What recession? Cheltenham is one of those rare events that annually transcends financial considerations as wannabes and experts alike go head-to-head with the bookies.
There’ll be hard luck stories and improbable triumphs and everything in between. Logic dictates the bookies will come out on top but that won’t stop punters from taking them on over the four days of the festival.
A jaw-dropping total of £600 million (€715m) is expected to be wagered. This is big business.
For Paddy Power it’s a week to savour, even if the impact of the dreaded ‘R’ word means Irish punters are betting smaller amounts these days.
“Within Ireland people are still betting but the average has dropped a bit because people are cutting their cloth and if people have less money to spend they’re going to bet slightly less. That makes perfect sense,” Power says.
“When it comes to thefestival, they’re very resilient in terms of attendance and in terms of betting. People still really look forward to Cheltenham. It’s a form of escapism. They’ll still be rolling up their sleeves and betting like men. I wouldn’t be worried from that perspective at all.
“Also people are far more receptive to the special offers and things like that than they were in the boom times. Now they really appreciate all those offers. Every penny counts.”
So how much will Paddy Power get from the €600m (€715m) betting cake? “It’s hard to know. We’re going to have a decent slice of it. I would say probably, at a guess, maybe €60m (€71.5m), but that’s a total guess. It will be in the tens of millions anyway, certainly in the decent tens of millions.”
The eye-watering sums involved suggests the festival is pivotal for bookmakers. Power says it’s the busiest week of the year but it’s not as crucial as it used to be.
“It’s worth about two weeks normal business so it’s not as important as it once was,’’ he says.
“Ten years ago Cheltenham week would almost decide your year. But now there’s such a vast mix of things that people bet on that it’s not as life and death as it used to be.”
As if to prove the point, Power recalls an escape from near disaster 19 years ago. “Our best year was probably back in ’93,” he says. “We did a special offer which was double the odds if an Irish-trained winner wins on St Patrick’s Day.
“This was when Irish winners were rare. We did this special offer and there was a horse called Heist who was in the bumper and he got beaten in a photo finish.
” He was 9/4 favourite and an Irish horse. We had queues outside — this was before online betting — we had queues outside all our shops, people backing Heist.
“He got beaten by another Irish horse called Rhythm Section and if Heist had won we mightn’t have been here today. Genuinely. He’s our favourite horse. Because back then it was before we did all the maths and the sums, it seemed like a good special so we did it and we didn’t realise how much up to our neck we were in it.
“We got away with it so that’s probably our best result at Cheltenham because it saved our lives.”
Asked his ideal festival betting scenario, Power adopts a pragmatic approach. “I’d prefer to see a kind of good mix. I don’t want to see all the favourites beaten because basically if every favourite gets beaten on day one punters will lose the grá for it for day two and day three. You want a good mix. You could do with one of the bankers getting beat. I don’t know which one. To be fair, none of them looks particularly vulnerable but that’s what we say every year going in.
“In racing there’s no such thing as a certainty. The ideal scenario is we don’t have 13 Irish winners that are all heavily backed. And if one of Big Buck’s, Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe or Long Run gets beat, that’s okay.”
And a recommendation for those looking for a decent price winner? “Balder Success [available at 7/1] in the Triumph Hurdle [on Friday].”
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