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Soft ground betting strategy for Cheltenham

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Why you should think about tweaking your strategy given the underfoot conditions at Prestbury Park

The rare guarantee of soft ground at Cheltenham Festival should play a part in your betting strategy for this year's extravaganza of jump racing.

In the last ten years the going has only been officially soft on one day, and heavy has not entered the ground description at all; in fact, only 7.5% of the racing in the last 10 festivals has taken place on predominantly soft ground. With the best possible ground likely to be soft, and the high likelihood of further rainfall bringing soft to heavy ground into the equation, this is not going to be a regular year at the Festival.

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Usually, when the races are run on good or good-to-soft ground, bettors often treat the winter form with scepticism. Horses which have the highest official rating, or the most impressive run of victories, have generally achieved their status by winning on the soft – or even heavy – ground prevalent at UK & Irish courses from November to January. Bettors need to scour the form book for horses that have a proven record on good ground, yet have struggled in muddy conditions, because these are always the ones that are overpriced and that the market has forgotten during the long winter months. A profitable Cheltenham normally depends on identifying and backing horses such as 2017 Festival winners Special Tiara, Cause of Causes, and Rock The World, all of which had bad form over winter yet came to life on the firmer ground found at Cheltenham.

But this year, instead of having to spend hours searching for horses with hidden claims due to their dislike of testing conditions, you can simply treat each race you would a normal high-quality renewal any winter weekend because the ground will be no different. Yet the market has not reacted accordingly in particular races, seemingly in denial that this year’s festival is anything other than normal. This provides a chance at value.

So where is the value?

Tuesday

There’s a prime candidate in the very first race of the meeting, the Supreme Novices Hurdle. The stand-out novice hurdle form this season belongs to Kalashnikov (6.4 / 16%), who relished the testing underfoot conditions in his highly impressive win at Newbury in February. This aptly named weapon of a horse cruised over the soft ground to land the valuable Betfair Hurdle by 4.5 lengths from Bleu Et Rouge, with the remaining horses strung out behind the pair. In landing the 46th renewal of the prestigious Grade 3 handicap carrying 11st 5lbs, Kalashnikov put himself in rare company: only four horses have carried more weight to win the race, and two of those (Persian War in 1968 and Make A Stand in 1997) went on to win the Champion Hurdle later that same season.

This was a statistically phenomenal performance for a novice, yet he is not even the favourite for the Supreme, with the Willie Mullins-trained Getabird far shorter in the market at 3.05 (33%). Getabird has looked visually impressive in his two hurdle victories - and may yet prove to be a class animal - but at this stage the Irish horse has not competed in a race of any quality, earning an official mark of only 152, two pounds below Kalashnikov’s rating of 154. With the best form in the book, and conditions favouring the English horse, Kalashnikov is the market value.

Wednesday

The Queen Mother Champion Chase, the feature race of day two, contains another horse which is both proven to perform on soft ground and has the best form this season, yet isn’t the market favourite. Min (4.6 / 22%), one of two representatives in this race of Irish champion trainer Mullins, won the Grade Two Coral Dublin Chase in February by a very impressive 12 lengths, clearly the best Irish form of the season. The ground at Leopardstown was soft, yet the Ricci-owned seven year old skipped over the surface to register an easy and authoritative victory.

At the top of the market is 2017 Arkle winner Altior (2.46 / 41%), who would no doubt have the beating of Min at his absolute best, having dispatched the Irish horse by 7 lengths in the 2016 Supreme Novices Hurdle. But Altior has suffered a disrupted season, only running once – as recently as February 10th – which creates serious doubts over the Henderson trained horse’s match fitness. At the available odds, backing Min to win – who has the season’s best form, and acts on soft ground – is the far more attractive option. Alternatively, no matter how short the available price, this consistent and reliable animal seems sure to run his race, so looks good in the ‘to place’ markets. The other Mullins horse, Douvan (3.95 / 25%), hasn't raced since losing when a 2/9 favourite in this race last year, but might have the class to leave the others behind - read our post on laying the favourite here.

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Thursday

The Stayers' Hurdle offers the clearest example all week of the market unnecessarily overcomplicating this year’s Cheltenham. Sam Spinner (5.1 / 20%) has proven comfort on soft ground, landing a Grade 3 handicap on heavy ground in November. He’s showed without a doubt that he will stay three miles by winning the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot from other leading staying hurdlers L’Ami Serge, Unowhatimeanharry and The Worlds End. The Jedd O’Keefe trained horse is rated 164, and at only 6 years old is likely to still be improving for every race.

His rivals at the head of the market all have questions to answer. Supasundae (rated 163) won the Grade One Irish Champion Hurdle in February, but has never won over 3 miles, let alone 3 miles in brutally testing ground run at a furious pace. Yanworth (163) has been chasing all season, and has twice been beaten at the Festival as favourite. Penhill (150) has not raced at all since April 2017. Yet Sam Spinner is freely available to back at similar prices to Supasundae and Yanworth, and only half the price of Penhill. In the circumstances, he must represent terrific value: he has the form, likes the ground, and comes into the race fit.

Friday

Any article about soft-ground horses won’t fail to recommend backing Native River (5.4 / 19%) in the Gold Cup – and it is true to say that this dour stayer loves testing conditions, having won the 2016 Welsh Grand National on soft ground. However, Native River has very little form this season, having been campaigned lightly by Colin Tizzard, his only run a facile success in a three-runner race at Newbury. In addition, Native River has not one, but two major statistics to overcome. Firstly, 78 out of the last 80 horses beaten in a Gold Cup and returning the following season have been beaten again. Secondly, only one horse rated 150 or above which has been off for 275 days or more, having had its comeback run within 40 days of the festival, has then gone on to win at Cheltenham. Given all of this, you may want to take advantage of the option on Smarkets to lay Tizzard’s horse.

But there is a Gold Cup candidate who does have impressive form on the track this season and loves soft ground, yet is available to back at long odds. Definitly Red (14.5 / 7%), from the unfashionable Brian Ellison stable in the north of England, is officially rated 167, higher than Native River on 166, and only two pounds short of hot favourite Might Bite (169). This nine-year old won the Grade Two Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January on heavy ground, beating American and Bristol de Mai – both good horses in their own right – by 8 and 11 lengths respectively, and also landed a Grade Two on heavy ground at Aintree in impressive style, yet the market has largely ignored these two wins, again pretending this is a normal good-ground festival. This horse is excellent value in the market to win, but an even safer option may be to take advantage of Smarkets’ Gold Cup ‘to place’ market, as Definitly Red looks sure to be staying on up the hill while many of his rivals will struggle to complete the course.

Alastair Akers


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