England v Pakistan Betting Preview

England (1/4) will be full of confidence after their opening win over South Africa, which should have removed plenty of pressure off the hosts’ shoulders. Their opponents Pakistan (3/1) will be licking their wounds following their dreadful batting display against West Indies in their first match. Pakistan are routinely, and lazily, referred to as ‘mercurial’; the truth is that this particular Pakistan team just isn’t very good.


Conditions

Trent Bridge has been a happy hunting ground for England since their Eoin Morgan-inspired revolution, and the groundstaff pride themselves on producing high-scoring wickets for both international and domestic cricket. The news that this game will be played on the very pitch that saw England rack up their record score means a run-fest is even more likely.

However, the 10:30am start has to be in the minds of punters. Early wickets have been the norm in the early games so far in the tournament, and if England win the toss, Pakistan’s top order could still be in for a torrid time in the first 15 overs, even on the batting paradise we all expect.


Bowling Bets

Having seen Pakistan’s timid effort against the West Indies’ short-pitched barrage, England may choose to unleash Mark Wood to add extra pace alongside Joffra Archer. Chris Woakes has a good record at Trent Bridge, with six wickets in his last two England games there, so should play. The Top England Bowler market looks a minefield, however, with little way of predicting who will take the wickets in advance on a such a flat track.

Pakistan will hope that Mohammed Amir backs up his promising and successful spell against the West Indies at the same venue. But HASAN ALI has been by far the most consistent performer for his team prior to the World Cup starting, and one wicketless innings has seen his quality overlooked. He takes 1.67 wickets per innings on average (against World Cup qualified teams), and that’s significantly better than Amir (1.07) and the other Pakistani bowlers. Of course, there’s a risk in delving into this market at all at Trent Bridge, but Ali is good enough value to merit a small interest nonetheless.


Batting Bets

England love batting at Trent Bridge. Strangely, Joe Root has the weakest record there since it became a batting paradise, racking up ‘only’ 39 runs per innings on average, compared to Roy (48), Bairstow (47), Buttler (49) and Morgan (60).

The Three Lions will look to savage the Pakistan bowling, confident in their teammates lower down the order, whether they bat first or second. Pakistan simply don’t have the firepower to compete in a shootout, as the recent ODI series between the two sides showed. There’s little point in guessing which of England’s batsmen will fire the biggest score; instead the value looks to lie in some special bets, below.

Pakistan’s batting is unpredictable, and betting on it has to be avoided after their capitulation at the same venue only days ago.


Special/Other Bets

England have by far the quickest average scoring rate in the first 10 overs, and they don’t slow down after that either. Pakistan, on the other hand, struggle to hit the big shots early on that are necessary in the first powerplay. Whichever way the game goes, including the outcome of the toss, it’s very hard to see England being outscored early on. The odds on the Three Lions scoring more than Pakistan in the first 15 overs are particularly generous, but the chances of England hitting the most 4s and 6s also look to have been underestimated. These are almost dead certs, and the decent odds-on prices available have to be devoured.


Recommended Bet Summary

Hasan Ali – Top Pakistan Bowler – 0.5pts at 7/2 (B365) or 11/4 (generally) 

England – Most Runs First 15 Overs – 3pts at 8/15 (Hills and generally)

England – Most Team 4s – 2pts at 4/6 (Betfair/Paddy Power)

England – Most Team 6s – 2pts at 1/2 (General)

England v South Africa Betting Preview

After the seemingly interminable build-up, it’s a relief that the World Cup is finally due to get underway with the hosts England (1/2) taking on South Africa (7/4). Given England’s win ratio over the last 2-3 years, those odds are about right, so let’s get stuck into some of the more interesting markets available.

Conditions

There’s minimal chance of rain, but it will be overcast. Those conditions may help fast bowlers, especially with a 10:30am start, and with captains wary of that early movement the winner of the toss is likeliest to chase. Indeed, teams fielding first have won six of the last eight completed ODIs at The Oval.

Having said that, the square in Kennington has slowed down over the last few years – gone is the fast bowlers’ paradise of old – and with the ground’s relatively sizeable boundaries, spinners will still play a key role, especially in the second innings.


Bowlers

There isn’t often much movement in the air or off the pitch at The Oval, even with overcast conditions, and “hit the deck” fast bowlers tend to fare best, followed by genuine spinners. Liam Plunkett’s record at the South London ground is outstanding, with ten wickets in his last six matches there at a strike rate of just 29.4, and given Mark Wood’s fitness scare he is likely to play. Odds of 4/1 to be England’s top bowler are fair, but not good enough to rate a recommended bet. If England bowl first, Chris Woakes would fancy his chances of taking early scalps; if England bowl second, Adil Rashid can create havoc on a slowing pitch with South Africa certain to be chasing a hefty total.

With Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir both trading generally at around 11/4, there looks little value in picking the top South African bowler, as those two are consistently the Proteas’ main wicket-takers.

Batsmen

South Africa’s bowling strength is up front, with Rabada and the rapid Lungi Ngidi set to unleash a barrage with the new ball. Neither Jason Roy nor Jonny Bairstow will be shy in taking them on, and there could be fireworks in the first ten overs. If the Proteas’ pacemen are successful, England’s middle order could face a fair number of overs, and that brings skipper EOIN MORGAN and test captain JOE ROOT into considerations for top batsman.

Both Morgan and Root love the Oval, topping England’s averages at the venue. Root has the class to see off the new ball, if indeed he is exposed to it, and quite simply the Yorkshireman is a run-machine. In ODIs in England in the last three years he has made 1,624 runs in 34 innings (47.8 per innings), figures that compare well with openers Bairstow (49.7) and Roy (46.2). Morgan’s runs per innings figure is lower (40.1), but the steely Dubliner will be totally determined to stamp his authority on the tournament, and his average strike rate of 101 compares favourably with the slightly more reserved 93 for Root.

