It has been a couple of years since I wrote some articles on the draw and, with the flat season hitting stride now, it is a good time to revisit the subject, writes Dave Renham. The draw will always have special place in my heart because it was essentially where my racing journey began.
While at university I became interested in horse racing stats and I soon realised that there was a potential betting edge in focusing on certain sections of the draw at a few specific courses. Back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, the courses and distances with the strongest biases were at Beverley over five furlongs, Thirsk over five and six furlongs (especially on firmer ground), Chester from five to seven furlongs, Lingfield (turf course) five to seven furlongs, and Sandown over five furlongs when the stalls were placed on the far side. The beauty back then for draw punters like myself was that there was a decent edge for those of us who considered ourselves ‘in the know’. I was able to find plenty of betting opportunities that represented good value.
Unfortunately, if predictably, it was not long before draw biases started to be shared in racing articles which were then followed by comprehensive books on the subject. Indeed, I co-authored one of them!
As with many things, when a good source of highlighting value bets is found, within a few years the edge starts to disappear. This is very much a horse racing trait: good ideas have their initial edge because the majority of people are not aware of that value finding approach. As time goes on, however, the betting public and the bookmakers catch up and, as a result, prices tend to contract and the value begins to erode. This has happened to some considerable extent with the draw over recent years.
Using Chester’s five-furlong trip as an example, let us examine what has happened to the prices of the ‘best’ two stall positions over the past several years. The stalls in question are draws 1 and 2, those closest to the inside rail. I am looking here at handicap races with eight or more runners where draw bias tends to be more consistent:
Chester’s tight track has long shown a bias to lower draws and this has generally been well documented and widely understood. However, nowadays your average punter has had more exposure to draw biases than they did twenty years ago which explains the diminishing price pattern. The graph above shows that horses drawn in stall 1 had an average decimal SP price of 6.58 from 2003 to 2007, dropping to 5.19 over the most recent five-year period. Likewise, we have seen the prices of horses drawn in stall 2 dropping from 9.06 to 6.46.
Some statisticians may observe that despite the relatively solid sample sizes average prices can be skewed by an occasional bigger-priced runner. That would certainly be possible, so it make sense to compare the median prices as well. To remind you of your school maths class, median is the middle value when all are ordered from lowest to highest. This gives us another type of average, the findings of which are here:
Once again we see the same pattern: the prices for both draws 1 and 2 have dropped quite significantly over the period of study.
A further measure to illustrate how the draw affects the prices at Chester is if we look at all stall / draw positions from 2017 to 2021 and compare their average prices. We already know that the average for horses drawn in stall 1 has been 5.19 and stall 2 is 6.46. I have graphed the average prices for each stall over 5f at Chester, although due to small sample sizes in higher drawn runners I have combined those drawn in stall 8 or higher:
As we can see, despite a slight ‘blip’ with stalls / draws 6 and 7, the average price increases as the stall position increases (and is thus further away from the favoured inside rail). Looking at these data, we could confidently argue that at Chester over 5f the draw impacts on price more than any other factor.
I briefly want to go back to discuss the price reduction we saw earlier in the lowest two stall positions when comparing 2003-2007 average SP prices with 2017-2021. This has actually not coincided with the draw bias getting stronger; in fact, the draw bias has stayed roughly the same. This can be illustrated when breaking our draw data into three time frames between the years 2003 and 2021. The actual draw positions are also split into three: low third, middle third and high third.
As can be seen, low draws have continued to dominate in each time frame. This is further evidence of the fact that the price reduction is almost certainly down to more punters being aware of how fundamentally important the draw is to the business of finding winners at Chester over this minimum 5f trip. From a betting perspective, therefore, much or all of the value in lower drawn horses has now evaporated. This can be illustrated in terms of percentage returns (ROI%) if backing all horses from the bottom third (low) of the draw over different time frames.
I still find it remarkable that up to 2015 you could have made a blind profit at SP by backing all low drawn horses in 8+ handicaps over five furlongs at Chester. All good things come to an end, however, and that has not been the case in recent years. In the five year period 2016 to 2021, losses accrued were 13.7% of stakes. Ouch.
Appreciating and therefore deploying draw bias is not merely about looking at the performances of different sections of the draw; no, we also have to be acutely aware of how the market adjusts for such factors.
Being able to exploit the draw to one's advantage has also been affected in recent years by racecourse officials using other means of negating any potential bias. One way this can be done is by moving running rails which potentially changes part of the ground over which races take place as well as sometimes subtly changing the race distance by a few yards. The other, more notable, fly in the ointment has been the change in watering systems that most tracks now use. Some 20 or 30 years ago many course watering systems were badly affected by wind speed and direction, and hence certain parts of the track remained drier - and therefore quicker - giving rise to draw biases. Nowadays, though, the equipment has become more sophisticated and the water is spread much more evenly.
