/2 favourite Annie Power. Owned by Rich Ricci, the superstar mare had only just been denied in the World (Stayers’) Hurdle the year prior and was already a two-time Grade 1 winner. She was well in command of the race and four lengths clear approaching the last when the unthinkable happened. She had never fallen prior, and didn’t fall after funnily enough, but just as punters needed one final leap she would fall at the last in heartbreaking fashion. The reports that circulated at the time estimated that the betting industry was saved a £50 million payout if she were to win, and it became the costliest fall for those holding healthy multiples.

For the same powerful connections, Benie Des Dieux has twice been beaten at short odds, a similar final fence fall in 2019 before just bumping into a blossoming Honeysuckle in 2020 on her meteoric rise to the top. History has a funny way of repeating itself in sport, and the racing world will be fearing déjà vu when they see Lossiemouth trading at 8/13 in those same famous pink and green silks.

Although the Baring Bingham (the artist formerly known as the Ballymore) has been a successful playground for odds-on favourites in recent years with Sir Gerhard, Envoi Allen and Samcro landing the spoils, that has often been where the fun has ended. The Champion Chase has proven to be a graveyard for short-odds backers in recent years, with five of the last six beaten. The championship two-mile race is run at a frenetic pace year after year and is often one of the more testing races in the entire week, with a heavy emphasis on speed, stamina, and slick jumping. At that type of pace at the highest level, one sketchy jump and the race can be over as quickly as it started. Shishkin was pulled-up after just the eighth fence, Defi Du Seuil laboured home into fourth, Douvan was a well beaten seventh and the list goes on. It is not a race for the feint-hearted; El Fabiolo backers, beware.

Elsewhere on the Wednesday, the ever-popular Tiger Roll faltered in the defence of his Cross Country crown at odds of 8/11 in 2020 whilst Kilcruit was denied by a stablemate in the 2021 Champion Bumper. Monkfish is the sole odds-on favourite in the last ten years to run in the Brown Advisory and whilst backers were paid out, it was not without a scare as a final fence blunder left hearts in mouths.

Whilst the other novice chases have proved rather successful for the shorties, the Turners has not so much, with three beaten in the last three years. Envoi Allen, considered the Irish banker for the third Festival running following Weatherbys Champion Bumper and Baring Bingham success, fell at the fourth fence in 2020 and left Jack Kennedy with a lonely walk back to the weighing room (pictured). The following year was even more agonising. Galopin Des Champs had turned the screws on Bob Olinger and left him in his wake with a mesmerising performance, only to go down at the final fence following a massive leap when a widening 12 lengths ahead.

An imperious Gold Cup winner since, it must still be a painful memory for all with their money down that day. Stage Star dominated last year’s edition under Harry Cobden on the front end, and 4/7 favourite Mighty Potter could only stay on into third. Whilst we may not have an odds-on favourite at present in the ante-post markets, if Mullins decides to send Fact To File down this route, that could very well change. Can he break the curse in the Turners?

The Stayers’ Hurdle has seen two shorts-odds favourites beaten in the last decade and, as is always the case with these enigmatic stayers, is a race that tends to throw up a fair few shock results. There have been 50/1 and 33/1 winners in just the last four years, and these old boys just have a way of springing surprises.

Willie Mullins has landed the Mares’ Novice Hurdle with Laurina (4/7) and Limini (8/11) but it is unlikely his Jade De Grugy will touch that sort of price in a red-hot renewal of the burgeoning race this year. Whilst Allaho landed the odds in the Ryanair for the master of Closutton back in 2022, Un De Sceaux again added his name to the blacklist when beaten by Balko Des Flos in 2018, his second short-odds defeat in three years at the Festival.

The final day of the Festival has not had an odds-on favourite line up in the past decade, the likes of the Albert Bartlett and the Hunter Chase often proving real puzzles that the market can’t quite figure out. Galopin Des Champs could edge into that territory this year in defence of his Gold Cup crown and would be the first odds-on runner in the prestigious race since Kauto Star in 2010. Regarded by many as one of the greatest of all time, even Paul Nicholls’ superstar couldn’t justify the odds as he was pounded into submission by the relentless, remorseless Denman. The best staying chasers in the land over 3m2f at a championship pace, it would take a brave punter to go all in at skinny odds!

Horses may seem bombproof right now, but we tell these cautionary tales as a word of warning. Racing, and betting, is never easy. The temptation of a life-changing multiple is of course understandable, but as we have outlined above, it is rarely as simple as it may seem. Don’t just follow the favourites, follow the trends!