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Plog 48 - 22/03/16:
The Only Losing Punter On The
2016 Cheltenham Festival
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First, let me introduce myself. My name is Roy Waterhouse and I'm the only punter in the world who had a losing Cheltenham Festival.
It looks like my method of 'aggressive betting' - going with, sometimes, several overpriced runners on my tissue - doesn't work at the Festival after all.
After I won on the first three days of the meeting with the method in 2015, I thought this was the way to go. Flying in the face of advice I've given in previous post-Cheltenham PLOGs - in short, 'look for each-waying first five' - I backed several horses to win in the races in which I played. There's no doubt that my computer breaking down on the Thursday saved my backside.
Fast forward to 2016, and it is a trail of destruction. Red cells all round in my Excel spreadsheet.
I'm not sure what was the most gutting - that I lost, or that I had a few placed but hadn't been each-waying, and therefore didn't draw.
Out of my Comfort Zone before the first race
I totted up the amount I'd bet on the first day and felt frightened, apprehensive. This is not something that I often feel nowadays when betting, but I wasn't comfortable with this. Having played in four races, I needed one winner to feel not so bad, and two to win the day.
I was against Un Temps Pour Tout in the Ultima Handicap Chase, as he'd jumped poorly over fences prior to this race, but I knew that off his handicap mark, if ever it did click in the jumping stakes, he could run rings round handicap chasers, which he did. I had The Young Master, who was third, Morning Assembly, Beg To Differ who clipped heels and unseated on the bend starting the last circuit, and a couple of funny ideas.
Talking of funny ideas, here's the funniest - for those with a weird sense of humour; Annie Power looked worth taking on in the Champion Hurdle. To what extent she should have been opposed was there for all to see, both during and after the race. Of the three that I backed, there are rumours that Hargam was seen supping from a trough of Guinness in the town centre that night, and Sempre Medici was similarly disinterested in racing. Top Notch was okay but not good enough.
I decided that that would be the one and only terrible mistake I would make all week. Easier said than done.
Katie Walsh gave Measureofmydreams a hell of a ride in the National Hunt Chase, but Derek O'Connor did so to a greater extent on the underpriced Minella Rocco, and now it became desperate. All I had left was the novices' handicap chase, but I'd won it in 2015 with Irish Cavalier, so I was hopeful.
When Bouvreuil - the only one of mine anywhere near - led at the last it was looking great, but he idled it away and let Ballyalton in.
I couldn't possibly have felt worse. The emotions are impossible to describe. If Bouvreuil had won it would still have been a down-day, but I'd have felt nowhere near so bad. But no, I crashed and burned.
I looked for the cat so I could give her a stroke, but, having joined me on and off in The Engine Room during the afternoon, she'd deserted me (it's taken her ten years to tell me via feline body language that she hates gambling).
Trying to keep some control of it
Wednesday dawned with my confidence through the floor - but it also dawned with the knowledge that I wouldn't be playing in so many races.
On a regular Saturday, the races I want to bet on these days are Class 2-or-better handicaps with nine runners or more, which are the races on which there'll be a strong morning market with decent prices. What I do nowadays with my tissue is firstly filter out everything that's less than 8/1, and then filter out everything that's less than 170% of my price. This pushes the minimum price I'm looking for into double figures in a lot of races.
This eliminated a lot of races on the Wednesday of the Festival, which were sure to be won by something towards the head of the market, as half Tuesday's races had done. There were Yanworth, Yorkhill and Un De Sceaux, and the RSA Chase only drew eight runners, with More Of That and No More Heroes - who looked most solid - heading the betting.
I was proved right in letting the Neptune go, but something of a minor turn-up occurred in the RSA with Blaklion going in. The day's first wagers were in the Coral Cup, which hasn't gone my way since its inception in 1993 and was destined not to do so again, Blazer and Baoulet Delaroque the latest not-close-enoughs.
I don't know exactly how low a low ebb can go, but if it prevents you from appreciating something you should, perhaps that's the lowest point. Sprinter Sacre's winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase, after what he and his connections have been through, was the top moment of the whole meeting, but I was too consumed with my betting issues to appreciate it at the time.
Something I sacrifice a bit of these days is television. A re-run of Sprinter winning would only take five minutes, two re-runs ten. It's top of my catch-up TV-list.
