As a result of a relative's festive kindness, I recently came to possess a copy of 'The Hidden Mathematics of Sport' by Rob Eastaway & John Haigh. This article is neither an advertisement nor a critique, so it suffices to say that the book provides an entertaining yet accessible read, but one throwaway sentence on racing in its pages caught my eye: 'Horse racing wouldn't exist without betting'.
Sorry, Messrs Eastaway and Haigh, but there's a flaw in your logic there. Were that strictly true, all races would ultimately be equal and, ergo, equally anticipated. And I can tell you right now that isn't the case. While sprint handicaps at Wolverhampton and novice hurdles at Sedgefield come and go, here I am, two months ahead of the event, discussing the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
This year's Champion Chase is a particularly stark example of the power top-level racing can have when treated as raw sport, since few will be licking their chops at the race as a betting prospect but most would regard it as one of the must-see races of this year's Festival. It will be the race in which Sprinter Sacre, who has already in essence acceded to the throne, will surely be crowned king of the two-mile chasers. This is a race about which to say 'I was there' rather than 'I backed that winner'.
With all that said, there will be an angle. There's always an angle - it's presumably where the confusion of betting being vital to racing, as opposed to ever-present within racing, comes from. In the Champion Chase, the angle could be on Sprinter Sacre himself. He is currently 1.594/7 to win in March, but consider that none of the four immediately behind him in the betting (Flemenstar, Sizing Europe, Finian's Rainbow and Sanctuaire) are certain starters and that he has another run coming up in the Victor Chandler Chase, which the chances are he'll win effortlessly. It's not out of the question that Sprinter Sacre could be closer to 1.251/4 on the day, making the odds currently on offer look very generous indeed.
Betting at short prices two months in advance understandably isn't for everyone, so is there another way to get involved in the Champion Chase? There could well be, and it derives from very similar methodology.
Should Sprinter Sacre dot up in the Victor Chandler and a number of his rivals divert to other Festival targets, we could be left with a small field come the day of the race. Remember, only five dared to take on Sprinter Sacre in last year's Arkle and his stock has risen considerably since then. Remember also that, if you're betting for a place at this stage, three places will be paid. So what we're actually looking for is a likely runner with the ability to mix it in top company.
The above rules out the likes of Simonsig, Cue Card and Somersby (unlikely runners), while William's Wishes and Shooters Wood (to name two) have to prove they're up to this level. The Whateleys-owned Wishfull Thinking could provide the most interesting option, when you consider that his owners had two other prospective entries for the race (Captain Chris and Menorah), it's easy to imagine him as likely to line up on the day.
To be perfectly honest, in normal circumstances Wishfull Thinking wouldn't represent any sort of solid betting opportunity, especially after his tame response to pressure in the Desert Orchid Chase over Christmas. However, he evidently has the ability to lay up with the best, has been shaping as though retaining that ability all season and has a recent win over course and distance to his name, albeit against much lesser opposition. So long as stable jockey Richard Johnson isn't so keen to press on as in this race last year, when his charge duly showed reckless abandon for both Cheltenham's fences and the health of the watching photographers, he could pick up the pieces in a contest that may well cut up.
So there you have it: a way to potentially get the best of both worlds in the Champion Chase, with the visceral thrill of watching a champion in action coupled with the warm satisfaction of a winning place bet. I know which would give me the greater enjoyment, and it's the one that the maths boffins can't quantify.
Back Wishfull Thinking @ 14.013/1to place in the Queen Mother Champion Chase
Back Sprinter Sacre @ 1.594/7 to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase
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