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Now that we are into Cheltenham Festival Preview Evening season with the first major event taking place tomorrow at Exeter Racecourse, although I wrote this copy a couple of years ago it’s still very relevant today (with a couple of edits) so here’s a quick reprise if you missed it first time round. It’s likely that I will attend four this year – the BetBright event in London, the Sky Bet event at Towcester Racecourse, on-course bookmaker Andy Smith’s event at Bristol and the Let’s Live Racing event at Cheltenham FC.
For most keen racing fans a trip to a Cheltenham Festival Preview Evening is an essential part of the preparation and, having survived close to 120 such events as either a reporter, panellist or just a plain enthusiast enjoying a night out, if I don’t know what I am listening out for by now, then I really am in trouble. Now there’s over three months of my life I won’t get back!
From The Long Room at Lord’s to a badminton court in Mountrath, there aren’t too many areas of Britain or Ireland that I have not yet covered so hopefully I might be able to guide you through a few of the do’s and don’ts of what to listen out for and what to gloss over. And if you are a big enough racing enthusiast to be reading this copy but have never attended a Cheltenham Preview, then I do urge you to get along to one of these nights, many of which are organised in aid of charity.
Having grown from a handful of events in the early 1990s, Festival Preview nights are now staged all over the UK and Ireland in the three weeks before the meeting Festival (the Thursday before the Festival is usually the most active night in terms of events being staged) and I like to think that there is usually one nugget that can be taken away from each event, if you know what you are listening or looking out for. Well, that’s my last wish before I set off on my next 300 miles round trip to attend one anyway.
Believe it or not, there has become a fine art to knowing what to listen out for these days as trainers and jockeys are much cuter now than when this cottage industry really started to take off at around the turn of the century. Most panellists are fully aware that in this age of social media, anything too notable that is given away will become general knowledge in a matter of seconds rather than purely for the reserve of the enthusiasts enjoying a night out, so now it is very often he way something is said, their body language or even not said at all that has become equally if not more important.
A good example includes the no-nonsense manner in which Paul Nicholls summed up Sanctuaire’s chance a week before he bolted up in the Fred Winter stating “he’ll win” with a straight face and nothing more at Sandown’s Festival Preview. Nicholls gives up so much of his time to attend many of these events and anyone who has seen him more than once at a Cheltenham Preview will know that is not his style.
Another example, but from the opposite perspective, would have been the unease of Donald McCain’s body language when discussing Peddlers Cross’s chance at Bangor-on-Dee before he started favourite for the then-Jewson where the vibes in the previous weeks were not great and he went on to finish last, which spoke so much more than any words. I’m not sure that he would make the best poker player.
There are a number of organisers who profess to be the first to have run the very first Cheltenham Preview Evening and although I can’t say for sure who can correctly claim this distinction, I just about recall the first preview I attended back in 1993 run by the Bedfordshire Racing Club with my then Raceform colleagues. The three-man panel consisted of Frank Carter of The Sporting Life at the time, the current BHA Handicapper for two-mile hurdlers, David Dickinson, who was the Raceform Handicapper in those days (and still appears on their panel most years) and Graham Dench of The Racing Post. I am not sure what I learned on that first experience except that Frank Carter, in his elegant professorial manner, thought I was from the Planet Zog when I suggested from the back row that Cool Ground was no 50/1 shot to defend his Gold Cup crown. I appreciate that a big-name trainer or jockey will bring the crowds in but sometimes trying to get anything worthwhile or otherwise unknown out of them is like to draw blood from a stone which is why I prefer at least half a panel to be independent.
I’ve always been dubious of paying too much attention to jockeys’ views on horses that they will be riding as priority number one will be not to upset the owner and trainer and their words will be carefully chosen with a view to keeping that ride in the future. Therefore, I am far more interested in their opinions on horses that they will not be riding which often carry more substance and especially as many views will be exchanged in the jockeys’ room so they get a very good feel for how highly other horses are rated.
However, it is the total opposite with regards to trainers as, in my view, very few have that much idea about horses from other stables outside of the very top horses which should not be a surprise as they are paid to be occupied 24/7 with valuable commodities entrusted into their care. As such, I find many of their arguments regarding contenders from other stables tend to centre round form based around their own horses.
Back to nuggets and they can come in many forms to help us gain an edge. Genuine bullishness aside, previously unknown running plans have been announced (though they are not always accurate), jockey bookings being confirmed, how well or otherwise a horse has worked in the last week or even whether a horse is going to run etc. etc. And it is also not necessarily a positive comment that could be worth investing around a couple of hours of your time to listen out for.
A very good example was how cool Andrew Tinkler was on Rolling Star’s chance in the Triumph Hurdle at a preview event at Warwick for which he ended up starting 5/2 favourite. Being attached to the Henderson stable, you may have expected Tinkler to be raving about his chance but instead commented: “Rolling Star is a lovely horse but he may lack a fraction of experience. He won at Cheltenham like we thought he would but it wouldn’t surprise me if things happen a bit quick for him. Rolling Star will be a better horse than Far West next season but I am not sure about this.” A striking view that would have almost certainly made you think twice if you already liked the horse’s prospects or helped to cement your faith in another leading contender. It certainly helped me to press up on Our Conor having considered Rolling Star to be by far his chief threat.
