This past week was the one where racing finally awoke from its Christmas and New Year excesses, and burst back into life. It ended with some superb racing, including tough tests for a couple of champions; but that's not where it began...
Things sprung into life on Wednesday, when control freak and coup-lander extraordinaire, Barney Curley, played his plunge card for the first time since 2010. He had four horses lined up, and they were wagered from various outposts of Ireland (predominantly) in multiple bets. As you probably know, three of the four had little to no recent form, but all of the quartet won their races, landing some good bets in the process.
It's unclear to what extent bookmakers were hit, but the general consensus is that those internet firms which price up overnight bore the brunt of the coup, with more cautious trading rooms able to incorporate the breaking news and truncate their prices accordingly. The most plausible of the various estimates is that about £2 million was taken out by the winning quad.
Social media and the racing rags were awash with cheers and jeers in almost equal measure. Each corner pilloried the other as though they must be wrong, whereas in reality it is probable that both were correct to some degree. Let's take a quick look at the respective views.
In the blue corner, representing the values of honesty and integrity are... the bookmakers?! Yes, the bookies boohoo'ed about the unfairness of it all, with the four horses not being obvious choices and the connections of those horses clearly cheating.
In the red corner, those who idolize Barney for his clever tactics in landing an unseen rabbit punch on those nasty bookie types.
Well, as I say, for my money, both are right and both are wrong. It's just not as cut and dried as that.
Firstly, the system in UK currently allows ostensibly regressive animals too much latitude too quickly. So it was that Eye Of The Tiger was dropped fully half of its April 2012 mark of 112, to just 56 when reappearing in the second race at Lingfield, and scampering away to a nine length verdict. It took just six runs and less than two years' patience to achieve that ratings collapse.
Indus Valley, a sprinter once rated 90, was down to 72 in July 2011. He was rated 54 when last seen over a mile and three furlongs in February 2012. Just less than two years later, he appeared last Wednesday off a perch of 45 in a Class 7 dog race. Over six furlongs! He won by half a length, with four back to the third.
Sophie Leech ran Seven Summits, a horse that at least had form to win his race. He was third in a novice handicap hurdle (Class 4) on his previous run and now raced in Class 5, the basement tier for National Hunt handicaps.
And Low Key, a horse ironically named and with form figures of second to last, second to last, second to last, last, completed the yankee-doodle-dandy when scoring by a length off 60, having been 88 just five runs previously.
The key points for me are as follows:
1. The handicapper shouldn't be dropping any horse in chunks like this, regardless of how regressive the animal looks. It is simply wide open for abuse, hindsight confirms. The handicapper should also retrospectively punish the trainers of these horses by ensuring that any horse in their care is dropped in ones henceforth. If other owners in those stables don't like that, they know what to do.
2. Punters who applaud such coups generally, though not exclusively, have little regard for the merit of the form book. Whilst it could be readily argued that all of the horses in the four were perfectly capable of scoring in today's company, without the aid of inside knowledge or a crystal ball, it would have been impossible to foresee that 'today is the day'.
3. That most bookies were relatively unscathed is testament to the systems in place now, and the accountancy nature of the bookmaking business, in preventing what may ten years ago have been a bloodbath with far deeper recriminations.
4. Arguments about bad racing and poor prize money are wide of the mark. These horses could have won in the next grade up. And you only get a few grand for winning a Class 3 race. Racing does, I think, have an issue with too much racing and - as a direct consequence - a lot of poor racing and bad prize money. But it's hardly the case that in Ireland, where prize money is a bit better and there is a bit less racing, coups are unheard of. For me, then, this is a red herring.
The very next day, another horse was gambled from 20/1 into 6/4. Pipers Piping also had connections to Barney Curley and was treated as a good thing by bookmakers. My ineptitude enabled me to receive a whisper on the race and back the wrong one of its trainers' two entries. That 'the wrong one' won, at 16/1, merely highlights that value can exist against plot horses. I had backed it at 7/1, best odds guaranteed. If you don't bet best odds guaranteed (assuming you can), then you really do deserve to lose. (Sorry, but that's how strongly I feel about such things).
Tony Stafford recounted an excellent tale of a 'nearly' coup in the late 80's in yesterday's Sunday Supplement. If you've not read it, it's well worth five minutes, and you can find it here.
Last week also saw the return of the geegeez.co.uk racing colours to the winners' enclosure. Slipper Satin was an unexpected and most welcome victor, as she splished and sploshed her way to a sixteen length margin over Nicky Henderson's odds-on hotpot in what was a desperate contest, truth be told.
The difficulty of pinning the form down has been highlighted even before the official handicapper offers his opinion tomorrow. Racing Post Ratings have Slipper Satin on a respectable 119, whereas Timeform have her at just 97p.
Considering there is usually a fair amount of parity between the ratings of these form factories, the vast divergence is noteworthy. Let's see where the handicapper's figure falls.
