The Perils Of Punting

(This blog was written before the news that Dustin Johnson’s rental home didn’t feature the Stannah stairlift he requires to successfully negotiate the common household hazard.)

My seasons are marked by the sporting calendar. Summer means Wimbledon and occasionally the Olympics, Autumn biennially heralds the approach of the Ryder Cup and Winter offers the crisp excitement of another 6 Nations campaign. However, Spring hasn’t sprung until that glorious double whammy of a week with contains both the US Masters Golf and Grand National.

Both stretch back in my personal history to a time before I even knew there was a Ryder Cup or Cheltenham Festival. The riot of colour offered by Augusta in April was strangely mirrored by the jockeys silks hurtling over spruce, and the dulcet tones of both Peter Alliss and John Hanmer whispered muted triumphs and disasters into young, naive ears.

Nowadays I still luxuriate in the rich spectacle and sporting theatre offered by this most dramatic of double bills but do so with a betting slip in hand, as do many millions who don’t really follow golf and horse racing, I suspect. There are untold riches on offer if you can nail down both winners in an extravagant and highly improbable double. I have found winners of both contests over the years, many at very attractive odds, but never both in the same year – the life-changing double remains tantalisingly out of my grasp.

This year more than ever the bookies are coming out to play with a raft of generous offers. It’s almost as though they feel that once they’ve lured us in we will give it back to them and more, the fools (you’re sounding like an idiot now, Neil)! Some firms are offering eight places on the Masters, which seems like an invitation to print money. It is the only major played on the same course every year, so it is no surprise to see familiar names near the top of the leaderboard every year. With a field of only 95, and with half of those merely ‘ceremonial’ no-hopers, it really does offer some excellent betting opportunities (I wonder what the odds were on DJ failing to make the first tee?)

What were the odds on that?

The same used to be said of the Grand National, a unique test that favoured the Aintree specialists, but in recent years the desire to attract better runners has made it more difficult to predict. Unlike Augusta, which has had only minor adjustments to keep up with the advancements in modern golf, Aintree has changed significantly as it bowed to pressure to make it safer. Dodgy jumpers can survive, and the narrower and speedier course offers a greater hazard for those horses that like being held up.

Both events have uncertainty at the core of their success story, but it seems now that the Grand National takes the lion’s share of the luck. In both contests half the field fail to finish (or start, in DJ’s case), but the worst loss on a golf course is a ball in a lake, and (irony spoiler) Dustin Johnson is unlikely to be brought down by a stray playing partner as he strides up the 18th fairway (no, just a staircase).

So with the predicted field sizes this week there are a possible 3,760 doubles that could be placed on the two events, with most of those paying out at odds in excess of 1,000/1. No wonder I haven’t managed to do it yet after decades of trying. But the punter is a rabid optimist (except when his selection is unable to negotiate a flight of stairs) so I shall of course be giving it another go.

Those that followed my ante-post suggestions for the Cheltenham Festival will have learnt to their cost not to do so again, so it is best to view what follows as the ramblings of a mad old vagrant that has just crawled out of a bush of renewed optimism until you have clear evidence to the contrary (unlikely to secure that evidence now).

Dustin Johnson will win the Masters (if he can avoid stabbing himself with a fork or electrocuting himself with the toaster), possibly by four or five shots, and is incredible value at 7/1 (now freely available at 9/1). There is simply no way he shouldn’t be clear favourite (other than his inability to walk properly) yet in some lists Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth rival him for that. I would honestly rate him as a 2/1 shot (if the rest of the field came down with severe food poisoning).

The Grand National is trickier, and I’m happy with my ante-post position on Highland Lodge at 50/1 – now around half that price – but I’m getting increasingly sweet on the chances of Rogue Angel who appears to have been laid out for this by the wily Mouse Morris and is 33/1 in places (I wait for confirmation later today that Rogue Angel has injured himself in a freak yachting accident). The double pays 272/1.