Annie Power: Bookies’ Biggest Ever Let-Off at Cheltenham Festival

We look back on the full story of Champion Day 2015, when Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins almost cost bookmakers an absolute fortune.

Annie Power: Bookies’ Biggest Ever Let-Off at Cheltenham Festival

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Almost every celebrity has had a defining moment or, at the very least, has a defining feature. Remember 1990’s supermodel Cindy Crawford? Her defining feature was her mole. 80’s metal man Lemmy? He had several moles but will always and pretty much only be associated with The Ace of Spades.

In horse racing, poor old Tom Queally cannot ride a jumps winner at Tramore without being described as “the man who partnered Frankel to all his 14 career victories”. He will be linked with that great horse forever.

And like it or lump it, Ruby Walsh with 12 Irish Champion Jockey titles, over 2,500 career winners including a Grand National (aged just 20), two Gold Cups and five King George Chase wins on Kauto Star, will long be remembered for coming to grief at the final flight of the 2015 Mares Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival aboard Annie Power.

For many, the great mare crumpling beneath him at odds of 1/2 in the fifth race of the opening day of the festivities was a crushing blow. But in trading rooms the length and breadth of England, Ireland, Gibraltar and even Malta it was a reason to party, as this was their biggest let-off in living memory.

Mullins Had So Many Live Bullets

During the 2014/15 season Walsh’s boss, Willie Mullins, had an incredibly strong stable of horses. The prior season he had enjoyed four winners at the Festival and all but Quevega was back for more in 2015.

Faugheen, Vautour and Don Poli all went on to score at Prestbury Park for a second consecutive year. But Mullins had a battalion of quality horses and arrived in Gloucestershire with no less than nine favourites spread over the 28 races.

Many were short priced and he was expected to, at the very least, match his 2013 tally of five Festival winners.

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As usual, Day 1 of the Festival sets a tone. If favourites prevail and punters get off to a flier the bookmakers don’t become unduly concerned and generally expect greedy punters to press up their winnings which they are likely to recoup over the next three days and 21 races.

But while normally delighted to see an avalanche of doubles, trebles, Lucky 15’s and accumulators come rolling in – safe in the fact they all cannot win – a ‘Frankie factor’ came into play, whereby they all could win as they were all for one trainer and one jockey.

Wheels in Motion

The Mullins/Walsh bandwagon was set into motion when Douvan smoothly and convincingly defeated stable-mate Shaneshill in the Supreme Novice Hurdle by over four lengths.

Opening at 15/8 on-course, the Rich Ricci owned horse drifted out to an SP of 2/1. Thirty-five minutes later the first of the Mullins/Walsh odds-on shots, Un De Sceaux, was an equally impressive winner of the Racing Post Arkle. Returning at 4/6, the seven-year-old hovered between 8/11 and 4/7 prior to the off.

The third race on the card was the wide-open 24-runner Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase which went to the 8/1 second favourite The Druids Nephew. The race probably served as a distraction to risk assessors and it did not feature a Mullins-trained-Walsh-ridden horse.

Next up was one of the meeting’s showpiece events, the Champion Hurdle, where the long-term favourite, Faugheen, was not only a winning banker bet amongst countless ante-post wagers but also the third short priced winner on the day. The third Mullins/Walsh winner to boot.

Trading rooms quickly realised the damage a fourth winner for the Irish connections could do to their balance sheets as casual players, seemingly aware of the futile nature of backing a few ‘shorties’ on the day in single bets – three of Walsh’s mounts on the day were odds-on – had strung together multiple bets in their droves.

A fourth and final winning leg of a tenner Yankee (costing £110 to place) at this stage was yielding just a £114 profit with four of 11 bets already being winners (three doubles and a treble) but success for Annie Power in the fifth race on the card, the Mares Hurdle, would transform profits on that bet to a £547 profit.

Collectively, there were probably thousands of such multiple bets running on the four Mullins/Walsh horses for bigger and smaller stakes, that’s not to mention simple four-fold accumulators which were going to net £50 punters over £600 in profits even at SPs.

On the bookmakers’ side, no jockey had ever ridden four winners on a single day at the Festival. Against them, Annie Power stood head and shoulders above her rivals on form, Ruby was clearly riding full of confidence and while course reps did their best to shorten her up on course (she started 1/2 and had touched 8/13 in pre-race exchanges) it was probably an ineffectual exercise with new-age punters’ tendency to take early prices by default.

What followed was one of the most dramatic pieces of sporting drama seen in the 21st Century. Four minutes and 44 seconds of sublime racing and jumping followed by a split-second misjudgement which led to the great mare jump half a stride early, clip the top of the final hurdle, and fail to get her legs out on the landing side.

In the immediate aftermath of this catastrophic mistake some bookmaking firms quickly changed their press releases from ‘£100 million in losses’ to ‘£100 million bullet dodged’.

Others were more realistic in declaring the potential loss to have been £50 million, but the true cost to punters, when all the BS was washed away, was probably closer to £40 million. Still a substantial hit which probably could not be recouped in the next few days of Festivities.

This dreadful final flight mistake was a big save for the bookmakers, the biggest in recent history. What made this a perfect storm which narrowly failed to make landfall was the enormity of the Cheltenham Festival, the wholesale scale of individual bets and the fact every bookmaking firm worthy of a British Gambling Commission Licence had the potential to lose big.

This was not a contrived Barney Curley coup which had been orchestrated by one individual and kept under wraps. It also came at a time when firms had all the technology needed to ensure any semblance of a meaningful loss/liability is flagged-up long before it can become a problem.

The Furlong Factor

Not since 1991 had a single horse at the Festival given any bookmaking firm such stomach ulcers, and even then just one company, Ladbrokes, faced the prospect of issuing a profits warning.

As was the case 24 years later, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle played host to the opening leg of this potential game changer with owner Noel Furlong smashing his Destriero into an SP of 6/1 from the 14/1 which was readily available at the start of the day.

When Destriero trounced subsequent Champion Hurdle winner Granville Again by four lengths he banked a payday verging on seven figures, but he also had the chance of landing the biggest Cheltenham gamble of all time as he had doubled up on The Illiad, in the Champion Hurdle.

The Illiad had already won Furlong a substantial sum when landing the Ladbrokes Hurdle at Leopardstown two months earlier and with doubles rolling up, Ladbrokes were desperate to unload an enormous position. Available at 33/1 at the start of the day, the 10-year-old went off remarkably short – the 11/2 second favourite.

On this occasion, there was no near miss, no costly blunder, no loose horse to carry him out, The Illiad never featured and trailed in a remote 21st of the 24 runners. Years later, his fearless punting owner did concede all was not well with the horse at race time and he should not have run (“but too much was at stake”).

But directing his attention to poker, Noel Furlong got his seven figure ‘touch’ eight years later, collecting $1 million when taking the 1999 World Series of Poker main event title in Las Vegas.

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