How to pick a winner at Cheltenham

Updated: 02/12/2022

What is the Cheltenham Festival?

CheltenhamIt doesn’t get much bigger than the Cheltenham Festival. The four-day extravaganza is the showpiece event of the National Hunt season, featuring the biggest and best jumps horses from Britain and Ireland.

The Festival is packed with iconic races, including the Champion Hurdle on day one and the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Ladies Day. The Ryanair Chase and Stayers Hurdle share the limelight on day three, with the Gold Cup being the star of the show on the final day.

It’s also one of the biggest weeks of the year for bookmakers, with an estimated £150 million taken in bets over the four-day event in 2018.

With so much great racing, it really pulls in the crowds too. On Gold Cup Day, when Cheltenham opens up to maximum capacity, around 70,000 pack the stands to watch the races. The average attendance over the four days is around 65,000, with last year’s Festival setting a new record total attendance of over 260,000.

Grammatically, this should be Ladies’ Day, but I don’t know what the norm is.

Should I just pick the favourite?

Choosing which horse to back isn’t an exact science. Some people only bet on their lucky number. Others go by their favourite color. And then there are those who watch out for horses that, erm, relieve themselves to lighten the load before the race. Whatever works for them, we guess.

Backing the favourite is generally seen as the “safe bet”, although it’s not guaranteed to be a winner. The favourite is the horse and rider that the bookies believe has the best chance of winning, which means they’ll lower the profit margin on that selection. But anything can happen once the tapes go up and the racing begins!

Remember that the shorter the odds offered, the more fancied they are in the race. Odds are based on a number of factors, including the horse and the jockey’s form that year and at the course. The condition of the track is an important factor too.

Horses that aren’t fancied by bookmakers do occasionally win, but it doesn’t happen too often. At the Cheltenham Festival, anything over 20/1 is considered long odds, and in the 2018 showpiece, only six out of the 28 winners had odds larger than that.

It’s worth noting that long shot wins rarely happen in the Gold Cup. Lord Windermere was the last long odds winner in 2014 at 20/1, with See More Business winning at odds of 16/1 in 1999. The biggest shock came in 1990 when Norton’s Coin ran out as a winner with odds of 100/1.

What should I look for in a winner?

Cheltenham winnerForm guides and trend guides are your friend here. They can give you the insights that make all the difference.

Form guides show how a horse has gone in its last five runs to give you a clearer picture of its chances on the day of the race. Look to races that have had similar conditions to the race that’s about to be run too.

On a race card, the numbers 1-9 indicate a horse’s finish, with 0 showing it didn’t make the top nine. If you see a ‘C’ next to the horse, it shows that it’s won on that course before. ‘D’ indicates that it’s won over that distance and ‘CD’ that shows it’s won on that course and over the distance. ‘BF’ means that it has finished ahead of the favourite for the race, but neither won.

How important is the jockey?

Cheltenham JockeyNow this is a debate which has been raging for decades! Some believe they have a big influence, others are convinced they don’t make much difference. But there is a reason why serial winners triumph as often as they do.

If a horse doesn’t have a good race, it doesn’t matter how good the jockey is. Simple as that. If a horse has been trained and bred well and is in peak physical condition, then the jockey won’t need to do too much to push the horse on.

But jockeys can do their homework on the competition, the horse and other riders so they know how to shine on the day. That’s how you get jockeys with enough confidence in their ride to linger near the back, preserving energy for a burst at the finish.

Jockeys aren’t really there to choose which horse they ride in the race as that’s usually down to the trainer. They need to be able to adapt. In some cases, the jockey can choose if they’re a stable jockey, but they don’t get the pick of the field, so they can’t just choose to ride on the favourite.

What about trainers?

nicky hendersonTrainers are needed to get the horse in top shape for the race ahead. It’s about getting them into winning form and keeping them there, whilst also making sure that the horse doesn’t pick up any injuries along the way.

There’s no secret formula to becoming a trainer to event-winning horses, it’s all down to commitment, care and a passion for the job. Two of the biggest and most successful English trainers are Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott among the Irish elite.

The best trainers usually have stable jockeys, so they can select the same few riders to ride their horses. Big names that trainers usually choose from include Ruby Walsh, Davy Russell, Barry Geraghty and Richard Johnson. Walsh and Mullins have formed a legendary partnership in recent years.

Trainers also need to do their research to pick a jockey that fits the horse and the race, to give them all the best chance of winning.

Trainers know their horses better than anyone, so on the day of the race, they oversee the final preparations with horse and rider, discussing the tactics they think would get the best from their horse.

Should I follow tipsters’ advice?

There are plenty of tipsters out there, but some are more reliable than others – their jobs rely on getting it right more often than not at big meets. But of course, none can guarantee you a winner!

National newspapers give space to tipsters in the run up to Cheltenham, and they’re paid to pick out who they think to stand the best chance of winning. If they aren’t up to scratch with their tips, they won’t be given the opportunity in the nationals again.

Looking online, you can find a whole host of different blogs from racing enthusiasts that follow or go to every race, so you can make a judgment just like bookmakers can.

The Cheltenham Festival is such a widely-covered event that you don’t need to go to tipsters to be able to understand where to place your bet. Going to a tipster helps to assist your choice, but it’s not a sure thing!

It’s always best to avoid taking advice from ‘your mate’s mate’ too, no matter how much they’re vouched for or how their pick is a ‘sure thing’. If you want to take a tip to reassure you, stick to reputable sources in newspapers and online. It’ll give you your best chance at picking a winner.

In summary…

However, you choose to bet over the Cheltenham Festival week, make sure you’re only staking as much and as frequently as you’re comfortable with. Betting is there to enhance the experience of racing and add to the fun of the sport. If you’re not enjoying it, make sure you stop.

Use this as a beginner’s guide on Cheltenham to give an understanding on how the Festival and betting on the racing works. It’s not a strategy guide to make you win money, and wins can’t be guaranteed from the advice we’ve put out here. Good luck, and here’s to a great Festival!

This post first appeared here

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