The Cheltenham Festival is a unique sporting event. In National Hunt racing it represents the home straight of a season long race. And, like all races, things can change dramatically from the early positional skirmishes to the final dash to the line.
And, like most races, at least those of any distance, it is quite rare to see a tapes-to-jamstick front-running performance. Specifically, it is quite rare for the ante-post favourite at the beginning of the season to actually win the race for which it was favoured.
So why is it that we get suckered into bad bets on 'obvious' horses (that get beaten) in the ante post markets? And what can we do about it? In this post, I'll explore both the psychology behind the bad bets and the antidote to them, exemplifying around the Champion Hurdle and its betting market.
First up then, why? Why do we get drawn into following the crowd and backing the most obvious horse at a point in time, despite history showing us that the winner is likely to emerge from somewhere else? Before I answer that, let's take a trip down memory lane.
In the last ten years, by mid-December, only two horses that won the Champion Hurdle the following March had already won a Grade 1 that season. One of those two - Punjabi - won the March showpiece at 22/1, a bigger price than he was after winning his Grade 1. That's all fair enough, because we've only just begun the seasonal 'race', and you score very few points for being in front on the first lap.
But here's the kicker: between mid-December and the Champion Hurdle itself, only one other horse - Brave Inca - prevailed in Grade 1 company before the Festival in the last decade.
Brave Inca won the Champion Hurdle as a 7/4 shot, and Hurricane Fly was 11/4. Both were favourite. Both won the Leopardstown Christmas Grade 1 and the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle in late January.
And yet, every year we seem to have an unbeatable hotpot in the race. The Champion Hurdle has seen vanquished 'jollies' at 4/6, 11/8, 6/4 twice, 2/1, 5/2 and 11/4 since 2003. Six of the ten winners were sent off at 9/1 or bigger.
The simple fact is the Champion Hurdle is a MUCH more competitive race than we often believe. Or than we are led to believe.
Our beliefs are shaped by a combination of human nature and our environment. In ante post betting, this cocktail is principally predicated on the twin axes of fear and recency bias. These mess with our ability to reason, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
For example, Rock On Ruby is the current Champion Hurdler. He was beaten in the International Hurdle at the weekend on heavy ground, after which his trainer stated that his horse had plenty to build on. Even the most cursory glance at the form book tells us that Rock On Ruby probably doesn't like soft ground. After all, he's run on ground without the word 'good' in it only twice, and finished third and fourth. On better going at around two miles, he's a beast.
His form in that context (two miles give or take a furlong, going with 'good' in the description) is 1111121. The '2' was when beaten a neck in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle. It is highly likely to be much quicker than heavy ground at Cheltenham come middle March.
And yet. And yet... he was pushed out from 6/1 prior to that recent reversal to as big as 12/1 immediately after. Rock On Ruby is still a best priced 10/1.
I'm not saying he will necessarily win the Champion Hurdle. What I'm saying is that the price movement is an over-reaction to what was a really nice 'positioning' run. Somewhat akin to an athlete moving up to the shoulder of the leader with two laps to go.
By contrast, Zarkandar, the horse that won the International Hurdle, moved in the opposite direction, from 12/1 into as short as 11/2 with the sponsors. This has to be an over-reaction too.
Zarkandar was only fifth behind Rock On Ruby in last year's Champion Hurdle. Yes, he was running on, but if you back unlucky horses you are destined to be an unlucky punter.
Again, I'm not suggesting Zarkandar cannot win the Champion Hurdle. Far from it. What I am saying is that his price represents no value, and discerning punters would do well to look elsewhere. After all, it is the market dynamic that has sculpted those odds. That is, people wanted to back Zarkandar after the race, and they didn't want to know Rock On Ruby.
So why don't we look elsewhere?
Because we're scared herd animals who are lazy and easily influenced. Clearly that's a bold and borderline offensive statement, so I ought to add a splash of colour to it.
In Walter Bradford Cannon's 1915 thesis, "Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage", he opens his preface with the following:
In other words, it's not our fault. We are programmed from caveman times to be 'risk averse' and to proceed with caution. Cannon coined the phrase, 'Fight or Flight'. Most of us run from situations where we are forced to make a difficult decision. Or we seek solace in the 'expert' or received wisdom. So it is that when committing a meaningful amount of cash to a bet, most of us tend to look towards the sharp end of the market.
Moreover, we are typically accustomed to acting on direction. That is, we are generally told what to do (whether we like it or not). Parents scolded us, laws control and confine us, marketing influences us, and media informs us. Or misinforms us.
Of course, some of the constraints above are perfectly necessary to allow society to function (something close to) correctly. But marketing and media manipulate, the former often more deliberately than the latter.
This is not a place to discuss the cesspit that is current marketing practice, but it is a reasonable spot to mention the media: particularly the racing media.
The reality of the National Hunt calendar, at its top table at least, is that all dates are mere rehearsals for big days in the spring, usually at Cheltenham. But sponsors want kudos for their races in the interim. And they receive it, in the form of column inches which extol the virtue of the race winner(s) largely at the expense of the beaten horses.
As we read these stories, we consider ourselves informed, but in reality we are probably being conditioned. After all, the real evidence is not in the first ten pages of the Racing Post, but in the section marked 'results'. There, blissfully unadorned by so much blusterous eloquence (required to sell copies), we discover chapter and verse on what actually happened.
