Just a month after racing was in lockdown due to equine flu, betting fever is set to hit Cheltenham with bookmakers estimating as much as £500 million will be wagered on the biggest punting week of the year.
Layers and backers are in rude health and licking their lips at the prospect of four days of top-class sport, with gambles to be won and lost, starting on Tuesday.
“Across the week, given it is the biggest week of the betting year, I think a figure of £500m will be bet across the industry. There is no other meeting like it,” said David Stevens of Coral.
“Of the top 40 betting races last year, 25 were Cheltenham Festival races, which says it all. It’s the meeting that gets the juices flowing for punters like no other.
“Bookmakers look forward to it just as much as the punters do.”
In the past, the first day has set the tone for the week with several ‘bankers’, usually from Willie Mullins’ Irish stable.
However, that is not the case this year, as there is an open look to most of the races on the opening day.
Stevens said: “What’s interesting this year is we don’t go into it like in so many recent years, where Willie Mullins has the hot favourite for the Supreme, the hot favourite for the Arkle and the Mares’ Hurdle. There aren’t those ‘banker’ bets.
“In the Supreme and the Arkle, it’s hard to know what is going to start favourite in those races. It’s the same in the Champion Hurdle. The favourite could be Apple’s Jade, it could be Buveur D’Air.
“It does like wide open and that is the theme throughout the week.
“There are obvious ones like Benie Des Dieux (OLBG Mares’ Hurdle), Tiger Roll (Glenfarclas Chase), Paisley Park (Stayers’ Hurdle) and Sir Erec (Triumph Hurdle), but there aren’t as many as we’ve been used to in recent years, so we’ve not had any sleepless nights in the build up to it.
“At this moment of time it feels like one of the most open Festivals for quite a few years.
“What is different this year is that a lot of horses have won their races on good ground, because it’s been such a dry winter. Now, all of a sudden, if the rain that is forecast comes we could be starting on a soft-ground Festival.”
Matt Hulmes, of Betfred, also feels the form leading to Cheltenham could be questionable due to the largely quick ground that has been prevalent, with conditions likely to be different for the Festival.
“It’s been a really weird season. I don’t think there’s much confidence in the form and now there are storms coming in. Ante-post hasn’t been as vibrant as normal,” said Hulmes.
“We have seen a lot of money for Klassical Dream since he was confirmed for the Supreme. They had been talk of him going for the Ballymore. That could kick it all off. Then there is no ‘banker’ in the Arkle.
“I don’t think Benie Des Dieux is going to get well-backed (in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle). There are a couple of doubts about that.”
Hulmes already has one eye on the final day, which he fears could result in an Irish frenzy.
“What we are scared of is Friday. The Irish are going to smash into Sir Erec in the Triumph. If that one wins they will play it all up on Presenting Percy in the Gold Cup,” he said.
“That is the big double we are really scared of.
“Normally the Irish get it all on the first day. It looks like they are waiting for the last day this year.”
Ladbrokes, though, are worried it could be business as usual on the opening day for Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh.
The ‘Magic Sign’ go 10-1 about Mullins having four or more winners on day one, with Klassical Dream and Benie Des Dieux expected to cause the most damage.
Ladbrokes’ Nicola McGeady said: “Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins are the ultimate dream team, and when the two team up, punters back them all the way. The pairing have the ability to make or break our week and this year will be no different.”
For Paddy Power, victory for the Paul Nicholls-trained Clan Des Obeaux in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup would be disastrous.
Spokesman Paul Binfield said: “Clan Des Obeaux is our worst result of the week at the moment – the biggest price we laid him at was 50-1 ages ago.
“All the damage was done after he won the Denman Chase last time as he was really popular and we laid him for absolute bundles – he’ll cost us well into six figures.”