Cheltenham Preview Evenings

Tis the week before Cheltenham and the racing is quiet.

Yes it is that depressing week, where there is a marked drop in the quality of racing as final preparations are made to the festivals stars and the Racing Premier League gives way, for a week, to the Racing League’s One and Two, with a slight return to some class at the Imperial Cup on Saturday.

Of course as the build up to Cheltenham progresses there is always the diversion of the Cheltenham Preview Evenings and this year there seem to be even more than ever. The events which help fund the summer holidays of countless pundits, not to mention the endless rubber chicken dinners they have to endure.

Are they worthwhile though and with so many taking place the length and breadth of the country how do you decide which one, if any to go to?

So here is The Beasts guide to Cheltenham Preview Evenings.

To Go Or Not To Go

That is indeed the question. Well if you are hoping to find some great “secret” outsider at a very long price to fund your retirement then stay at home, you ain’t going to get it.

If you want what should hopefully be an entertaining evening in which you may find some new approaches to the races, then a carefully selected preview evening will be well worth a visit.

I’m In Charge

That doesn’t mean Bruce Forsyth is going to be there (if you are old enough to remember his catchphrase from the early 1960’s then you should qualify for any OAP discounts available though)

A good chairman (or woman) is important as they need to maintain the flow of the evening, ensure all the panel have a chance to contribute and quell any excesses. If they happen to be pretty knowledgeable themselves then all the better.

Also, and this will be a recurring theme throughout the piece, they should not have massive egos, which will get in the way of debate.

For me the two best exponents come from opposite sides of the racing TV aristocracy, namely (Sir) Robert Cooper and (Lord) Nick Luck. Both can keep the debate flowing and both can interject with pertinent questions and observations themselves.

From The Horses Mouth

It is increasingly common to find a spattering of trainers on these panels.

I have one simple question . . . . what value does it add?

If you are going to a preview evening where there is a trainer on the panel, please ensure you take Lot’s wife with you, as anything they say will invariably need to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

They are going to talk up their horses, with the amount of spin that would have Alistair Campbell salivating with delight. They are not going to turn round and say “so and so has no hope of winning and is only running to satisfy his owners ego.”

If an opposing trainer has an obviously superior horse they may, through gritted teeth, conceded they “fear so and so’s runner.”

But will they contribute anything meaningful, anything you did not know? Will they give even a scintilla of a stable secret?

Of course not, there would be more chance of Tony Blair and George Bush issuing a joint statement saying they got it totally wrong with Iraq.

Size Matters

The age old question, does size matter? More honest women will tell you it does.

It is the same with preview evenings. I have seen some preview evenings advertised with six, seven, even eight panellists. That is far too many.

With 27 races and a panel of seven or eight people the situation will be races will be skipped through briefly without any meaningful discussion or the preview evening will end up concentrating on just a handful of races.

For me the perfect size panel is four plus the chairman and provided there is the right balance that is enough to give a decent analysis of most of the races.

Beware The Ego

There are plenty of “characters” in racing, we all know who they are. The ones happy to contrive a public image, to play to the cameras and to court controversy.

The marmite men and women of our sport.

Don’t get me wrong we need characters like this in the game and we also need them to liven up these preview evenings. However they need to be chosen with care.

So my two golden rules for the egos are.

Don’t have more than one ego at a preview evening. All that will happen is they will play off against one another and the egos will detract from any substance and from the other panellists.

Secondly make sure there is a strong chairman to keep them under control.

As an example I am the first to admit I am not a member of the Matt Chapman fan club, I don’t particularly like his style.

He can, however, come out with unorthodox and controversial views. When questioned and when he drops his act he is fully capable of producing a sound and rational argument to support his theory and is worth listening to, even if you don’t agree with his view.

What’s In A Name?

A large number of panels consist of “names” – “him off the TV” etc. etc.

However some of the best panellists are those who are not household names and the big stars in the media firmament.

So don’t be put off if you have not heard of all the panellists.

Who’s Best Then?

Obviously a great deal is down to personal preference.   

For me I like the views of commentators, they are invariably good racereaders, they spend most of their time watching racing and they can often point out some different angles.

For me, there are two who stand out head and shoulders above the rest. They are excellent commentators, excellent racereaders and they don’t have egos to get in the way. Please step forward Stewart Machin and Richard Hoiles, two men who I would actually spend my own money to hear their views.

Stats and trends can be controversial. Some dismiss them out of hand, others swear by them. Personally I think they are a very useful too but they are obviously not infallible. “Rules” are made to be broken but where there is a strong trend in a race it is dangerous to ignore.

The undoubted master of stats and trends is Paul Jones, who produces the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, which is the bible for trends and stats followers. Paul is a regular contributor to preview evenings and he is worth listening to.

Then there are the TV pundits, with those you pays your money and takes your choice. You generally know what you are going to get with them and if it happens to be a pundit you like then you can hang on their every word. If, by contrast, it is a pundit you do not rate at all, then you can always lay their tips.

Jockeys? Like trainers I question their value as they are going to invariably talk up their rides and runners from their own stables. Retired jockeys are a slightly different proposition as they may be more objective but remember the old adage “jockeys are the worse tipsters.”

Earlier I referred to the lesser known panellists. Three names who I would recommend listening to if they are on a panel are Andrew Mount, Sam Turner and Kieren Packman.

Andrew Mount, he of Trend Horses, fame is one of the most astute analysts in the game and he will often produce an interesting angle.

Sam Turner, of the Daily Mail, has the handicap of being a Wolves fan but ignoring that error of judgement he is one of the best analysis around and is always worth listening to.

Kieran Packman, Timeform, is able to add plenty of flesh to the ubiquitous Timeform ratings.

Beware The Couch

Finally a very personal view, avoid any panel which has Mark Winstanley on it.

No I have no particular view on Winstanley as a pundit, however as a human being he is the most obnoxious individual you could ever wish to meet.

I had the misfortune to witness him at a preview evening and it was the first time I have ever come close to walking out of such an event.

Now don’t get me wrong I am no prude, I am perfectly capable of coming out with rich Anglo Saxon language like the best of them, I also know enough dirty jokes to make even the most broad minded person blush . . .  but there is a time and place for both.

Winstanley’s performance at this particular preview was a constant stream of expletives, so bad it would even make the proverbial London docker blush, coupled with frankly offensive sexist and misogynistic asides. He was an utter disgrace.

My ideal panel?

My ideal panel would have either Bob Cooper or Nick Luck in the chair.

The panel would be Richard Hoiles or Stewart Machin, Matt Chapman, Paul Jones and any one of either Sam Turner, Andrew Mount or Kieran Packman. With Gary Wiltshire around to give a betting perspective.

Whatever your preference may be, if you go to a preview evening I hope you have a good time and I am sure all the winners will be mentioned by someone, sometime during the evening. You still have to identify which ones though.               

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