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How To Back “Impossible” Handicap Winners

Saint Helena winning wasn't a bit shock

Saint Helena winning wasn't a big shock...

Backing winners is about more than just horse form. As runners get more experience, and become more exposed, so they become more quantifiable in their own right. But for the first part of a horse's career the modus operandi of its trainer is often a more effective barometer of win probability than what a particular beast has achieved on the track.

In a country where 63% of races run under all codes are handicaps (12,615 of 19,969 in 2013 and 2014, up to 16th December) and, moreover one where the paucity of prize money relative to upkeep costs is among the lowest in the world, the ability to handicap a horse to win is almost a prerequisite for any right-thinking customer-facing trainer.

Clearly, the above paragraph won't sit easily in all quarters, but those who drive the race planning agenda - bookmakers, racecourses, the BHA, and the horseman's group - all have their hand on the knife which has carved this route to the winner's enclosure.

Like it or not, handicaps will remain the staple of British racing fare, unless or until an effective claiming system - and attitude to claiming races, and the fact that horses can actually be claimed (*gasp*) from such races - is introduced.

So that leaves us as punters with a choice: we either ignore all but top class races and exposed form handicaps, or we get smart to the rules of the game... and its finest exponents. This post is about bringing the reader up to speed (to some degree, at least) with the latter.

The Circumstances

The first thing to consider are the circumstances under which 'improvement' might be expected. Horses usually graduate to handicap ranks through either maiden races (flat) or novice races (jumps). These races accommodate horses of any and all abilities. So it was that, for example, in Frankel's maiden victory, as well as other Group 1 performers like Nathaniel and Colour Vision, there was also a horse called Castlemorris King.

Castlemorris King has a current flat rating of 66, which is very similar to the initial mark of 60 he was awarded in late September 2010 ahead of his first handicap. In fairness to Castlemorris King, he's a fair hurdling stick - rated 130-odd over obstacles - but he does serve to illustrate the 'all abilities under one race banner' point.

The same is true in novice hurdles, and in subsequent Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby's opening hurdle win a horse called Charles finished last. Charles went on to win a Class 5 handicap hurdle - when rated 90 - while Rock On Ruby achieved a career high rating of 170.

Incidentally, Charles won that event - his only win in a 15 race career - on his first run in a handicap. Which leads me nicely on to the point here...

Horses moving from maiden or novice - in other words, open - company to far more restricted ability races logically have a better chance of winning. If I'm racing against Usain Bolt over 60 metres, I'm going to get beaten out of sight. However, if I'm running in the dad's race at the school sports day, I... well, let's just say I won't get beaten quite so far!

Handicaps group together horses of relatively similar ability. When horses have run twenty times and more, that's easy enough. But when they've had the obligatory three runs in maiden/novice company, it's somewhat more of a jelly-nailing exercise for the assessors.

The issues facing those charged with allocating initial ratings are compounded by the system - a system where, as I've written, keeping at least some of one's ability powder dry is fundamental.

A trainer may disguise a horse's ability by any or all of the following:

- Running it over the wrong trip

- Running it on the wrong ground

- Running it when 85% fit

- Running it with (or without) headgear

- Running in a hotter than average maiden/novice

- Running on an unsatisfactory track

Examples of this happen every day, up and down the country, and it is utterly pointless a) thinking they don't, or b) getting even remotely upset or moralistic about it.

Why?

It is a professional game, and a lot of money is at stake even at the grass roots level of the sport. Prize funds that are currently comparable with 2008 against a cost of living now more than 25% dearer do not help the situation.

But let's face it. Even if prize money was twice as much, the game would go on. Maybe there would be less of it; maybe there wouldn't. As trainers and owners playing an expensive game, the job is to be the best you can within the rules of the game. Better yet, within the shaded edges of the rules of the game.

And if you think this is a game reserved for the training Potless Pete's, then consider this esteemed band: Sir Mark Prescott, Luca Cumani, Jonjo O'Neill. An Englishman, an Irishman, and an Italian, all towards the head of their peer group in performance terms, and all dab hands at the handicap plot/blot.