Markets are expecting Roy and Bairstow to dominate, but with Rabada and Ngidi to see off – as well as the chance of having to bat at 10:30am – there is value in backing both England’s numbers three and four, particularly at the best available prices.

For South Africa, QUINTON DE KOCK is the 100/30 favourite to be top scorer, but rightly so. The keeper has scored 46.6 runs per innings in the last three years. Skipper Faf Du Plessis can boast 49.45 in comparison, but he has a very mediocre record in England, with just 138 runs scored in four ODI innings plus a string of test failures to his name. Hashim Amla is a true legend of the game, and has to be respected, but his recent form is patchier than his beard, and De Kock’s chances look even better than his odds imply.

Specials

The combination of an early start (after an evening of rain in London) and first-day nerves means there is an element of uncertainty to proceedings that doesn’t help with more exotic bets, or predictions at longer odds. There can be great bets in these markets, but it may be better to keep the powder dry for this game.

 

Recommended Bet Summary

Eoin Morgan – Top England Batsman – 0.5pts (11/2 Skybet, 5/1 General)

Joe Root – Top England Batsman – 0.5pts (7/2 Skybet, 3/1 General)

Quinton De Kock – Top SA Batsman – 1pt (100/30 General)

Cricket World Cup 2019 Betting Preview

The ICC have, as ever, managed to excel themselves in altering the format of the World Cup to make it even longer, even duller, and even more predictable than any previous tournament. All ten teams will play each other before the top four sides in the standings advance to the knockout semi-finals. This means two factors need to be taken into account for betting purposes: firstly, that there are highly likely to be dead-rubber games at the tail end of the round-robin phase for the very best teams; secondly, that even teams which don’t progress will have played nine of the maximum eleven possible matches.

 

The Outright Market

England are rightly strong favourites, a sentence which feels unsettling to type as an Englishman, more used to World Cup diasters than domination. The tournament format means that as short as they are, trading at about 2/1 currently, this still represents a good bet for trading purposes. If you have spare cash in an exchange account, or free bets with a traditional bookie, it’s well worth piling on. England’s batting is by far the best ever seen in limited-overs cricket; indeed it’s so good that they are nigh-on guaranteed to coast through to the semi-finals. By that stage, it’s almost inevitable they’ll be shorter than their current price, so trading out becomes possible. I can’t recommend a hefty wager on an outright tournament win at the prices, because anything can and will happen in the high-pressure environment of a knockout World Cup game, and England’s aggressive approach can very occasionally backfire spectacularly.

There is no point in backing India at 3/1 ante-post. Yes, an England v India final is the likeliest climax to events – and as such there could be some value in their price from a trading perspective, I suppose – but while their progression is very likely, it’s not totally guaranteed. India have historically struggled in England in all formats of the game, and it feels foolish to back them for overall glory before seeing how they handle conditions this time around.

The best bet at this point could be NEW ZEALAND at a tempting 10/1 (and bigger on the exchanges as I type). They’re a perennially underrated one-day team, yet they have a balanced side containing some world-class performers. If Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor both play to their best, and their excellent fast-bowling attack spearheaded by Trent Boult consistently gets early wickets, they have every chance of going far. With the potentially key advantage of playing England (who should already be qualified) last in the round-robin stage, a semi-final place is highly possible, and they are worth a small interest as a result.

Recommended Bet:

New Zealand 0.5 pts e/w (10/1, 2×1/2)

 

Top Batsman

England have revolutionised one-day international batting since the last World Cup in 2015, and given there’s also been a major format change, looking at historical trends won’t be too helpful here. As such, there should be some value around, with bettors simply looking at the “best” players for their wagers, rather than taking these big changes into account. That’s the theory, anyway!

I’m looking for players who bat in the top three, and I’m looking almost exclusively at their average runs per innings (rather than their actual average, which is affected by not outs), although of course a high strike-rate is a bonus. Consistency is also important; this is a nine, ten or eleven match ‘series’, in effect, and a proven history of reliable runs is a major advantage, rather than relying on a hot streak. Finally, it’s not important that they play for one of the favourites; nine versus ten/eleven matches is not all that statistically significant when we are dealing with numbers in the high hundreds.

Clearly Virat Kohli merits his position at the head of the market. His statistics are awesome. In the last two years, he’s scored 3,088 runs in 48 innings at an average of 85.77; for comparison, the biggest run-scorer in England’s much-vaunted line-up is Joe Root with 1,834 runs from 44 innings. The man is a phenomenon, and such is his thirst for the big occasion, that it’s arguable 8/1 isn’t actually bad value. But in a market with so many contenders, a price that skinny just isn’t for me, because it takes away any each-way option.

But happily there are three batsmen who (largely) fit my criteria whose chances look to have been underrated.

South Africa’s QUINTON DE KOCK is the most obvious. He’s a best price of just 20/1 (and 18/1 generally), but this looks like a big price given his record: he averages 49.22 runs per innings in the last two years, and has proven that he can handle English conditions, averaging 41 here in his six matches so far. As he’s the squad’s only wicketkeeper, he’s almost certain to play every one of South Africa’s matches, and as an opener he will get every opportunity to score. As a bonus, De Kock’s terrific IPL form means he should arrive in England in confident mood, and as a result he rates a good bet.

