Coral Cup Betting

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First run in 1993, this handicap hurdle earned its status as a Class A Grade 3 race in 1999. From the very start, the event was sponsored by the British bookmaker known as the Coral Group. Officially known as the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle ever since, it has become one of the mainstays of Cheltenham Festival in March. It currently occupies the spot right after Day Two’s premier event, the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The Coral Cup covers two miles and five furlongs over the left-handed turf of the Old Course at Cheltenham, where ten hurdles must be cleared. Horses aged five years old and over are eligible to participate, and a large field is not unusual. In 2010, there were 28 starters, of which all but two eventually made it to the finish line.

Because the Coral Cup is the very first of the big handicap hurdles run at the Festival, it attracts heavy betting, even though handicapping the entrants can be very difficult. No horse has won the race more than once and no jockey has won it more than twice, that honour quite recently going to Barry Geraghty on Sky’s the Limit in 2006 and Spirit River in 2010.

Relatively unconsidered outsiders have foiled some monster gambles on favourites in recent years. The Venetia Williams-trained six-year-old Idole First paid 33/1 when winning in 2005. But it was not the first time long odds ruled the day at the Coral Cup. In 2000, What’s Up Boys paid 33/1 after stealing victory by a neck from another long-shot, Native Dara, and in 2002, Ilnamar rambled across the finish line eight lengths ahead of the field, paying 25/1.

Indeed, only one favourite has proved the handicappers right in the Coral Cup since the race began. That was seven-year-old Xenophon triumphing at 4/1 odds in 2003. But it should be noted that the Tony Martin-trained Irish hurdler was backed down from much longer ante-post odds on race day, demonstrating why so many punters wait until very close to post time to see where the money is heading before they finalise their selections.

The total prize fund for the Coral Cup in 2011 is £70,000, down slightly from the 2010 purse of £75,000 when first prize was £42,758. Oddly enough, in 1993 the very first winner of this race, Olympian, earned more than that because a special bonus of £50,000 was awarded for having won the Imperial Cup the weekend prior. Olympian was trained by Martin Pipe, who later had victories here with Big Strand in 1997 and Ilnamar in 2002. To date, Pipe is the only trainer to record three Coral Cup wins.

Trends are difficult to identify for the Coral Cup, but one that stands out is form. Of the last eight winners, six came in first their last time out. In fact, in 2009, all three of the top finishers were winners during their previous outing.

Irish entries have done well, but French-trained mounts have posted their share of upsets. Only two five-year-olds have won, but both were recent: Sky’s the Limit in 2005 and Spirit River in 2010. Only one hurdler older than nine has taken home the Cup—the Irish ten-year-old Chance Coffey, trained by Pat O’Donnell back in 1995. The six- and seven-year-old have done best over the years, taking 10 of the 17 runnings, but only two of the most recent five.

All in all, the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle can be a bit of an enigma—which simply adds to the excitement. Some well chosen ante-post wagers can turn the conclusion of this event into the most cheerful moment of the Cheltenham Festival.

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