The Betfair Chase tends to attract a small but select field and the 2020 edition was no different. Small-field contests, even valuable ones like the Betfair Chase, are more commonplace now than at any point in my memory bank.
For many, bookmakers influence on an ever-growing fixture list is a contributory factor but for the purpose of this column, I want to focus on the issue of the betting community's approach to such contests.
How many alternative markets (for clarification, that is markets aside from the standard win and each-way) do you think Paddy Power priced up on Saturday’s Haydock feature? Four? Five? Nowhere near – it was fourteen.
This isn’t about Paddy Power per se, they are being used as an example because of their admirable transparency on such matters.
Their spokesman, Paul Binfield, informed me on Monday that despite the firm pushing the boat out in terms of trying to make the Betfair Chase as interesting as possible for punters, those 14 markets garnered just 5% of the total revenue generated from the Grade 1 event.
Many racing punters will doubtless point to the fact that they just didn’t know such choice was available and there is no doubt that more effort could be made on behalf of the layers in terms of education, but for the majority of punters it appears to be a simple case of ignorance.
It is clear that racing is lagging way behind other major sports, especially football, when it comes to the variance on bets placed.
Football betting has exploded thanks to the emergence of a whole raft of alternative markets that provide punters with a million angles into any given match.
But horse racing punters appear to be turning their back on such progression. You would have thought desperate ground at Haydock would have been the perfect scenario for a distance bet but no, there was very little interest.
Let’s broaden it out further. How many racing punters are engaging in the new data sets that are available like sectional timings, stride pattern data or breeding data?
We all know the answer - only a very small group. But football punters fall over themselves for shot data, often in the form of xG, possession stats etc.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. Football is attracting a huge number of younger, more inquisitive bettors that are much more accustomed to dealing with big data but if racing is going to reach out to a new generation of punters then building the profile of alternative markets is going to be a key part of that process.
Of course, the sport of racing needs to play its own part in making races as appealing as possible by doing everything they can to make them as competitive as possible, especially the higher profile ones, and that conveniently leads me on to this weekend’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
Now, I’m not saying Epatante is unbeatable by any stretch, but by allowing the champion hurdler to carry 7lb less than all her other rivals in a race like this just makes no sense at all.
The result is that we now have a 4/7 favourite because it looks near impossible for lesser-rated horses to concede that weight to a reigning champion.
This is a Grade 1 hurdle ergo should be one of the highlights of the entire season but the race has been completely robbed of its competitiveness by persistence with archaic rules and pandering to the bigger connections. And what does that lead to? Less interest from the betting public. The only way to ensure this doesn’t continue is to turn these races into Grade 1 handicaps.
Friday’s Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury is basically the Stayers’ Hurdle without any Irish runners and, on paper at least, it looks by some way the most exciting contest anywhere this weekend.
It’s a far cry from 12 months ago when Paisley Park was sent off 8/15 to see off just four rivals. Emma Lavelle’s stable star will be no such price this time round, primarily because this is the first run since a bitterly disappointing defence of his crown at Cheltenham in March.
He was subsequently found to have a fibrillating heart, which hardly inspires confidence, but plenty of horses have overcome such issues, most notably the mighty Sprinter Sacre, so it’s too soon to write off Paisley Park.
The improver in the field is undoubtedly McFabulous who bolted up in the Persian War at Chepstow on seasonal return but he needs to improve again if he is to trouble big guns like Lisnagar Oscar, who looks the overpriced one at 9/1 (best available at time of writing).
That price implies both bookmakers and punters think his Stayers’ Hurdle victory in March was a fluke and they may well be right – he was a 50/1 chance after all.
However, while Paisley Park might not have run his race, it’s hard to argue many of the others in that contest didn’t and Rebecca Curtis’ stable star saw off some hugely talented rivals in really gutsy style.
Lisnagar Oscar will strip fitter for his respectable Wetherby return and he won’t bat an eyelid if conditions take a turn for the worse so I am a little surprised about his current odds.