Damn the Yankee and put a hex on the Heinz

Take it one bet at a time is the only way to be a punter without becoming a mug in mayhem week
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The Independent Online

Officially the Cheltenham authorities issue no dress code to the 150,000 racegoers whom they will accommodate at this week's National Hunt Festival. The advice simply is to "dress for the weather". But for anyone arriving at the course with serious betting intent, it will be "full metal jacket" for the three-day battle with the bookmakers.

Officially the Cheltenham authorities issue no dress code to the 150,000 racegoers whom they will accommodate at this week's National Hunt Festival. The advice simply is to "dress for the weather". But for anyone arriving at the course with serious betting intent, it will be "full metal jacket" for the three-day battle with the bookmakers.

For, with somewhere in the region of 250 horses competing, spread across 20 races over the three days, the chances of finishing ahead of the layers are best summed up by an overheard remark made by one punter to his friend as they entered the course. "I hope I break even today because I need the money."

This isn't a counsel of despair, more a statement of blind optimism where Cheltenham is concerned. If by Thursday evening you still have your taxi fare to the station, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones. If you can still afford a round of valedictory drinks, you are a hero. And if you visit the mobile Irish bank on the course to make a deposit rather than a withdrawal you can be ranked among the immortals. For the biggest problem the Festival's races present to a punter is not just that they feature the best horses in the National Hunt game but also that every one of the bastards is trying to win.

This therefore makes more vital all the usual elements that go into considering a bet - a horse's current form, a stable's record at the track, the state of the going, the proven ability of the jockey to deliver under pressure - as you study the form. In a normal race at one of the gaff tracks you can probably pick the winner from a core of three horses. At Cheltenham, you'll be lucky if the choice can be narrowed down to eight or nine.

So the first task facing the Festival punter - once you have negotiated your way past the lucky-heather sellers (take it from me, it doesn't work), and the furtive chaps selling tips (if they really know something, what are they doing flogging their secrets?) - is to compile your list of "possibles" for the day. Try to find a quieter place away from the bars for a half-hour because there is nothing more distracting and disturbing than to overhear what another person fancies. The meek punter is instantly undermined by the thought that somebody else knows something that he doesn't. So be strong and close your ears to these siren sounds. Tell yourself that it's better to feel an idiot by losing on your own choices than to confirm idiocy by losing on somebody else's.

Having made your selections, stick with them, and don't even start to think about combining them in a multiple bet. Anybody seen writing out a Yankee or a Heinz at Cheltenham should be taken into protective custody immediately. Even trying the Tote's new Exacta bet - picking the first two in correct order - requires the same scale of self-delusion that has propelled Lord Archer into acting in his own play in the West End.

Finding one winner on any day of the Festival is considered a triumph by the professional gamblers, so be realistic about your chances, otherwise humiliation beckons. You will stumble across gibbering wrecks telling you how they got two out of three in a Trifecta but forgot to put a simple, single bet on the winner.

Of course, Cheltenham being Cheltenham, it is not unlikely that drink will intrude upon your betting considerations. This could be disastrous, swelling the gambler's ego and slurring his speech, making the French-trained Champion Hurdle contender Hors La Loi III or Champion Chase favourite Flagship Uberalles even harder to pronounce than to back. The three key elements of the Festival are drinking, betting and watching the races, but the crowds make it difficult to manage all three successfully.

So the ideal scenario is as follows. Bet early while still sober. Grab a sandwich or, more likely, put your name down for something to eat next year. Have a good drink while you can still make it through to the bar, but not to the extent that you cannot remember your selections. Then establish a base camp from which you and your friends can watch the races and stay in touch. It is always handy to have somebody nearby from whom you can borrow a Pavarotti (a tenner).

Finally, even the established gamblers are approaching the new computerised betting ring with caution. Quite apart from the queues the system will create around thebookies' stands, the new, detailed print-outs are much flimsier than the old cardboard tickets, and much easier to lose.

So do not throw them away with the tear-stained Kleenex until you are completely sure that you have lost. Even then, you may want to take them home as souvenirs of your gallant but doomed struggle against the odds.

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