Roger Varian in the parade ring, Rashed Equestrian and Horse Race Club, Manama, Bahrain. Photograph by NEVILLE HOPWOOD/

Jon Shenton: Who to Layoff?

Under normal circumstances April and May is my favourite time of the year, both in personal “real-life” terms but also through the racing lens, writes Jon Shenton. Usually, as the flat season kicks into gear it is a period when I’d be at my most active in punting terms. This year there is a void, and I’ve as yet not wanted want to fill it with third tier US racing, or whatever other meagre scraps are on offer.

Before we begin, an uber-caveat: the date of the restart of the sport will go a long way to establishing whether data-driven angles have a strong role to play in this years’ flat campaign.

Sadly, it may be smart to keep certain angles in cold storage until the spring of 2021: a truncated campaign will quite likely manifest in all sorts of data anomalies for otherwise robust angles. Let me explain with a specific example.

Many of my favourite angles are early season specific. Several yards are typically fast out of the blocks and others have a more nonchalant approach to the first exchanges in the campaign, in result terms anyway. Avoiding some yards during the initial knockings of the turf season can be a prudent move. A case in point is Tim Easterby: the powerhouse yard has a colossal number of runners throughout the spring and summer months with performance notable by its variance over the course of the season as the below graph illustrates.

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It’s not the most exciting data, illustrating only the yard’s win percentage. However, it clearly shows a seasonal variance: Easterby’s performance in April and May is moderate in comparison to the peak summer period. To give a feel for the scale, there are 642 total runners in April alone, so in horse racing terms the sample sizes are broader than most (the yard is also 0-from-29 in March).

Focusing on 2020, what happens now? It is pure speculation but for the sake of this article let’s assume the season starts in July. Ordinarily, this would be peak Tim territory assuming a standard racing calendar. The million dollar question is, would the yard be expected to drop straight into the usual July prolific form or will it build slowly like usual, allowing its animals to develop race fitness through visits to the track, peaking as a yard in September or later? Perhaps we will see neither and the yard will flatten their own curve.

It is very difficult to project with any confidence, especially when placed in the context of every other yard rethinking and rehashing their own usual blueprint, planning for and around a truncated season.

Arguably, all typical trainer patterns could be of limited relevance. I certainly wouldn’t back a usual Easterby July qualifier this year, at least until I had more evidence to show the yard had adapted to the revised topology.

However, we don’t give in that easily at geegeez. Yes, it is true that a data-driven gambler may have to tread carefully; but there is also such a thing as first mover advantage! By cutting through the noise more quickly than most, there may be opportunities to gain utility from the numbers as they happen. Within that, possessing a good understanding of the ‘norm’ is beneficial as it provides a head start in terms of knowing what to look for as racing awakens from its enforced hiatus.

One sensible starting point is to evaluate how trainers perform after a horse has had a long rest from racing. This year, most animals are going to be hitting the track after a sizeable hiatus when the sport re-commences. Knowing the trainers who perform well in these circumstances ought to be of use.

The table below (containing data from horseracebase) shows exactly this: it summarises trainer performance with horses returning after a break of 181 days or longer (UK flat turf races only, 2011-present, SP 20/1 or shorter). The SP cut-off is a personal choice and generally helps sort the wheat from the chaff in my opinion.

The insight is sorted in A/E order (Actual vs. Expected, assessing performance vs. the expectation of the market, 1.00 being par, anything greater being outperformance against market expectation) and a minimum of 100 runs are required to qualify for the table. There are plenty of points to discuss but we will begin with my eye being drawn to the four yards marked in yellow.

These jump off the page, predominantly due to their impressive strike rates around one-in-four win to run ratio. They are also bona fide prime flat racing organisations where value can be hard to come by so merit closer scrutiny.

Given the profile of these yards, it is surprising that the market seems to ever-so-slightly underestimate their lay-off horses: time and again these guys fire in winners after an absence. The length of time off the track is far from detrimental to their chances; in fact, it may be a positive indicator of intent. However, we, as the general punting public still subconsciously prefer the reassurance of a recent run. In the case of the highlighted yards (and several of the others) it is a wise move trying to ignore the long elapsed time between runs.

Taking this concept further, the graph below illustrates the same trainers contained in the original data table above. The red line shows the A/E performance for the horses returning to the track after more than 180 days by trainer, whereas the blue bars shows the A/E for those who have a run during the last 180 days.

In basic terms, virtually all these trainers perform more profitably with lay-off animals than they do with more recent runners (using A/E as the measure). The only three that do not are Messrs Balding, Prescott and Ryan, but even then, the difference in results is virtually negligible.

