The Punter’s Blog – The C-Word

25th March 2020:  The C-Word

This was a build-up to a Cheltenham Festival like no other that I’ve experienced, or am likely to in future.

There was no problem getting the week off work this time, unlike 2019 when my whole week consisted of the number one race in the world, the Midlands Grand National, at the headquarters of all horse racing on the planet, Uttoxeter in Staffordshire. I’m here to educate, people.

Was I going to be in a suitable mental state to do it? In the last PLOG I talked about some issues that I had during November and January. Would life leave me alone? Even if I got a good run at it, would I remember how it was done? It had been two years after all.

The new year wasn’t getting off to a good start around the world. The outbreak of a new illness that had turned up from nowhere, coronavirus – COVID-19, as the World Health Organisation named it (‘corona’, ‘virus’, ‘disease’, with the first cases occurring in December 2019) – turned up every day in the news. The C-word, apart from the one I often wanted to scream at commuters and pavement cyclists, used to be ‘cancer’.

Then in February, things took an unexpected turn. Back at the GPs, after my blood test in January, it seemed that it wasn’t my mental health that was the most pressing issue – more my physical state.

After seeing a consultant, it was decided that I should have a CT scan and a colonoscopy. I ended up having both on Saturdays, which is why I decided I was ‘out’ on those days. The CT scan was scheduled for February 29th, so no Grimthorpe Chase, and the mucky one on March 7th, which wiped out the Imperial Cup which was abandoned anyway, and the Shamrock Handicap Chase at Gowran Park, which was won by the favourite, so some money saved there.

The hospital where I had the procedures, had signs saying ‘this way to the coronavirus pod’. At least I wasn’t needing that. With those out of the way, on Monday March 9th, it was down to business.

The Coronavirus Festival
I’ll be honest, and I’m guessing many of you felt the same. I was in two minds about the 2020 Cheltenham Festival going ahead. Advice we were hearing, on a daily basis, was words to the effect of ‘to stop the spread of coronavirus, don’t have mass gatherings’. This advice had been taken by many world sports governing bodies. Formula One, Moto GP, the Six Nations and ATP and WTA tennis events, were either postponed or cancelled. Premier League football soon joined them.

Indeed, come Tuesday March 10th, the Cheltenham Festival was the only high-profile sports event going on in the world. But, for all I knew, I might not be able to get Cheltenham-week off work in 2021. The work was done, and each-way bets were placed.

Nothing doing in the Supreme. I wouldn’t have landed on Shishkin, who I felt would have been better off in the Ballymore over the longer trip the following day. In the Arkle Put The Kettle On might have presented possibilities, but my gut feeling about it was to leave the race alone as I fancied everything, unusual for any non-handicap. The Ultima went without a wager too – I think rightly, but there was a very fine line, and if you tell me you got 11/1 about The Conditional at around 08:00 that morning, then I made a mistake to leave it.

It was the Champion Hurdle that got my Festival wagering off and running, and I was thinking that when I could think about things other than having surgical machinery shoved up and down my body. Ballyandy turned red in my spreadsheet first – fast-finishing runner-up in the International, placed in the Christmas Hurdle and getting up from Pentland Hills at Haydock, why he was 22/1 and the latter 17/2 I don’t know. Next, the International winner Call Me Lord, despite a disappointing run in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown; and my number one, Darver Star (12/1), who was bearing down on Honeysuckle when the line came at Leopardstown in February. Honeysuckle wouldn’t have been out of place in the Champion, but her connections went for the Mares’ Hurdle.

Only Darver Star ran a good race. He led going to the last, but it was clear that the game was up, as Epatante (11/4 in the morning) loomed up on the bit. She scooted clear, while Darver Star held on for a highly-creditable third. First betting race, first horse placed.

You only needed 30 seconds to tell that Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux were the only ones in the Mares’, and I moved on to the novices’ handicap chase. Of my three in this one only Whatmore, who got in as a reserve, ran a decent race, scraping in to the frame behind 4/1 favourite Imperial Aura, and then in the new shorter National Hunt Chase Lamanver Pippin, having survived a hell of a blunder at the first fence on the back straight, got third for my each-wayer – but I was looking back at the race afterwards.

The usual way I do the Festival is to bet between 08:00 and 08:45 on the morning of the race. Gut feeling comes into play if I get loads of horses highlighted on my spreadsheet, and I’ll choose a maximum of three to back. Having also gone on Smoking Gun and The Hollow Ginge, that was that for the race. After Ravenhill won, I noticed that his starting price was 12/1 – an enormous drift, as the biggest I saw at 08:15 was 7/1. It had drifted to my 160%-back zone, which was 11/1 for this race.

