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Fate of the Favourites - A Clerk's View

Odds On Shots - The Reality. How did the favs fare last year? Which race favourite is due/not due? Beaten Favourite last time out? What to lay in 2024?


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This table shows the fate of the Festival favourites since 2009. In 2024 the amount of whingeing about the uncompetitiveness of the Cheltenham Festival has reached record levels. Sir AP McCoy, Chris Cook RP and Kevin Blake amongst other fine racing luminaries seem to daily want to vent their wrath. They tend to base their arguments on the number of odds on favourites. But why is a horse an odds on favourite? In 2024 the hype surroundng the Festival has never been greater. Bookies, pundits, and social media rush to tell us 'that's a certainty at Cheltenham.' Hindsight, I know, but Marine Nationale was made odds on for the Arkle on the back of an uncompetitive jog round a Leopardstown Beginners Chase. I submit that wouldn't have happened 15, 10 even 5 years ago.   

So is the Festival any more uncompetitive that before? The table shows that in 2013 nine favourites won of the 18 priced 3/1 or under. All three odds on shots won. I don't remember people telling me then that the world was about to end. It shows that between 2010 and 2016 we had 22 odds on shots. 15 won. Between 2017 and 2023, another seven year stretch, we've had 32 odds on shots, a definite increase in numbers. Only three last year, mind you. Guess what? Again, only 15 won in a seven year period. Hype? Should the arguments not be based on facts, as opposed to mythical prices? As I write the bookies have five odds on shots for this year's Festival. Betfair Exchange has three. The true price? Remember, bookmakers are still driving big cars.  

Fate of Festival SP favourites since 2009. When the fav becomes 3/1 and under at a lot of Festival races, then as punters, perhaps we should be reassessing the value.  I used to think, probably naively, that on course bookmakers like best to take on favourites priced between 4/6 and 3/1. These are the prices that you are going to get them 'in the bag.' Simon Nott's excellent daily accounts for Starsports and AK Bets in Ireland would suggets that 1/3 and 1/4 shots are never that easy to lay for cash and more often or not remain winners for the book.

Nowadays, more often than not, on course bookmakers will back the shorties heavily on Betfair and lay the no hopers for vast liabilities. Especially in Irish maiden hurdles. On course I nosily watched it recently on a nearby screen with Staffordshire Knot at Down Royal. It's a theory espoused in January 2024 by Johnny Dineen on Racing Post's 'Upping The Ante.' He wisely added 'it's how you cope when one of the no hopers wins, is the big issue.' That will happen. Sometimes with a real shortie we will bet distances just to be something different. As an on course clerk, I know that the theory of calculating level staking punting on favourites proves little or nothing. The shorter the price, the bigger percentage of my screen should be on that horse so you stand it for your usual projected loss. As I say, it rarely happens that way nowadays.

However my self imposed 3/1 reassessment barrier should change with each individual Festival race. For example In the Queen Mother, this century the 23 favourites have ranged in price from the beaten 2/9 Douvan to winner Altior 4/11 to beaten 2/5 Defi du Seuil to beaten 8/13 Chacun Pour Soi to winner 11/4 Sire De Grugy, the biggest priced QM favourite this century. 11 of those 23 favourites since 1999 started odds on. Only three of the eleven won. Yes, I had to re check that. At 1/4 and 4/11 twice. Five winning favs of the other 12 priced Evens or bigger including Energumene last year backed doen to 6/5 at the off. Therefore more advisable that when the QM fav approaches Evens, pause, then have another think before wading in as a punter. El Fabiolo.

I'm thinking more of those favourites in handicaps who get backed late, on course. For every Unsinkable Boxer cantering the Pertemps at 5/2 fav, there are several plots each year that go awry.

In 2023 we had some beauties which few will ever remember. Terao in the 23 runner Boodles, the JP, WPM, Mark Walsh combo. Returned the 3/1 fav, 19th. Hermes Allen (RIP) 9/4 fav from 4/1 late for the Ballymore, 6th. Mighty Potter, an unbeatable 4/6 for the Turners, 3rd. Thanksforthehelp D Pipe/JP/M Walsh started 100/30 fav for the 23 runner Pertemps. What? 12th. Luccia 6/4 4th in the Mares Novice. Vaucelet 9/4 fav for Foxhunters. 7th. Only four favs won between Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Matt Tombs - In the last 5 years there have been 64 handicap runners that qualify as being ‘gambles’ in those last c24 hours. Only 6 won, and if you’d backed them all, even if you’d got the best price on the Pricewise grid, you’d have lost 22% of your stakes.