Next up is 25-year-old SHAI HOPE, who boasts 1,887 runs in his last 40 innings. Chris Gayle may steal the headlines, but Shai is the West Indies’ best hope of posting big scores: he will be firing on all cylinders in England, having posted scores of 170, 109, 30, 87 and 74 in the warm-up matches versus Bangladesh and Ireland, and a career average of 51.06 proves his class. In fact, having Gayle at the other end could take some of the pressure off his young shoulders. Remarkably, he’s 33/1, a price largely based on the West Indies’ chances rather than Hope’s hopes of scoring the most tournament runs. That’s a crazy price based on all available information, and he must be backed.

Last but not least is the master of the middle overs, ROSS TAYLOR, whose consistent brilliance for New Zealand shows no sign of abating. In just the last two years, he has racked up 12 half-centuries and 3 centuries, averaging 56.39 per each of his 31 innings. Taylor is likely to come in at number four in the Black Caps’ order, but given their struggle to find a top class opening partnership, he should still face a fair number of overs, and his batting position is reflected in his price. Available at 40/1, he’s worth a small wager, just in case the tournament isn’t the orgy of runs from the big names that everyone expects, especially as Taylor should have his eye in from a spell with Middlesex. It would be extraordinary if the super-reliable Taylor failed to deliver for his team, and with New Zealand having a decent chance of progressing, the Black Caps man merits backing.

Recommended Bets:

Quinton De Kock 1pt e/w (18/1, 4×1/4)

Shai Hope 1pt e/w (33/1, 4×1/4)

Ross Taylor 0.5pts e/w (40/1, 4×1/4)

 

Top Bowler

This is all about finding strike-bowlers who are likely to play all (or very nearly all) their team’s matches: either need opening quick bowlers who also bowl at the death, when batsmen have to take the biggest risks; or attacking spinners used by their captains to take wickets in the middle overs via aggressive fields.

There are only sixteen bowlers with 20 plus ODI wickets in the last two years who have a strike rate of a wicket under every 30 balls. Of those sixteen, only a few are likely to start all their team’s games, such is their importance to their side’s way of playing, and these are the candidates for a wager. In particular, two bowler’s odds are mystifyingly long given their very clear claims.

Firstly, India’s main spinner KULDEEP YADAV can be backed at 25/1 despite his incredible record of 87 wickets in his last 42 matches at a strike rate of just 26.4. India have probably the best attack in the tournament, so wickets may well be shared around, but Yadav’s record is there for all to see, and he habitually bowls his full ten overs for Virat Kohli’s men. He should have no problem recovering from taking a bit of a pasting in his last IPL match given his strong character, and 25/1 is simply the wrong price for a player of his proven class.

Secondly, New Zealand’s main seamer TRENT BOULT is begging to be backed at 20/1. He will take the new ball and bowl at the death, and his left-arm action will present a challenge to any lower-order batsman in particular. Boult’s record compares favourably with any other fast bowler in this format: he has 60 wickets in his last 31 games at a strike rate of 28.1, and given New Zealand may need a final game win to go through, he could well play all nine of their qualifying matches. He has a significantly better set of statistics than Jaspit Bumrah, yet the Indian is 14/1, and the New Zealander 20/1. Remember, this is all about wickets, and Boult nearly always takes them.

England may not be good at stopping other sides from scoring, but they are good at taking wickets, partially because any team batting second against the Three Lions will be chasing a formidable total. That brings their two main men into focus. Adil Rashid has revelled in his role as a wicket-taking spinner under Eoin Morgan’s enlightened captaincy: he has taken an impressive 71 wickets in his last 40 innings at a strike rate of 29.9, but he’s as short as 16/1 as a result. A better bet is CHRIS WOAKES, the first fast-bowler on England’s teamsheet because he is both their best opening, and best death, bowler. His recent injury seems to have removed him from considerations, yet his strike rate of 28.3 is terrific in any context, let alone as the main strike bowler for the tournament favourites. Odds of 25/1 are big enough to justify a small bet despite the threat of potential squad rotation by England in the course of the round-robin stage.

Recommended Bets:

Kuldeep Yadav 1.5pts e/w (25/1, 4×1/4)

Trent Boult 1pt e/w (20/1, 4×1/4)

Chris Woakes 0.5pts e/w (25/1, 4×1/4)

Bet365 Gold Cup Preview

The curtain closes on big Saturday handicaps in this UK jumps season with the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park – so let’s see if we can find a winner to round off the year.

While it’s not quite as prestigious as in its former guise as the ‘Whitbread’, this 3m5f test is a terrific race. The winner needs: tactical speed, because Sandown can be tight when there are 20 runners, and it’s generally run on properly good ground; stamina, of course, because any horse that’s not a proper stayer will get found out over this extended trip with a stiff uphill finish; and proven jumping ability, because taking the infamous railway fences in the midst of a helter-skelter handicap isn’t for the faint-hearted.

What the winner doesn’t need is out-and-out class: since the mighty Desert Orchid won in 1988, 25 of the 30 winners have carried less than 11 stone. Looking at the last five years in more detail, in case the nature of the race has changed recently (like the Grand National), the picture is very similar. It’s easier to use horses’ official ratings rather than their weights to do this, and the picture is clear: horses rated 145 and under outperform the rest.

Weights

That means that the top five in the weights of Beware The Bear, Rock The Kasbah and Present Man can be overlooked for betting purposes. Of those, Rock The Kasbah & Present Man are hardest to ignore given they were second and third respectively in this race last year and both get to race off only three pounds higher this time around, but there should be more likely winners lurking lower in the weights.

In many of these big-money handicap chases, it’s a distinct advantage for trainers to have targeted the race, but perhaps not here. This is probably because the race is the final winning chance of the season; if you’re wrong as a trainer, or if your horse is unlucky in running, there’s no opportunity to put things right for six months. It’s clear from the statistics that it’s a positive to be match-fit, but not overcooked.