Drink this in; a horse, trained by Gordon Elliott, ridden by Jamie Codd, in an amateur riders’ race at the Cheltenham Festival, drifted to nearly double its morning odds. How is THAT allowed to happen? Codd is the go-to rider in these races, and Elliott is a go-to trainer in everything. No use asking the question again – I should have kept an eye on the market.

However, Ravenhill wasn’t the only one to drift – Lamanver Pippin had gone out from the 20/1 at which I backed him, to a starting price of 33/1. The bookie I used offered best odds guaranteed – not quite out of fashion yet but going there – so thanks to that, I actually made money on the race. With one placed in each of the three races I bet in, I started day two only a little bit behind, having got back around 80% of my spend.

When Places Are As Good As Wins
How Tuesday went, I thought to myself ‘I’ll take that’. Sure, the Ravenhill-drift rankled, but I thought my study was good, and most if not all of the horses I thought would run well, did so. I was in a good place.

The Queen Mother Champion Chase wasn’t a betting race – even though Chacun Pour Soi was withdrawn, you still had Defi Du Seuil, and after he’d done what he did earlier in the season he looked impossible to oppose, even though his back-profile was hardly that of Altior pre 2019/20. The Cross Country and Champion Bumper are auto-leave races these days.

I wanted to have a go at either the first or the second races, but felt that those at the top of the betting had the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and the RSA Chase sorted, and the successes of Envoi Allen and Champ were only watched. Champ’s late-finish, making up a hell of a lot of lengths from the last, was the reverse of Might Bite’s in 2017, when he idled and hung away a hell of a lot of lengths.

First up for the wallet was the Coral Cup – only the 26 runners nowadays, now that the safety limits have been adjusted. Cracking Smart, Canardier and Black Tears were in. Protektorat was passed over as I felt he might find little, and Honest Vic too, as he was plenty high enough in the weights.

With no bets places on the earlier races, when the tape went up for the Ballymore there was money to spare. The other reason why Ravenhill should have been a bet, was that money had come back through placings – at the start of Wednesday the ‘place-money’ was already there.

By off-time Alfa Mix drifted to 14/1, the shortest price I was looking for – the bet-time in my spreadsheet actually says 14:52. Don’t worry, the attention to detail I pay in some areas is happily lacking in others. I’m a trainspotter, but I’m not like a nerd’s nerd.

Alfa Mix faded out of a place, but there was plenty going on up front for me. Black Tears led going to the last, only to be picked off by Dame De Compagnie, who was 11/2 in the morning. So second for the Tears – not my first in the Coral Cup. I’m sure I’ve had a fourth before, but I was about to get another one as Cracking Smart – available at 40/1 just before 08:20 – stayed on to take that place, having had the ears ridden off him from the start.

The objective for betting each way is to off-set losses, but here I ended up making money on the race by getting two in the frame. It felt like a win!

After Politologue made all in the Queen Mother and second favourite Easysland beat the one and only Tiger Roll in the Cross-Country, attention was turned to the Boodles, better known as the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. This race is a contradiction – you know a bit about the runners, but at the same time you don’t know anything about them. You’ve got 22 runners and they all ran well last time out.

When I rounded it all up to 100.00% – that’s right, I work with two decimal points – the back price came in at 20/1. The likes of Palladium (7/1), Blacko (6/1), Tronador (7/1) and the one I thought was a ‘Fred Winter type’ above all others, the Paul Nicholls-trained Thyme White who was 12/1 in the morning, were all throw-outs. The reason why I say that about Thyme White was that, after watching the videos, he reminded me of Qualando, who won this for Nicholls in 2015, in that he looked a bit bigger than the others on TV pictures. A juvenile hurdler with Nicholls often ends up chasing, as the yard’s other Fred Winter-winner Diego Du Charmil had done successfully.

There was nothing from him in the end, but among the bunch contesting the placings were two that I’d backed – last time out Gowran Park-winner Saint D’oroux, and Recent Revelations, runner-up to Aramax at Naas. They ran third and fourth, behind the aforementioned Aramax, who was 12/1 in the morning. Another was added to the original three – Langer Dan, the Wensleydale-winner, was the other – in the shape of Gealach, who appeared to need a strongly-run race and didn’t get it when well beaten at Fairyhouse on his last run. They were sixth and eighth, beaten less than six lengths – amazingly the first ten home finished within seven lengths.

Even more amazingly, I made a profit on another race by getting two placed. And – off the scale, this – despite not backing a winner yet, I was ahead after two days. Wednesday was a blast.

