There has never been more media interest in the University Boat Race than this year. James Cracknell, double Olympic gold medallist and multiple world champion, returns to rowing at the age of 46 to become the oldest Boat Race competitor in history by a margin of more than a decade.
Cracknell moved on from elite rowing in 2004 to complete a series of endurance feats, gaining further celebrity on one of them when he was knocked off his bike and nearly killed in 2010 while crossing America. His subsequent recovery from a brain injury, and the challenges this entailed, became the subject of a best-selling book co-authored with his wife, Beverley Turner.
The long-rumoured news then, that Cracknell was to begin studying for his Masters in Human Evolution at Cambridge and attempt to gain selection for the light-blue boat, has given this year's Boat Race a sustained and compelling narrative.
The story gained traction early on amid social media claims that Cracknell was already working with the Cambridge team prior to starting his academic studies in September 2018. Whatever the truth, and ethical implications, of those rumours is of little concern to punters. More relevant is how media interest can potentially skew betting markets, and as the frenzy around Cracknell's participation builds - heightened by an announcement last week that he has split from wife Turner - bettors need to be wary of where the value lies.
Where can I watch it?
This year's University Boat Race between Oxford 4.607/2 and Cambridge 1.271/4 is on Sunday April 7. The Women's race starts at 14:13, the Men's at 15:10. The eccentric timings have to do with the tides, I am told.
Coverage begins on BBC1 at 13:20. Otherwise, you can venture into London and join the quarter-of-a-million other drinkers who cram the riverbank to watch a glorified canoe or two float by. It's in London, between Putney and Mortlake, so don't rock up in Oxford asking if it's home or away this year.
Is the head-to-head score relevant?
Probably not. Cambridge lead Oxford by 83 wins to 80 in the men's race. Television commentators, in a bid to find something to say, will analyse the significance of these totals.
For what it's worth, the previous year's loser goes on to win the next year around 61% of the time. Last year, Oxford was in disarray after the late withdrawal of Josh Bugajski, and a more harmonious crew will want to avenge that defeat.
Why am I watching television coverage of a coin toss?
When television commentators have found all there is to say about the head-to-head record, they will move on to the coin toss.
The successful tosser can choose the side of the river their crew will row from, Middlesex (North) or Surrey (South). The winning crew will see their odds shorten. Interestingly, though, the winner of the coin toss has only gone on to race victory 54% of the time. This is likely because, despite a perceived advantage of rowing on the inside on the first bend if getting Middlesex, the two stations have provided a roughly equal number of winners. A little more interesting, perhaps, is that captains who have won the toss and chosen Surrey have gone on to win around 62% of Boat Races.
The best approach for punters is probably to oppose any post-coin-toss betting moves on the basis that the market always overreacts, despite its significance being largely meaningless.
Why are they going on about the weight of the crews?
Weight is seen to be a likely indicator of rowing success, with heavier crews being at an advantage. It's a complex area, though. Heavier crews are generally more powerful, but they create more drag. Overall, the heavier crew has gone on to win the Boat Race 58% of the time, with that figure rising to 63% in more recent years.
The issue for commentators this year is that the average weight of the crews is near-identical, removing what is usually an effective airtime filler for them. Luckily, they'll be able to cut to a long, inspiring-music backed VT about James Cracknell's life. This, in fairness, will be worth tuning-in for: he's a fascinating character who has a refreshing openness and honesty about his life, including his own shortcomings. It will have little bearing on the result, though.
Is there any value to betting in-play?
Yes. A stonking 88% of boats to reach Hammersmith Bridge first have gone on to win.
Aren't these statistics all stuff-and-nonsense?
Quite possibly. After all, the race sees very different teams race once a year in varying weather and water conditions. As a journalist (during the bit of his life in between elite rowing part one and two) James Cracknell would encourage readers to look beyond the telly-filling statistics of weight, station, and the coin toss, and instead look at the relative talent the crews offer.
Rowing, though, is a difficult sport when it comes to assessing the combined talents of crews. Largely a team affair, with arcane competitions and rituals, it's difficult to pinpoint the ability and form of any individual rower, and even more difficult to do so when they come together in the Boat Race to compete over an inhumane distance in conditions unlike any other competitive rowing event. Instead, we are often left to rely on rumour and hearsay: the few warm up races against the likes of Leander and Oxford Brookes this year certainly provide little conclusive evidence of either team having a clear advantage.
For the story of it all, a James Cracknell-inspired Cambridge win will be what many want, and his presence in the squad, with all his experience of winning-under-pressure, will be of benefit to his crew. But as punters we must look for value, not neat narratives, and the odds of a Cambridge win would be bigger without Cracknell's presence. I'll be backing Oxford at 4.607/2 and looking for trading opportunities after the coin toss and in-play.