Season Runs

Having said that, all this year’s entries have had between three and seven runs this season, although with both West Approach and Flying Angel having already run seven times this term, they might not be at their absolute peak, and should be approached with caution. The latter is tricky to pass over given that he seems fairly well in at his peak, but we can’t have a bet on every horse in the race!

What about the career profile of horses who run well here? Last year’s winner Step Back was very much an outlier, being a novice with only three runs to his name. In fact, only 2 of the last 20 horses in total have had fewer than seven chase starts, meaning that novices and inexperienced chasers would need to be long prices in the betting to be worth following.

Chase Career Runs

Therefore while Talkischeap, Give Me A Copper and Just A Sting all have obvious claims, their short prices mean they don’t represent value in the market. Prime Venture is also probably too inexperienced – and won’t handle the quick ground.

That leaves a shortlist of Joe Farrell, Step Back, Rolling Dylan, Vyta Du Roc, The Young Master and Le Reve to look at in more detail in order to choose our selection(s). Rathlin Rose just shouldn’t be good enough to be getting involved here, even though Sandown is his favourite track.

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 09.51.43

The final four columns of the summary above show: horses’ peak career chase RPR and the difference between that and their current OR; and horses’ peak chase RPR this season, and the difference between that and their current OR.

The latter is used to identify horses hopelessly out of form, and Vyta Du Roc certainly fits that description, with his three runs this season PU, PU, 7th. It would be a surprise if he ran well. Step Back is a much more complex case. The defending champion has been average at best this season, running below par in handicaps at Chepstow and Warwick, but he has consistently struggled in his career with going left-handed, and so perhaps those runs can be overlooked. Of more concern is whether he has recovered sufficiently from a bold front-running show in the Grand National, where he was only pulled up after the Canal Turn on the second circuit. He jumped wildly right round Aintree, and Sara Bradstock suspected he had a foot issue, something he has suffered before. If he were at long odds, he would certainly be worth a bet, because he was so magnificent last year, but there are too many negatives to take a short enough price.

Another who may have gone too far in the Grand National to have recovered for another marathon test is Joe Farrell, who was only pulled up two fences from home.

Given the non-runners, that leaves us with just three:

THE YOUNG MASTER – 25 career chase runs (and 46 runs in rules races!) would suggest that this 10-year-old is gone at the game. He started the season rated just 130, and presumably a couple of poor races away from retirement, but he won back-to-back handicaps at Chepstow and Cheltenham, and then ran a terrific race to be third in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham. He won this race in 2016 off a mark of 148, meaning that if he is anywhere close to his best, a mark of 142 is workable.

ROLLING DYLAN – As a progressive second season chaser, he has a lovely profile for this, and he’s been on my radar for a race of this type ever since an impressive staying-on third in a big Cheltenham handicap in December. His last run over 3m4f at Taunton was excellent off top weight, proving he’s in good nick. The ground should be fine, but the only concern is no proven Sandown form in the book, although he goes right-handed no problem.

LE REVE – You’d have got long odds on this 11-year-old being on the shortlist after an uninspiring 8th place in the Veterans’ Final in January off a mark of 135, but since then Lucy Wadham has managed to reignite the spark in this gutsy horse. He’s won twice since then, at Lingfield and Sandown, and with Maxime Tissier taking off five pounds, it doesn’t matter that he’s slightly out of the main handicap. If he arrives on a going day, he should have a decent chance, given he was 3rd in this race in 2015 off a lofty mark of 147.

 

Recommended Bets:

Rolling Dylan – 1pt e/w 20/1 (5 places)

Le Reve – 0.5pts e/w 20/1 (5 places)

The Young Master – 1pt win 9/1 BOG

Scottish Grand National 2019 Preview

In April, Grand Nationals come thick and fast. After Tiger Roll’s extraordinary victory at Aintree last Saturday, it’s the turn of Ayr to host its own Grand National this weekend. The Scottish version can’t quite match the prize money or prestige of its English equivalent, but it’s still an exceptionally competitive handicap in its own right, and one that trainers can target with superb stayers perhaps not quite up to the rigours of winning a modern Aintree National.

Ayr could barely be more different from Aintree: it’s a tight, undulating, one-and-a-half mile oval. That makes the profile of winners slightly unusual for a ‘National’: they obviously need to be proper stayers, because they need to finish the marathon four-mile trip strongly, but they also must have tactical speed in order to hold their position around the tight bends. As it’s a race that tends to take place on genuinely good ground, bearing this ‘speed’ angle in mind is important – and can potentially lead to finding some value.

Beware The Bear will be bearing top weight, running off his newly lofty mark of 160 after winning the Ultima at Cheltenham. He’s undoubtedly a very good horse, but as a nine-year-old it seems likely that he’s reached the ceiling of his improvement, and to win such a competitive race of such a high mark, he’d have to be a graded horse in waiting, similar to Frodon or Aso for example. I’m not convinced that’s the case.

The Ultima is a significant form line for this race. In second place was major Aintree Grand National fancy Vintage Clouds, who fell at the first in Liverpool. Given he was such a short price for the superior race, he should have every chance at Ayr, especially when his third in last year’s Scottish Grand National is taken into account. But it’s not quite that simple: that third place was achieved off a mark of 141, and while he was able to run off 144 at Aintree, he now has to run off his ‘true’ rating of 149 at Ayr. Although he only shoulders 11-1, that means he’s no shoo-in for this contest. But his profile contains the key requirements of proven staying form combined with a speedier edge, as well as that bonus of proven course form. He is the standard against which other runners have to be judged.

