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Tuesday 14 December 2021

Why is it so hard to pick winners at Cheltenham Festival?

In the National Hunt, one racecourse more than any other defines success over the course of a season or indeed a career. That racecourse is Cheltenham. The venue stages Cheltenham Festival in the second week of March every year where the leading horses, jockeys, trainers and owners compete for the major honours in the National Hunt. 

Cheltenham Festival provides the ultimate test for all parties involved; preparation begins for owners and trainers as soon as the previous campaign ends. It is exceptionally difficult for even the best horses to turn up at Cheltenham Racecourse and reel off a victory, even if they are the outstanding favourite for the race. Undiagnosed flaws in their performance or other factors such as the weather or ground can ruin hopes of glory. Sports bettors desperately try to identify these criteria to see which horses will succeed or fail at the event, although even the most dedicated of research can fall short and could be riddled with bias, which is only human nature. 

Today, AI systems are being developed that can help you to pick your winner at this prestigious Festival. For example, the Beth AI betting tool has been implemented in horse racing in an attempt to remove bias from the sports wagering equation. The AI system takes all of the factors regarding each horse racing into account, notably past success at a venue, form, pedigree, weather, ground and even the wind before it calculates the competitor that it believes will win the contest. The result calculated by the AI programme is based solely on the facts of the matter, therefore, there is no sway to one horse over another based on whether it performed the last time you placed a wager on it. 

There are no guarantees in the world of professional sport, especially horse racing. Who could have predicted that the exceptional Envoi Allen would fall so early into the Marsh Novices’ Chase in the 2021 Cheltenham Festival? Envoi Allen carried an outstanding record into the event, producing 12 victories on the bounce. He did change into the yard of Henry de Bromhead before the race, but jockey Jack Kennedy remained at the reins, having guided the horses to victory in his last three races.

However, for one reason or another, Envoi Allen failed to clear the fourth fence and presented the victory to Chantry House. You could not even point to past performances at Cheltenham for his failure as he had won on his two previous visits in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and the Champion Bumper. Criteria such as the wind or ground may have been an influence, and perhaps could have been identified as a weakness by the AI system before the start of the race.

Factors such as experience under pressure are why it is so hard to win at Cheltenham and for bettors to pick a winner. It seemed to be the case for Goshen and jockey Jamie Moore in 2020 when the horse appeared to be destined for a dominant win in the Triumph Hurdle, only to unseat Moore at the final hurdle. Moore was perhaps at fault for mistiming the last jump with his moves on the reins. As a result, all the hard work and dedication to preparing Goshen for the event was wasted, and there were plenty of frustrated punters in the stands. 

It highlights the difficulty of winning not only a race but a wager at Cheltenham racecourse and why a new approach could be useful for the 2022 Cheltenham Festival.