And what actually happened is quite often a fairly distant cousin to the reportage or, worse still, the gushing editorial.
But we're lazy. It's far easier to read the full-bodied gushing editorial than pick through the skeletal form. And Lord forbid that we would actually watch the race a couple of times and make our own notes.
Now, before you start scribbling agitated comments in the box below, I know this doesn't apply to everyone. If you're a free thinker, a video form student, a data geek, a speed ratings guru, or any other kind of considered methodological bettor, then 'chapeau', as they say, en France.
But the vast majority of horse racing punters are not. The vast majority bet like they live: at the behest of others. And they get what they get. Luckily, a few of them read such luminary websites as geegeez.co.uk and, at the very least, have a frosted glass window on another world as a consequence. 😉
As if the misleading media isn't bad enough, it gets worse. There's this thing called 'recency bias' which buggers about with our noggin. In Carl Richards' succinct little NY Times piece, he writes:
The recency bias is pretty simple. Because it’s easier, we’re inclined to use our recent experience as the baseline for what will happen in the future. In many situations, this bias works just fine, but when it comes to investing and money it can cause problems.
When we’re watching a bull market run along, it’s understandable that people forget about the cycles where it didn’t. As far as recent memory tells us, the market should keep going up, so we keep buying, and then it doesn’t. And unless we’ve prepared for that moment, we’re shocked and wondered how we missed the bubble.
Essentially, it makes sense for us to use a set of rules in order not to question everything we do. But some things which we habitually do, we MUST question. And betting - or in Richards' piece, stock market investing (which sort of amounts to the same thing) - is one of them.
We have to step back from the clue to see the entire conundrum. Yes, Zarkandar beat Rock On Ruby (and Grandouet) in that race on Saturday. But should that really make him close to half the price of Ruby in some books? No, of course not.
And, given that only two of the last seven winners, and four of the last ten, actually won the Champion at a price that short, what the hell is the point in backing him three months before the big day at that price anyway?
The Fighting Fifth Hurdle is another case in point. Countrywide Flame beat Cinders And Ashes in a very boggy renewal of this Grade 1 event. Countrywide Flame is now as short as 9/1 and Cinders And Ashes as long as 16/1, despite the former having a clear fitness edge, having raced during the flat season. Indeed, he'd raced just six weeks prior and finished second in a heritage handicap.
Cinders And Ashes on the other hand was having his first run since winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival in March. Sure, Countrywide Flame also won at the Festival, in the Triumph Hurdle.
But we know that very few five year olds win the Champion Hurdle, and yet here he is, a 9/1 chance. If these two meet again this season, I'd be betting that Cinders beats Countrywide. I may not be correct, but the balance of evidence - and the prevailing odds - make it a fairly easy choice for me.
We need to get away from what the media are telling us. And we need to put recent events in their contextual place, alongside the bigger picture.
Here are some more supporting facts in relation to our Champion Hurdle example:
- Six of the last ten Champion Hurdle winners were beaten on their last start up to mid-December (i.e. now), five of them in the same season as the Champion itself (Sublimity had yet to run in his Champion Hurdle-winning season by this time).
- The trio of International, Fighting Fifth, and Hatton's Grace Hurdles have produced six of the last ten Champion Hurdle winners in the same season. But only three of them won that prep: Hurricane Fly (Hatton's Grace), Punjabi (Fighting Fifth) and Rooster Booster (International).
- Each of those three trials contained at least one beaten horse which went on to win the Champion Hurdle in the same season: Katchit was 2nd in the International and 3rd in the Fighting Fifth; Binocular was fifth in the Fighting Fifth; and Brace Inca was third in the Hatton's Grace.
- Five of the last ten Champion Hurdle winners were beaten between now and mid-March, all bar Hardy Eustace (first time, when 33/1) when racing in Grade 1 company.
- Only four of the last ten Champion Hurdle winners have won more than once that season, and only two have won more than one Graded race (the aforementioned Irish pair, Brave Inca and Hurricane Fly), despite an average of 3.1 runs each.
So where does that leave us? Well, it gives us both a micro and a macro message. In the microcosm of punting that is the Champion Hurdle ante-post market, we ought to be ignoring the 'noise' of the media, and instead overlaying the evidence of the form book onto what has historically been the path to victory.
Only Hurricane Fly, Sublimity, and Rooster Booster have led after each 'lap' of their season and, in Sublimity's case, he only had one prior start, in a nothing race. The other seven have all sat off the lead at some point during the season before they passed the Champion Hurdle post in front.
They (or, more correctly, their trainers) knew that the race was yet to unfold, and we must too. As such, my eye sees value in the price-to-chance ratio of Rock On Ruby and Cinders And Ashes. For different reasons, I like the chance of Oscar Whisky, though that's a more tenuous wager as his trainer cannot be relied upon to actually do what's best for the horse and run him in this race.
The first named pair are more likely to truncate in the betting between now and Cheltenham than any of their market-leading peers in my opinion; with the possible exception of Hurricane Fly.
The macro message is, as Public Enemy once squawked, "Don't Believe The Hype". Learn to look for clues which are not quite so obvious. And take a holistic view of the form, rather than a snapshot skewed in favour of the bookies by the most recent events.
Although we may be programmed to respond in a certain way to these ante post stimuli, each of us has within us the capacity to override the bleeding obvious and hunt for a more meritorious - and better value - wager.