Gambling | The Smart Money

Divine intervention

Blessed are the runners and riders at the Cheltenham Festival… Well, some of them used to be – quite literally. But who’s worth backing?

March 08 2010
Jamie Reid

This is just about the most exciting time of the year for racing enthusiasts who are counting the days to the start of the 2010 Cheltenham Festival on March 16. The annual party in the Cotswolds is always a great social event and a chance to catch up with friends and racegoers from north, south, east and west. But without a winner or two it can seem a long week, which is why so many students of form – some forearmed with Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide – are attracted to the Cheltenham Festival preview evenings that go on up to March 15.

Some of these are grand affairs, such as a Park Lane hotel’s champagne reception and dinner a few years ago. But the panellists – a familiar pool of former-jockeys-turned-broadcasters – didn’t begin their appraisals until the coffee and brandy arrived. They then tipped the same horses trained by the stables they used to ride for and their comments were mostly clichés about such-and-such a runner having “done nothing wrong” – not terribly helpful.

Better value, much more fun – and with a sharper focus on the betting angle – are the many Cheltenham previews that take place in Ireland, where steeplechasers and hurdlers enjoy reverential status. One of the charms of Irish racing, and a regular feature of Cheltenham down the years, has been the presence of groups of race-loving Irish priests whose enthusiasm for the Turf often seems to run a close second to their clerical duties. One such gentleman, the chairman of a local racing association, was my host a few years ago at a Cheltenham evening in Cashel, a few miles from Aidan O’Brien’s stable at Ballydoyle. “Father Jack” was courteous and soft-spoken, but when the subject of the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup came up he was as impassioned and animated as the most fearless bookie.

Perhaps the most famous race-going priest was Father Sean Breen, “The Breener”, whose former parish of Ballymore Eustace in County Kildare is home to three racecourses. Father Breen, who sadly died in 2009, always blessed the Irish horses at Cheltenham, and his wagers rarely lost. Some nuns are shrewd tipsters, too, such as the Tipperary-born Sister Rita Dawson, who spent her winnings from Cheltenham and the Grand National on improvements to the St Margaret’s Hospice where she works in Clydebank in Scotland.

Members of the clergy are invariably in the audience for one of the best evenings on the circuit, the annual Cheltenham preview organised by the bookmaker Cashmans in Cork City. Upwards of 1,000 punters pack into the ballroom of a big city-centre hotel, and the panel is made up of some of Ireland’s finest trainers and riders whose opinions are succinct and not at all sentimental. When a man like Edward O’Grady, who has trained 18 Festival winners, tells you one of his intended runners is “as good as any novice I’ve sent to the meeting down the years”, as he did in March 2003, it pays to take notice. The horse in question, Back In Front, won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle by 10 lengths.

One thing I’ve learned at Cheltenham is to oppose horses in Grade One races that missed last season with an injury. Given this, I’d lay Captain Cee Bee, one of the ante-post favourites for the Arkle Trophy, at 19-5 on Betfair. In the same race I’d back Riverside Theatre – owned by the actor Jimmy Nesbitt and trained by the Cheltenham specialist Nicky Henderson – at 10-1 each way with Chandler.