Also in the Ultima were Big River (4th) and Sizing Codelco (PU). The latter is now 10-years-old, was only 8th in this race last year off 150 (with Paul O’Brien taking off five pounds), and runs off 152 this time with no form in the book. He seems to have little chance, whereas the former is of significant interest based on that Ultima run, where he stayed on strongly up the hill and gave the impression he wanted a longer trip to be seen to full effect. However, the five best RPRs of his career have all come on heavy or soft ground, and with good ground in prospect at Ayr, he looks to have been overbet.

Dingo Dollar does enjoy good ground. Alan King’s horse is just seven, so likely to still be progressing, and was a good second at Ayr last April in the three-mile novice chase. He has since been third in the Ladbroke Trophy off 148, then ran a poor race in a Doncaster handicap, but showed his health with a second place back at Doncaster in March. That recent average form means he runs off 147, which looks more than workable. He should be a major player if he is on his peak form, although the trip is unknown.

Crosshue Boy was the horse to beat Dingo Dollar at Ayr last April, but he had 17lbs in hand that day to get up by a length; he only has five pounds to play with this time. He’s been targeted at this race all season, something confirmed by his trainer Sean Doyle, but even so, the relative prices of the two contenders seem lopsided, with Dingo Dollar having proven his quality more than once versus a horse who’s quality has to be taken on trust.

Crosspark has certainly proved his credentials with a gutsy win over four miles at Newcastle in the Eider Chase. He was previously third in a good handicap at Warwick, but both those performances came off a rating of 135, and he will now run off 142. As a nine-year-old, is it fair to assume he’s still progressive to such a degree that this competitive handicap remains within his grasp? The aforementioned “good handicap at Warwick” was won in January by Impulsive Star off 133, and he now runs off 139, so similar concerns apply to Sam Waley-Cohen’s mount, especially after a brutal run in the Cheltenham four-miler. Fourth in that Warwick race was Carole’s Destrier, who won at Newbury in March and in so doing also went up the handicap from a generous-looking 137 to a tough mark of 143.

The strongly-supported Cloth Cap fell at Ayr last April – not a good sign – and has been winning class 3 and class 4 handicaps this term for Jonjo O’Neill, going up 13lbs in the process. His short price is speculative. Another younger and progressive runner is Geronimo, who would be running from two pounds out of the handicap, but Rachael McDonald will claim five pounds to negate that disadvantage. He’s risen 22lbs in the handicap this season from just four runs, and hasn’t competed in a big race such as this before. With so many other classier and proven contenders to choose from, he can also be passed over as poor value.

Blue Flight is another progressive novice in the line-up, and arrives at Ayr in top form with three wins and a second this calendar year. The best of those performances was victory over Black Corton on almost level terms at Kelso, but he’s up 16lbs in the handicap since then, putting him near the top of the weights. There are also doubts about a six-year-old being pitched into his first major race against more seasoned rivals. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ other fancied runner is the veteran Cogry, pulled up in last year’s renewal. On his day, Cogry is a doughty and tough competitor, but this mark of 140 seems too high to win from. Twiston-Davies also saddles Arthur’s Gift, who has a lot to do off 137.

Red Infantry was sent off 14/1 for the valuable Grand National trial at Haydock when rated 142, and runs at Ayr off 140. The form of that race hasn’t worked out too well since, but his second in the London National at Sandown over 3m5f showed that he should stay the 4m trip. Market support for Ian Williams’ runner would be intriguing, but on pure form he can be passed over.

Chidswell gave a nine-length beating to Dingo Dollar at Doncaster, and demands respect as a result, but he’s up 7lbs for that win, which should remove him from considerations. The other contender who merits a closer look is the staying-chase veteran Mysteree, beaten only a neck by Crosspark in the Eider. At 11-years-old, however, it would have to be a weaker renewal than this for him to win.

Skipthecuddles looks to have a colossal mark based on very little, and would have to improve significantly to get involved, while Kingswell Theatre, Brian Boranha and Takingrisks can’t be backed with any confidence based on their form. Other runners will race from out of the handicap, and none have overwhelmingly obvious claims that overturn this disadvantage. Chic Name did beat the 2018 Scottish Grand National winner Joe Farrell at Newbury recently, but he will carry an entire stone more at Ayr, and that will make a repeat victory unlikely.

 

Recommended Bet

Truthfully, this isn’t a vintage renewal of the Scottish Grand National. There are several dark horses in the race who boast progressive form as novices, and of course one may very well have several pounds in hand, but none are obviously well-in based on what they’ve produced on the track. Contenders with proven form in the book are all higher than their habitual winning marks, and that may mean that the classy VINTAGE CLOUDS is still comparably well-handicapped despite having to run off his true rating. Beware The Bear’s burden allows Sue Smith’s horse to shoulder just 11-1, and as he’s just five points shorter to win at Ayr than he was at Aintree, there is still juice in his price.

Vintage Clouds 2pts e/w at 9/1 (6 places only – SkyBet, Ladbrokes, Hills)

Cheltenham Reflections: Focus On The Handicaps, and The Drugs Don’t Work

  1. Ante-Post Betting Can Offer Good Value (No Matter Who Says Otherwise)

It seems to have become accepted as fact that “there’s no point in betting ante-post any more” – but that’s simply not true. If you are lucky enough to have open and largely unrestricted accounts with several bookies – as I am, largely due to an abysmally sloppy spell of betting about four years ago – then there was a perfectly decent variety of prices and betting terms available for ante-post bets on the Festival. Some bookies even took the old-fashioned approach of having an opinion, a good example being Paddy Power’s 33/1 NRNB on Bristol de Mai in the Gold Cup. Thanks gents. An equally stand-out instance of blatant long-term value was provided by Tiger Roll, who was available with several firms at 5/1 after his defeat under top weight at Cheltenham in November.

