Thursday, 21 February 2013

Don't Be Sheepish

Every year, about three weeks before the Cheltenham Festival, we start to see sheep at the racecourse. They appear furtively at first, hopping over the wall from the woods. Soon there are dozens of them, then a hundred, then nearly two hundred – all hopping over the wall from a nearby farm.
The sheep follow each other up the track until the farmer arrives to lead them to a new pasture. At a time when I openly confess to being obsessed by the form-book, it is a timely reminder of our tendency to follow the crowd.

But when it comes to punting, there is no safety in numbers. As money floods on to one horse, the price will shrink to odds that simply don’t reflect an appropriate return compared to the horse’s chance of winning. Meanwhile, the odds of other horses will lengthen as the bookies attempt to attract more money into the market. The idea that betting is a battle between punters and bookmakers is a myth; we are all betting against each other.

The key is to look for sensible alternatives to the prevailing view. For example, on Racing Post ratings, just 7lbs separates the top seven horses in the betting for the Gold Cup. Yet the prices of those seven horses vary from Bobsworth at 3/1 to Captain Chris at 25/1. While I believe that the most likely winner is Silviniaco Conti (5/1), I’m also interested in First Lieutenant who is rated almost as high as the favourites and is likely to improve on better ground at a price of 12/1.

In the Champion Chase and Arkle Novices Chase, both Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig appear certain to start odds-on favourites. Such is their perceived domination that it is still possible to back one of my favourite horses - Wishfull Thinking (20/1) and one of the most promising young horses - Arvika Legionniere (10/1) at ¼ the odds for being placed in the first three – even though fewer than eight horses could go to post in each race.

This weekend’s feature race is The Racing Plus Chase at Kempton, for which Wyck Hill heads the market at 5/2.The media have hyped him because he previously beat Katenko, a horse who has since improved immensely. It is worth noting that only two favourites have won this race in the last ten years, with only one other even reaching the first three. In the same period, horses rated 150 or more have won four runnings – a factor in favour of top-weight What A Friend (12/1) who has not been seen for 317 days, but who invariably runs his best races after a long break.

If you’ve backed a favourite and have been left feeling sheepish, perhaps it’s time for a new approach.

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