The Cheltenham Festival is one of the most exciting and noteworthy events on the British just racing calendar. Horse owners from all around the world want to see their prize possessions get their name onto the list of winners at Prestbury Park, with trainers working towards it and jockeys keen to be picked to ride the best horses that will be there. On top of that, of course, the bookmakers hope to make a killing and the punters feel that they can take them on.
That leads to money being poured into Cheltenham Racecourse, both in terms of ticket sales, food and drink purchases and, of course, betting. The key question is, just how much money is bet on the Cheltenham Festival? As you might well imagine, it has been going up exponentially year-on-year and there is a difference between how much is spent on the course and how much is spent on the race online. We’ll explore it all here.
There Is No Other Meeting Like It
Bookmakers adore the Cheltenham Festival for the obvious reason that money gets poured into their coffers. Given that they all work hard to balance the books, they are virtually guaranteed a profit unless every single favourite happens to win race after race for the entire week. Ahead of the 2019 renewal, David Stevens from the bookmaker Coral estimated that about £500 million would be spent betting on the Festival races.
Speaking of the Festival, Stevens said, “There is no other meeting like it. Of the top 40 betting races last year, 25 were Cheltenham Festival races, which says it all. It’s the meeting that gets the juices flowing for punters like no other. Bookmakers look forward to it just as much as the punters do.” Given that punters are usually chomping at the bit for it, that says something.
It is usually the opening day of the Festival that sets the tone for the rest of the week, often than to Willie Mullins putting forward some bankers for the day’s exciting races. The likes of the Supreme Novices’ Chase, the Arkle and the Mares’ Hurdle are races that bettors love to get their teeth into, taking the fight to the bookmakers from early on in the meeting. The bookies, of course, prefer it when the Festival feels wide open.
One thing that the bookmakers really don’t like is when there is a horse that the Irish betting community is widely in agreement over. In 2019, to quote Matt Hulmes from Betfred, the Irish chose to ‘smash into Sir Erec’ in the Triumph Hurdle, with the aim of moving any winnings over to Presenting Percy in the Gold Cup. It was, Hulmes said, the Double that the bookies were ‘scared of’. In the end, they were spared on both fronts.
When Pentland Hills won the Triumph Hurdle without Sir Erec getting anywhere near the places, the bookmakers breathed a sigh of relief. They won’t have minded Al Boum Photo winning the Gold Cup either, given that he was a 12/1 offering and there won’t have been as much money resting on him as on Presenting Percy. That’s the back and forth battle of the Cheltenham Festival summed up rather neatly from just one year.
Cheltenham Festival In Numbers
There are more 8,000 gallons of tea served during the Cheltenham Festival, perhaps to help people get over the 265,000 plus pints of Guinness that get served from the bars. People from Ireland alone spent around €22 million, with Ryanair putting on around fifty flights more to cater for the 20,000 or so passengers that wish to use their services. 45,000 rolls are eaten, with 350 chefs needed to prepare meals that include 45 tons worth of smoked salmon.
When it comes to the betting, that where the numbers get truly eye-watering. Ahead of the 2018 renewal of the Festival, Paddy Power expected Irish punters alone to bet more than €450 million on the races, with about two-thirds of them backing Ruby Walsh to the business as he always seemed to do. Given that he’d not long returned from a broken leg at Punchestown, it was a fair showing of faith in the Irish jockey.
Given that the prize money for races at the Cheltenham Festival totals more than £1 million a day, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s a meeting that attracts a lot of attention. In 2019, nearly £2.5 million was withdrawn from cash machines around the course; though we obviously don’t know if that was spent on betting. With more than 100 helicopter movements every day, however, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the rich and famous love Cheltenham.
Read more about how much the festival is worth to the local and national economy on our dedicated page.
Why The Amount Bet Matters
In and of itself, it might seem strange to concentrate on the amount of money that is bet on the Cheltenham Festival. After all, isn’t that just money heading into the coffers of the bookmakers? The answer is slightly more complex than that, thanks in no small part to the fact that Cheltenham Racecourse is owned and operated by the Jockey Club. That means that profit made is invested straight back into the world of horse racing.