Of course, several of my ante-post wagers were lost due to horses being unfit to race in March – I’m still frustrated by the almost comically unlucky circumstances of the injury to Eldorado Allen – but that risk should be priced in to your betting. I have no sympathy for lost bets due to horse taking up an alternative engagement or skipping the festival: if you bet before any NRNB is available, weighing up the horse’s target is a key part of whether the price is value; if you choose not to take a smaller NRNB price once the option is there, then again, that should form part of your value consideration.

 

  1. Value Is King (It’s Not Always The Bets You’re Excited About That Work Out)

If you’re even a semi-regular gambler, then it should be obvious to you that the game is finding value, not necessarily finding winners, although a quick look at Twitter confirms that this concept remains elusive to a depressingly large number of people. I was reminded of this by getting totally unexpected returns from a couple of bets I’d struck at small stakes during the season. My answer to the question “what is your stupidest open ante-post bet?” in the pub in Painswick on the Monday night of festival week didn’t require much thought: Sam Spinner. Everybody laughed, including me. As we know, on the day I was still laughing, but this time with delight! The proven Grade One performer, running in a weaker renewal than last year (when he was sent off favourite), finally ran back to his form after a strange season. In the cold light of day, that bet was obviously good value.

Equally, even though I lost a fair chunk on him, I wouldn’t take back my bets on Pic d’Orhy in the Triumph. A proven Grade One performer in France, he looked to be facing only one serious rival in terms of outright ability (Sir Erec), is trained by a genius at bringing French horses straight onto a UK racecourse (Paul Nicholls), and yet was available at 20/1+ in January and February. He was dreadful on the day, but I maintain that bets placed at 22/1 and 25/1 weren’t poor bets.

Sometimes prices are just wrong on all objective evidence. Keep taking those prices, and things will work out in the end.

 

  1. The Handicaps Are Well Worth The Effort

Repeat after me: Cheltenham handicaps are not ‘impossible’ or ‘unbelievably competitive’. In fact, they ought to be a punter’s dream: there are great place terms on offer, a betting-friendly over-round online, and every horse in the field is trying to win.

My ante-post handicap betting didn’t work out this year – although I was already counting my Éclair de Beaufeu money on the turn for home! – but there’s always at least one winner to be found in the open handicaps during the week. Any Second Now obliged in the Kim Muir for me this year, and I’m not going to call myself a judge for finding him, as it was relatively obvious. The Pertemps didn’t offer too many surprises either, although I didn’t back the winner. And the Plate was so predictable that I managed to persuade myself into the first successful reverse forecast of my life!

I’m not saying all of this to big myself up – I only broke even across the week, which given the offers available and effort put in, is pathetic and proof I’m no judge – but I met a number of people during the week insisting many of the handicaps were a ‘lottery’. Can I play a lottery that’s this predictable please?!

 

  1. Betting During The Week Itself Requires Iron-Willed Discipline (And Fewer Pints Of Guinness)

I go the Festival to enjoy myself, and this can lead to a fairly, ahem, enthusiastic Guinness intake during the four days on-course, especially in the unlikely event of me having a decent winner. This means that when I’ve tallied everything up, I’ll have lost money on bets placed during the week itself, versus having made a profit on ante-post betting. I’ve now done this five years in a row.

My sloppy betting on course is due entirely to my inner monologue which, drunk on both alcohol and Cheltenham adrenaline, and overloaded with information, gives me thoughts like the following:

  • “Last year’s Coral Cup is looking amazing…maybe I’d better have some money on Bleu Berry [but not William Henry because he’s done nothing this season]”
  • “I’ve got ample ante-post on Pic d’Orhy at 22s and 25s, so why NOT go in again on the day at 14s?”
  • “Glen Forsa cannot lose this Arkle if he turns up. A few bets won’t cut it. I need to absolutely smash this [totally unproven at the top level, English] horse”
  • “Only having one horse in the Albert Bartlett just won’t do. I should pick another one [in the race I have never ever had a place] and punt way too much on that”
  • “Yes, I know I liked the look of him, and I know I even wrote than on the blog, and I know Duc Des Genievres has just totally franked his form and proved he’s a graded horse in a handicap…but there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY I’m backing A Plus Tard at that short a price”

I could go on. Suffice to say, this nonsense does not do wonders for my P&L.

 

  1. Pay More Attention To Collateral Form

The example I’ve just mentioned – A Plus Tard hosing up in the Close Brothers – should serve as yet another reminder that despite all the bells and whistles, and special Cheltenham trends, form is still king. If a horse’s form is franked during the week itself, that’s a good thing. If the price is still there, that’s an even better thing. Be flexible, be willing to change your thinking, and back the horses whose form is being proven as strong. I forget this every year, turning up to Cheltenham with my opinions already set in stone at the beginning of the week.

 

  1. Multiples Are A Mug’s Bet

Every year I try to resist the siren call of the muggy multiple, and then every year I get lured in and dash myself on the trixie-and-yankee-shaped rocks. Repeat after me: Cheltenham is incredibly competitive, and it’s hard enough to find a single winner, let alone predict a precise combination of winners.

My failure this year was particularly noteworthy, because it was actually based on a solid logical premise – or so I thought. I had picked out the Champion Hurdle as my starting point, due to my very strong opinion that Laurina had no chance of winning the race, even if she ran at her best. As Laurina’s odds shortened, I placed various trixies and yankees based entirely around Buveur d’Air and Apple’s Jade as the ‘banker’ leg – because with Laurina out of the picture, one of the two was certain to win. We all know what happened next: I was barely able to watch the second mile of the race, with Buveur d’Air down and Apple’s Jade already well beaten. Laurina’s bang average performance wasn’t much of a consolation given the siren’s call had basically bankrupted me yet again.