As for the greatest tipping successes at evenings I have attended, David Dickinson wins first prize for telling all at the London Racing Club what a huge price 66/1 was about Sublimity before he won the Champion Hurdle at 16/1 and, two years later, Punjabi won the same race at 20/1 after being put up by Aussie Jim McGrath at the Glenroyal Hotel in Maynooth and Andrew Barr in the rather less grand setting of Steve The Fish’s Preview Evening in The Shepherd’s Inn, Crook. Alan King was mighty keen on his Nenuphar Collonges when he was a 16/1 shot at the time before he won the Albert Bartlett and somehow Nick Luck at the Dunraven Arms even prized it out of J P McManus to let it slip that Binocular was back to his best and was incredibly strongly fancied to win the Champion Hurdle which he did so at a juicy 9/1. We have had a few peculiar steers as well, notably one audience member at the Towcester Racecourse Preview Evening stood up and told the Empress Suite that we should all look out for a horse by the name of Kilty Storm who was currently happily munching grass at the bottom of his back garden. He then only found one too good at a big price in the Foxhunters’.
If you have not attended a Preview Evening before, what else can you expect? Grub? Depends on how posh your event is. Give me pie and peas in a small setting up north over the black-tie, three-course meal offering at a fancy hotel in London every time. If there are bookmaker representatives are on the panel, they usually offer something extra, be it an enhanced price or a free bet, so all good there but what you can be absolutely 100% guaranteed of at any preview evening is that any number of clichés will be rolled out by one or more members of the panel.
Those who have attended Cheltenham Preview Evenings before will already be very familiar with what is to follow so this year instead of rolling your eyes at every cliché under the sun, to keep things interesting I suggest awarding 2 points for every exact wording and 1 point for a slightly different interpretation and let me know if any event scores over 25 and we’ll name and shame them next year. If only the M.C. had a QI-style klaxon laid on for every time one gets rolled out. Here are the eight most annoying clichés and what they actually mean:
“This horse is a machine” = He is fast
“This horse is an aeroplane” = He is really fast
“He has a massive engine” = He is a one-paced plodder
“He’s done nothing wrong” = He’s good but has not done anything over-exciting
“He has a good each-way chance” = He is priced at bigger than 10/1
“He is what he is” (this is a new one creeping and it does my nut in) = He’s quite boring really
“I wouldn’t swap him for anything” = I can't anyway and I also don't want to upset the owner
“Stats are there to be broken” = I really haven’t got an answer to that one so I will lazily use this easy brush-off line and hope to get away with it
I tend to find that Cheltenham previews organised straight after a day’s racing don’t work particularly well as racegoers just want to get off home unlike when they are going for a night out. The exception is Sandown three days before the Festival but that is mainly because it attracts A-List names such as Nicholls and Henderson and a top jockey, but also because a good preview needs a strict master of ceremonies to ensure no one prattles on too long and Nick Luck keeps it short and sweet. In fact, it should be compulsory for all MCs to be provided with a Jaws-style music theme, like for the Oscars, to signal a swift wrapping up. Good talkers doesn’t automatically translate to talking sense. And as for panellists who feel the need to go through every single leading contender........time to get the zzzzzzs in.
At the bigger events, videos of the main contenders are screened before some of the races which are often time consuming and 99% of those in attendance will have seen the King George VI Chase before. It got to a stage back on my Irish tour in 2003 that if I saw Like-A-Butterfly beat Limestone Lad one more time in the Irish Champion Hurdle I was going to spontaneously combust. Far better to have a spool running before the event or, even better, have the video footage being played without sound whilst the panellists are talking about that race like at the Betfair Preview in Mayfair which worked very well and saves plenty of time. That event is also one of a few that are now streamed live on the internet so look out for those.
Some of my trips to Ireland to cover the best of their preview evenings have been interesting for many a reason. Trying to sleep in the front seat of a Bedford Van in temperatures of -8 with broken heating at Rosslare Ferryport wouldn’t high on my list of things to do again and neither would attempting to report back from a 13-man panel in Dublin or keeping my concentration for a preview that didn’t kick off until near 11.00 p.m. (the band only started to strike up at 2.00 a.m.).
What is very noticeable about Irish panellists in Ireland is that you won’t hear many British horses being tipped up outside of the very obvious and it is not unusual that they take more time dissecting the Champion Bumper for longer than any other race. One Irish national newspaper journalist successfully managed to tip an Irish horse for all 13 races discussed and I see he is advertised to be on panels again this year. The current spread is 0-0.5 on British horses he tips and I’m a seller. Of course there is also a British bias for events taking place Cheltenham side of The Irish Sea mainly due to ignorance of the Irish Form Book. All adds a bit of extra spice.