Mythbusters: Five Racing Adages Under The Microscope

True or False? Busting racing myths

True or False? Busting racing myths

This post was originally penned in Summer 2015 and, as part of a Throwback Thursday, I revisited the adages to see if the data still held as it did two and a half years ago...

Racing, like every other sport, has its clichés. It also has its conventional wisdom.

Alas, rarely do such 'accepted as true' statements get put to the test, so how is the average punter on the street to know whether he's making a good or poor investment?

Simple. Look at the data!

In this post, I'll put five racing adages to the test, starting with that hoary old chestnut...

1. "Back the outsider of three"

The first thing to say is that for all five adages, I've used all UK races since the start of 2011. That is, nigh on four and a half years worth of data. Stage set, to business...

It's rare that you'll be in a betting shop or watching racing on the TV and not hear the phrase, "back the outsider of three", just after the market third choice has prevailed in a three horse race. But what do the numbers say?

Of the 578 three horse races in UK since 2011, 80 (13.84%) were won by the outsider. Backing them blind would have lost you money. But wait. It would have lost you £7.29 for a £1 level stake, a negative ROI of just 1.26%.

Compare that with backing favourites in all races blindly, which had a negative ROI of 6.82% and you'll see that it's actually far from the worst strategy in the world.

Indeed, let's use the -6.82% ROI as our barometer. Obviously, any number with a minus sign in front of it won't turn a profit. But if we can score better than blindly backing the favourite, then we can suggest there is at least some merit in the adage. After all, most tipsters - and most punters for that matter - can't do better than the unnamed favourite over time.

Backing the outsider of three since 2011 at Betfair SP would have returned £50.80 for a £578 stake, a positive ROI of 8.79%.

Before anyone charges off to religiously back the rag in three horse races (no, I know you wouldn't, but I'll say this anyway...), note that year to year it's a pretty volatile picture: healthy profit in 2011 (+83 at SP!) and 2013, but steady losses in the other years.

Still, there are worse ways to slowly burn through a bundle of cash than this. As we'll see...

True or False? TRUE (just about)

Late 2017 update: since 14th June 2015, when this post was first published, there have been another 323 three-horse races in Britain. 54 of them (16.72%) were won by the outsider, for a starting price profit of 25.54 units, and a BSP positive return of nigh on 50 units.

Revised True or False? STILL TRUE


2. "Never bet odds on in novice chases"

Novice chases. The most precarious of punting propositions. Or are they? The received wisdom is that "it's a mug's game" backing horses in novice chases at shy of even money. But is that true? Again, let's look at the data.

The favourite was sent off at odds-on in 414 UK (non-handicap) novice chases since the beginning of 2011, and won 258 of them (62.47%). A pound on each would have lost you £11.76 at starting price. That's an ROI of -2.84%, which again is considerably better than backing favourites blindly.

Moreover, backing odds-on in all other race types (flat and jumps) since 2011 would have lost you 5.92% of stakes, a much less appetizing situation.

Interestingly, perhaps, exchange players seem to be on to this - or there's no latitude to beat the commission - because backing novice chasers at odds-on with Betfair would have still lost money. Just 1.4% of stakes (or £5.81 on turnover of £414), but a loss nevertheless.

Again, though, this is a lot safer premise than many people believe.

True or False? FALSE (just about)

Late 2017 update: since 14th June 2015, when this post was first published, there have been another 278 odds-on novice or beginners' chasers in non-handicaps. They won 178 of their races (64.03%) but LOST 13.94 points. At BSP, the loss was 9.13 points after commission. A loss is a loss but you'll stay in the game long term, if never getting your nose far in front, adopting this particular brain-dead approach!

Revised True or False? TRUE (just about)

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3. "Back the longest traveller"

The longest traveller. A trainer sends a horse 300 miles up country (only to have to drive 300 miles back again afterwards) for a tin pot race. Surely it must be off for its life, no? Surely?!