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Moreover, they undertake these machinations not for Potless Pete the owner, but for billionaires like JP McManus and Kirsten Rausing.

Why would a billionaire want to land a touch? Maybe to win a few quid - after all, you can never have enough quids - but more likely for the thrill of the sport; for the game.

We as punters need to get over any personal prejudices we have about such behaviour, for two related reasons. Firstly, it's plain stupid to perpetuate a cycle of whinging when the wool has ostensibly been pulled over one's peepers. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, etc.

And secondly, there's gold in them there hills... if we can be arsed to look for it. The good news is that, with a slight shift in focus, it's a lot easier to find a horse about to reveal significant improvement than it is to conjecture about the fractional gains which could make the difference in a field of exposed handicappers.

Who?

So let's take a hard look at the players. The guys and girls who know their business, and the parameters within which their business resides, and who do the best for their owners irrespective of the bill-payers' position on the net worth continuum.

I wrote about one such, Jim Best, previously. That post is here. In it, I showed that, far from being unfair to punters, Best is actually giving us highly likely winners if we choose to take them. The details in his approach - late jockey switches and all - are not to all tastes. Frankly, they're not to mine.

But the fact that he's used the EXACT same blueprint SEVEN times - and five times in the past eighteen months - means if we're on the wrong side of that punting fence, it's not sonny Jim's fault.

We live in an information age. If you're reading this, and you still choose to look at the little string of six digits, letters and punctuation points to the left of a horse's name to inform a wagering decision, you have absolutely no right to complain if Jim Best or anyone else bags a winner unbacked by you because you couldn't find a sequence of 1's, 2's and 3's in that sextet of symbolic nothingness.

Sites like racingpost.com and sportinglife.com shine a dim light on trainer patterns; while sites like geegeez.co.uk and timeform.com will blaze the interrogation lamp from time to time. And, as in this post, the good ones do it presciently rather than retrospectively.

This section - entitled  'Who?' - is a tricky one, mainly because, as I've said, any handler worth his/her fee will be capable of identifying opportunities for their owners. However, some are more adept than others, and keeping them on the right side will make you money.

Geegeez Gold, the premium part of this website, is a treasure trove of form shortcuts, one of which is a report called Trainer Handicap First Run (Code). Snappy the title may not be, but this little beauty does what it says, flagging those with excellent recent records when placing a horse in a handicap for the very first time:

An example of the excellent Handicap 1st Time report

An example of the excellent Handicap 1st Time report

 

When it comes to betting, why whinge when you can win? Isn't there as much joy in unravelling a trainer-based puzzle as there is in untangling a horse form head scratcher?

When?

The most likely time for a horse to show marked improvement is under markedly different conditions. Sounds obvious, right? So why do some of us keep ignoring it?! [Rhetorical. We both know it's because some of us are too lazy to look at the horse with the 000 form until after it's won ;-)].

Right, let's shortcut this.

1. Move from maiden/novice to handicap

Regardless of code - flat or jumps - for most horses outside of the top class, the best chance they will ever have to win a race is their first run in a handicap. That move from open company, against the Frankels and the Rock On Ruby's of their world, to the company of hairy brutes half a rung up the food chain from a Tesco slaughterhouse (figuratively speaking) is a huge opportunity.

Of course, some are simply destined to drop down that half a rung or, more enchantingly, be rehoused as pets. But many will suddenly step forward, in finishing position terms at least.

The easiest way to see if this is 'expected' is to check the geegeez.co.uk racecard (Gold users only, I'm afraid). An HC1 icon indicates first run in a handicap. Clicking the trainer form icon will then display that trainer's record with first time handicap starters in the previous two years:

In depth lowdown on a trainer's first time handicap record right in the racecard

In depth lowdown on a trainer's first time handicap record right in the racecard

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2. Step up (or occasionally down) in trip

If Usain Bolt ran over 800 metres, that boy would be puffing out of his pipe on the second lap. He's simply not designed for it. Likewise, if a son of Presenting rocks up in a six furlong sprint, he might just finish before the next race is ready to start. He too is likely not equipped for that sort of a speed test.

There are always genetic exceptions - triple Grand National winner Red Rum won a sprint as a two year old - but one cannot bet too much on such unlikely possibilities.

