Racing: Easy, really; just choose the race and then the horse: Paul Hayward with some rules for avoiding a wounded wallet at Cheltenham this week

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A bookmaker once expressed incredulity at the number of otherwise astute clients who 'leave their brains at home' when punting on horses. With 20 races crammed into this year's Cheltenham Festival, those lords of the betting ring have a record number of opportunities to heap derision on the blind and misguided.

It need not end in remorse and self-loathing as the snake of car headlights climbs away from the track on Thursday evening. Tip No 1 is choose the races to bet in. Insisting on trying to find the winners of the big handicaps and the novices' races - the Triumph Hurdle is to be avoided at all costs - invariably results in a week chiefly spent punching the PIN code into a cash-point machine.

The championship races are much the safest medium: the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Arkle Trophy, the Stayers' Hurdle, the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, though the last-named, the main event on Tuesday, is bafflingly open this year. Of the last 10 Champion Hurdle winners, only one came from outside the front four in the betting, while the last four horses to take the Triumph Hurdle, that ground-drumming charge of callow four-year-olds, have gone off at 33-1, 14-1, 25-1 and 66-1.

That said, in the last three years, the Gold Cup has gone to outsiders. Norton's Coin was

100-1, Garrison Savannah 16-1 and Cool Ground 25-1. If The Fellow is beaten a short-head for the third year running then the odour of jockey-roasting could drift as far as Birmingham. According to his critics, Adam Kondrat takes the M25 route round British tracks, when the inner ring road would serve The Fellow much better, and it was fortunate for Kondrat last year that the Carvill's Hill controversy overshadowed his second consecutive defeat on France's best chaser.

Martin Pipe, the champion trainer, has never won a Gold Cup, Grand National or Champion Hurdle, but has Rushing Wild, Chatam and Run For Free in the field this time and so must believe that a first such triumph is in reach. The Fellow is poor betting value, even at 15-8, and Jodami may lack the class, so Run For Free is an outstanding each-way bet at around 9-1. The likely firmness of the Cheltenham turf is the other key betting consideration.

Because he favours fast ground - and is just running into peak form - most of the senior jockeys believe Flown will win the Champion Hurdle. With the two previous winners, Morley Street and Kribensis, probably in decline, the way is clear for a new champion to emerge in the shape of Flown, Halkopous, Coulton or Valfinet. Flown is the one to be on.

The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the race of the Festival for big punters (win bets of pounds 90,000 are not unusual at Cheltenham). Waterloo Boy exemplifies all the attractions jump racing can boast over the Flat as this is his fifth consecutive appearance at the Festival and his fourth in the Queen Mother. Yet again, though, he may have to settle for a place behind the estimable Katabatic.

David Nicholson, a trainer to follow this week along with Pipe and Nick Henderson, believes he has an embryo Waterloo Boy in the shape of Wonder Man, and said yesterday of that one's challenge for the Arkle Trophy: 'I'm looking forward to another titanic struggle with Sybillin.'

However, the fact that Sybillin is already an odds-on 'banker' in many books for the Arkle suggests it may not be as close as Nicholson would like.

The 'bankers' are unusually reliable at the Festival, so the discovery that Pipe regards Lord Relic as his best chance of the week (in the Sun Alliance Hurdle) is worthy of note, particularly as Pipe expects to field up to 26 runners over the three days. Among Nicholson's most formidable representatives are Baydon Star in the Stayers' Hurdle and Dreamers Delight in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, that great opening surge of colour.

Other contenders to back are the Irish hope General Idea in the Cathcart Chase and Strong Beau in the Kim Muir Challenge Cup.

While the Scudamore- Dunwoody confrontation will be fierce, as it has been all season, Adrian Maguire could be worth a bet at 10-1 to be leading rider at the meeting.