Racing Systems: An Introduction

I have been involved in racing and betting for over 25 years now and when I hear people mention the words ‘betting system’ it takes me right back to the early days, writes Dave Renham. When I started betting on horses, systems made up a significant part of my overall betting approach or strategy. I was at university at the time and as a Maths student I had plenty of work that involved following complex rules to answer difficult mathematical problems. The reason I was drawn to racing systems, then, was the simplicity of it compared to the work on my degree course. All I had to do was create a few logical rules in order to come up with a ‘system’ that would pinpoint a selection or selections. Then it was time test the idea – look at the stats, trends and results. Again, stats and trends as mathematician ‘floated my boat’ as it were.

Now, at that time - the mid 90s - computers were still in their infancy and hence checking past results was an issue. Initially I used form books, but soon realised that although the idea of creating systems was relatively straight-forward, back testing data was unbelievably time consuming. Then came the game changer – racing systems builder. RSB as it was known revolutionized creating racing systems. You suddenly had years of data at your fingertips (going back to 1986 from memory); numerous variables you could test, either in isolation or combined in a ‘system’. AND it was quick – so quick for the time. Put in your variables, click a button and within seconds the results of your systems were on the screen. I must have tested thousands of systems with this software.

These days things have come a long way and now there are numerous ways to test systems with computer programs, website databases, etc. As a result, racing systems are still very popular. Many punters are still drawn to systems for basically the same reason I was drawn to them all those years ago - because they are straight-forward and easy to implement: no long drawn out form study or daily race reading, no real emotion to come into the equation each time you place a bet.

Once you have your system or systems, the work is basically done. Here at geegeez.co.uk, we have Query Tool which allows you to create and then test certain systems, and once you find a system you want to follow, you can save it as Query Tool Angle – this means any qualifiers will appear on the racecard and in your daily QT Angles Report.

Not all people though are system fans. They will say that systems can be too rigid and that they rarely perform as well ‘live’ as they do in testing. In addition many non ‘systemites’ (and indeed some system fans) believe that profitable systems have a limited shelf-life, and more often than not this is the case. One problem for system punters is that determining the likely shelf-life of a system is nigh on impossible. Horse racing and the betting market are continually changing and hence certain systems that have been profitable in the past at some point start to lose profitability, and eventually start making losses. One of the main reasons why this occurs is that the betting market adjusts, and although the strike rate essentially stays the same, the prices on offer contract (shorten) and hence the profit margin disappears.

Thus, the system punter cannot sit back on her laurels once she has created her collection of winning systems. Such players need to be constantly monitoring results over the short, medium and long term to see whether that system should continue to be used.

 

Racing System Myth Busting

Before moving on I think it is important to bust a couple of system myths. If you type in ‘horse racing systems’ on any internet search engine you get a plethora of links. Some of those links share so called free ‘winning’ systems, but as we know in life, we need to be initially wary of anything that is ‘free’. On one site for example it offered several ‘winning’ systems, two of which I had seen before.

System 1 – Back Beaten favourites

The theory is simple, horses that were favourite last time out but lost are likely to start a bigger price next time, and the argument often goes along the lines that there were probably excuses for its latest defeat. There is some logic in this, I guess, but the long term results produce significant losses. Below shows the yearly return on investment to Betfair Starting Price if you had backed all horses that were beaten favourites last time out. This includes flat, all weather and National Hunt:

 

Just the two profitable years out of 13. Backing all runners since 2009 would have yielded a loss of £4192 to £1 level stakes. Ouch. Losses were consistent across the three formats although flat races saw the biggest percentage losses of over 6%. For the record SP losses amounted to 15% (15p in the £).

Now this does not mean some beaten favourites can be value and worth backing, but it is clearly not as simple as backing all such runners.

