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Saturday 10 February 2018

Cheltenham Festival Ante Post: How often are the bookmakers right?

A collective groan reverberated around Cheltenham Racecourse when odds-on favourite Unowhatimeanharry was beaten by 10/1 shot Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle last year. The odd whoop perforated the grumbling, but the vast majority of punters ripped up their tickets, shook their heads and wore forlorn expressions. Harry Fry’s gelding was on an eight-race winning streak and looked all but certain to make it nine in a row, causing fans across the land to back him to the hilt. But it simply was not to be in the big race and he could only finish third, behind Nichols Canyon and 33/1 chance Lil Rockerfeller. 

It was a classic example of a well-backed favourite letting the masses down on the big stage, but that is by no means an isolated case. Another example was the surprise defeat suffered by 2/9 favourite Douvan in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. One unlucky punter staked £500,000 on the previously unbeaten superstar chaser to extend his winning streak, but Douvan flopped. A post-race enquiry showed he was suffering from a pelvic injury and he was declared lame.

There are countless examples of this sort of thing happening, from low-profile races all the way up to the Cheltenham Festival, the most important event in the National Hunt calendar. It is part and parcel of betting on horse racing and what makes it so exciting. After all, it would never work if the favourite won every time. But just how successful are the favourites and how risky is it to keep backing them to win?

In the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, only six out of 28 favourites won their races. Given the short odds available on favourites, you would have incurred a hefty loss had you backed the bookmakers’ frontrunner each time. The previous year, 10 favourites were victorious, but several were really low-priced – Douvan won at 1/4, Vroum Vroum Mag at 4/6, Limini at 8/11, Vautour and Thistlecrack at evens – so you would still have been down overall if you had consistently backed the favourite to win.

The Cheltenham Festival is the most prestigious meeting of the year in the UK and it is packed full of Grade 1 races that carry massive prize purses. That attracts the all the leading trainers and they all put forward their very best stars in a bid for the ultimate glory. It makes for thrilling races, and intrigue abounds for punters poring over the form in these open contests with broad fields, but that makes it very difficult to select a winner, so many people default to the favourite. But because the races are so competitive, the favourite is often beaten by a classy rival. In the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, only seven favourites landed, and many were odds-on. In 2014, six favourites out of 28 won. Entire days at the March Festival have gone by in recent years where not a single favourite won a race.

When a favourite flops, many punters accuse the bookmakers of getting it wrong. If the favourite wins, the bookmakers are said to have got it right. But this is an incorrect way of looking at it. Bookmakers do not put out odds on a horse race to give punters an idea of what the result will be. They do it to make a profit. If the favourite won every race, they would go out of business. They make their money from an unheralded horse like Nichols Canyon beating a heavily fancied horse like Unowhatimeanharry and their odds are designed to tempt customers one way or another.

Bookmakers are also reactive to the betting patterns of the public. If one horse is heavily backed, they drop the price on it and offer longer, more attractive odds on its rivals to redress the balance and cover their backs. This is not a case of the bookmaker getting it right or wrong, but simply a reflection of a business trying to make a profit. It is up to the punter to beat them at their own game, and that typically involves going against the grain.

Favourites only win 30% of the time. For almost any horse racing meeting, and this is especially true at a big one like the Cheltenham Festival, in either fixed-odds betting and horse racing spread betting, the way to make a profit is to go against the public and find the longer shots that are overlooked. Hunt out the horse that will enjoy the going, or the one that might relish a step up or down in trip, or one that lost on their return from a long layoff but showed enough promise to improve next time out. By all means back some favourites, but you need to be selective about which ones you opt for because backing them all is a sure fire way to lose money.