Bookies base their whole business model around what they call “exotics”, as that’s where all their money is made. Don’t do doubles, kids: leave the accas to the one-bet-a-week Ladbrokes lads.

 

  1. Play To Your Strengths

I have a good record over the years in big-money handicaps. I have a distinctly average record in open Grade Ones. Yet I continue to bet more on the Grade Ones than the handicaps. Why? Why, just because the average punter prefers to bet bigger on the championship races, should I follow suit?

Even more bafflingly, what made me suddenly decide I was a brilliant judge of juveniles this season? I know next to nothing about pedigrees, I’m not a good paddock judge, and I don’t have contacts in the game. Why I am lumping on horses ante-post for the Triumph? What possesses me to do that?

And, for the love of God, WHY DO I CONTINUE TO BET ON THE MARES NOVICES AND THE ALBERT BARTLETT?

Next year, I’m going to play to my strengths. We all have them, so be honest with yourself, and play to yours too.

 

  1. Cheltenham Form In The Book Is Invaluable In The Handicaps – Never Ever Forget It

Of course we all know this, but it was proven yet again this year. Here’s some examples, and there may be a few more I’ve forgotten:

Ultima Chase: Beware The Bear (4th Ultima 2018)

Coral Cup: William Henry at 28/1 (4th Coral Cup 2018)

Brown Advisory Plate: Siruh Du Lac & Janika (1st and 2nd over C&D earlier in the season), Spiritofthegames (5th 2018 County Hurdle)

Grand Annual: Croco Bay at 66/1 (5th 2017 Grand Annual)

 

  1. And Finally…The Jockey Club Needs A Reality Check (The Drugs Don’t Work, Kids)

Racecourse owners and administrators need a wake-up call: drug use on course is rife from Tuesday to Thursday, and it reaches another level entirely on Friday. It’s not a few leads sneaking in the odd bit of coke; it’s a very significant percentage of the crowd whose every thought during the day is focussed on how and where they can do yet another line.

Now, I’m not a reactionary, by any means: I’m young(ish) and I don’t have any particular objection to other people deciding to do drugs, apart from the fact that in the case of cocaine, it turns them into an interminable arsehole for the duration of their high. But the level of drug-taking on course at Cheltenham on Friday has reached such a level that the experience for the small number of us who haven’t snorted half of Colombia’s GDP has become unpleasant.

The general atmosphere is tense, like a town-centre nightclub on a Saturday night, rather than friendly and inclusive, meaning you constantly wonder whether accidentally bumping into someone will start a fight. People don’t really bother to watch the racing, even the Gold Cup, and cheer horses falling if it gives their £5 bet a better chance. And trying to go to the toilet between races becomes an impossibility given the number of those queuing who want privacy for something other than seeing to their bodily functions.

While it was welcome to see a couple of sniffer dogs on duty this year, this token gesture doesn’t even scratch the surface of dealing with the problem. Either Cheltenham management needs to get serious about deterring drug use on-course, and employ a far, far higher number of dogs plus random searches, or it should accept the inevitable and adapt its facilities accordingly. There would need to be loads more toilets, and stewarded “quiet areas” within each stand where people who want to watch the racing can actually immerse themselves in the action without the constant background banter of people whose copious cocaine intake means they can’t possibly concentrate for five seconds, let alone five minutes.

I don’t think any of the posh older gents – and let’s be honest, they are posh older gents – running the racecourse have any idea of the scale of the problem. If it continues for another year or two, there won’t be any actual racing fans on course on the Friday – and that’s surely not what the sport wants for its blue riband event, is it?

Ante-Post Angle: County Hurdle

On first glance, the County looks like a punting minefield two weeks out: there are 90 entries, and the majority of those are young, unexposed horses who could have as much as a stone in hand on their official marks. But with some judicious rules applied, that minefield can be negotiated, leaving only a handful to consider in more depth. That doesn’t mean we’re certain to find the winner, of course – this race is just about the trickiest of all 28 at the Festival! – but we may be able to find some terrific value, and that’s what’s all-important.


Willie Mullins

Before identifying horses with appealing profiles, it’s critical to bear in mind that Irish trainers have a very strong recent record in this race, winning in 8 of the last 12 years, with one man to the fore: Willie Mullins. The Closutton-based genius clearly targets this prize, and his successful County runners don’t tend to fit into any trends boxes, so his entries demand a separate look:

Wicklow Brave (OR 153, 10yo) – won this race back in 2015 at 25/1 off a mark of 138. Has had an extraordinary career since, running in two Champion Hurdles and two Melbourne Cups for good measure! He was an eye-catching easy second last time in a Naas G3 hurdle over 2 miles…was that a prep run for this? Mullins won the County in 2017 with Arctic Fire off a massive mark of 158, so it’s not impossible. But he is 10 years old now, and seems to save his best for Punchestown these days.

Mr Adjudicator (149, 5) – a Mullins 5-year-old…sounds good. But he’s only raced once this season, and this would be his first race over hurdles in open company. That’s a tough ask off such a high mark.

Saglawy (148, 5) – this 5-year-old is of significantly more interest. Mullins thought so highly of him that he was sent to two Auteuil graded races in May & June, but he hated the very soft ground there. This season he has shown progression after his summer break, particularly in an eye-catching display in a valuable handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse, where he finished rapidly behind Wonder Laish (the current County favourite, who is as short as 10/1). He didn’t enjoy the soft ground last time out at Limerick, but that slightly disappointing run means the English handicapper has only raised him one pound from his Irish mark, meaning he would meet Wonder Laish on favourable terms at Cheltenham. Despite all of this, the market does seem to have missed him, and he’s available at 25/1 NRNB. That’s very appealing, but only if we remain confident of good ground in two weeks’ time.