Having let the cross-country go, and as I wasn't getting involved in the Bumper, the only race left for me to get a result in was the Fred Winter, which I'd won the year before on Qualando, at 28/1 in the morning.
The only thing this had in common with last year's renewal is that Paul Nicholls trained the first and second, Diego Du Charmil - having his first race in Britain, as Aux Ptit Soins had done for the yard in the 2015 Coral Cup - just holding on from the fast-finishing Romain De Senam. The nearest of mine was the third Coo Star Sivola, but the three of them would have been third, fourth and fifth but for the independent falls at the last of Voix Du Reve and Campeador.
It was clear from the pre-race betting, and the result, that Nicholls, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott had laid out horses for the Fred Winter. Apart from the winner (13/2) who was making his British debut, Mullins's Voix Du Reve had only raced once in Ireland - finding little at Fairyhouse on February 20th - and Elliott's Campeador (8/1) had also had only the one run, weakening in desperate conditions at Leopardstown on Boxing Day. On the evidence of my eyes, these two couldn't win the Fred Winter - but their connections knew different, and they would have been fighting for the win but for their falls.
The effect this result had on me, though, was the realisation of the inescapable conclusion that, in a Cheltenham Festival where favourites were going in all over - and if they didn't, second favourites were - and bookies' representatives were already giving sensationalistic quotes to the effect of 'we've been knocked flat' - I'd had it. There was no way I could make a profit on the four days. It was damage limitation at best from here on in.
Assuming that I would actually bet on the meeting again, that is.
Not the ideal time to review your betting
I took the decision during the night before and on the morning, not to bet on Thursday.
It was the right thing. Firstly, it felt that way. Secondly, again there were a whole load of solid favourites. Most races looked sure to go to the top end of the market, and five of them did, including Cause Of Causes at 9/2 in the 24-runner Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase. My tissue would have indicated to avoid him due to the price being too short even when he was high single figures (I don't remember seeing a double-figure price about him), so there never was anything for me in a race which would have been a prime target under the aggressive betting-strategy.
Instead I did what I often do at those times when I need a good, hard look at my betting performance. I sifted through my Excel spreadsheets to see if I could identify any areas where I was going wrong.
The aggressive betting-strategy had worked since January 23rd, since when I'd cut out any races of Class 3 or worse (I'm out of the loop on mid-grade or 'grass roots' horses since I gave up working nights). I will go back to this on Saturdays but, as was now looking the case, it wasn't ideal for the Cheltenham Festival.
I also looked at my spreadsheets for the 2012 to 2014 Cheltenham Festivals. I didn't want to look at last year's as that was the time that I changed my strategy.
You know that saying 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'?
My analysis of my betting on the 2012-14 Festivals showed that I backed 56 horses each way. Of these, 18 were placed (including fifth-placings for those races in which I placed bets with a bookie offering first-five place terms). That's over 30% of each-way horses that were at least placed.
These 56 horses took part in 47 races in all (out of 81 over the three Festivals). I had an each way-horse placed in 17 of those races, which is slightly better than 36%.
Then there was one last pertinent statistic. Of the 12 days of betting across the three Festivals, I got at least one each way-return on nine of those days. That's not necessarily making a profit on the day, although those days are included in the stat - that's just getting something back, even if I'd go on to have a losing day.
Why change what worked, when you end up risking more money on more horses, and feel silly if you back seven in a race and they all lose?
Back to the front line
After some soul searching, I decided I was ready to bet again on Friday.
But the big difference was that I would try to bet in the way that had served me so well at the 2012-14 Festivals. It looked like I needed a different set of rules for the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals only; with the ultra-competitive fields, don't go for the high-risk, umpteen-against-the-field strategy - go with three each way instead. In the long run at these meetings, if I didn't get something back on one day, I will on most Festival-days.
Something else 'just like old times' was that I would have some 'leave' races, to keep the overall damage down. These would be the Triumph, the County, the Foxhunters' and the Grand Annual.
Because what race, that's run on the Friday of the Cheltenham Festival, do I find so easy to work out that my involvement in it from a betting point of view is near-as-damn-it mandatory? Yes, it's the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle, in which I had a lovely touch with Salubrious in 2013 - I needed it for an 'up' Festival that year - and is therefore the least likely race to let me down.