In 2022 we had Gaellic Warrior 13/8f Boodles, Dinoblue, 11/8f for Mares Novice. Both beat The grid shows that this was the first time ever in the 28 races that there were 20 favourites 3/1 and under and of those 11.5 won (Constitution Hill being a jt fav). Four of the first five favs obliging on GC Day when most cash is taken. After Vauban in the Triumph, WPM's State Man at 11/4 fav in the County was, I believe, a killer. I'm also not sure much profit would have been made from the tight Festival second favs, Stattler and Elimay. A well known Northern Irish on course bookmaker confessed to me that 2022 was his first ever losing Cheltenham. And the family have been attending for some years.

In 2021 there were only two shorties in the handicaps. Both won. The Shunter at 9/4f and Mount Ida at 3/1f. May have been something to do with Kevin Blake have them as his Thursday treble on The Morning Show along with Mrs Milner. Some say the last time that Kevin has tipped a winner. 19 favourites started 3/1 or under, eight winners. All eight winning favs were 3/1 and under. There were seven odds on shots, apart from Chacun Pour Soi, both Concertista and Kilcruit at 10/11, and Envoi Allen at 4/9 left their money in the bag.

2020 was slightly different. 7 favs and a joint fav won, 4.5 of those in handicaps. The shortest of those winning was Simply The Betts at 100/30 in the Mildmay. In handicaps 4/1 or 5/1 the field, bookies will normally 'stand' three or four unless badly hit with one or have a strong opinion. In 2020 Bookies won. There were 16 favourites priced 3/1 and under. All of them in the 18 conditions races. The only two conditions races that didn't have a 3/1 or under favourite were the Albert Bartlett and the Gold Cup. Only 2 of the 16 won, Epatante at 2/1 and Envoi Allen at 4/7, both admittedly hammered on course. Now, I'm not saying that the on course bookies made a lot of money out of second favs Honeysuckle, Easysland or Samcro but that year if you think of the money just for Asterion Forlonge. Carefully Selected, Appreciate It, Defi Du Seuil and Goshen, then you'll begin to realise that 2020 should have been a fine harvest. Rule of thumb is, if there are two or more shorties in the same race, 'we stand one.' And there's more, below.

The 2019 Festival was 'normal'. As the box shows, there were 14 favs at 3/1 and under year and only five won. All that money stayed in the satchels for Apples Jade, Buveur D'Air and Laurina in the Champion Hurdle (and two of those weren't even favourite). Benie Des Dieux 10/11 (F, ouch Ruby) and Ballyward (RIP) 9/4 fav in the 4 miler.

If you like to back the unnamed favs, 2015 ,'16, '19 and '22 would have all yielded a punter's profit. Bookies won well in 2023 imho if they are compling normal books. That's even with three favs and two joint favs winning on the Tuesday. And a short priced GC winner. In 2022 the first three conditions races on the Tuesday won by the jolly. In 2021 it was five of the first seven conditions races from Appreciate It to Monkfish, all winning favs. And Galvin wouldn't have been much help at 7/2 in the Nearly Four Miler.

According to Ladbrokes/Corals stats the Triumph Hurdle is always in the top ten biggest betting races in GB/IRE that year. The first race on GC Day. Think of all the races throughout the whole racing calendar in these islands. A small field, Grade 1 four yr old race takes all that cash. Lossiemouth and Vauban for the punters the last two years. Sir Gino. Vauban was the winning fav in five renewals. 2021 second fav Quilixios at 2/1. A Rachael ridden winner never tends to be good news. That year Zanahyir had been the rage since Hattons Grace day in early December. The 2020 renewal was being won a furlong by Goshen the 5/2 jolly until... In 2019 Sir Erec Evens RIP. In 2018 Apples Shakira, at 6/5 fav, is backed as if already home and hosed. Not. Possibly the best bookie result of each respective week. 

All seven races on Gold Cup day are usually in the top twenty betting races for the whole calendar year. The first five races on Gold Cup Day are regularly in the top 15 of biggest UK betting races of the year. Lossiemouth and Galopin Des Champs obliged last year. In 2022 the favs went in. In 2021 no favourites won on Gold Cup Day. Punters have to win sometime, they say. In 2021 Zanahyir at 11/8, A Plus Tard 9/4, Billaway at 2/1 and Elimay at 6/5 all leaving it behind would suggest that the clerks may have been getting steak for dinner. Saint Roi, Al Boum Photo Chosen Mate along with Defi Du Seuil 2017 Triumph and Hazel Hill 2019 Foxhunters had been the only 5 favourites to have won any of the 35 races over the five Festival Fridays form 2017 to 2021. Then 2022. People laugh at me but it always comes round.

