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Dealing with Non-Triers

The Non-Triers

The Non-Triers

The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, June 5th – The Non-Triers

Recent weeks have been black for racing with a high-profile corruption case and the Al Zarooni/Sungate steroid scandal; the latter is certainly the darker cloud at present and there remains a strong suspicion we’re nowhere near the bottom of it yet. This column aims however at the punting angle and I have to admit to being clueless as how to apply anything relating to drugs to playing the horses.

Non-triers are another thing entirely however and I have strong feelings on the issue and how it applies to the average punter; by average punter I mean a punter without access to any sort of inside info.

The verdicts released by the BHA in the aftermath of these corruption cases always make for fascinating reading and one was struck by the amateur nature of the whole Ahern/Clement conspiracy. Though not quite so lax as the methods applied by Andrew Heffernan/Michael Chopra earlier in the year, here was a pair that were in contact via their own mobile phones and were laying horses through their own (or their wife’s ) exchange accounts.

There are those that would say that Betfair and the other exchanges have a lot to answer for and that problems with non-triers increased when punters, and not solely licensed bookmakers, could lay horses to lose. I couldn’t disagree more. Firstly, why is it that just a coterie of high-fliers (bookmakers and their friends) could lay a horse in the past? I’m for equality in all its forms and the exchanges provide a service and saw a niche in the market that was previously unfilled.

One is reminded of the ending of the film Trainspotting where Renton steals the drug money and says that his ‘friend’ Sick-Boy would have done just the same if only he’d thought of it sooner, a sentiment that applies to all the big bookmaking firms in terms of the exchange model. Not only that but the likes of Betfair have provided the BHA with the sort of information into the activities of corrupt individuals that was previously inaccessible.

When going through the details of such cases, one cannot help but feel that there are much more sophisticated operations at work that the authorities are struggling to get to grips with. Surely the real villains at work at a higher level are applying more smoke to their machinations using a complex series of mirrors with mobile phones that leave those at the centre unconnected from the dirty work as well as a host of ghost exchange accounts that cannot be traced back to the main participants?

At the very least, laying all the bets through a single account, often to figures exponentially larger than the average stake on the account, seems amateurish. Though speaking hypothetically, one would like to think that anyone with any more than rudimentary knowledge of how betting markets and ‘getting on’ works would be able to make a better stab at laying non-triers than some of those convicted by the BHA.

Interesting, and frightening, as such speculation may be, the average punter needs to ask: do you want to be dealing with these sorts of crooks? Or would you prefer to back proper trainers and proper owners whose campaigning of horses is largely straight and whose formbook cases you can trust? The corrupt connections are people who would stop at nothing to make a profit and trying to second-guess them is risky in the extreme.

We often hear stories, possibly apocryphal though some ring true, of owners laying a horse out for a touch, missing the price because others punters got on ahead of them, and then stopping the animal because they didn’t get on despite it being initially well-intended.

One of the big problems with the whole spotting of non-triers is that it’s just so intangible; one only needs to look at the BHA’s use of expert witnesses and their study of races to see how difficult it can be to prove that one hasn’t been trying. Recalling the Heffernan/Chopra case from early 2013, it was interesting to note that the panel ‘was not able to say one way or the other’ whether the loss of ground at the start by one of the stopped horses, Wanchai Whisper, was caused by the jockey.

Even in this most open-and-shut of cases, it was hard to call and it is easy to see how difficult it would be to spot, much less prove, that a more sophisticated operation was cheating. Comparing the ride given to a horse on different days, perhaps with a mind to market moves either positive or negative, is one way to go – the panel applied this method with reference to Wanchai Whisper – but it is hardly bombproof.

Picking out one that isn’t ‘off’ is not a task for the beginning punter as there are so many complications. Is a horse being given an easy time because it’s ungenuine and finds little off the bridle? Is it being stopped or simply getting a bad ride? It is worth remembering that many jockeys, even the best, give incompetent rides. And there are so many ways to stiff a horse: go off too hard in front like Ahern; drop one out off a slow pace; use up energy by making a mid-race move; no effort from the saddle; intentionally missing the break; riding into traffic; even changing a horse’s habitual tactics, say by dropping a front-runner out in rear could be enough.

And that’s not even to mention all the stuff that could be happening on the gallops pre-racing as well as the basic things like running a horse over the wrong trip or on the wrong ground.

Gamblers need to ask themselves what sort of punter they are and for the average punter the answer has to be a form-based player who makes up their own mind by whatever means possible. The inside information the normal punter unconnected with a horse can get will invariably be second-, third- or fourth-hand and by this stage it will be largely useless as they’ll have missed the price.

