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Five Perils of Punting from Racecard Information

Newspaper racecards haven't changed in 35 years!

Newspaper cards haven't changed in 35 years!

There are as many ways to choose a bet in a horse race as there are punters looking for a winner. And, while on any given day in any given race, any selection methodology can have a moment in the sun (or the icy tundra), over the long term some strategies inevitably play out better than others.

In this post, we'll consider the pitfalls of five of the more common 'racecard short cuts' to wager selection; and I'll highlight what I believe to be some more meaningful information which could be presented to punters as readily as the anachronisms that clutter the cards just now.

1. Last time out winner

Any horse racing bettor with more than a few weeks of exposure to the game may find themselves instinctively drawn to the short alphanumeric string to the left of a horse's name on the racecard. It is, in many ways, the ultimate lazy man's route to the bet window. But how do last day winners perform?

Looking, as we will for each of this quintet of snapshots, at the calendar years from 2012, and covering all codes in both Britain and Ireland, we can see that horses who won their most recent start went on to win again 7,898 times from 42,389 runs.

That works out at a pretty healthy 18.63% strike rate...

...but this most over-used of data snippets would have lost 7,061 points at SP, a negative return on investment (ROI) of 16.66%. That's exactly one pound in every six you invest... lost.

It will take a while to exhaust a betting bank this way, but exhaust it one inexorably will.

2. Beaten favourite

Still common on the racecard, the 'BF' symbol permeates many national newspapers and most on-course and online cards. The theory is that a horse considered good enough to have been market leader last time must have under-performed to have been defeated and, therefore, could be expected to bounce back today. So much for the theory...

Since 2012, there were 30,037 runners that were beaten as favourite (including joint- and co-favourites) last time. That group scored 5,297 times at an acceptable 17.63% clip; though for an unacceptable loss of 5,174 points.

In ROI terms, beaten favourites returned 17.23% less than was invested and performed slightly worse than last time out winners.

3. Course and distance winner

Denoted by the letters 'CD' on the card, this symbol tells the reader that a horse has won over today's distance at today's course (not to be confused with C D, the space reflecting that the win(s) over today's course was/were not also over the distance at today's course).

It helps punters to know that conditions are in the horse's favour, to the extent of the suitability of the piste and range at least. But...

A one point level staked 'investment' in every horse running in Britain and Ireland since 2012 with at least one prior course and distance victory would have meant an outlay of 38,018 points.

There were 5,015 horses able to reprise their CD win, a strike rate of 13.19% (just better than one in eight); and cumulatively they returned 30,253 points. That's a loss of 7,765 which is a whopping 20.43% negative ROI, and a rapid route to the potless fraternity.

4. Headgear

This one is less straightforward to compute, on the basis that headgear is a generic term for a number of accessories. They comprise blinkers, cheek pieces, visor, eye shield, tongue strap, and hood. Moreover, these accoutrements can be worn in combination as well as one at a time.

The below table, taken - like all the data in this post - from horseracebase, is instructive:

Effect of headgear on performance

Effect of headgear on performance

We can see that the best win strike rates were for horses who either wore no headgear, or only wore a hood. In fact, I can reveal that the non-headgear gang had the best win rate, at 10.875%, compared with the hood squad at 10.846%.

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However, it is far more material to consider returns on investment than strike rates, and here is where the hood rises above most of its fellow headgear options. A negative ROI of 21.86% is nasty, but not nearly as nasty as the excruciating 36.22% losses inflicted by use of the eye shield.

Eye shield wearers also scored at comfortably the lowest rate - 8.02% - and I can only assume these implements are akin to a minor torture device used for the sole purpose of favourably handicapping an animal.

[Note, I don't actually believe that wearing eye shields would cause a horse any harm, of course. But, please, allow a little poetic license in what is turning out to be a fairly arid exposé!]

The headline messages in the table are clear if conflicting:

1. Horses not wearing headgear win more often than horses wearing headgear

2. Horses not wearing headgear lose more money overall than horses wearing headgear

The reality of 20+% negative ROI's is that it is of only academic interest to work through the apparent paradoxes of the data. A separate analysis of headgear may follow in a subsequent post. For now, the management summary is that while headgear should not necessarily be considered an advantage, nor is it especially more disadvantageous in performance terms than those unadorned by workplace millinery.

5. The forecast favourite

The province of generally desperate 'need a winner' players, checking the forecast odds for the favourite is, unsurprisingly, not a smart play. As an example (because the forecast favourite will vary from racecard to racecard), backing the 'tissue jolly' from sportinglife.com in all UK/Irish races since 2012 would have garnered 12,259 winners from 43,404 bets. That's a 28.24% strike rate, better than one in four. So far so good...

But strike rate is only (the easy) part of the battle. The reality is that those 12,259 winners came at a cost of 5,619 points, a negative ROI of 12.95%.

Ouch.