How can we know if a horse is likely to appreciate a change in trip? Click the TRAINER and SIRE icons on the geegeez.co.uk racecard:

Trainer AND Sire insights on distance movers

Trainer AND Sire insights on distance movers

 

In the image above, we can see both the trainer's record in the last two years with horses stepping up 25% or more on the flat (we also display the same for jumps horses stepping up 20% or more in trip), and the sire performance in the distance range.

In this example, we see that Kevin Ryan has a 25% strike rate (62.5% in the frame) when stepping horses up markedly in distance. We can also see that the sire, Frozen Power, has an overall two-year win rate of 7.54% (place 24.35%), but this improves to 11.03% win/ 26.62% place wihth middle distance flat horses. As such, Strummer might be expected to go better than a 20/1 shot, all other things being equal.

 

3. Change in the going

Knee action. You may or may not have heard of it. You may or may not be able to discern it when watching a horse canter to the start. In all honesty, you don't need - or kneed - to know about it. What you do need to know is whether a sire's progeny generally handle any change in underhoof conditions, either quicker or slower. This info can be found in a range of locations, including in Gold's Full Form Filter, my personal favourite (natch).

On the Full Form tab, click the 'Sire' button, and choose the 'Going' filter. Feel free to select a specific race type, periodicity and/or anything else you consider material.

At any rate, a first run in a handicap, especially when it coincides with a first run on significantly different ground than previously encountered, should set the ding-a-lings ringing.

 

4. Running after a layoff

Now here's a thing. A horse suddenly takes support having been off the track for two or three months. It had three runs close together before the break and they all culminated in duck eggs. How can he possibly win? Well, what if he'd been at the training equivalent of Butlin's around the time of those racecourse spins, and has since had two months hard labour in an equine Gulag? (Again, humour me, it's figurative prose).

Again, Gold's Trainer Snippets have this covered:

Most horses are at their fittest when the money's down. Go figure.

 

5. Headgear switch

Blinkers on. Blinkers off. Hood on. Visor. Eyeshields. Cheek pieces. If a horse has run a hundred times already - or even a dozen - the application of headgear may generally be seen as a sign of desperation. Unless it's the re-application of headgear, in which case it should be seen as a sign of an expectation of performance in line with the last time the equipment was added/removed.

Take a look at Discoverie's form overall, and then solely with today's headgear (second image below).

Discoverie: All Runs

Discoverie: Today's Headgear only

The hood is good, especially for keen-goers, so if a horse has pulled in those early runs and now gets a hood applied for its first handicap, it gets an extra point from me.

 

6. Combo la Bombo!

Any of the above is worth a second glance. Any combination of the above is worth a leisurely lingering third glance. Especially if it's 1. with any others.

 

Who? Part 2: The Specifics

I keep track of certain individuals under certain conditions in the Geegeez Tracker tool.

This is not just a game played by Potless Pete. And, as Jim Best's omission from my own list demonstrates, there are plenty more of these lads and lasses making it pay for those who pay them, and those who pay heed to them. It is your job to seek them out - believe me, once you're tuned it, it's not difficult!

 

Final Thoughts

We all know it  happens. Some accept handicap 'jobbing' as part of the game, and embrace it within their punting MO. Others resent it, and curse the actors rather than their own simplistic or partial methods when an apparently impossible punt is landed.

With early markets flagging 'springers' and a raft of tools (including our Trainer Handicap First Time report) able to trap similar patterns in trainer behaviour, there really is no excuse - time constraints aside - for allowing what can be very decent betting opportunities to pass you by. Even if you are hamstrung by time, it takes a few seconds to spot a curio in the betting market, and check for material differences in today's race conditions. And no more than 30 seconds to check our report.

Trip, ground, handicap first time, class drop. Easy to spot. If you're looking. But none are in the form string to the left of the nag's name. Readers are encouraged to ask their own questions where time allows. But, as a bare minimum, I hope this article serves to demonstrate that the seemingly esoteric manoeuvres of horsemen and women can be understood - at a high level anyway - and profited from by pretty much all of us.

Matt

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