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Cheltenham 2019 Preview: Should I Back Or Should I Lay?

In the last 10 Cheltenham Festivals, 131 horses have been sent to post at odds of 3/1 or shorter. Only 52 have won. But it’s no longer a case of simply picking which favourites are worth backing at their short prices, and which should be swerved: if the favourite’s odds are far too short, why not lay it on the exchange instead of trying to pick the right rival to beat it?

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Let’s take a closer look at the five horses likely to be shortest in the markets at this year’s Festival, and the arguments to back or lay them.

Benie Des Dieux – Mares Hurdle

Reasons To Back: Presuming that top-class mares Apples Jade and Laurina take up their intended engagements in the Champion Hurdle instead of racing against their own sex, reigning champion Benie Des Dieux has an obvious class edge against the field. It’s also likely that her closest rivals will be two of her stablemates, Limini and Stormy Ireland, meaning the race should be run in Benie’s favour tactically.

Reasons To Lay: She hasn’t been seen on a racecourse this season, and given just how short she is in the betting, that can’t be totally overlooked. Yes, her trainer Willie Mullins is the undisputed master of getting horses fit for their big day without a racecourse ‘prep run’, and especially so in the case of mares, with his mighty mare Quevega winning this race five years in a row without a run beforehand. But his stable has been below its best this term, and another intended Cheltenham runner with no run this season, Penhill, has already been ruled out of the Festival.

Verdict: Her class edge means it’s tempting to back her regardless, but Benie Des Dieux had two prep runs before her win last year, and that means that this season can’t have gone entirely to plan. Given just how unpredictable these mares’ races are – don’t forget Annie Power’s final-fence fall, or that Apple’s Jade was turned over last year when long odds-on – it may pay to be a layer.

Altior – Champion Chase

Back: He’s indisputably the best horse in training, whatever the handicapper says, and should swat aside the rest of the field fairly effortlessly. Such is Altior’s dominance of the division, some of the better two-mile chasers will end up swerving the race entirely, making his chances of being beaten even lower. He acts on any ground, removing that variable from the equation, and adores the Cheltenham hill, which acts as an amplifier of his strong finish.

Lay: Any horse can fall, and any horse can unfortunately suffer a setback mid-race, but those two scenarios are the only way Altior can lose.

Verdict: Even at long odds-on, his consistent brilliance means that he still represents value for backers.

Tiger Roll – Cross Country Chase

Back: There’s nothing not to love about the gutsy and versatile Grand National champion. He won this race fairly easily last year en route to that Aintree triumph, and with his trainer Gordon Elliott declaring the Cross Country, rather than Grand National, as his “main target” for this season, he should be even more primed to storm up the Prestbury Park hill next week. He showed his form and fitness with a terrific win over hurdles against good horses at Navan in February.

Lay: There can occasionally be a dark horse in this race, running in the Cross Country for the first time, who suddenly finds that negotiating the twists and turns of this unusual test is his forte, and posts a career best.

Verdict: Officially rated 159, Tiger Roll should have far too much for his rivals here, and is certainly an unlayable proposition. But it may be wise to be slightly cautious with stakes; the nature of the fences and the other horses competing means that no matter how hard Tiger’s jockey tries to keep him out of danger, he can’t be guaranteed a trouble-free race.

Paisley Park – Stayers’ Hurdle

Back: Rated a lofty 168 by the handicapper, Paisley Park has stamped his authority on a weak division this season with four wins on the bounce. His win at Ascot in December marked him out as potentially the best of British, but it was his Cleeve Hurdle win at Cheltenham in January that caused his odds for the Stayers’ to plummet. He hammered all his British rivals that day on good-to-soft ground over Stayers’ Hurdle course and distance. If he turns up fit and well, and runs his race, on form lines his only threat should come from Ireland.

Lay: It’s not inevitable that Paisley Park will run up to his lofty mark on the day, given that the horse’s first experience of the Festival saw him finish an ignominious thirteenth in last year’s Albert Bartlett. Even if he does run his race, Willie Mullins may have an ace up his sleeve in the form of Faugheen. Back from injury, the two-time Festival winner was stunning in the Punchestown three-mile hurdle last season. If Faugheen is truly on song, the rest of the field – including the favourite – are running for second place.

Verdict: Faugheen is clearly the key to this race: at his best he would boast blatant superiority over this mediocre field. However he is now eleven years old, and returning from a horrific fall last time out at Leopardstown. Only three 10-year-olds or older have won championship races at Cheltenham this century, and only a handful of races have been won by horses that fell on their most recent start. Faugheen has to be taken on, and with Paisley Park’s unfashionable trainer unrealistically lengthening his odds, it means there is value in backing Paisley Park to beat an otherwise average set of staying hurdlers.

Sir Erec – Triumph Hurdle

Back: It’s not often that a horse rated as highly as 109 on the flat arrives at Cheltenham to take on hurdlers: he should be the Ferrari in a race full of Ford Fiestas. He can also jump hurdles respectably well, having won twice over obstacles this season in Ireland without making a significant error. Trainer Joseph O’Brien seems to have all the good juveniles, so the race should be run to his advantage.

Lay: A very strongly run race could try Sir Erec’s as-yet untested reserves of stamina, but the evidence from the track this season would suggest that there isn’t a good enough juvenile at another stable to actually put this plan into action. However, there might be a superstar lurking who hasn’t been seen on a racecourse in the UK or Ireland: Paul Nicholls’ Pic d’Orhy, who boasts outstanding French form.

Verdict: Nicholls thinks that Pic d’Orhy needs “softer than good” ground to be effective, but if that materialises next Friday, it could be wiser to place an each-way wager on the dark horse rather than lumping on Sir Erec at such a short price. But if Pic d’Orhy doesn’t line up, Sir Erec ought to be a banker.

Alastair Akers

07/03/19


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