The Grand National might have more exposure to the layman, and Royal Ascot might draw the international audience, but the Cheltenham Festival is ‘the Festival’ among ordinary UK punters. Bookmakers are aware of this fact, pouring their energy into the build-up of news and the hype, which effectively starts with conclusion of the winter meetings over Christmas and New Year.
While most high-profile sporting events tend to boost bookmakers’ profits, there is always the fear that the high concentration of betting activity leads to big losses. At Cheltenham, this tends to coincide with victories from popular favourites.
Big losses in 2016 and 2019
For instance, the betting industry was estimated to have lost around £60 million at the 2016 festival with big wins in the feature races coming from favourites like Annie Power, Sprinter Sacré, Thistlecrack and Don Cossack. The latter saw massive amounts of money shift its price in the hours leading up to the race, romping home at 9/4 to leave bookies with a bloody nose. In 2019 on St Patrick’s Thursday, bookies also suffered a massive loss of around £40 million, thanks to a host of favourites coming through for punters.
Of course, punters don’t have it all their own way. 2017 was a great year for bookmakers, with many favourites falling flat. And, there was also the case of the infamous fall of Annie Power in the Mares’ Hurdle of 2015, which broke the hearts of punters and was said to have saved bookies tens of millions.
Huge amount of promotional activity
And yet, it must be remembered that bookies have a huge outlay on Cheltenham every year, with millions spent on promotions, advertising and other marketing activity. For instance, the team at Freebets UK has already compiled a list of Cheltenham new customer offers from top bookies months before the event. In addition, most newspapers carry free bet tokens to cut out during the four days of the Festival. It’s quite the gamble for bookmakers, although they will take the long-term view of promotions getting new loyal customers into the fold.
What about 2020? Will bookmakers be losing sleep as the money starts to flow in? It arguably too soon to say, and a lot will be clearer after the Christmas meetings, but the early signs are quite good. Races like The Gold Cup sees Lostintranslation leading the ante post markets at 4/1, with Kemboy at 5/1 and last year’s winner, Al Boum Photo, at 7/1 (all odds sourced from Coral). But the lack of a massive favourite (for now) will favour the bookmakers.
Indeed, what bookmakers fear is a series of star horses gathering all the bets. Altior, who is priced at 7/2 for the Champion Chase, fits that bill, but there are some doubts hanging over his participation in what has become his signature race. Tiger Roll, the double Grand National winner, will take plenty of money if contesting the Cross Country Chase. He’s currently 7/4 to win that, which would be a remarkable fifth victory at the Cheltenham Festival.
It will be intriguing to see how the races over late December and early January shape the narrative for bookmakers, but you can be sure that all betting companies will plough into the new year with gusto. The Cheltenham races, as with the Grand National, are an incredible opportunity for them to get new customers signed up to their product. But don’t think that the bookies sit back and watch the profits roll in at every festival; sometimes the punters win too.Follow us on