System 2 – Long distance travellers

This old chestnut is where it is believed that if a trainer is sending a horse on an extremely long round trip then there must be a reason for it; the reason being it is expected to win! According to some this is even more of a certainty if only one horse is taken that far. Again, definite logic behind the idea, but it is unlikely to guarantee you long term profits. I have looked at horses that have travelled on a round trip of 400 miles or more when they are the only horse running for that trainer on that course on that given day. Over the last ten years these runners would have lost you nearly 8p for every £1 bet. 2013 and 2018 did see miniscule profits, but the other years all showed losses. Now, you may be able to refine the idea to find some value and I guess some trainers are better to follow than others. However, this is not my type of system.

 

How to Create Racing Systems: Avoid Back Fitting

When it comes to building racing systems, the general rule is “the simpler the better”. Unfortunately even if you keep it simple there is a very high chance that the system will not be profitable in the long term. Also, critically, you need to beware of back-fitting. Back-fitting is essentially making the system fit the results. In other words a system punter thinks of a basic idea, examines the data and then looks at numerous factors and adds only those that improve the results. This is clearly an unsound way of creating systems and will lead to poor results in the long term.

It is worth giving examples of some back fitting ideas:

Only back the horse when priced between 6/1 and 12/1

Why only this price bracket? Why not 5/1 and 14/1 for example? If you are going to implement price constraints it only makes sense if you use a maximum or minimum figure only. For example only back if the horse is 10/1 or shorter. Even then, there is likely to be a degree of 'convenience' about the chosen threshold.

 

Don't back 3yo or 5yo horses

Why not 4yo and 6yo? If you are going to use an age bracket it needs to make sense with a full range, including all age groups in the range – e.g. only back horses aged 7 or younger.

 

Only back the horse if it has run exactly three times that season

Why three races? Why not two or four? In terms of seasonal runs, for me the only variable that makes any sense is when the horse is having its first run of the season.

 

How to Create Racing Systems: Some Building Blocks

Essentially any rule you incorporate in a system needs to have some logic behind it. Also, I personally think systems need to show a level of consistency year in, year out. Some ‘profitable’ systems are only profitable due to freak winners at big prices. Hence I like to see most years making a profit; the more the better.

OK, let's try and come up with a couple of ideas and then from there create a system. I will discuss my thinking and why certain rules or variables have been chosen. Then I’ll test them. Obviously I am looking for long term profits where possible, but one has to accept that the vast majority of good ideas will not necessarily create a winning system - far from it!

1 Utilizing draw bias

It is unlikely that any serious punter is not aware of the historical draw bias at Chester. The tight configuration of the track has seen lower drawn horses (those drawn closest to the inside rail) have the edge for as long as they have used starting stalls there. However, is it possible to profit from this? Bookmakers are fully aware of the bias and naturally factor the draw into their prices. So is that enough to take any potential profitable angle away?

Those who have read my draw based articles will know that I focus on handicaps when trying to uncover biases. This is because the races are more competitive; and in these pieces I focus on handicap races with at least eight runners. The reasoning behind this is more down to the fact that bigger fields accentuate the negative bias of horses drawn furthest away from the favoured draws. Hence the first three basic rules for my potential system are going to be:

  1. Course – Chester
  2. Handicaps only
  3. 8 or more runners

From here I need to add a distance rule and a draw positioning rule. From my experience of studying draw biases for 25 years, I know that shorter distances tend to see the strongest biases. I also know that you need to focus on a small group of favoured draws – probably no more than three or four stalls. So let’s add the minimum trip only (5 furlongs) and stick to the four lowest drawn horses. It is best to quantify the draw position in that way rather than draws 1 to 4, as non runners mean that occasionally horses originally drawn in stall 5 or even stall 6 become one of the lowest four.

Note that in recent years some Chester sprints have been run over the ‘extended 5’ which equates to 5½ furlongs. However, here I am going to stick to the absolute shortest distance of 5f.

