The news that Killultagh Vic will not run in the JLT Novices Chase at Cheltenham highlights the perils of backing short-priced favourites at this point in the Festival antepost markets. Those who took the 2/1 in recent days have squandered their cash without so much as getting a run. And for what? Bookies are always keen to lay favourites throughout the four days in March so, in all likelihood those 2/1 odds (or perhaps even bigger) would have been available on the day of the race.
With that in mind, I’m taking a look at the Cheltenham Festival Top Jockey prices. This is a market dominated by Ruby Walsh and, for most punters, has the words “no bet’ stamped all over it. I must admit, when I first decided to write this article those were my feelings exactly. But having taken a closer inspection, there could be a case for backing a decent-priced outsider.
Let’s start with the favourite. Walsh has been crowned Top Jockey at the Festival nine times in the last twelve years so a very simplistic calculation says he should be a 1/4 shot to land the title for the fourth year running. If you take into account the strength of the Mullins team (perhaps the finest that has ever been sent to a Cheltenham Festival) you may even think that he should be shorter. Taking all that into consideration, Bet365’s quote of 4/11 seems more than fair but it is certainly of no interest to me.
The question is… can we unearth a value alternative who has the potential to shorten between now and the start of the Festival?
Every racing fan wants to see the best jockeys at Cheltenham and there is a collective sympathy for those who pick up unfortunate injuries in the run up to March. But imagine lumping on Ruby and losing out to an injury, either in the lead up to, or during, the Festival itself. Walsh performed a miraculous recovery on the aforementioned Killultagh Vic at Leopardstown last month but hit the deck at the same fence when partnering Valseur Lido in the Irish Gold Cup on Saturday. Even the best suffer falls and no one is immune to injury.
It’s not particularly pleasant to imagine a Top Festival Jockey market where Ruby Walsh had withdrawn through injury. But if we did, there would be one massive mover from his current odds and that would be the Mullins second jockey Paul Townend. In fact he’d probably be a similar price to what Walsh is now - around 4/11.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend backing Townend for the simple reason that Walsh might get injured - that would be foolish. But it is a small consideration on top of the other reasons to think that he could land the Rider of the Festival award at the current odds of 20/1.
The strength of the Willie Mullins team this year is such that his second string of horses is perhaps more powerful than any other yard in the UK and Ireland. Last year, Townend took the Top Jockey contest down to the last race, finishing just one victory behind Walsh with the same number of seconds and thirds. He is a realistic challenger in his own right and could, once again, be the closest man to Walsh in the final standings.
Bookmakers are only currently offering one market on the Festival Top Jockey and nobody is offering each-way terms. So the only way to get with Townend at this stage is to back him at 20/1 (win-only) with Bet365 or Sky Bet. This might be of interest to some, but not to those who are convinced that Walsh is a shoo-in to land the Boodles-sponsored award.
A better bet could be to wait for a “Top Jockey w/o Walsh” market. Barry Geraghty, Sam Twiston-Davies and Bryan Cooper all sit above Townend in the standard Top Jockey betting, so if the same were to apply in a potential “betting without” market, he could be one of the best value ‘Mullins-related’ ’bets in the run up to the Festival.