For her part, Slipper Satin is clearly a better hurdler than flat horse, and she definitely loves the mud. She would have barely blown out a candle after her Fakenham win, testament to the ease with which she distanced herself from the rest, and we'd be very hopeful that she can follow up somewhere.
Where, though, is an interesting question. She was entered in a claimer on Wednesday, where she would almost certainly have been nabbed for £6,000. In fact, the image below shows how likely she would have been to win that race, according to the Racing Post at least.
But she'll not go there as we don't want to give her away. We're still not sure where next, but there is a 2m2f race at Fontwell in mid-February that might fit quite well. The undulating nature and tight turns are not dissimilar to Fakenham, even if the figure of eight is. We should have some more fun with Sprinter Splatter before the season's out.
You can read about that day in full if you didn't already, here.
Another horse in which I - and Counsellor Jim - own a share is Vastly, trained by Julia Feilden. He's a very well bred son of Mizzen Mast who has had more than his share of problems so far. He races tomorrow in a maiden at Southwell (3.20), comprised of just five runners.
Thatchmaster is the one to beat according to official figures. His rating of 80 is twelve clear of Vastly's 68, with two more horses within a couple of pounds of our boy's number.
But we have reason to believe that Vastly can be better than he's shown so far. He began very brightly, before an abscess on his back troubled him out of contention in his last two starts. He's since been 'decoupled' and has come back a fitter horse this year. As such, although we have a stone to find with the favourite, we're hopeful of a very nice run.
As a USA bred, he has every chance of acting on the quirky strip at Southwell, which is the British oval most akin to US dirt racing, and fingers are firmly crossed.
The Geegeez Geegee, meanwhile, is still sidelined with a bit of a cough. He's probably not going to be suited by the very wet turf anyway, so we're not missing too much, but we do very much look forward to seeing the latest - and hopefully greatest - geegeez.co.uk syndicate horse strut his stuff in the not too distant future.
Anthony Honeyball, who trains him, has eased off on his string after some poorer than expected results at the start of January, and may not be making further entries for another fortnight or so.
And then there was the weekend racing. Festival Trials days at Cheltenham and Leopardstown saw many champions and potential champions on display. I'll be kicking up the Cheltenham Festival coverage on here this week, and it's all systems go to the big meeting now.
Big Buck's, the four time World Hurdle winner, made his long-awaited comeback in a hot-looking Cleeve Hurdle on Saturday. He was beaten less than a length in third there, and was given a proper workout. That could put him spot on for Cheltenham. Or it could be as good as he is now. Or he could bounce from the exertion after an extended layoff. In my opinion, those three possibilities are almost equal in likelihood, so quotes as short as 5/4 are of no interest to me, and he'll surely be much bigger on the day.
Those who took the 6/4 available with Coral on Saturday should congratulate themselves despite not collecting. Beating the market is THE way to make betting pay, and getting 6/4 about a 6/5 shot is ALWAYS a smart move. I've written reams on value on this virtual platform over the years, and this fairly recent value post is worth a (re-)read.
Those who took the advice and availed of 3/1 Hurricane Fly also had stellar value. He won, but that is not the point. 3/1 about a 4/7 chance is ridiculously good value and, no matter what you know - or think you know - you simply cannot be that much smarter than the biggest betting markets when you have such a cushion in your price.
Of course, he snuck home in a messy race, with Our Conor taking second as suggested in my preview post. So even if you weren't eligible for the 3/1 Fly, I hope you got some better than 11/4 on the exacta (it paid £3.84).
As if that wasn't enough blatant self-promotion, there's more!
On Saturday, I had the pleasure of assuming the warm Stat of the Day chair vacated by Chris immediately after he'd flagged 17/2 winner, Pearl Castle. Thankfully my (slightly better than) wishful thinking was vindicated when Wishfull Thinking won his race, at odds of 9/1.
The key thing with him was that his trainer said that the ground was probably softer than ideal, a comment which caused his price to drift. But the evidence of the form book disagreed. Indeed, on soft ground, Wishfull Thinking had won four from six races.
Whist it obviously makes sense to listen to trainer (though often not jockey!) sound bites, it can pay to corroborate what you've heard with the form book. Philip Hobbs is unquestionably a far better judge of horses than me, but he may have said what he said out of a perception rather than anything as objective as lines of print.
Stat of the Day is guaranteed another winning month for January, and is now 150 points up since we started it in November 2011. Just over two years and 150 points profit. All our results are tracked, and can be found here. This is a free service to registered users, and one which we're very proud of. Chris is the main man in the operation, and I take my hat off to him for the excellent job he's done with that service.
That's all for today. I hope you had a great weekend, and I'll be back later in the week with the first of the Cheltenham race previews. 🙂
p.s. if you're still waiting on your Winner system bonus, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can check you against my list. Thanks and sorry for the delay on this.