THE year 2021 was a strange one. Not as strange as 2020 perhaps, but unusual nonetheless and that applies not just in the wider world but at Cheltenham, in the racing itself and the betting markets. It was a festival without spectators and a gambling landscape without betting shops and hopefully what occurred last March will prove fleeting but these are my observations on events from Cheltenham 2021.

Ante-post markets

The Cheltenham ante-post markets have just about the longest lifespan of any in racing; they are at least 12 months old before the races come around, and the expectation is that by that point most of the prices for the feature races are pretty accurate.

That was proved categorically not to be the case in 2021, even with the most high-profile of horses.

Appreciate It was a general 11/8 shot when declared on Sunday but the SP was 8/11 (Betfair SP of 1.74), with Honeysuckle available at 9/4 and even 5/2 on Sunday before returning at 11/10 (Betfair SP 2.29).

The respective edges for punters playing early on those two were 18% and 20%, big any day of the week, but huge on supposedly mature markets.

Rain

The 10 millimetres of rain that fell on Sunday night into Monday morning suited both those favourites but that cannot have been the only thing at play. The debate about the efficiency of Betfair Starting Price can be had another day but it is fair to assume that at Cheltenham it gets pretty close to true odds and it’s not as if Appreciate It and Honeysuckle were the only big shorteners in Grade 1 races over the four days.

Market price

Fury Road, having been available at 20s little more than a week before the meeting, was sent off 4/1 in the Stayers’ Hurdle and there were further examples on the final day, Quilixios shortening from a market price of 7/2 into an SP of 2/1, Colreevy going from 9/2 to a returned 9/4. Those last two moves – which turned out to be correct – were coming against stablemates Zanahiyr and Elimay respectively, two apparent pre-meeting bankers, so may have had an element of stable information in them.

That said, it might be worth remembering that even in the days before the meeting, when most punters are entrenched in their views and know what they are backing, there are still significant moves to come from players who don’t want to and/or can’t play in ante-post markets.

Irish challenge

All of the major moves mentioned above were for Irish horses and suggested that for all the discussion of the strength of the Irish challenge before the meeting, it still wasn’t strongly enough reflected in the betting. There had been a trend towards Irish dominance at previous Cheltenham Festivals but this was extreme, so much so that by Friday few British-trained horses counted in the market; across the seven races on the final day, just seven runners trained in Britain returned single-figure SPs, none shorter than 4/1.

I would go as far as to say it was difficult, if not impossible, for a punter to win at Cheltenham last year without betting Irish and the question now becomes at what point does this swing go too far? Everything has a price and markets are quick to catch up to this.

So far this autumn and winter, Irish horses have done okay in English graded races, both the major staying chasing races going to Ireland via A Plus Tard and Tornado Flyer with Blazing Khal winning a pair of graded novice hurdles at Cheltenham.

A few of the other Irish runners do seem to have been under-priced relative to their chances, for example the likes of Sole Pretender and Belfast Banter at Wincanton, Mr Incredible when up against Ahoy Senor at Newbury and Ronald Pump in the Long Walk Hurdle.

Parochialism

It is not easy for punters to know when to zig when the market is zagging, however. National Hunt racing in Britain and Ireland is intertwined but parochialism can be hard to avoid.

Speaking for myself, I know I am biased towards the Irish runners and it is mainly because I know them better and I am sure it is similar for British punters. The problem for those British punters last year was that they may well have been able to find the best value among their own crop of horses but that was only good enough to finish fifth in a Cheltenham race.

Graded races

Whatever about the graded races – and Irish dominance there is likely to continue because one year feeds into the next as the same horses compete at the top level – the handicaps will be a fascinating Ireland versus Britain battleground in 2022. There are nine handicaps at Cheltenham currently, there were 10 between 2016 and 2020, and in the last five years Irish-trained horses have won seven, five, five, five and seven of them respectively.

Methods

Again, the dominance was extreme last year, not only seven winners but nine more placed horses and one wonders if that will be maintained this March. Will British trainers change their methods, holding their well-handicapped horses back for this meeting like some of the Irish yards do? Perhaps more pertinently, will the handicapping of the Irish horses change?

There will always be an element of selection bias with the Irish runners in the Cheltenham handicaps, the very fact they are travelling a sign of intent. So far this National Hunt season in Britain, there have been 20 Irish-trained handicap winners at the time of writing in early January with none of them being particularly high-profile.

Definite Plan and McAlpine won at the early season Cheltenham meetings and Koshari surprised at a big price at Aintree in November. Ardhill landed a gamble to win at Ascot just before Christmas but in general there has been little to glean from how Irish horses have been doing in British handicaps this season given that the Cheltenham handicaps have higher ratings bands.

The thing that might keep the Irish horses going strong in these races is the likelihood that some of the runners in them will not just be prospective graded class but future Grade 1 winners and it is very difficult to appropriately weight horses of that potential.

Grade 1 level

Since 2017, 10 of the 29 Irish-trained Cheltenham handicap winners have gone on to win at Grade 1 level with Jeff Kidder, Belfast Banter and Galopin Des Champs fitting that profile last year. It speaks to the competitiveness of the Irish National Hunt scene where this can happen with a degree of regularity, something like Master McShee coming out of an ordinary beginners’ chase (okay, I know Bob Olinger won it!) to land a Grade 1 next time whereas perhaps in England the Grade 1 types emerge earlier and never make it to handicaps.

Cut up

One thing I like to do in the weeks and months before Cheltenham is to look for races that will cut up, contests where the ante-post prices don’t add up given the likely runners. In these cases, it is possible to find races where the market for the probable runners is priced to percentages in the 90s or even 80s which makes it easier to have a good bet that will beat the starting price.

The Ryanair has a history of being good for this though not last year where for once all the meaningful entries seemed to line up and ante-post value was hard to find, an initial field of 14 declared due to be the biggest since 2016 though it fell back to 11 with non-runners on the day.

Novice races

Strangely, the races that cut up in 2021 were the novice races, outside of the National Hunt Chase and the Albert Bartlett. The Supreme drew just eight runners, while the average field size for the previous five years was 15.6 runners, and it was the same for the Arkle (five runners in 2021, average field size 8.8 runners) the Ballymore (seven runners, average field 13.6), the Festival Novice Chase (six runners, average field 10.4), the Jewson/Marsh/Turners (eight runners, average field 9.6) and the Triumph (eight runners, average field 13.2)

Brexit

There might be all sorts of reasons for that, Covid and Brexit protocols causing some of the Irish horses not to travel, owners less bothered on declaring a runner with a marginal chance when they could not attend, but most relevant might have been the presence of an inordinate number of ‘bankers’ like Appreciate It, Shishkin, Monkfish and Envoi Allen.

That final point seems to have carried over into 2022 with the ante-post markets for many of the novice races already having short-prices favourites in Constitution Hill, Galopin De Champs and Bob Olinger. Perhaps their races will again cut up and their current odds will look a gift come March, but most recent history tells us they will face bigger fields than those from last year. All will be revealed soon. ?