So our full system now reads:

  1. Course – Chester
  2. 5f Handicaps only
  3. 8 or more runners
  4. Lowest four drawn horses

This is a nice simple system with not too many rules. Some people will argue the 8+ runner rule is back-fitting, but I have explained why this rule makes sense to me and I would maintain this is not back-fitting, although it is an arbitrary number, and I could perhaps have chosen seven or nine runners: sometimes a degree of discretion is required. One could argue this is a slightly unusual system due to the fact that it is going to pick four horses each race, and that clearly won't work for those who insist on only backing one horse in a race. Personally, I'm seeking long-term profit, regardless of how many horses I bet to that end!

Now it's time to test it out. Firstly, I will look at the long term data going back to 2009 and then split it up into two blocks, 2009 to 2014 and then 2015 to 2021.

Data from 2009 to 2021 gives the following results:

 

These are the results generated from the Geegeez Query Tool. The profits shown (Win PL) are to traditional SP. If backing to Betfair SP this would have increased to £103.16 (ROI +40.3%).

So a positive start, but now let us compare the two time frames. 2009 to 2014 first:

 

And now 2015 to 2021:

 

The periods have very similar strike rates which is good to see, and both time frames have been profitable; however, the more recent period has been less so. The yearly returns on investment are shown below:

 

Yearly profits for any draw based system are going to be more volatile than many systems partly due to the relatively modest sample sizes. The chart shows eight profitable years and five unprofitable ones to BSP although 2016 and 2021 losses were negligible.

In the past two years the results have been less good and I mentioned in a Chester draw and pace article back in April 2020 that sprint biases at Chester may be getting less strong mainly due to the fact that course officials have added a false rail to the home turn at more and more meetings. This rail movement allows more space on the inside in the short straight and I believe this means that more horses drawn wide are able to challenge on the inside, thus saving ground, rather than having to race wide for the whole race and essentially running a longer distance. This, of course, was the intention of the course administration: good news for them, less so for us draw system players!

 

 

At this point it is still conjecture to some degree. But, as can be seen from the graph, 2011 and 2012 results seem to mirror those for 2020 and 2021, and as we can see profits bounced back in 2013, 2014 and 2015. So it is something to monitor and it goes back to what I mentioned earlier about the shelf life of any system. Maybe this potential system is coming to the end of its utility and long term profitability. In fact, there may even now be an angle in opposing inside draws until the impact of the false rail becomes more widely understood.

 

2 Utilizing trainer patterns

Trainer systems are extremely popular for many reasons. Many punters believe that trainers are creatures of habit and hence patterns both good and bad are likely to replicated form season to season, and over the longer term. There is also plenty of scope with volume trainers (i.e. those who send out a lot of runners) to utilise different variables – courses, age of horse, race type, jockey bookings etc.

I am going to focus on one my favourite trainers, John Gosden. For the record Gosden Senior now shares his training license with son Thady and hence when researching Gosden on the Query Tool you need to tick the following:

 

Another reason for choosing John Gosden is because I perceive that he is a very consistent trainer from year to year, as well of course as a very good one. To illustrate my point, here are his yearly strike rates for all UK races going back to 2021:

 

As you can see his strike rate has been consistently high and his overall strike rate stands at an impressive 21.6%. Backing all 8000+ runners between 2009 and 2021 would have yielded an SP loss of around 8% (8p in the £), but to Betfair SP you would have made a small profit of £185.55 (ROI +2.3%). That is quite remarkable and a good starting point to drill down into this data set.

There are not many trainers that you could potentially run a group of different systems against and still stand a good chance of most being profitable, but the Gosdens probably come into that category. For this piece though I am going to offer just one such system, and one which is about as simple as you can get.

I have always noted that Gosden has performed well with horses that stay in training beyond their three year old campaign and, in general, I have also felt he does better in races of longer distances. Hence this system has just three rules:

  1. Trainer – John Gosden / John & Thady Gosden
  2. Horses aged 4 or older
  3. Race distance of 1 mile 4 furlongs or more

Looking at the results as a whole from 2009 to 2021 we get the following breakdown:

 

An overall strike rate of aroundone1 win in every four races coupled with profits of just over 34p in the £ (to SP). If backing to Betfair SP this would have increased to £264.62 (ROI +60.0%).

