Kevin Blake on the Cheltenham Festival: Get into a soft-ground mindset

Jumps racehorse Envoi Allen
Might Envoi Allen's connections choose to switch Festival targets?

After focusing on trainers last week, Kevin Blake assesses the small details that bettors need to consider to produce big results when placing bets on Cheltenham this year...

"Sharp bettors can look to exploit the reluctance of the racing public to accept that the ground is going to be softer than expected by punting horses that will be well suited by the surface and are likely to become popular closer to the time as more people latch onto the angle."

Last week, this space touched on how paying attention to small details can lead to big results in the context of a trainer's role.

This week will focus on how bettors can get ahead of the crowd by focusing in on small but significant details before the masses become fully aware of them.

Grounds for concern

The specific subject that will be honed in on is the ground at the upcoming Cheltenham Festival. We are all guilty of falling into the trap of thinking that the Cheltenham Festival is always highly likely to be run on good-to-soft ground. That is the norm thanks to the excellent drainage at the track, but the last two years have shown that it is still susceptible to rain, with the 2018 meeting starting on heavy ground and last year's festivities beginning on soft ground.

There has been a great amount of rain in recent weeks thanks to a series of storms and the water table all over Britain is notably high. The ground is currently soft at Cheltenham and clerk of the course Simon Claisse said as recently as yesterday that, considering the forecast for the next week or so, he expects the meeting to begin on soft ground. Yet, the markets and tone of the commentary around the meeting doesn't seem to have taken in this reality yet.

The Betfair Sportsbook are running a market on what the official ground will be for the first race of the meeting and it is a revealing one. Soft is currently trading as the 4/5 favourite while heavy has shortened from 6/1 on Tuesday into 9/4 this morning. Good-to-soft is 9/4.

Sharp bettors can look to exploit the reluctance of the racing public to accept that the ground is going to be softer than expected by punting horses that will be well suited by the surface and are likely to become popular closer to the time as more people latch onto the angle.

Race targets could switch

However, perhaps the most interesting and significant angle both from a betting and a neutral enthusiast's perspective is the potential that softening conditions have to bring about late switches of target. The bloated nature of the Cheltenham Festival gives many trainers multiple options for their horses and late switches in response to changing ground are a distinct possibility.

The one that immediately springs to mind is Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle. While his connections have very much been favouring that option since before Christmas, the changing ground could well give them pause for thought about a potential switch to the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. There seems to be little doubt that he would have the pace for a Supreme, whereas his stamina for a well-run Ballymore on testing ground would be a small question mark. If he did switch, it would turn the markets for both the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the Ballymore on their heads.

It is also worth noting that two of the leading fancies for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, Thyme Hill and Latest Exhibition, both hold entries for the Ballymore. If Envoi Allen's connections give any indication that he might drop in trip, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Thyme Hill and/or Latest Exhibition switch to the Ballymore.

Mullins may move Allaho

Regarding the novice chasers, Willie Mullins is never inclined to make early decisions when he doesn't have to and one can't help but feel that soft ground might push him towards the Marsh Novices' Chase with Allaho. He had previously hinted that he was leaning towards the RSA Chase, but from what he was saying at a recent media morning at his yard, I strongly suspect he may lean towards the Marsh if the ground is soft.

Willie Mullins smile 2 1280.jpg

In terms of the Championship races, the prevailing ground conditions could well scupper any remaining chance of Benie Des Dieux lining up in the Stayers' Hurdle, but could it potentially open the door to the possibility of her being supplemented for the Champion Hurdle? On a related note, perhaps Honeysuckle could be the one to make the transfer from the Mares' Hurdle to the Champion Hurdle if the ground gets testing? Given the wide-open and below-standard look of the Champion Hurdle, it has to be considered a possibility. Who knows, maybe even the aforementioned Envoi Allen could be considered for it. He still holds an entry in the race.

While it would seem one of the less likely possibilities, there must also be a chance that Henry De Bromhead could consider running A Plus Tard in a soft ground Champion Chase rather than the Ryanair. He has already beaten Chacun Pour Soi this season and a well-run two miles on soft ground could well be ideal for him. While the Ryanair is undoubtedly a weaker race, no one goes to bed at night dreaming about winning a Ryanair Chase, do they?

Many ways to profit

That is just a small sample of the possibilities that changing ground could bring about and this sort of chat is only going to become more prevalent as the reality of the likely ground sets in with connections and pundits alike.

For those that seek to profit from getting ahead of the curve by anticipating switches, there are loads of different options. From simply laying the horses in the ante-post market for their apparent target in the hope that they switch to a different race to backing other runners in that race in the hope they will all shorten if the switch takes place, there are an array of backing, laying and trading opportunities that taking such a view can present.

Whichever way one chooses to approach this situation, the gist of the advice is simple. Put on your wellies and get into a soft-ground mindset before the masses do and you'll likely put yourself into a position to profit.

Small details, big results.

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