The Ascot Gold Cup tends to be the only Royal Ascot race ever to make it into the top twenty betting races. (usually just behind the (Fox)Hunters, I ask you).

WILLIE MULLINS SHORTIES - In 2023 he saddled six favs 2/1 won and under. Only one beat. Allegorie De Vassy the 13/8 fav in the Mares. 2022 he saddled seven at SP returned under 2/1. Five won, not Gaelic Warrior nor Dinoblue. But had the first race winners on the Wednesday and Friday and a Gold Cup Day five timer. In 2021 WPM saddled six at 15/8 or under. Only Appreciate It 8/11 and Monkfish 1/4 obliged. Concertista, Chacun, Kilcuit and Elimay didn't (also Billaway at 2/1). That's 15/8 or under, 32 wins from the his last 51. 27 sent out evens or shorter over the past 16 Festivals, 11 losers.  Galliard Du Mesnil his only qualifier last year. Five odds on losers over the previous two Festivals.

2020. Willie saddled seven winners, none priced under 3/1. He saddled 7 favourites, all 3/1 or under, all losers. All in conditions races. In order Asterion Forlonge 9/4, Benie Des Dieux 4/6, Carefully Selected 10/11, Alloha 5/2, Appreciate It 15/8, Faugheen 3/1, Billaway 11/4. Amazing to think that his shortest priced horse on GC Day was in the fifth race and the first one that day that he didn't win. Min won the Ryanair for him in 2020 at 2/1 but A Plus Tard was the favourite. 

The shortest shorties to get turned over this century are, in order, Douvan, Envoi Allen and Annie Power in that 2015 alleged £40 million fall. Constitution Hill shortest last year at 4/11, Alloha was the shortest shortie in 2022 at 4/7. Both winners

BACKING SP FAVS BLIND - A daft idea but some do. Punters lose badly 2023 and 2021, '18 and '17, win well 2022 2020 and 2019. Enough, now.

Another beautiful thing in 2018 was that Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima was the first Festival Handicap favourite in 37 to win. Loved that stat. Have checked, in the 38 handicaps between then and 2022, 10.5 of the favs won, two in 2021. In 2022 first eight handicap favs were beat and then State Man won the County. Last year Corach Rambler, the 6/1 jt fav in the Ultima, the only handicap fav to oblige.

'WHICH ONES TO LAY IN 2023? - At this point I put up shorties to take on, last year two of the four won. 'Energumene yet to beat a good horse.' 'Lossiemouth just too short.' No George Cross won by me, that's for sure. I can hear Dan saying 'We are playing with live bullets here now.', The 2024 short priced beauty parade should include (writing post DRF) .Ballyburn, Constitution Hill, Lossiemouth, El Fabiolo, Sir Gino, Galopin Des Champs, Dinoblue.

Prediction time. I'll take on Lossiemouth and Dinoblue (both may not stay). That'll do.

OVERROUNDS - This topic is of questionable value so I've decided to cut it back. Save to say you'll get a smaller overround in the conditions races than the handicaps. Even with Constitution Hill being 4/11 last year, the Champion Hurdle overround was just 108%. And it's no secret but you will get 99% overrounds on the Betfair Exchange win book. The average bookmaker overround for the conditions races will be about 115% to 118%. In the handicaps will hover about the 133%s. There are 14 G1s and since 2021, 9 handicaps.

As the SPs now do not come from the on course books, look for discrepancies. SP will be easily beaten on course, I guarantee that.

SP RETURNS - Maiden Hurdle, Fairyhouse 24th January 2024. 15 runners. Off course bookies returned winner Mirazur West at 10/11. But the pulled up favourite was DB Cooper at 8/11. Third fav finished third at 20/1. Not that far out. Not 50/1. Two serious odds on shots in the one race. I'm sorry, but that's appalling. As a clerk, if I had put that up on course, people would have gathered round to laugh at the screen. To be fair to young Dineen, he rightly went ballistic on Twitter. James Knight, the Corals apologist came on, dismissed his complaint. Nice guy.

If you're lucky enough to be on course, at some stage on the smaller fields bookies will be bigger than the machine on the front three. If not, they may not lay them for cash. Unless, of course, you have AK's charm. Because we've all got phones. But they won't be bigger for the full 15 mins before the race. You have to go looking for it. Exchanges win book will be bigger on those 10/1 and above.

In my 15 years clerking I have never seen any conspiracies in a ring especially in these times of exchange trading. On course Bookmakers may need each other to spread liabilities (at times), but they are still competing against each other. Not sure about off course SPs, myself. Gold Cup day, as we know, is the day when the bookies hold the most money. However the Thursday is the only day, at present, with three handicaps.