All the same, I said to Mrs rwsteeplechasing when she got home: “What have I got to do to win one of these?”

As You Were
Thursday dawned with the usual mix of optimism and pessimism. When you’re betting on the Cheltenham Festival, one takes over from the other every 30 seconds. The day was going to go one way or the other quite quickly, as I was getting involved in the Marsh (formerly JLT) Novices’ Chase and the Pertemps Final, races one and two.

In the Marsh, there was plenty to take on. Whilst respecting Faugheen’s return to form in novice chases at the age of 12, there’d been plenty of poor runs over the last two seasons over hurdles – whatever the cause, he lacked the consistency he once had. Samcro was also more off the map than on it – that blank second season’s hurdling, and the flop behind Faugheen – although there aren’t many horses finish second and be seen as running below form – at Limerick over Christmas.

How it panned out – well, some surely saw this as the race of the meeting. Faugheen was involved, but couldn’t go with Samcro and surprise package Melon, bouncing back to form himself, between the last two fences. Nothing doing for my pair, Mister Fisher arguably given a bit much to do and Midnight Shadow running well to a point.

The Pertemps was a write-off. I thought I had a decent trio in Dream Berry (good effort in the Sandown qualifier), A Great View (would have been on for a place in the 2018 Final but for a bad mistake) and Sunset Showdown, who chased up Tobefair at Cheltenham earlier in the season. The only thing I got right was the winning owner – all three of those are owned by J. P. McManus, but it was another of his, last year’s winner Sire Du Berlais, who landed the spoils in first-time blinkers.

There was a trend developing. Fancied runners were winning the handicaps – those at double-figure odds might have been placing, but they weren’t winning. Sire Du Berlais may have started at 10/1, but he was 17/2 in the morning.

The Brown & Merriebelle Stable Plate was about to provide one of the best results of the week for those supporting the favourites in supposedly the hardest races. Having beaten Tuesday’s winner Imperial Aura at the Festival Trials-meeting in January, Simply The Betts was a crazy 7/2 in the morning to follow suit. Starting 100/30, he duly did the business. I landed on La Bague Au Roi, who was doing okay when falling, Oldgrangewood who got fourth, landing me my only placing of the day, and Blazer, who gradually dropped away in the final mile.

Oldgrangewood alone saved Thursday from being a crash-day. Having started the day ahead through places alone, I’d now gone behind. Not badly behind – the total loss was only about the amount I’d lose on a single race, and I’d lost that over three days – but, not for the first time, it was a one-day shootout.

The Indefatigable Dream
I’d been here before. In 2017 the final plan, which I’d arrived at only on that Friday morning, included the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, and the Grand Annual. I landed on Champagne Classic in the Martin Pipe. In 2018 I did the same, save for firming it up on Thursday night rather than in the morning, and got a 40/1 second in the Martin Pipe, Discorama. Had I bet in 2019, rather than gone to work that week, I’d no doubt have bet the same races.

Same again, then. Why change what worked before? They’re my best races. All that had changed was the running order, with the Martin Pipe now closing the meeting.

All the time I was keeping one eye on developments with coronavirus – suffice it to say that things were worsening on that score, with more new infections and more deaths, in the UK and the world over. It was on the Friday of the Cheltenham Festival that horse racing in Britain or Ireland was first affected – that evening’s meeting at Dundalk was the first to be held behind closed doors, with no public admittance.

One year I will go for the County Hurdle, but this wasn’t the year. I’d definitely have lost if I’d bet in this running, Saint Roi smashing it at 11/2 and probably putting himself in contention for next year’s Champion Hurdle.

Even without Native River, there was plenty going on in the 2020 renewal of the Gold Cup. The 2018 winner’s trainer, Colin Tizzard, had fired blanks all week – with the arguable exception of Lamanver Pippin in the National Hunt Chase, his horses had been below par. That was reason enough to throw out the Betfair Chase winner Lostintranslation – he was a strong contender, and ordinarily you should always forgive one poor run; Looks Like Trouble had been pulled up in the King George at Kempton, as Lostintranslation had been, prior to winning the Gold Cup in 2000.

The 2019 winner Al Boum Photo had obvious strong claims, connections sticking to the one-race-at-Tramore plan that worked a treat the previous season – but not unusually, the Grade 1 three-mile chases at Leopardstown were the go-to races for Gold Cup clues. Road To Respect, a close third in the Savills Chase at Christmas, was another to miss the race, but Delta Work, who won both races, and Monalee, Kemboy and Presenting Percy who were all placed in one or the other finishing within five lengths of the winner, were all realistic contenders.