My first bets of the day were in the Albert Bartlett, and I went with two against Barters Hill and Shantou Village, who for some reason had been backed into favourite despite having a non-stayer's pedigree. I thought that Long Dog and Gangster, two of a seven-strong Mullins contingent, were sure to make the first four or five with a clear round.
Sadly, Long Dog broke down and became one of seven fatalities during the meeting. Gangster was beaten before he had to come up the hill and will probably do better in the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot, being a half-brother to Rite Of Passage, a winner of the Ascot version of the Gold Cup.
But it was the real Gold Cup next. For me Don Cossack stood out a mile - as the one to take on. His Cheltenham experiences consisted of a fall in the 2014 RSA Chase and a below-best run in the 2015 Ryanair Chase when he survived a few mistakes behind Uxizandre.
With Djakadam's jumping back under the microscope after a fall in the Cotswold Chase on his latest outing, King George winner Cue Card not certain to last the extra quarter mile and Don Poli likely to be outpaced and come under a ride early enough, I was looking at Smad Place, winner of the Cotswold from Many Clouds and, following that, right up there in form terms.
The list of bets filed under 'seemed like a good idea at the time' is already too long without adding to it. I don't suppose it helped Smad Place that O'Faolains Boy took him on up front, but when the race unfolded over the last seven fences it was the class acts to the fore. Don Cossack proved to all doubters that he has no problem with Cheltenham.
How we could have done with Djakadam getting round in the Cotswold - if he'd stayed on his feet and gone on to beat Smad Place, or run him close, it would have been useful for the pre-race analysis, but there you are - you can only work with the information available.
After Victoria Pendleton gave TV and radio news teams that night's lead sports story by finishing fifth in the Foxhunter, on to the Martin Pipe.
I don't think it'll be the first race I look at on the Friday card any more. I went with Children's List, Jetstream Jack and Mr Mix, all each way.
With the first two named giving up the ghost before coming down the hill, Mr Mix - who'd already survived a hairy moment two or three hurdles earlier - was my last remaining hope of getting something out of this Festival, and he was keeping on a bit coming down the hill before - summing up how the week had gone - falling at what turned out to be the last. No doubt he'd have weakened up the hill anyway, he was hard at work at the time.
I didn't play the Grand Annual. A Paul Nicholls-horse wearing first-time blinkers has often been the way to go, but it would be stretching it to suggest I'd have landed on Solar Impulse. Runner-up Dandridge, maybe.
The destruction was complete.
The worst place on Earth
Everywhere I looked - the Racing Post website, Twitter, everywhere - it was a tale of woe for the bookmakers. 'Worst Cheltenham ever...' 'Punters are on cloud nine...' 'We've lost an eight-figure sum...'
There is nothing like a Cheltenham Festival going badly to throw your mind. So what's the craic, we all have to be favourite punters now, betting the life savings on Mullins's 4/6-shot in the Supreme, then play it up on the stable's 4/5 chance in the Arkle?
It's definitely changed over the last two years. Willie Mullins sends a load of strong favourites over and you can set your watch by them. They 'will' win.
So I'm going to start having large bets on Mullins' horses at the Festival? Many people have, and that's why they were ahead on the four days, but that's not how I roll.
But with the benefit of hindsight, the aggressive strategy is wrong for festival meetings. I copped myself on for Friday, and for Aintree coming up, where the handicaps have gotten just as hard as the Cheltenham ones.
I also caught the slump in time to stop me from wiping myself out. We went out on Saturday, and at the start of the journey we went past a car showroom. I said to my wife, pointing out a particular motor: "I could still buy that car."
The bookies' representatives will always paint an extreme, sensational picture of their lot when a journalist asks, because it sells newspapers. So what if the betting industry lost an eight-figure sum on Cheltenham? It'll be the low end of said eight figures, and the industry makes an amount in high nine figures - maybe low ten - year-on-year. None went bust after Cheltenham.
And the punters? They'll give it back. Those who follow the sport day in day out and always bet on the short ones, they'll give it back over time.
Here's the last word. Instead of watching the Gold Cup and Foxhunters in The Engine Room as usual, I sat with my wife in the living room to watch them. After the Gold Cup, we had a little discussion about my betting. "You'll be back", she said.