Blazer (144, 8) – a chaser and shouldn’t run here.

Whiskey Sour (144, 6) – his third-place last year off 141 merits respect, but he’s had a baffling campaign this year, even by Mullins’ standards: he hasn’t run since November, when he was 9th in a Naas flat race, and he hasn’t seen a hurdle since August. Given the trainer we are talking about, he can’t be discounted, but he can’t be backed either.

Uradel (137, 8) – the shortest of these in the betting at just 14/1, so there’s no value to be had. He’s also 8-years-old, shown no signs of being progressive and has had one run over hurdles this season. He may well win, but two weeks from the off, at that price, this horse represents some of the worst value available in any race. No thanks.

Cut The Mustard (137, 7) – definitely can’t be ruled out once a line has been drawn through her sixth in the Mares’ Novices at Cheltenham last year, when she was in the race purely as pacemaker for Laurina, and succeeded in her job of putting off front-runner Maria’s Benefit. She looks progressive, with two second-place finishes in decent open handicaps this term showing she definitely can cut the mustard at this sort of level, but on a line through Wonder Laish, Saglawy looks better handicapped given the English handicapper has hiked her five pounds.

Dolciano Dici (134, 6) – has been chasing and shouldn’t run here.

In summary, then, while the man in the street has latched onto Uradel, he/she seems to have completely missed the more obvious – to my mind, anyway – appeals of SAGLAWY. Mullins has a phenomenal record with his ‘second horse’ in the County, rather than his short-priced one, and this progressive sort can repeat the trick. The note of caution is that he very clearly wants good ground, good-to-soft at absolute worst, and the forecast for next week is for a significant amount of rain. But with the ground currently good at Prestbury Park, it still seems likeliest that we won’t get genuinely soft ground. At the prices, he’s worth a speculative punt now with the NRNB concession.

 

The Profile Shortlist

Unlike in the case of, for instance the Coral Cup, there’s not a lot of value in going through each entry’s form in detail, because many of them have been prepared with today very much in mind. Instead the vast majority of County winners this century – pretty much all of them apart from Mullins’ freakish Arctic Fire in 2017 – fit into the following profile, which makes sense for a highly-competitive 2-mile handicap hurdle:

  1. Aged 7 or younger – and 5-y-o’s have a particularly strong record, with 10 winners from the last 20 renewals from well under 50% of the fields;
  2. Novice or second-season hurdler;
  3. Unexposed to the handicapper – running off an Official Rating of <=144;
  4.  Progressive – in first 4 last time out and best RPR within the last 3 runs, ideally (if we are being picky) on a left-handed track.

That doesn’t leave too many off workable-looking marks. Dream Du Grand Val is a promising sort from Nicky Henderson’s stable, but has only had three runs over hurdles and just doesn’t jump well enough to be of any further interest. Eragon De Chanay appeals as a 5-year-old with a good attitude who won last time out in fine style for Gary Moore, but he just doesn’t look progressive enough for such a hot race, and may be held by the handicapper’s grasp. The most below-the-radar horse who fits the profile is River Bray for Victor Dartnall, who was visually impressive in dispatching the highly-rated Dogon at Wincanton last time out. That run was his first after a wind operation, and his first wearing a tongue-tie; the combination of those factors clearly unlocked a major improvement with the six-year-old recording a career-best RPR of 130. But the handicapper hammered him 15 pounds for the win, which could prove his undoing in such a tight race. If he is a massive price on the day, and it’s good ground, he could be worth a small each way dabble, especially if Dogon has run well in the Fred Winter (or ‘The Boodles’ if you insist, you weirdo).

The horse who does tick all the boxes is ECLAIR DE BEAUFEU. He’s 5 years old (big tick), rated 136 (put up just 4lbs by the handicapper – tick), a novice (tick), finished 4th last time out (tick), and recorded his best RPR last time out on a left-handed track (double tick). He was given a very easy ride that day, which kept his mark intact. For a young horse, he’s experienced, with seven hurdle starts, including four in the kind of big field he’ll face at Cheltenham, and in my mind that’s a good thing. And more importantly than any of that, he looks like a good horse to the eye, with an economical style over the obstacles coupled with a tidy head carriage.

He’s also trained in Ireland by none other than Gordon Elliott, which can only be a bonus. Yet it’s fair to say that Elliott, and Eclair’s owner Gigginstown, see the County as a lower priority than some other handicaps – and that is a critical point to make at this juncture before we rush off to have a bet, because he’s also entered in four other races! By far the most likely, and interesting, of those other engagements is the Martin Pipe Hurdle, and that makes taking NRNB for the County absolutely essential. Elliott/Gigginstown already have the favourite for the Martin Pipe, a Cheltenham handicap which they do relentlessly target, in Dallas Des Pictons. But of Gigginstown’s other five entries, Eclair De Beaufeu looks to have the best claims: he’s in form, experienced, and shaped like another half a mile wouldn’t be an issue in his recent starts.

He’s a very likeable and progressive horse who seems to have been overlooked in favour of more spoken-about animals, and is too big a price for both races given that he’s not ground-dependent. If he does end up taking his chance at Cheltenham, given his trainer and his profile, he will rightly go off a lot shorter, so it’s advisable to take the price with the NRNB concession in both races now, and hope that Gigginstown see things in the same way.

 

Recommended Bets (1/3/19):

Saglawy – County Hurdle – 0.5pts win @ 25/1 NRNB (Bet 365, Skybet)

Eclair Du Beaufeu – County Hurdle – 1pt win @ 20/1 (must be NRNB)
Eclair Du Beaufeu – Martin Pipe Hurdle – 1pt win @ 25/1 (must be NRNB)