I preferred the Irish contenders to Santini, who I wasn’t a fan of on account of his race-long flat-spot run style, Bristol De Mai because ‘this isn’t Haydock’, and Clan Des Obeaux – a Kempton horse, but not a Cheltenham one, potentially the opposite of Lostintranslation. After tapping the morning prices into the spreadsheet I landed on Kemboy, Presenting Percy and Monalee, who was outrageously priced at 25/1 – he’d been beaten by Delta Work in the Savills Chase over Christmas, but by only a head! How come Monalee was that big, compared to Delta Work at only 5/1?

Which brings me on to the subject of bookmakers offering extra places. Some went four places in the Gold Cup and others the usual three, which are the usual rules in non-handicaps, and there were only 12 runners anyway. Needless to say, those firms offering four places were only 20/1 Monalee. I need to make it clear – when I look for prices bookies’ place terms aren’t the consideration, it’s all about the best win prices I can find. If you’re offering a fifth the odds down to ninth place and you’re only 12/1, if I can get a fifth the odds down to fourth and 18/1 elsewhere, I’ll take the each-way-four-places at 18/1.

I don’t think anyone expected the race to pan out the way that it did. I expected them to go a good gallop, even without Native River, one reason for that being that it’s what Santini would need, given the ground was drying. But not a bit of it – it was a steady first circuit and a half, so when the race developed into a home-straight burn-up, the one who was the most disadvantaged was Presenting Percy, who’d been held up as largely expected, but ended up detached when those up front went for home, and though staying on didn’t look likely to place when falling heavily at the second last. Thankfully he was okay, and if the Punchestown Festival goes ahead, perhaps compensation awaits.

Up front it was a three-way go between Al Boum Photo, Santini – surprisingly, to me at any rate – and Lostintranslation. Monalee was staying on and was closing on Lostintranslation in the last 150 yards, but couldn’t quite get third, as Al Boum Photo made it back-to-back Gold Cup wins. For professional and smartphone-photographers alike, one for the photo album indeed.

No luck for me though, with Monalee fourth, Presenting Percy on the deck and Kemboy not turning up after a string of mistakes. On to the Grand Annual.

Not a lot turned red on the spreadsheet when I tapped in the prices, but one that did presented a dilemma. Now that we have veterans’ chases, like with mares, every season is a good one for the elders. Croco Bay, aged 12 in 2019, made a lot of the running to take the last renewal of the Grand Annual and now, aged 13, he was back, after a good run to chase home Western Miller at Doncaster in January. If he could win he’d make history as the first 13 year-old to win the race.

Stick to established rules of thumb, or show a bit of flexibility? I showed a bit of flexibility. After all, he wasn’t going to be the only one I backed. I liked Ballywood at 33/1 – this race was sure to give him the strong pace he needed, as he could be keen early on, then hard work later in his races. Even more so I liked Jan Maat at 20/1. He hadn’t raced since October, but I liked what I’d seen of him previously and he looked unexposed.

No joy, though. Croco Bay ran like you’d expect of a 13 year-old – not his fault, and he showed up for a long way. Ballywood looked on for a good finish going to the home turn, but faded after the last.

All the way round the eye was drawn to Jan Maat, who was prominent and jumping really cleanly and well, as good as any chaser all week. Going to the second last though he came under a ride. pecked badly on landing there, and weakened badly. In the Grand Annual, where the pace is unrelenting from the getgo, a horse’s jumping has to hold up, and the moment it doesn’t, it’s game over. But it was obvious between the last two that nobody other than Chosen Mate was winning – and he was another for the favourites in the handicaps, making the 11/2 he was at 8:20am look massive, going off 7/2.

So it was an oh-so-familiar scenario, one that I always end up in every Cheltenham Festival. It’s a done deal. It’s written in the stars. It’s probably in a Banksy-piece on a wall somewhere. Win the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle Roy, or it’s a losing Cheltenham.

Number one of my team jumped off the page. I like the easy decisions, except when they go badly wrong. As implied above, mares have never had it so good in National Hunt racing, and Indefatigable, having chased home Dame De Compagnie in the good mares’ handicap at Cheltenham over Christmas – and gone up the same amount in the handicap since, albeit having had two more runs than the Coral Cup winner in the meantime – was very much in, particularly as she was way overpriced at 40/1.

Number two was Escaria Ten, who got in only as first reserve after his stablemate Braid Blue was withdrawn. Number three was another solid one – Assemble, who’d run well in defeat in a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Leopardstown and when third in a Grade 3-event at Thurles – the same race that Champagne Classic had been in before winning the Martin Pipe in 2017.

