The case against Festival favourites....

Last Updated: 13.01.2020

Monday, 13th January 2020

The case against Festival favourites….

The Cheltenham Festival is still a full 8-weeks ahead of us....

But that time will pass quickly. And we don’t want to be doing all our Cheltenham prep-work in a rush with the meeting looming over us....

In this relatively quiet period after the Christmas season, it makes sense to use some of our time to get started on that spadework, a little at a time....

We want to be as ready as we can be when the time comes....

  • Favourites win....

It happens. Favourites and short-horses win from time to time – as you’d expect....

But they don’t win frequently enough to make the exercise of backing them worthwhile….

Especially not in the races we target at Against the Crowd – the big-field handicaps….

Of the last 525 outright favourites to go to post in a NH handicap worth £20k+ to the winner in a field of 14+ runners, 452 lost....

That’s a losing strike-rate of 86%. Betting losses amount to 145 points. If you’re thinking of becoming a fav-backer in the kinds of races we target, those figures make for sober reading….

As a long-term betting proposition, favourites make no appeal. Especially not in big handicaps. Favourites lose punters money. Hand over fist....

That’s an instructive lesson worth carrying into the Cheltenham Festival when it gets underway in March....

  • Plenty of winners….

On the face of it you can do well with favourites in the non-handicap events at the Festival….

By ‘well’ I mean you will succeed in backing more winners then most. You will enjoy more visits to the pay-out window than the average Joe.

I’ve got figures going all the way back to the 2002 Festival. And I can tell you that 262 outright favourites went to post in a non-handicap race at the meeting over that time….

I can tell you that 90 of those horses justified their position in the market – and their short-prices – by winning their respective races. That’s a strike-rate of 34.3%....

Okay, it’s not quite the 40% strike-rate you get when you look at favourites in non-handicap races across the entire racing programme….

But the Festival is an exceptionally competitive meeting....

All the best horses show up. Everything is trying. Nothing is being saved for another day. And 34.3% is about as high a strike-rate as you’ve got any right to expect....

  • Running on the spot….

In Festival terms, that 34.3% strike rate of outright favourites in the non-handicaps is a hell of a winning strike-rate....

But you wouldn’t have won a brass ring backing all the favourites to level stakes. Not a single full point.

Instead, you’d have lost money. You’d have come out 4.5 points in arrears....

That’s right, you’d have lost 4.5 points off the back of 262 bets over a 18-year-period. It would be a depressing way to waste 18-years-worth of Festivals....

I think in textbooks they refer to this phenomenon as market efficiency….

Over the long term the frequency of winning favourites and the prices about them conspire to produce a neutral bottom-line outcome. You get to do a fair bit of paddling about – but it gets you precisely nowhere….

It’s a lot of effort and turnover to end up on the same exact spot you started out from….

Backing favourites doesn’t pay in non-handicap races at the Festival. Not over the long-term. That’s the bottom-line. That’s what the figures tell us....

  • In the handicaps, you get spanked….

It certainly doesn’t pay to play the favourites and the fancied horses in the big-field, ferociously competitive handicap events run at the Festival….

If you’d backed all the outright favourites in Festival handicaps since 2002 you’d have backed 159 horses, cheered home 21 winners, endured 138 losers and posted losses of 40 points….

Backing the 2nd favourite produced a similar story. Just 26 winners from 214 qualifiers at 12.1% with level stakes losses amounting to 19.5 points….

And it was the same again with 3rd favourites over the period. Just 19 winners from 216 qualifiers at 9.2% and losses weighing in at 39 points….

The strike-rates aren’t great to begin with. And, when the short horses do go in, the prices are not good enough to claw back lost ground....

In short, the fancied horses in Festival handicaps are repeatedly over-estimated, consistently over-bet, and frequently under-priced....

You cannot and will not make money backing them long-term....

Of course, the short-horses go in from time to time. But focusing exclusively on horses at the top end of handicap markets will see you gradually go broke – and that’s true across the board and not just at the Festival....

  • Ultra-competitive….

The fact is that Festival races are always more competitive than the market would have you believe....

When the market goes in heavy on a specific horse – forcing the price down – it can give the impression that the horse is somehow unbeatable. And that attracts more money from the lemmings. The price contracts further. And so on....

The price reflects the money bet on a horse. But the price is not always a fair reflection of the horse’s true chances of winning its race....

And, at the Festival, more times than not, the short horses are over-bet to prices that over-estimate the true winning chance of the horses concerned....

The Festival is the pinnacle of jumps racing. All the best horses show up – at least those free of injury or illness. Everything is trying. Everybody wants to win....

Every horse has been meticulously prepared for its Festival race. Rarely is one horse so superior to the rest that the race turns into a procession – a coronation job....

The Festival hosts some of the most competitive racing you will see on a British racecourse. Almost every field will contain multiple horses capable of winning if things go right. And that’s one reason why so many sure-things have crashed and burned and got turned over on the day....

It isn’t that something went wrong or that they turned into bad horses. It’s just that the market over-estimated their true chances of winning and under-estimated the chances of equally talented rivals....

  • No complaints....

But I’m not complaining. Far from it....

The market’s tendency to latch onto and over-bet specific horses plays right into my contrarian hands....

When the market over-bets a horse into a short price that over-estimates its true chances of winning, it means that other horses further down the market are under-bet – trading at big prices that under-estimate their true chances of winning....

Those are the horses I like to bet at all the major meetings – including the Cheltenham Festival....

I like to back horses with live chances trading at big prices that underestimate their ability and their chances of winning....

In other words, my mission is to find and back the right horses at the wrong prices....

It’s not easy. Success is certainly not guaranteed. But that’s the way I play. And it’s the way I’ll be playing the handicaps at this season’s Cheltenham Festival in March. You can rely on it….

  • The last word….

That’s all from me for today....

We’ve broken the ice on the Cheltenham Festival. We’ve started the waters flowing with a bit of preliminary thinking and setting out of the stall....

And we’ll continue to touch on that subject over the next few weeks. We will be well-prepared by the time the Festival comes around....

I’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow with more....

Until then. Stay tuned.

Nick Pullen

Against the Crowd