Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Tipster Isn't Wearing Any Clothes

One of the things that I enjoy most about sport is that everyone has an opinion. In horseracing it is traditional to put your money where your mouth is; you back your opinions by placing bets, which is far better than arguing with colleagues by the water-cooler.

Or at least I think so. Those of you that followed my tip for What A Friend at Kempton last week might be forgiven for thinking that, like the fairytale emperor, this particular tipster is self-deceiving and deluded – he is not wearing any clothes. In addition to losing his shirt, he has lost his trousers, socks and pants; possibly even his marbles.

Well you might. But those of you that have taken my advice about Ballabriggs (who is likely to run at Kelso on Saturday) may be patting the betting slip in your back pocket and dreaming of the holiday you’ll take when he wins the Grand National next month. That’s the other thing I love about horseracing – the eternal optimism of punters.

If you come to the Cheltenham Festival Preview Night at Cartmel Racecourse next Thursday evening, 7th March, you’ll find no shortage of opinions or optimism. If you don’t like what top trainer Ferdy Murphy has to say about the Gold Cup, then you can always adopt the view of local trainer Jimmy Moffatt instead.

If you think that the form expert Marten Julian has gone off his rocker (and some of his theories can sound pretty wacky), then you might prefer to side with the straight-talking jockey Brian Harding.

All four of the panellists will have an opinion and the whole audience will be optimistic that they are right. Personally, I’m hoping that Ferdy will tell us that Divers is a certainty for the Mildmay of Flete Handicap Chase, perhaps Poker De Sivola in the Cross-Country Chase too.

I’m hoping that Marten will have picked out another handicap snip like Salut Flo, the David Pipe trained steamer that he gave us all last year. Jimmy is the only one on the panel to have both ridden and trained a winner at the Festival and he was good enough to recommend Chief Dan George to everyone at 33/1 in 2010. Brian is new to us and has a tough act to follow - last year’s jockey-on-the-panel was Harry Haynes who subsequently steered home Attaglance in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Hurdle at 20/1.

You’ll hear theories, counter-theories, statistics and gossip. The question is: How do you sort the wheat from the chaff? Who should you listen to? Do all those tipsters know what they are talking about, or is it possible that one of them isn’t wearing any clothes?

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.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Weighing Up the National

Weighing Up the National

The Grand National isn’t run until the first Saturday in April, but the weights for the big race were revealed this week. No more than 40 of the 85 horses entered will actually run in the race, so some of the contenders must be over-priced – which means that now is a good time to give you the winner!

It used to be easy to narrow down the field by selecting only nine and ten year olds carrying 11 stone or less. However, in recent years the BHA’s Senior Handicapper, Phil Smith, has been enticing the best horses to run in the race by allocating them slightly lower weights than their lofty ratings would normally dictate, resulting in wins for Neptune Collonges and Don’t Push It with 11st 6lb and 11st 5lb respectively.

This year the top-rated horse, Tidal Bay, will have a 9lb advantage over his rivals compared to a normal handicap chase. His trainer Paul Nicholls was responsible for last year’s winner – so what’s not to like about his chances at 16/1?
...Well, he unseated his rider on the first circuit in 2010 and I don’t think he jumps quite well enough. Not that falling in a previous edition of the race is a barrier to victory: West Tip and Hedgehunter both followed unlucky departures with a popular win.
On His Own (12/1) looked unfortunate when coming down at Bechers last year, while Quiscover Fontaine (50/1) was also going well when pitching on landing two fences before that. Both are trained by Willie Mullins who holds a strong hand in the 2013 renewal including Prince De Beauchene (12/1) and Quel Esprit (40/1). So am I tempted to take the 6/1 about Mullins winning with any of his seven entries?

Urm... no. Perhaps I am greedy, but I prefer longer odds than that.
Interestingly, horses that have been placed in the national before have a poor record of winning the race, but often manage to get placed again. This bodes (quite) well for supporters of Sunnyhillboy (20/1), Seabass (14/1) and Cappa Bleu (25/1) who filled the second, third and fourth spots last year. But for me, the one to back now is the sixth placed Ballabriggs at 33/1.

Despite my prediction that he would run over hurdles last weekend, Donald McCain’s 2011 winner actually appeared in a chase at Warwick, albeit over the inadequate trip of 2½ miles. Finishing stone-last, his spirited effort (he was prominent for a long way) demonstrated that he still has plenty of speed at the age of 12, while handily protecting his handicap mark.
Allotted just 11st, he will carry 9lbs less than last year and is trained by Donald McCain, whose father Ginger was responsible for the greatest multiple Grand National winner of all time – Red Rum, as well as fellow 12-year-old winner Amberleigh House. He is weighted to reverse placings with all three placed horses and will be difficult to beat.
And this weekend's racing? I'm sticking with Captain Chris at Ascot. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Straight Racing – and No Messing!

If I were to tell you that British racing was the straightest sport in the world you’d probably yawn and turn over the page. If I were to say that every trainer in Britain is trying to manipulate the form book and pull a fast-one on either the handicapper, the bookmakers or both, you might be interested – especially if I hinted that I could let you in on a secret or two…

While the health of the racing industry depends hugely on the integrity of the action, there is also great appeal to be found in stories of intricate plotting, clever deceptions and even skulduggery.

Each year the racing industry spends £16.5 million on essential services that ensure the sport remains clean. The horseracing forensic laboratory is a world leader in anti-doping technology; a network of cameras ensures that any incident on the track can be examined from a variety of angles. Thoroughbreds are routinely micro-chipped to ensure that the horse which appears in the Parade Ring really is the one whose name appears in the racecard. The rules state that every horse must “run on its merits to achieve the best possible placing” and a dedicated team of Stewards ensure that this is the case.

However, just because a horse is trying its hardest, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is running in the most suitable race. This is the grey area of the sport that keeps enthusiasts transfixed every day as they try to spot runners which have been “laid out” for a bigger occasion.

Last Sunday at Musselburgh we witnessed the useful chaser Divers finish third in a handicap hurdle. The fact is that Divers has an attractive handicap mark over fences – one that can’t be altered by this promising performance over the smaller obstacles, which will have put him spot on in terms of fitness for the big day (which will be at Cheltenham in mid-March).

This weekend, the Grand National winner Ballabriggs is also set to appear over hurdles. The weights for the Grand National won’t be published for a few more days, so why risk being raised a few pounds now? Meanwhile, connections of another Grand National entry, Little Josh, are doing the exact opposite. Despite a high rating over shorter distances, he will only qualify to run in the National if he has finished third or better in a steeplechase over 3 miles or more – expect to see him being ridden strongly to achieve this placing.

As for the weekend winners? Paul Nicholls traditionally targets this Newbury meeting and has won the Denman Chase in five of the last ten years. I expect Silviniaco Conti to do the trick for him again on Saturday – and no funny business!