The left-hand side of the graph indicates those where the variance between the lay-off horses and the race fit animals is most significant. Ballydoyle maestro Aidan O’Brien heads the list. There is some logic in this, at least theoretically. It is not beyond imagination to speculate that a horse travelling across the Irish Sea to the UK is ready for action and means business. Were it not it would be running closer to home, presumably.

However, to satisfy whether that is a fair assertion or not, a comparison with the yard’s Irish return-after-a-break horses should confirm if this is the case.

As can be seen, O’Brien’s travellers outperform their stay-at-home counterparts on every measure. Whilst it is probably not angle material it is certainly worth factoring into big race considerations, especially if the money is down (the record for horses 6/1 or bigger is just 2-from-45 within the UK dataset).

Another trainer highlighted in the table with a large differential between the performance of his lay-off and recent runners is Roger Varian. The Newmarket-based operation is one that, considering its scale and profile, I do not particularly follow or have many related opinions / angles.

However, in the context of his layoff runners there is an interesting edge to consider when runners are evaluated by age.

The table demonstrates that the winning performance level of Varian’s three-year-olds after a break is not as strong as his older horse returners. This could easily be a sample size issue, particularly as the place performance is very consistent. Regardless, the numbers of the four years and older brigade are highly noteworthy.

Taking those four-plus aged horses and evaluating their performance after an absence against the yard’s performance where a run has been more recent, the numbers grow in stature still further by comparison.

Effectively, the table above confirms that the absolute right time to back a Varian horse aged four or older is its first run after an absence.

I dare say that this is the tip of the iceberg and there are plenty of other interesting data-driven nuances in relation to all trainers in the table. A bit of homework for me – or you? – over the next week or two perhaps.

Again, 2020 may prove to be wholly different from recent history given these unique circumstances. Normally, much of the value in these yards horses after a break can be attributed to the likelihood that much of their competition would have had a recent outing: the beady eye of the market is often drawn to those who have provided recent evidence of their well-being rather than those who have been out of sight, out of mind.

This year, especially early in the season, most runners in each race will be racing on the back of a long break. It is conceivable that every yard and every owner will be desperate to get their charges out as early as possible to mitigate some of the economic damage received through the enforced absence.

Consequently, if the phasing of animals having their first run in a while is compressed into a short period of time as there isn’t the luxury of a long campaign, it could be easily argued that the market  will focus more towards the likes of O’Brien, Varian, Gosden and Haggas given their elevated status.

If the mooted Royal Ascot behind closed doors meeting does proceed, virtually every horse will be hitting the track after a long absence. Gosden, O’Brien et al runners could be like moths to a light for punters, even more so than usual, eroding potential value from the lay-off angle.

However, the bottom line is that these yards have proven performance after a lay-off in their locker. Plenty of others do not and those others will have to elevate their game and do something uncharacteristic to their norm to prevail.

Of course, it is conceivable that trainers who build a horse’s fitness through racing will adapt easily. Trainers are generally highly skilled practitioners and should be able to modify their approach to match the situation.

The yards listed in the table below are some of those for whom the first run is typically a sighter; whether things will be different in 2020, time will tell, but it seems prudent to be cautious until evidence to the contrary manifests itself.

It is certainly the case that the performance of runners from these yards after an absence is not meeting market expectation with unhealthy A/E numbers across the board. Again, the table is restricted to runners at 20/1 or shorter (SP), and 100 runners is required to qualify.

In broad terms, unless there is a compelling reason not to, it’s a straightforward decision to pass on entrants from these guys after a hiatus. Naturally, Easterby (Tim) is on here as intimated earlier. It is going to be fascinating to see whether these yards will still be content to play the long game once racing is back.

Personally, I’m not sure how to play things yet. The timing of the resumption will be key in shaping a strategy. With the deferral of four of the Classics it’s looking more and more likely that the resumption date will be mid-summer. Given that, my gut feel is that angle and data-driven wagering of this kind will be fraught with danger. However, where there is a market there will always be an opportunity to find an edge.

One thing is for sure: one of my starting points will be to man-mark the yards in this article when we get going again. By spotting the trainers who are ready to go, or otherwise, there should be plenty of chances to make up for lost time. Who knows, I may even be backing Tim Easterby horses after a prolonged absence. These are strange times, after all!

Stay safe.

- JS

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3 replies
  1. fingers
    fingers says:

    Excellent as always and although, as you rightly say, this year might be turned on its head data wise the fact remains that horses can only do so much at home and therefore the “knack” to get to “track” ready to go mentally as well as fitness wise could still be an edge.
    Once again thank you for for the analysis.

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