How do you avoid doing your money when betting on National Hunt horse racing? By definition jumps racing brings with it additional risk every time your horse leaves the ground. Making a profit from punting over the sticks is treacherous enough without falling for the bookmakers’ seductive bets which often leave the unwary punters pot-less.
So to help you swerve those rushes of blood to the head I have devised a set of National Hunt punting rules. Sticking to these rules may mean you miss a few winners throughout the season, and although you may not win a fortune by following them, they will probably stop you from losing one. We’ll leave that to the less-savvy punters shall we?
If you have a passion for horse racing, then for pure exhilaration there can be nothing quite as spectacular as seeing thirty or forty horses thunder off across the Melling Road at the start of the Grand National. Or perhaps you marvel at the athletic prowess of the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup as they stretch clear of the field up the hill towards the finish line at Prestbury Park?
Traditionally the National Hunt jumps racing season would start around early November and carry on throughout the winter months. The climax of the season is still the Cheltenham Festival in March, with the Grand National in April at Aintree.
Today you will find national hunt meetings pretty much all year round, and although the summer meetings are thinner on the ground and lower key, there still exists the opportunity to profit from horses racing over obstacles.
Here are my Golden Rules for betting on National Hunt horse racing:
When the rains come in the deep mid-winter, and the going turns proper heavy, look out for horses who have already demonstrated form in these kind of conditions. In reality, not many horses actually enjoy galloping through mud. If you can uncover a horse which relishes testing ground – even if the price suggests they are something of an outsider, and with recent form figures reading like a row of duck eggs – you may well be sitting on a good value bet.
This rule is about horses who are taking a step up to race in a better class of race and at one of the more imposing tracks. Where you have a number of steeplechasers, who are already performing well in quality races at the top tracks, it is easy to over-estimate the chances of a ‘live’ outsider who jumps well and won last time out, albeit in a lower grade race at a provincial track. In these situations, it is often better to lump on the fancied horses along with everyone else. Admittedly this will often result in poor value prices at the top of the market, and the profitable move may well be to keep your money safe, and sit these races out.
As an addendum to the last Rule, this one is so simple, but none-the-less true. When you are trying to pick winners at Cheltenham, and especially at the festival in March, it pays dividends to give extra merit to those runners who have already shown winning form around this unique race-course. If a horse has managed to win here, they should be credited with a real chance to triumph again.
A long-standing myth that two-and-a-half-mile chasers possess the best characteristics to win the Grand National is utter rubbish. Why? Well, for starters the Grand National is staged over more than FOUR miles. Find a horse who can stay forever, and who jumps for fun, and you will have a horse capable of winning the greatest steeple-chase in the world.
Let’s imagine you have narrowed down your selections in a jumps race to just two horses. One is piloted by a top-20 jumps jockey, and the other is ridden by a less-able jockey who gets to claim a weight allowance over his rivals. In this situation my advice would be to choose the professional every time. In Flat races, a weight advantage of a few pounds can make all the difference, and trainers will often make clever use of talented apprentice riders to gain a competitive edge. Over the sticks however, it will often pay to side with the proven skills of the experienced horseman, even if it means sacrificing a little weight to your rivals. After all, they are a winning jockey for a reason.
A horse who turns in a fine performance at a flat, easy or ‘fast’ track may not necessarily produce the same performance at a more testing race-course. To me this seems one of the most obvious statements when studying National Hunt form, but it is one that punters ignore time and again, getting their fingers burnt in the process. If a horse has jotted up an impressive sequence of wins at easy tracks such as Musselburgh, Fakenham, Hereford, Taunton, Southwell, and Aintree’s Mildmay course, they should not necessarily be considered a ‘steering job’ when they contest a race at a course with a more testing profile. Of particular note should be courses with an uphill finish such as Cheltenham, Sandown Park, Hexham, Carlisle, and the daddy of finishes at Towcester.
There exists an old maxim which says “never bet odds-on in a novice chase”. This rule needs modifying slightly. If such a short price is based solely upon a horse’s hurdling form, then in the long-run you would be wise to steer clear. When a horse is tackling the bigger obstacles in public for the first time, it is not the time to lump on with all your ‘hard-earned’ without the prospect of at least doubling your money. However, if the horse has already shown some decent ability over fences (boasting a win or perhaps finishing close up in a previous novice chase) then its chances of winning as an odds-on shot are probably no better or worse than in any other kind of race.
One of the biggest betting minefields in jumps racing is when top-flight horses are on the comeback trail after injury. This is precisely when to treat horses with caution, but all too often punters will jump right in and throw this caution, and their money, to the wind. It is very difficult for a trainer to bring a top horse back into a high-grade contest at the same level of form as before the horse suffered an injury. Yet just because a horse is seen once again on a race-track, many punters will expect to see this kind of form repeated first time out. Bookmakers will take advantage of this high-expectation and keep prices short – based purely upon the animal’s reputation and historic form. But the low prices are not a true reflection of the horse’s actual chance of winning on the day. In these instances it may well be more prudent to watch and learn, to gauge the horse’s level of fitness. Alternatively, the shrewd punter will take advantage of punters plunging on the false favourite, and seek value in one of the other runners.
During the course of the jumps season there are several two mile handicap hurdles with bountiful pots of prize money. Finding the winner in these races is incredibly difficult, as they tend to be over-subscribed and doggedly competitive down to the money and prestige on offer. Similar to the big-field summer handicaps on the Flat, it seems horses often land these races in turn. Consequently, the cautious punter will reduce his stakes on these races to a minimum. A more fruitful avenue to take would be to concentrate upon the longer handicap hurdle races run over three miles plus. These stamina-sapping contests are more likely to be won by distance specialists who have already proved they can stay the longer trip. Winning stayers have a habit of cropping up in these distance handicaps time and again.
Finally, the clue is in the name, and this sport of kings is called jumps racing. If you can spot the true equine athletes who bend their back and jump seemingly for fun, tackling obstacles with relish, then you will unearth a plentiful seam of winners over time. Equally, beware of the self-styled ‘experts’ who declare “he may not be a fluent hurdler now, but he is shaping to be a fine chaser in the future”. In reality, the chances are he will be just as poor, if not worse, over the larger, less forgiving fences.
I hope that by following some or all of these rules, you can begin to think a little more outside the box, distance yourself from the madding crowd, and take some money back off those bookies during the otherwise gloomy winter months.