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Timing is everything in festival handicap punts.

Byline: Alastair Down

WITH Cheltenham just a month away, every pundit west of Vladivostok will be unburdening themselves of firmly held opinions as to what the results will be.

This is the stage when the festival previews get under way, and a very much less useful exercise they are now than of old. The first Cheltenham previews sprang up around 20 years ago, were few in number and were very much an Irish phenomenon.

The early ones could be wonderful occasions. There was an admission charge that paid for the assorted pundits on the panel, and the venue made its profits from a large gathering of thirsty punters necking a pint or six. But there was always a charitable motive behind these nights, with a decent bung being made for some worthy cause.

Nowadays, festival previews are all over the place with an increasing number in Britain held at eye-wateringly expensive venues with strictly commercial motives.

Nothing wrong with that, but as opportunities for gleaning some insight they are next to valueless, as they tend to concentrate on the championship races for which every piece of evidence has been available for months and debated to death long ago. The handicaps, where the edge can be found and the battle won and lost, don't get a look in, not least because a lot of the experts and masters of ceremonies haven't given them a moment's thought.

These evenings can be entertaining, but the days of turning up at some pub in County McNowhere to listen between the lines to what Edward O'Grady was carefully trying not to tell you have gone.

You will be relieved to hear I shall not be saddling you with my fast-track routes to the poor house at this stage, but there are a few dos and don'ts. For starters, do not get sucked into wasting any of your time in the totally bonkers debate over what the going will be like. I don't know, you don't know and even God hasn't the faintest idea.

Just as you give a wide berth to anyone who insists they have the winning lottery numbers for the next three weeks, so you should steer clear of any twit who tells you he knows what the ground will be like at the festival.

Just remember that as soon as it physically stops raining, Cheltenham dries up at an astounding rate. The main culvert into which the whole course drains is a vast concrete construction that is a half-brother to the Suez Canal, and to see it in full spate tells you all you need to know. As Ben Hutton reminded us in Sunday's Post, in 2007 it was heavy the weekend before the meeting and Kauto Star won his Gold Cup on good ground come the Friday.

Yes, it can still ride deep, but only if it rains up to and including the meeting itself. If it is dry weather from the Saturday onwards, all the residual rain in the ground has flowed out under the Severn Bridge long before Tuesday.

Clever punters will have a healthy ante-post book by now. Clever punters who are also honest (and likely to make money) will have an ante-post book with a few live ones at indecently inflated prices plus a smattering of long-sunk horrors that they don't want to tell themselves about, let alone their best friends.

BUT don't despair if you haven't got 12-1 Binocular, 8-1 Kauto Star and 500-1 Choc Thornton to be top jock going back to when he he won his first Leicestershire gymkhana in the 1980s. You may feel you are in a minority, but you are just a normal human being who doesn't wear an anorak in bed or spend too much time twirling his toggles.

What is more, the crucial window of punting opportunity for the meeting has yet to open. As soon as the handicap weights are out, various bookies will price them up in the hope of getting a bit of publicity, but also to attract bits of money that might give them a clue as to who is up to what.

This is the time to leave well alone. Wait until just before the five-day declarations and then steam in to take positions in a market that will contract wickedly as soon as the five-day field starts to give punters and bookies a race with a definite shape. The most important betting days for Cheltenham are the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday just before the overall value in the individual handicap markets is suddenly squeezed dry.

This is a rare area of punting that remains unaffected by Betfair, as they have no preliminary market to speak of on such matters of weight as the Grand Annual or County Hurdle. Play in the grey area just before the handicaps become black and white and you will have something with which to go to war.

'Don't get sucked into the bonkers debate over what the going will be'
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 10, 2009
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