Five hot favourites could give punters a memorable meeting
According to betting folklore, the late Kerry Packer once took part in a poker tournament in Las Vegas where one of his opponents, a brash Texan, was trying to goad him into playing a high-stakes game on the side. The legendary gambler refused to bite, until the American boasted that his fortune was worth “60m dollars”. Packer looked at him with a mixture of pity and contempt, reached into his pocket, pulled out a coin and growled: “Toss you for it”.
When it came to horses, Packer preferred polo ponies to Thoroughbreds but he would have appreciated the coin-flipping potential of the 2012 Cheltenham Festival, which opens this afternoon.
Most festivals have one or two short-priced favourites, which offer punters the hope – or illusion – of certainty amid the most competitive and unpredictable racing of the year. This year, though, at least five horses are expected to start at odds-on.
The first of them, Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle Trophy, the second race on Tuesday’s card, will set the game rolling and, however that particular coin comes down, the next four will be a chance for punters and bookmakers to play a multi-million pound game of double-or-quits.
Think back to the problem about rice grains on a chessboard at school, where doubling the number on each square turns a single grain in the first into many billions on the last, and it is clear how lucrative a game like that can be – or costly if you are a bookmaker and the favourites keep winning, because the chessboard problem is an example of an exponential sequence. If the favourites start winning and keep going in, the huge reserve of cash on the bookies’ side at the start of the week will tend to decrease … exponentially.
There are plenty of big-hitting punters around to help the process along, even in these difficult economic times, and Cheltenham flushes them out like no other meeting. And there has never been a Cheltenham Festival with such obvious potential for the punters to land an early haymaker and then keep pounding away as the bookies’ knees begin to buckle.
Most bookmakers still wince at the memory of the 2003 Festival, which was staged over three days and 20 races, rather than the current four days and 27. Every “good thing” seemed to go in, from Azertyuiop in the Arkle on day one to Best Mate in the Gold Cup. Yet not a single horse at the entire meeting set off at odds-on.
In 2008, when the meeting had expanded to 25 races, there was a single odds-on favourite and in 2009 there were two. In 2010 no fewer than four horses set off at odds-on, though only one managed to justify its starting price, while last year the balance of power shifted back to the punters, as both of the meeting’s odds-on shots delivered.
This time around, however, the fate of the short-priced favourites will be the week’s defining theme, particularly on Tuesday’s card, as one hotpot follows another.
Even if Sprinter Sacre lets the backers down, the coin will spin again less than an hour later, when the hot favourite Hurricane Fly attempts to win the Champion Hurdle for the second year running, and there is one final flip in the sixth race, as Quevega, who has taken the Mares’ Hurdle three seasons in a row at progressively shorter odds, goes for a fourth success at her shortest price yet.
On Wednesday the 50-50 chance is Sizing Europe, yet another returning champion, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, while on Thursday, Big Buck’s will set off at about 4-7 as he attempts to win his 16th race in a row in the World Hurdle, the third day’s feature event.
For many punters backing a winner at 10-11 does not feel all that different from getting on at 11-10. There is not quite so much to put back into the wallet but it amounts to small change unless you are staking in the same league as a casino whale like Packer.
Yet the moment a horse’s price passes even-money and heads into odds-on territory, it crosses an important line in a sport – and a business – in which the margins are painfully tight. At 11-10 – though it is a point which many backers do not fully appreciate – defeat is more likely than victory. At odds-on the market believes that the favourite is a more probable winner than every other runner put together and it is suddenly difficult for the bookmaker to chisel out any margin at all from the market leader.
What this means for the overall competitiveness of the racing at Cheltenham, which is what sells the meeting to the wider world, is a matter of opinion. Some will say that a move to four days and more races has diluted the quality, and given the best horses more options, and so more chances to avoid each other.
Others will suggest that 10-11 about a horse with such obvious superstar potential as Sprinter Sacre is a sign of just how difficult it is to win any race at Cheltenham, even with only five opponents. When Arkle beat a small field in the 1966 Gold Cup, he started at odds of 1-10.
But even if short prices are not your thing, there will be plenty of other races at the Festival this week boasting the kind of fields and thumping odds that we have come to expect. There will be big-priced winners that someone, somewhere will find, be it via inspiration, hunch or sheer fluke. And at the end of it all, there is the prospect of a Gold Cup that, with Kauto Star now confirmed as a runner, could be a Festival moment to match the afternoon in 1989 when Desert Orchid slogged up the hill in the mud and rain.
For the bookies the ultimate 96-hour nightmare would go something like this. The five odds-on chances all win like odds-on favourites should and the punters wake up on Friday feeling fresh and bold – well, bold anyway – and ready to take on the world.
The money all rolls on to Kauto Star, forcing him down to joint-favourite with Long Run. And then the great horse obliges and the roar as he comes up the hill is the last thing the bookmakers hear before head meets canvas.
Multiply out the prices and the odds are not promising but this is Cheltenham and anything is possible. Prepare to growl, just like Kerry.