Erm, actually, this is a bit of a disaster area for reckless punters. Backing the clear longest traveller in each race since 2011 would have lost 22.67% of stakes. Ouch!

This was so bad I actually tried to qualify it and improve the situation. But, even focusing only on those horses being sent 300 miles or more by their trainers returned an eye-watering, bank-crippling 14.65% loss on stakes.

If someone tells you they've got a system based on longest travellers - with the possible exception of a few ultra-shrewd trainers who wouldn't run their horses past the post office in the village unless they actually were "off for their lives" - run a mile. Or 300.

True or False? FALSE (EPIC FAIL!)

Late 2017 update: since 14th June 2015, when this post was first published, there have been another 2538 runners to have travelled 300+miles to the track (or from overseas) as the furthest traveller in their race. They've won 410 races (16.15%) and lost a whopping 247 points at SP. However... at Betfair SP, they WON 215 points. That was in part down to a couple of 110 BSP winners (66/1 and 50/1 at SP). This would be an extremely volatile 'method' for punting, and certainly not for the faint of heart or small of bankroll.

Revised True or False? FALSE (in spite of the BSP bump)


4. "Follow a filly in form"

It's a popular expression, though a tad harder to quantify than the first three. What constitutes being 'in form'? At its simplest, we could say that a filly (or mare, a female of the breed at least) that won last time out is 'in form'. Why not start there?

Last time out female winners follow up 17% of the time, or about one in six, for a negative ROI of 16.61%. That compares with male winners who follow up 19% of the time, for a negative ROI of 14.6%.

Or, to put it another way, it compares unfavourably both with the un-fairer sex and with the bottom line.

What about fillies/mares who won their last two races?

This time, the girls completed the hat-trick 20.19% of the time, for an ROI of -14.09% (just -4.32% at Betfair SP); while the boys notched the treble at a rate of 21.57% for an ROI of -18.15% (-10.49% at BSP).

The girls did slightly worse in strike rate terms, but a good bit better in ROI terms. That's relative to the boys, of course, because both would have cost fortunes to blindly follow.

Incidentally, that supplementary about expecting fillies to improve/blossom in the autumn is dealt a blow by the knowledge that, in strike rate terms, September was only the seventh best performing month, and October was the eighth of the twelve calendar months.

The top five months for fillies and mares to record hat-tricks, in ROI terms at least, include the sequential May to August quartet (April was sixth best, December - a notably smaller sample size - the interloper in the Spring/Summer sequence).

So here's something with which to tread very carefully:

 - Back fillies or mares on a hat-trick between May and August

That group managed 162 wins from 759 starts (21.34%) for a £1 level stakes starting price profit of £12.82 (1.69% SP)

Taking BOG early prices where you can, or backing at Betfair SP would improve the position somewhat. Indeed, BSP returns were a profit of £108.71 (14.32% ROI), which is pretty tidy.

Again, before anyone goes piling in (not that anyone would, I'm sure), keep in mind that the three years (2008-2010) immediately preceding the sample period (2011-present) were loss-making; and also that 2015 thus far has been negative equity territory.

Anyhoo, to the question: "Back a filly in form"

True or False? FALSE (in quite a big way, though the data mutton can be dressed as profit lamb, as we've seen)

Late 2017 update: since 14th June 2015, when this post was first published, there have been another 451 hat-trick-seeking ladies between May and August. 96 won (21.29%) but it has been car crash territory in terms of the bottom line, with a negative ROI at SP of 27%. Even at BSP it's -22% ROI. Ouch.

Revised True or False? FALSE (big time, no dressing up the data this time)


5. "The bigger the field, the bigger the certainty"

Last but not least is the ultimate contrarians' maxim, "The bigger the field, the bigger the certainty". Put another way, short priced horses in big field races are a good bet. It seems quirky, but does it hold water? As ever, the truth lies not in the sound bite, but in the murky guts of a racing database.