With more than £20 million brought in thanks to ticket sales, hospitality and other means, that alone is a decent chunk of money that horse racing benefits from. The local economy in Gloucestershire also benefits to the tune of about £100 million, which means that racing is good for the area as a whole. An average of 65,000 people a day arriving on the course means a large amount of investment into Cheltenham and horse racing as a whole.
The total revenue of the year that is given to the horse racing industry comes courtesy of the Cheltenham Festival. It is the second-largest horse racing meeting after Royal Ascot, with event sponsors including the likes of Timico, Bentley and Guinness. Most importantly of all, at least as far as this page is concerned, is the fact that the Horse Racing Levy has been in existence since 1961 and sees a portion of bookmakers’ profits given to the racing industry.
In 2017 it was decided that bookies would need to pay 10% of profits made from horse racing into the levy, provided that figure amounted to more than £500,000. This resulted in the 2017-2018 season seeing more than £95 million paid into the levy. That money is, of course, re-invested into the sport of horse racing, with the money spent in numerous different areas. The likes of facility improvements, horse welfare and prize money will all receive a share.
The key thing about the Levy, though, is that it is based on profits made by a bookmaker on horse racing specifically. In other words, if profits are down then the horse racing industry will receive less money, so it’s in the interest of those involved in horse racing for there to be as many bets on the likes of the Cheltenham Festival as possible. It’s why the link between horse racing and betting is inescapable and crucial to the future of the sport.
Interesting Bets At Cheltenham
As one of the industry’s biggest events, it’s hardly surprising that there have been some incredible bets placed on races during Festivals over the years. The meeting is crucial to the health of both horse racing and the betting industry, so the big stories tend to stand out.
There have been than a few betting coups come true at Prestbury Park, with the large recorded bets being a good way to see how the popularity of the event has been each year.
For Auction – 1982
Back at the start of the 1980s, For Auction wasn’t a particularly well-fancied horse in the Champion Hurdle. Trained by Michael Cunningham on behalf of the Heaslip family, the horse started the 1982 renewal of the race as a 40/1 long-shot. The Heaslips, of course, were well-known in the Galway rugby community and Mick Heaslip might well have been the only person not overly surprised when his horse crossed the line first.
Such was his confidence in the horse that his family owned that he’d got a bet on ante-post, whilst Danno Heaslip took odds of 50/1 when they were available at the racecourse. If Mick Heaslip was confident enough to put his money where his mouth was, Danno went one step further; before he left his hotel on the morning of the race he instructed the manager to put 300 bottles of champagne on ice ready for their return.
Broadsword and Ekbalco were much more favoured by the bookmakers and expected to do battle for the Champion Hurdle crown, so everyone bar the Heaslips will have been shocked when For Auction bounded up the final stretch, clear of the others. The Heaslips partied as you’d expect, earning themselves a pretty penny at the bookmakers’ expense but also showing that you really can live the dream of seeing an unfancied horse win at Cheltenham.
Brunico – 1986
Bookmakers are used to taking a hit; it’s part of the business. It’s also not uncommon for them to have to put up with millionaires and billionaires placing large wagers that can make their eyes water. Yet they were within just a few lengths of losing an awful lot of money indeed when Brunico came within a few strides of winning the 1986 Triumph Hurdle. That’s became he was owned by Terry Ramsden, a stockbroker and big-time gambler who had faith in his own horse.
Dawn Run was given a Starting Price of 15/8 when she started the 1986 Gold Cup, largely because of the fact that she’d unseated her rider during a trip to Cheltenham Racecourse that January. Ramsden had already made something in the region of £1 million when another of his horses, Motivator, won the Golden Hurdle, ploughing his money back in to a double of Dawn Run in the Gold Cup and Brunico in the Triumph.