Looking good so far – now to compare the two time frames. 2009 to 2014 first:

 

And now 2015 to 2021:

 

As we can see, the more recent past has seen a higher strike rate, but lower profits. However, overall I think we should still be pleased with the general feel of this system. For the record the Betfair SP profit since 2015 stands at £96.33 which still equates to impressive returns of just over 40p in the £.

The yearly Betfair SP returns on investment (ROI%) for 2015 onwards are shown below for context:

 

Six profitable years out of seven is pleasing even if the system performance has dropped off a little compared with the period 2009 to 2014.

Now this system could be improved further from a pure profit perspective; indeed if you extend the distance frame to 1 mile or more, overall profits increase from £264.62 to £323.35, but this a classic example of back-fitting the system to the results. Hence I am sticking with 3 simple rules, because they work and they fit my own perception. In reality, it is likely that somewhere in between the convenience of one mile (the shortest distance to make a profit in the research) and 1m4f (my initial perception) is a legitimate extension of my first pass system.

Finally I want to look at something that may be familiar to many readers...

 

3 Back the outsider of three

Earlier I looked at busting some system myths. However, one long standing betting angle that some punters have sworn by over the years, backing the outsider in a three-runner race, actually has held up well since 2009. So the system reads:

  1. All UK races, (flat, all weather, National Hunt)
  2. 3 runner races only
  3. Third in the betting

 

Here is a breakdown of the results alongside the performance of the favourite and second favourite:

 

The outsider of 3 (third favourite) has virtually broken even at starting price. Favourites meanwhile would have lost you over 8p in the £.

Not surprisingly, the third favourites have secured a Betfair SP profit over this time frame. Indeed, you would have made £181.87 to £1 level stakes which equates to an ROI% of over 10% (10p in the £). These Betfair SP returns on investment (ROI%) are shown below broken down by year:

 

As can be seen, performance is a little volatile, which one might expect: overall, there were eight winning years and five losing ones. All in all, though, there are definitely worse systems to follow. It is certainly worth noting that virtually all the profits have occurred in National Hunt racing. Sticking to NH only would have yielded a return of just over 17p in the £ over the same 13 year time frame.

 

System Building: Summary

I hope this article has whetted your appetite for more system articles in the future. System betting has the potential to be fraught with danger, but that of course applies to all betting in reality. I will be back soon with another system article. Please do leave a comment with anything specific you would like me to look at and I will do my best to accommodate your wishes.

- DR

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9 replies
  1. 10 Things You Didn't Know about Geegeez Racecards
  2. mrdinhk
    mrdinhk says:

    Interesting stuff Dave. You would be a bit miffed if you forgot to back Amtiyaz, which won at 33/1 and was responsible for most of the recent Gosden profits! There’s been a small dip in Gosden’s win % ever since Thady got co-billing. Will def be watching to see whether that dip continues.

    Reply
  3. wednesday31
    wednesday31 says:

    Brilliant article Dave. I have not really used the power of query tool up to now but this article has shown how it’s not a complicated as it might seem.

    I think one of the main reason why I haven’t persisted with QT or Report Angles is because I don’t have time on a daily basis to login and run the reports. What would be a game changer is if there was an option in Geegeez to email qualifiers the evening before the same way bet tracker does.

    Reply
  4. Graham Wilkins
    Graham Wilkins says:

    Does the outsider of 3 also work for the outsider of 4 (I used to back these on a Saturday back in the 70s) as, if so, perhaps the profit is down to the bookies offering slightly higher prices as no each way or place only to worry about

    Reply
  5. Paul
    Paul says:

    Often wondered how many single long distance travellers actually shared a box with a bigger stable.
    Especially in Newmarket or Lambourn etc

    Reply

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