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Fate of the festival favourites: can you make a profit backing market leaders?

Stuart Riley crunches the numbers in a Cheltenham special

Cashing in at Cheltenham: backing favourites in certain races at the festival can lead to a profit
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We all have that one friend who seems to back nothing but favourites and yet – despite all we know about the need to find value in order to make punting self-sustainable – claims to have made a healthy profit come the end of the festival.

It is tempting to shake your head, label them a mug punter, thank them for the drink they bought you to drown your own punting woes – all while muttering something about it being a quick way to the poor house (under your breath of course) – and return to fighting the good fight the way we know it is meant to be fought.

But what if it really is that simple? What if, instead of months of staying on top of the form, late nights watching race replays, attending expensive preview evenings and keeping any and all interactions with loved ones as brief as humanly possible so as not to interfere with any of those most noble pursuits, you could just spend January through to the second week of March eating, drinking, being merry – and still turn up at the festival and back a load of winners?

Well, the good news for the form studiers, replay watchers, stats worshippers, stable whisper listeners and stopwatch believers, is that the headline figures are in – and they make pretty bleak reading for our favourite-backing friends. A pound on every favourite, joint-favourite or co-favourite at the festival over the last ten years would have resulted in a healthy loss of £51.32.

But, and there is always a but, delve a little deeper and in certain circumstances it really can be as simple as lumping on the jolly and joining the orderly queue for the bar.

Back the right kind of favourites

It was never going to be as straightforward as backing every favourite blind otherwise we would all be doing it, but if you are more choosy then favourites can be the play.

The table below shows the profitability of favourites, joint-favourites and co-favourites by race over the last ten years. As you can see, in 11 of the 29 races – the Cross Country Chase appears twice as three years ago it switched from a handicap to a level-weights contest – it has been profitable to just back the market leader.

It is perhaps no surprise that four of the most fiendishly difficult handicaps – the Fred Winter, Grand Annual, Coral Cup and County Hurdle – occupy four of the bottom five positions in the table. Between them they have produced just two winning favourites in the last ten years, with the last mentioned having had just one market leader finish in the first four in that time.

Across the handicaps a further 31 favourites have placed and, working on the basis of a quarter the odds the first four, 50p each-way on each market leader in that time would have returned a loss of £38.58, as shown in the table below. Indeed, the Kim Muir, Ultima and Plate are the only handicaps in which a profit has been possible playing win or each-way and, taking the handicaps as a collective, you would have lost £54.17 backing the favourites win only. 

Given that is a greater loss than backing all favourites then you have probably worked out backing the market leader in the level-weights contests would have been marginally profitable, to the tune of £2.85.

Looking at these races in more detail, novice hurdlers return a loss of £4.84, while novice chasers (£4.39), open hurdlers (£3.95) and open chasers (£4.85) are all profitable. So if you restricted yourself to backing the favourite in the level-weights races – excluding the bumper and novice hurdle contests – you would have returned a rather healthy £13.19 profit from a £1 stake.

The likes of Buveur D'Air, Benie Des Dieux, Altior, Tiger Roll, Paisley Park, Epatante, Sir Erec and Stand Up And Fight will find their way into plenty of festival Yankees and Lucky 15s and, as it turns out, with good reason.

Sir Erec: Triumph Hurdle favourite will find his way into plenty of Yankees and Lucky 15s

Another profitable way to approach the festival would be to simply back the favourite in races for amateur riders. There is a far greater disparity in riding ability in these races and following the market leader over the last ten years would have resulted in a positive return of £6.20.

Ok Corral and Ballyward are contesting favouritism for the National Hunt Chase and Stand Up And Fight is clear at the head of the Foxhunter market, while Its All Guesswork and Measureofmydreams top the Kim Muir betting. But just bear in mind, these stats are derived from starting prices, not ante-post lists.

Trainers to follow

Everyone has their favourite trainers to follow and at the festival it is no different with one man very much the punters' messiah. Look for a certain WP Mullins.

It is easy to assume Mullins-trained horses at the festival must be overbet, especially the fancied runners given his incredible recent record, but that is not the case. Blindly backing market leaders saddled by the King of Closutton over the last ten years would have resulted in a level-stakes profit of £13.01, with a staggering 30 of his 62 favourites, joint-favourites or co-favourites obliging.

The table below shows the profit figures for trainers who have saddled at least one winning favourite at the festival in the last ten years. The most notable absentees are Noel Meade (0-5), Donald McCain (0-5) and Alan King (0-10).

The figures – both the strike-rates and the profit figures – of the other trainers to have saddled double figures in terms of favourites, such as Jonjo O'Neill, David Pipe, Gordon Elliott, Nicky Henderson, Philip Hobbs and Paul Nicholls, only further highlights how incredible Mullins' numbers are.

When you consider the biggest-priced winning favourite to oblige for Mullins was Sir Des Champs, who won the 2011Martin Pipe when sent off at 9-2, it represents a phenomenal return. And when you consider Sir Des Champs was his only winning favourite from nine market leaders in handicaps that means he is 29 from 53 for a level-stakes profit of £16.51 in level-weights races.

Mullins has far fewer horses than usual contesting favouritism at this year's festival in such races, but Benie Des Dieux, Ballyward, Blue Sari and Footpad or Min – should either contest the Ryanair – have the potential to go off favourite. Given their trainer's record it could pay to be with them rather than against.

Willie Mullins: enjoyed a double at Tramore

With Rebecca Curtis two from two with festival favourites (+£6.38) it could be worth keeping an eye on her Lisnagar Oscar in the Albert Bartlett. It is a race she won in 2013 with At Fishers Cross, and Curtis is yet to leave the money behind when turning up with a favourite's chance.

Make sure the price is right

It seems when backing favourites at the festival, price is very much a factor – and the shorter the better.

Yes, the shortest-priced horse to run at the festival in the last ten years, Douvan in the 2017 Champion Chase, was turned over. But £1 on each of the 41 favourites sent off even-money or shorter in the last ten years would have resulted in a level-stakes profit of £5.47. 

In fact, as the table below shows, it has been profitable to back every one of the 120 festival favourites sent off at 11-4 or shorter over the last ten years, but only just with a £0.35 return. Once investing at bigger than even-money the overall profitability decreases.

At this stage only Benie Des Dieux, Altior, Tiger Roll and Sir Erec look contenders to go off at even-money or shorter.

At bigger prices the returns drop off a cliff, although 9-2 and 5-1 seem to be statistical outliers with 11 winners from 40 favourites in this price range for a level-stakes return of £23. However, if you are considering backing a festival market leader at bigger than 5-1 think again as only two of the 63 have won for a level-stakes loss of £48.

So there you have it, the next time someone tells you they had a load of festival winners backing the favourites you can say me too!


If you enjoyed this, you should read others from our Racing Revealed series:

True or false: the truth behind popular punting myths

So, how much does a jockey really earn?

The art, rules and rudeness of naming racehorses

How true is the famous saying 'you never meet a poor bookmaker'?

Blindly backing market leaders saddled by the King of Closutton over the last ten years would have resulted in a level-stakes profit of £13.01
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