Framing a question for a database around this one is, again, less straightforward than some which have been covered already. But it is far from impossible.

The biggest 'certainty' in any race - in general terms - must be the horse at the top of the market, i.e. the favourite. So we'll use that as a starting point for the 'certainty' element.

With regards to big fields, let us arbitrarily choose 16 runners, the point at which a handicap pays four places to each way backers. (Not that any intrepid 'big field cert' evangelists are looking to bet the place..!)

Favourites in UK races of 16 or more runners since 2011 won 19.53% of the time for a loss at SP of 13.96% of stakes. At Betfair SP, the picture is slightly less morose at 'just' -7.04%.

But perhaps when one says 'certainty' one has only the shorter priced jollies in mind. Overcoming the temptation to arbitrarily introduce a threshold, we can instead review the data as a whole. An interesting picture emerges...

The (small) group of horses sent off at odds-on were loss-making, to the tune of about 17.5% ROI. As brutal as that sounds, there were only 44 such horses in a four and a half year period; and the wider vista offers cause for optimism.

Specifically, it seems that profitability can be eked - and I do mean eked - up to a starting price of around 9/4. In ROI terms it's minimal, at 6.46% (£16.74 for level quids) on 259 bets, though some considerable way ahead of 'all favourites' in big fields.

This piqued my interest to take a look at the handicap/non-handicap split. I can report that the big field (16+ runners) handicap shorties (9/4 or less) performed better than their non-handicap counterparts, though unsurprisingly from a smallish sample of just 65 runners.

Because of the small sample size, I looked at the longer term dataset, and found that if one had...

- Bet the favourite at 9/4 or shorter in handicaps of 16+ runners would have done better than acceptably well. Looking at the above rule, and using the Betfair SP data I have from 2007 to the present, this approach would have yielded a profit of £37.33 at BSP (£29.33 at SP) on 209 bets, for an ROI of 22.63%.

NB Although 9/4 is a 'convenience cut off', the approach still operates at break even up to 10/3, so I'd be happy enough with this. (You can judge for yourself whether it works for you!)

True or False? TRUE

Late 2017 update: since 14th June 2015, when this post was first published, there have been another 35 short-priced (9/4 or lower) jollies in 16+ runner handicaps. 11 won, for a loss at SP of 3.73 points, and a negligible loss at BSP. If one loosened the odds filter to 10/3 as above, the story becomes more favourable (33 from 109, +7.43 at SP, +15.27 at BSP). Whilst one could accuse the writer of contrivance here - and you'd get little in the way of a defence! - the general point that short-priced favourites in big-field handicaps are a reasonable bet is maintained

Revised True or False? TRUE (just about)



This little exercise, which is hardly more than a bit of fun, has at least shone a dim beam on some of the more popular adages within the racing space.

We've seen that backing the outsider of three is no worse than harmless fun, and could yield a small profit. And that betting odds on in novice chases is unlikely to be the death knell for your ledger either. Caution is advised when backing fillies in form through the Summer (and it is simply bad practice to do this generally).

More materially, perhaps, we've learnt that backing the longest traveller is the shortest of our five ways to the poor house.

And we've unearthed the rudimentary basis of a profitable approach by betting big field handicap jollies up to around 3/1.

Inevitably, not all of the five maxims lend themselves to unequivocal investigation - after all, it is to some degree their vagueness that has sustained their popular credence over the years - so I've taken license and attempted to portray a broader array of situations which could lay claim to fitting the bill. Others will doubtless interpret some of the adages another way.

Regardless of how you interpret them, the key is to test that interpretation against a data source. It is, after all, never too late to stop losing money and/or start making a few quid from your wagering antics.

Hopefully this has put into context some of the more loosely bandied phrases that are part of the furniture of British racing punditry. The next time you hear these trite bites you'll at least have a bit of data ballast on which to rely: that's almost certainly more than the speaker has!