Later in the morning, things changed a bit with the withdrawal of Assemble. I wanted a replacement, and a this-one-or-that-one decision had to be made. These are the ones that I hate. Both Kim Bailey’s runners turned red on the original spreadsheet, so it was going to be one of them – and I decided on Espoir De Romay, who’d won off 132 at Wincanton, over Happygolucky, despite the latter’s good efforts in decent novice company behind such as Thyme Hill, who earlier in the day had finished an unlucky-in-running third to Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

I wasn’t expecting much.

And when Indefatigable started at the very back, and had Rex Dingle riding a finish starting the final circuit, not only that but Escaria Ten under a push and looking slow, in my head I wrote off all my chances, even though Espoir De Romay was doing okay and well placed.

Before the home turn Indefatigable had passed a few, but was only in midfield. Off the bend, Espoir De Romay came under a ride and dropped away. Indefatigable passed a few more, and now she was catching the eye – so much so that it didn’t register that Happygolucky was in contention and on for a place at least approaching the last.

Things changed up front when Column Of Fire, who was disputing the lead, fell at the last, leaving Pileon in a clear lead. Indefatigable dodged the faller, passed more horses and ended up in second. She gained on Pileon hand over fist. She continued to close. But the post was surely going to come in time for Pileon? Or maybe not? Here’s the line…


Had she done it? The freeze-frame suggested maybe. Racing TV showed the slow-mo. On the nod? Maybe. No, definitely. She has… I think she has… If only someone had videoed me at that moment…

The voice of the judge interrupted Nick Luck’s animated post-race summary; “Here is the result of the photo finish for first place…”

“First, number two, Indefatigable…”

A tapas diner in Rayleigh was our chosen restaurant on Saturday night.

The Bigger Picture
The following Saturday, I got a letter from the hospital. Following the CT scan, endoscopy and colonoscopy, it was found that all I have is a spot of gastritis – so none of that other C-word, the one that nobody is talking about all of a sudden. I can live with that.

I also had a spot of good fortune with the day’s only bet, at the day’s only race meeting – it was only thanks to a couple of fallers that Emily Moon got a place in the Grade 3 novice chase at Thurles, making me a profit on the race.

The New Coronavirus World
There isn’t any racing to enjoy in the near future at the time of writing. After the meetings at Taunton and Wetherby on March 17th, which were not open to the public, the British Horseracing Authority announced the suspension of racing until May 1st.

This came a day after Aintree announced the cancellation of the 2020 Grand National, following the UK government’s advice the same day against the holding of mass gatherings requiring emergency workers.

Then came the announcement on March 24th that racing in Ireland was to cease, along with all other sports in the Republic, from midnight on March 25th until April 19th, causing the cancellation of the Irish Grand National – a sad way to mark the race’s 150th anniversary. The Punchestown Festival hangs in the balance.

But never mind horse racing, coronavirus has literally brought the whole world to a halt in a way that, surely, nobody could have ever imagined. Businesses are closing, or telling their employees to work remotely. Small businesses and sole traders have gone from keeping busy schedules to having no work at all. People on zero hours-contracts, are literally down to zero hours.

I’m one of the lucky ones. That Monday evening I’d taken delivery – by last-minute-dot-motorbike-courier – of a laptop, loaned by the company I work for, to do my job from home. That’s what I’ll be doing for who knows how long – me and my colleagues have been told not to return to our workplace until further notice.

You know the bigger picture by now, but no harm in repeating it. The health of the population of the world is more important than a few horses running round a field, a bunch of grown adults kicking a ball around, cars being driven at high speed, who runs fastest, jumps highest, throws longest or hits the most sixes.

When the world gets to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic – be it in three months, a year, longer – there’ll be plenty of sport to enjoy. But until then, stay at home. Follow the advice given. By all accounts from those people more clued up on COVID-19 than the British Prime Minister, staying at home is the best way to stop it spreading.

The Numbers (That I’m OK About Broadcasting)
Returning to the Cheltenham Festival to finish this Plog, a few statistics. If the 2021 meeting goes ahead – and let’s face it, in March 2020 whilst writing this piece, we have to think ‘if’ – I want to do something about the last one.

– Number of Cheltenham Festival races I had a bet in: 11
– Number of races I got some kind of return in: 7
– Number of winners backed: 1
– Number of races in which I made a profit from getting only placed horses: 3
– Last year I backed a winner at the meeting that won by further than a nose: 2017 (Champagne Classic in the Martin Pipe)

Yes, I’d like to back a more-decisive winner – say one that wins by a head.