I mentioned earlier that Beverley over five furlongs used to be one of the strongest draw biases back in the day, and this can be seen when you look at the data. From 1998 to 2003 in 8+ runner handicaps the low third of the draw housed the winner 63.3% of the time, while the highest third won just 10% during that period. From 2004 to 2009, the strength of this bias appeared to dip a little but the low third still accounted for 53.4% of all the winners (high won a still dismal 15%). However, from 2010 to 2015 the low win percentage dropped to just under 42%, while high had narrowed the gap with 23.1% winners; and, from 2016 to 2021 it dropped to 40.8% low and 26.5% high. Over time, that's quite a big change. Yes, low draws are still favoured but the huge edge that there once was is no more.
Exactly why this has happened I cannot be sure; it is probably down to better watering and maintenance of the track. However, what is interesting is the fact that the prices on the best drawn horses have not changed much. Comparing the 2003 to 2007 segment with 2016 to 2021 here are the average prices for stalls 1 and 2:
Horses drawn in stall 1 have, on average, started at slightly shorter prices in the last five seasons (12 versus 11.42); stall 2 has seen an increase but a modest one when you consider the draw bias is nowhere near as potent these days. The median prices back up the raw average data as the table below shows:
What seems to be happening here therefore is the market at Beverley is still assuming the draw bias is as strong as it was back in the early 2000s. Unlike the Chester market, which has adapted as one might expect, this Beverley market has not: in reality, the odds should on average be higher than they currently are. The bitesize takeaway is that lower draws are generally poor value.
Another thing that has changed markedly in the past few years is the general appreciation that draw bias does not only occur over sprint trips. Pontefract, for example, over a mile and a mile and a quarter, boasts two of the strongest draw biases currently in play. Looking at 8+ runner 1 mile handicaps at Pontefract, it can be seen that this is a case of the betting market now cottoning on to the draw bias. This is in stark contrast to data gathered in 5f handicaps at Beverley.
Let’s compare once again the same two time frames - 2003 to 2007 with 2017 to 2021. Here are the average prices for stalls 1 and 2:
The average price of horses drawn in stall 1 has nearly halved; the figures for horses drawn in stall 2 have also contracted quite noticeably. Once again the median prices correlate strongly:
What this means, therefore, is that although low draws hold a significant edge over 1 mile at Pontefract the current prices on offer are so low on average, that they too are now generally poor value. We can see this in black and white when I share the fact that from 2009 to 2013 backing all low drawn horses at Pontefract over 1 mile in 8+ runner handicaps would have yielded a 13% profit; from 2017 to 2021 this flipped to a 22% loss.
This Ponte pattern mirrors the change we saw earlier in the Chester 5f prices and subsequent poorer value of low drawn runners in recent seasons.
In order to fully make the most of draw bias, or indeed perceived draw bias, it is clear we need to be aware of market factors, not just the raw draw data splits. Let us close with a look at Catterick over six furlongs – again focusing on 8+ runner handicaps. Because this six-furlong trip is contested around a bend there is a perception that lower draws have a slight edge. This is borne out when we compare the combined average prices of the three lowest drawn runners with the three highest drawn runners going back to 2016.
A difference on average of two and a half points. That may not seem much of a difference but over several races it can make a critical difference to our bottom line. During this time frame both sections of the draw have won virtually the same number of races (26 versus 27), implying that there is no bias to lower drawn runners at all. At least partly as a consequence of this perception, backing the three lowest drawn stalls would have produced crippling losses of 45.8% to SP, while blindly supporting the top three stalls would have produced a profit of 10.5%.
One observation when comparing odds over time might legitimately be that field sizes truncating has had a bearing on prices. While that impact should be spread across the full range of stalls anyway, this final chart also helps to imply that field size is likely not the main factor at play here.
It is a little 'busy', but essentially we have two lines which we might expect to be correlated - perceived win chance (expressed as SP) and actual strike rate (expressed as win %). Although the win strike rates jump around a bit, the blue dotted 'trendline' shows no advantage; compare that, however, with the orange trendline for average win odds which rises from low to high.
The aim of this article is to illustrate the important links between draw position and price, and to highlight the changing nature of some draw biases. Profitable betting is about getting value – well drawn horses only offer us value if the price is right. Also, we need to be aware that 'poorly' drawn horses can also offer value, but again only if the price is right.