Had Brunico not been held up early in the race then it’s likely that he’d have taken the bookies for a decent chunk of money, managing to split Solar Cloud and Son of Ivor as the finishing line loomed, ultimately finishing second but being ahead just fifty yards later. How much of a difference it will have made to Ramsden will never be known, but he reportedly lost somewhere around £25 million that season, being hit by the stock market crash in October of the following year.
Destriero & The Illiad – 1991
Noel Furlong was known as being a top poker player at the start of the 1990s, using money that he earned to buy horses. When the 1991 Cheltenham Festival rolled around he will have wanted to be at the Festival because of the faith that he had in his horse Destriero, only for an outstanding debt with Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise making him persona non grata. Indeed, the story has it that he paid off a £500,000 bet in order to be in attendance.
The bookmakers didn’t pay attention to his presence there, meaning that Destriero’s odds drifted to 6/1, allowing Furlong to place big bets on his horse as the day progressed. Having enjoyed a couple of winners at Leopardstown earlier in the year, he had the money to go big and reportedly won £1.5 million when Destriero crossed the finishing line first in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. The win will have hurt the bookies, but not as much as what came next.
Having seen The Iliad win the Ladbrokes Hurdle in January after he backed him at 33/1 and all the way down to 7/1, Furlong chose to put The Iliad into the Champion Hurdle as a rank outsider. When Destriero won the first race of the day, money soon started flowing onto The Iliad and bookies began to panic. The Iliad eventually went off at 11/2 in the Champion Hurdle and the bookmakers faced massive liabilities. Eventually he finished second, doubtless enjoying the bookmakers’ brief period of fear.
The Winning Formula – 1998
By the time that the 1998 Cheltenham Festival came around, punters up and down the country had worked out a formula to punish the bookmakers repeatedly. It wasn’t a complicated one and, even though bookies could see it coming, they couldn’t do much to prevent it. The winning formula was this: bet on horses that A. P. McCoy was racing and Martin Pipe was training. It was a formula that paid out on day one, with Champleve and Unsinkable Boxer both winning.
Torboy and Or Royal had come close for the pair on the second day of the meeting, but it was the end of the Festival that was to cause bookmakers the most pain. Not only did Tony McCoy win the last three races of the meeting, but he did so on the back of favourites that had been heavily backed by punters. Blowing Wind won the County Hurdle with odds of 15/8, showing just how painful it all will have been for the men and woman taking the bets.
David Johnson owned both Champleve and Cyfor Malta, with the latter winning the Cathcart Chase. The fact that he was known as a big gambler meant that bookmakers were already braced to lose out if both of his horses won. In the end, though, it was the average punters of the world that did the bookies the most damage. The winning formula that people had worked out meant that 1998 was one of the worst Festivals on record as far as the bookmakers were concerned.
Douvan – 2017
Not all of the stories that emerge from Cheltenham Racecourse are ones that see the bookmakers suffer at the hands of punters. In fact, the betting ring will have been laughing loudly back in 2017 when Douvan failed to do the inevitable and win the Queen Mother Champion Chase. So well-fancied was he that his Starting Price was 2/9, no doubt thanks to the fact that he was trained by serial winner Willy Mullins and ridden by Festival favourite Ruby Walsh.
One high-roller made a huge bet on Altior the day before, pocketing £400,000 when he won the Arkle Chase. It was money that he thought he’d invest in a banker, placing £375,000 on Douvan to win the Queen Mother with Ben Keith, a bookie from Hove. The high-roller’s plan was clearly to win money by betting on guaranteed winners, only to be let down by the Walsh-Mullins double-act that seemingly didn’t know how to do anything but win at Prestbury Park.
Such was the size of the bet on Douvan that it was actually larger than the prize money at stake, which got the rumour mill amongst the bookmakers spinning. Douvan was expected to win the two-mile race easily, but he took the third jump from the end poorly and ended up finishing seventh. It will doubtless have been painful for the unfortunate punter, but Mullins won’t have been overly pleased either; it handed the advantage to Gordon Elliott in the battle for Top Trainer crown.