For punting purposes, Matt Tombs. expert trends man and all round good guy, did some work a while back on the Pricewise tables in the Racing Post. In the morning there will be many occasions when those prices are already gone but the tables for each race come to about 100%. Matt simply explained with bigger SP overrounds at race time, prices may be stronger before noon each day. Especially value if you are still getting BOG. But James Knight in Corals may now be wise to this!

Other betting stats -. 3/1 and shorter favourite winners in handicaps since 2002 are 5 from 30 (Terao last year lost, Gaelic Warrior negated State Man 11/4 2022. The Shunter 9/4 and Mount Ida 3/1 2021 not helping. No qualifiers in 2020, Janika and Measureofmydreams both beat in 2019, no qualifiers in the previous two years, In amateur rider only races they are 5 from 21 (No amateurs allowed in 2021, so can't count Mount Ida win, Last year Vaucelet beat at 9/4, Billaway won 2022, Run Wild Fred didn't. 2021 Escaria Ten 11/4, Billaway 2/1 vanquished. Carefully Selected and Billaway unsuccessful 2020, Ballyward and Measureofmydreams beat in 2019, no qualifiers 2018, Cantlow 9/4 and On The Fringe losing in 2017.  It does take a lot of cash/impetus to make a horse 3/1 fav in a Cheltenham Festival handicap.

ODDS ON - In the last 25 Festivals 29 of 63 odds on shots have been beat. Nearly half. Always think that's quite amazing. Mighty Potter last year, Galopin and Shishkin in 2022. Seven ran in 2021, four losers. Envoi Allen at 4/9 the shortest. Six in 2020, losers Benie Des Dieux 4/6, Carefully Selected 10/11, Defi du Seuil 2/5, Tiger Roll 8/11, Paisley Park 4/6. Only Envoi Allen at 4/7 obliged. Bumper bookie harvest. Two odds on in 2019, Benie Des Dieux (F). Six ran in 2018, Apples Jade and Un De Sceaux of the six left the money in the satchels. 14th Feb 2024, I see three 2024 odds on shots, Constitutution Hill, Lossiemouth, El Fabiolo.

On-course bookmakers will once again fight bare knuckle in the car park for a pitch (maybe not now lower down in Tatts, I believe). With with such huge expenses involved for the week, it must work for them.

WHICH RACE FAVOURITE MAY HAVE WON TOO OFTEN RECENTLY? - People don't believe me, but when you work as a clerk, you see these things taking their turn, going round. No, no logical reason, it's horse racing, it just happens.

The race with the current best rate for favourites is the Champion Hurdle with nine winning favs from the last 11. Only Jezski and Espoir D'Allen spoiled the party. Constitution Hill. It's neck and neck with the Arkle where nine of the last 12 have obliged and 11/4 jt favs filling the places in one of the others. But only two of the last four. All bar Edwardstone of those nine winners were odds on. In the JLT/Marsh/Turners three and a co fav of the last nine have obliged. And Galopin Des Champs was about to...In two of the other years the Marsh was won by 4/1 shots. Envoi Allen falling at 4/9 spoiled those figures. Five of the last nine Brown Advisory/Broadway Ch jollies have obliged. Five of the last eight Triumph Hurdle favourites have won. Six Ryanairs in the last 12, Eight of the last 20 World Hurdle jollies have gone in but only Thistlecrack and Paisley Park 2019 from the last 11. Four of the last six Mildmays/Plates have been won by three favs and a second fav. 2021 and 2012 will go down as the years when Mildmay and Kim Muir favourites both won on the same day. Well, to me it will, anyway. W Mullins has taken five of the seven versions of the Mares Novice Hurdle but neither of the last three Four of the last six favourites have obliged in the Ballymore, none of them with an SP bigger than 6/4 but only Willoughby Lodge in the last 14 had a bigger price than 7/1.

WHICH FAVOURITES ARE DUE? - The Coral Cup fav Dame De Compagnie obliges in 2020. First time since Xenophon in 2003. And then bang. We're back to a 33/1 winner in 2021 and a 50/1 shot in 2022. Langer Dan 9/1 last year. The three before Dame De Compagnie were priced at 28s, 20s and 16s respectively.  What's due now? State Man and Saint Roi 2020 take the County off the list. First favs since Sporazene 2004. Delta Work (twice) and Tiger Roll in 2019 the only Cross Country favs in the last 16 to oblige 'on the day'. Galliard Du Mesnil the first National Hunt Chase fav to win since 2013. The Supreme has now had two in three. Coo Star Sivola 2018 and Wichita Lineman 2009 are the only Ultima winning favs since Antonin in '94. Band Of Outlaws only Fred Winter winning fav in 12. Mount Ida only Kim Muir fav in 11. The usually small field Mares Hurdle. Only Honeysuckle 9/4 jt last year and Vroum Vroum Mag in the last nine, some other losing favs were pretty short. Since Quevega left the stage there's been some catastrophes there. But the two I really think are due are the Martin Pipe, Sir Des Champs in 2011 the only fav ever to win any of the 15 and the Albert Bartlett, none in ten.