5b. The Control: unnamed favourite

All of the above can be gleaned from the racecard, and all will lose religious followers stacks (not that anyone would back one or more of these religiously).

For comparison purposes, let's include the performance of unnamed favourites, including joint- or co-favourites. Since 2012, they've scored 15,785 times out of 47,683 bets, which equates to a strike rate of 33.1%. That's comfortably higher than any of the racecard snippets.

That one-in-three trip to the pay window will keep you in the game, but the ROI of -6.91% means it's just a slower, less painful, route to bankruptcy.

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Conclusions: The Status Quo

So where exactly does this leave us? The table below shows how each of the five racecard factoids measures up against the others, and against the control: unnamed favourite.

How racecard info measures up: not terribly well

How racecard info measures up: not terribly well

There are all sorts of inferences which can be drawn from that little table. The key pair are:

 - Consistently betting any 'obvious' racecard angle is punting suicide

 - Traditional racecards in Britain are no longer fit for purpose (unless you're a bookmaker)

In fairness, there is an intrinsic cause and effect relationship between those data which are most prominently presented to the market, and the market's voracious desire to subsume such knowledge into the available odds.

In plain English, the most clearly displayed information is the most over-bet information.

Conclusions: The Future

What then can the time-pressed punter do to keep herself in front of the masses, and the market? Clearly, the crucial point is to NOT do what everyone else is doing. That's all well and good, but it would be immeasurably more helpful to understand what to do, rather than what not to do.

Below are a couple of suggestions that ought to sway the balance of probabilities more in your favour:

1. We now know what not to do. So... train yourself to ignore the form string to the left of a horse's name; the betting forecast; and, any letters/symbols on the racecard. Better yet, ignore the actual card itself* and instead focus on whatever form content is included alongside the list of runners and riders.

[*unless it's a Geegeez Gold racecard 😉 ]

You'll be genuinely amazed at how (relatively) easy it is to isolate value when you trust yourself rather than relying on some numbers thunk up by someone else.

2. Look for readily digestible data which is not in the mainstream public domain. Specialist racecard and form services are relatively commonplace, and there are some very good ones out there. Not least of which, naturally, is Geegeez Gold. Our racecards have additional, meaningful, symbols, such as (four different) trainer and jockey form indicators; and flags for horses running for a new trainer (TC) and/or in a handicap for the first time (HC1).

Clicking on the TC or HC1 indicators opens a report from which you can review the trainer's form (and all others with similar sorts running today) in that context over the past year, two years, five years, or at the course in the past five years.

These are often golden nuggets and, importantly, they're not known to the vast majority of the punting population. Here's a quick example from the 7.15 Uttoxeter tonight, which will hopefully win (all the best examples win!)

We know trainer and jockey are in form, and horse debuts for trainer...

We know trainer and jockey are in form, and horse debuts for trainer...

Regal Park has form figures of P4P2P/ over jumps. Punters whose first port of call is that data string would leave this fellow well alone. However, he has his first run for Dr Richard Newland this time, and that gives reason to be more optimistic.

We can see (click the image to make it bigger if you're struggling to see) from the trainer form indicators that Dr Newland has the full set of four: two recent form ticks (14 30), and two longer term course form ticks (C1 C09+). Jockey Will Kennedy is also in top recent fettle.

Note as well the TC to the right of Regal Park's name. As I've written, that denotes a change of trainer since last time. So what?, is a perfect legitimate response. Well, let's click the TC and find out [click the image to open it full size in a new window]:

Hmm, this trainer can really improve a horse...

Hmm, this trainer can really improve a horse...

The good Dr Newland has taken charge of 26 second (or more) hand equines in the past two years, and he's won with eleven of them. That's a 42% strike rate. Moreover, the ledger shows a positive balance of 12.51 points at starting price. Taking early BOG prices or BSP would further embellish his already lustrous punting appeal.

It takes me - and anyone else who employs this gen - less than two minutes, literally, to compile this info. That's because I normally take the 'top down' route first: I check the Trainer Change report against my filter settings, and look more closely at horses that fit well.

Win or lose, Regal Park can be expected to step forward on what he's shown historically on the basis that his trainer has shown himself to be able to improve most of the horses he takes into his care. As well as improving them, his record screams of an ability to place those horses optimally.

He was 10/3 with Paddy when I wrote this at 10.40pm Monday night, and for those who can avail of best odds concessions, that will be the worst price you'll get (Rule 4's notwithstanding). Anyway, the point of the example is not to tip especially, but rather to highlight a simple route to finding useful information on the racecard, something that is all but extinct in most of the mainstream digital media and in all printed newspapers.

[STOP PRESS: Regal Park bolted up at 9/4. The Racing Post said "he ended up winning with any amount in hand".]

Now it's over to you: How do you read the racecard? Which elements do you look at first/most? More importantly, what information would you like to see displayed on the card?

Leave a comment below, and let us know.

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