Cheltenham – a special week

Bill Esdaile
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Sire De Grugy stretching his legs at the seaside yesterday

WITH only days to go until the start of the Cheltenham Festival, bookmakers are falling over themselves with generous offers to attract new clients.

Champion Chase sponsors Betway have pledged to refund all losing bets on their sponsored feature race next Wednesday should Sire De Grugy win the race for a second year running. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a £50 free bet on the table, best prices are guaranteed, and there are apparently further offers on the way.

Paddy Power are similarly refunding all losing bets in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Arkle Chase should respective hotpots Douvan and Un De Sceaux also get the job done, so there has never been a better time than now for online horseracing punters.

We are set to have between two and three pages each day next week previewing the Cheltenham Festival action, so I’ll hold fire on any race selections today and instead focus on the host of special markets on offer.

Starting with the market on who will be the top jockey and it’s hard to oppose red hot favourite Ruby Walsh at what could turn out to be a pretty generous best-price of 1/2 with Betway.

Walsh has been leading pilot in five of the last seven years and his rides this week include Un De Sceaux (8/13), Annie Power (8/13), Faugheen (5/4) and Douvan (7/4) – and that’s just on the opening day.

Admittedly, the quality deteriorates a little for the remaining three days, but an opening day four-timer may be enough whatever happens from that point onwards.

Willie Mullins is an even shorter price to land top trainer honours, again at a best-priced 1/4 with Betway – a price at which I’d far rather be a backer than a layer, particularly when you consider that Paddy Power are just 1/8.

Mullins is bringing over a team of around 50 this year and is, at the time of writing, responsible for the favourite in 10 of the 27 races and it’s hard to envisage the likes of Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson having enough firepower to challenge him. Betway go 6/5 the master of Closutton trains six or more winners and it’s 4/6 for under six.

One of the most intriguing special markets, though, is the battle to be crowned the Festival’s top owner, with the majority of layers chalking up Mrs S Ricci, wife of former Barclays man Rich, as their short-priced favourite.

Yet, even though she will be represented on the opening day by Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power, the team is weaker thereafter with only the likes of Vautour, Bordini and Djakadam to come.

I’m therefore prepared to take the 9/4 with Ladbrokes about GIGGINSTOWN HOUSE STUD winning the coveted crown. Owned by Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary, the operation boasts a string of fancied runners every day including the likes of Don Poli, Don Cossack, Very Wood, Road To Riches and Roi Des Francs.

Sporting Index are already offering a range of special markets on this year’s meeting and I suppose the one that catches my eye is their prediction on the TOTAL WINNING LENGTHS OF ALL MRS S RICCI OWNED HORSES. The spread betting firm have pitched that at between 9.9 and 10.4 lengths. For example, if the Ricci team have one winner, who scores by six lengths, the market would be settled at six.

Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power all have the potential to demolish their respective fields, whilst Vautour in the JLT and Bordini in the Champion Bumper also have plenty of potential. A small-stakes buy at 10.4 could still be extremely profitable, if even only one realises its potential on the course.

The traders seem to be pretty spot on in a number of their other markets. The biggest SP of a winner during the week is pitched at 46-47.5. So buyers are essentially hoping for a winner at 50/1 or bigger, while sellers will be safe as long as nothing longer than 40/1 finds its way past the post first.

One market that might be worth a small sell, though, is the winning distances on the four championship races at 13 (lengths). The Champion Chase, World Hurdle and Gold Cup are all pretty open and, although the Champion Hurdle has a hot favourite, it’s still a deep contest and we could be in for some really close finishes in the showpiece events.

Bookmakers are taking no chances on the going description for the first race of the meeting (Supreme Novices’) being good to soft. Betway are dangling a real carrot by offering a best-priced 2/5 (2/7 everywhere else) that the meeting gets under way on good to soft ground. That seems to be the default description given by clerk of the course to launch National Hunt racing’s most prestigious meeting and it would be a big surprise were it something different.

The race for the Prestbury Cup (England v Ireland) has the potential to be far closer than the markets are suggesting and IRELAND look a decent bet at 7/2 with Coral to emerge with the most winners. They are currently responsible for 14 favourites in the 27 races so on that basis are overpriced. Don’t get me wrong, England are numerically far better represented and should emerge on top, but you are a braver man than me if you are prepared to take 1/5.

There’s a decent trading angle here too. If Mullins dominates day one as expected, then Ireland certainly won’t be 7/2 for long and they also have the favourites for the first two races on Wednesday.

Finally, Cheltenham have quite rightly opted to name the Grand Annual, the final race of the week, after the legendary AP McCoy, who will be riding in his final festival next week. As retained jockey for JP McManus, the 19 times champion jockey has a host of decent rides, but certainly no bankers.

For that reason, I’ll be taking the 10/11 with Ladbrokes that McCOY RIDES TWO OR LESS WINNERS – only three visits to the winner’s enclosure will prevent us from being paid out.

■ Pointers…