BEATEN FAVOURITES LAST TIME - I used to like this one. That is, until 2023. My theory here is, a beaten favourite is usually a disappointment to punters and connections. If they have disappointed last time out, should we give them another immediate chance in what is very likely to be a higher grade, these Olympics? In 2015, a total of 64 ran at the Festival having been a BF last time out. No one believed me but not one of them won. In 2016 I was nearly distraught when six Festival winners were BFs last time. Thought it was over between us. 55 ran that year. Winners were Un Temps Pour Tout, Any Currency (a given), Diego Du Charmil, Black Hercules, Ivanovich Gorbatov and On the Fringe. Consoled myself with the knowledge that backing level stakes on all 55 would still have cost you, the punter, 10.5 pts but it took me a while to get over it.

It's always good to see a friend return. In 2017, 53 were PPDs (Punters' Previous Disappointments). One winner, Apples Jade SP 7/2. A lay profit on the beasts of 48.5 pts on the week, or if you are like me, gives you something to strike out in the comic when pouring over the big fields. The BF information is always beside the horse's name on each race page. In 2018 doubt returned. 59 ran, winners were Presenting Percy 5/2 RSA, Penhill 12s (BF at Punchestown Festival), Missed Approach 8s and worst of all, the wonderful Pacha Du Polder at 25s in the Foxhunters. Despite all those, still a level stakes loss of 7.5 pts if you had backed them all at SP. In 2019 the stat comes back to daddy, 62 qualifiers, only one winner A Plus Tard at 5/1 fav in the Close Bros, bookie profit of 56 pts. In 2020, we weren't off to a good start. The Conditional 15/2, Imperial Aura, Champ and Samcro, each at 4/1 meant we were only 8.5 ahead by close of play Thursday. Luckily for me, 21 of the rogues ran on GC day, all beaten. Seven in the County. 2021 44 came, only Minella Indo at 9/1 obliged. +35. 2022. Not a great one. There seems to be less of them taking their chance. 45 PPDs produced winners Corach Rambler 10s, Coole Cody 22s and obviously, A Plus Tard at 3s in the GC. Backing all 45 still lost you 7 units. The funniest bit was that there were only three BFs last time running in the 2022 Ultima and they finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd!

2023. Annus miserabilis. Six BFS last time won. They were Jazzy Matty 18s, Energumene 6/5, Maskada 22s, Angels Dawn 10/1 Lossiemouth 11/8 and Stay Away Fay 18/1. Since 13 of the 28 races were won by horses who had won last time time, that makes 40% of the rest won by PPDs. Scorn thrown my way by friends. Chin out, Bryan. A loss of 17 pts on SP returns.

Drum roll, please. Since the turn of the century, 1080 horses have run at the Festival having been beaten favourite last time out. A total of 47 of the PPDs won for just under a 4% strike rate. About a 25/1 chance for each winner. Since 2000 on £1 stakes you will only show a profit of £23 in the RSA, £21 in the County Hurdle and thanx to Pacha du Polder, you're only £3.25p down in the Foxhunters. No other race in profit. Backing all beaten favs last time blindly SP to £1 would have left you £515 adrift. It had been suggested in the RP that the four RSA winning 'beaten favs', Lord Noelie, Hussard Collonges, Trabolgan and Presenting Percy were beaten either at 'sharp' tracks or at a distance less than 3 miles. Maybe hmmm. 12 of the 47 winners had been beaten last time out at evens or shorter (Energumene 4/9, Lossiemouth 1/3, Energumene, A Plus Tard 8/11, Champ 4/9, Samcro 4/6, Apples Jade 2/5, Black Hercules and Baracouda, both at 4/11), 20 were Irish trained including five fronm the six in 2023, seven Nicholls, four Henderson. Fantastic stuff. This is the Olympics. Do you get a second chance to disappoint? Definitely did last year. Those that may be involved in this poser for 2024 include Marine Nationale, Predators Gold, Storm Heart, Ile Atlantique, Burdett Road, Paisley Park.