Instead of taking the whole inside information route and buying into every conspiracy theory going, the typical gambler would be better served to dispatch with the paranoia and assume that the game is straight, applying logic to his selections, an issue I’ll explore in more detail below.

The Punting Confessional , Wednesday, June 12th

Last week I looked at some ideas around non-triers and inside information and before exploring the issue further it’s worth mentioning a couple of tweets I received on the subject since. Declan Meagher (@declanmeagher76), an Irish professional gambler, mentioned that it is only the ‘dunces’ who get caught and I can’t think of a better way of describing them.

I also asked Kristian Strangeway (@KoosRacingClub), syndicate manager for Koo’s Racing Club, where he stands on assessing non-triers in his punting and he responded ‘depends on the race type really, but I don’t overly worry about it. If you spot an obvious one they get overbet anyway.’ Short and sweet, but also accurate and I couldn’t agree more.

One of the errors made by punters is to believe that only the insiders can win, that there is some sort of golden circle that have access to the information that will lead to punting nirvana. I’m reminded of a day at the Curragh in August 2011 when I backed a Bill Farrell mare called Sharisse in a six furlong handicap.

The case for the horse was simple: the trainer (at the time underrated by the market but not so much now) loved a winner at the track, the mare won a good handicap over the same course the previous June and was just 7lbs higher, she had shaped well in a listed race last time on her first run of the season. She won and directly after the race I spoke to a punter beside me who had also been cheering her home.

He went on to tell me that he’d backed the horse because Gary O’Brien of attheraces had put it up and O’Brien had access to all the right information because he spent time the sauna of some Kildare hotel with all the jockeys beforehand. Leaving aside any homo-erotic thoughts for a moment, and without wishing to cast any aspersions on O’Brien’s tipping as he’s an excellent judge, this is just the sort of faulty thinking that has punters beaten before they start. While O’Brien may well have access to much more information than the average punter (and there is no way we can ever get that information lest we rise the ranks of the racing media), his presentations on TV and the attheraces website reveal a diligent form student who puts in the work like any other sensible gambler.

Without wishing this to turn into one long anecdotal piece, I’m reminded of a recent Racing UK interview with Alex Ferguson. Apart from all the obvious fawning, the former manager made a great point about what he admired most in trainers of racehorses, their capacity for hard work, pointing out that it is a talent it and of itself that is all too often undervalued in the modern world, something punters would do well to remember.

All this privileging of inside information works off the belief that trainers and connections are all-powerful whereas in reality they’re just as fallible as the rest of us; one only need to look at Aidan O’Brien, widely regarded as the best trainer in these islands, and how he believes that Camelot is the best horse he has ever trained despite all the evidence to the contrary. That’s an extreme example, and one to be taken with a pinch of salt given the bloodstock concerns with the horse, but it shows how even the best can get it badly wrong.

Just because a horse is working well does not mean it will translate to the track and quite often punters are best backing horses that reserve their best for race-day. Even if the horse does produce its best on the day, a better-treated rival from another yard may do the same or any number of other things may go wrong.

One also needs to think about how the market reacts to plot horses and inside information. We have to accept that we don’t know connections’ staking patterns; some may back in the morning, some may wait until the off, some may want €500 on, others €50,000, some may not even want to punt it. A punter can get some sense of how a yard may play the market over time but it is very much a skill for the experienced gambler and even the best market reader is bound to get it wrong plenty of the time.

There is also a herd mentality at play with punters piling into a horse that may not even be fancied (which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be backed by the way) but experience can at least go some way to revealing the difference between meaningful and meaningless market moves.

A lot has been written in the last year or so about how accurate the market has become and that sometimes one would be better having more on a horse when the money comes for it than if not. I can’t help but feel there’s an element of confirmation bias at play, a tendency to favour information that supports their belief, i.e. remembering the gambles that won and ignoring those that lost.

Over time, I can’t see how this approach can pay as you’re backing horses at shorter prices than you think they should be and any sort of sensible value betting approach means one should be having more on a drifter.

In the main, I want to be against gambling yards, stroke horses and dodgy owners. It’s much better to be with proper trainers that a playing with a straight bat and while acknowledging that all yards are to one extent or other gambling yards, there are certainly those that pull strokes more often than others. Such stables often have their charges overbet, whether strongly fancied or not, and I like to be against them as a rule as they often leave the other runners underbet and get beaten often enough to make it pay. These trainers prefer to make the crooked pound over the straight pound but there are many more that opt for the latter approach.

This brings me on to one of my great pet hates in racing, the idea that Irish racing is bent. It’s probably fair to say that this is the perception abroad amongst the betting shop masses and also I might add among bookmakers, who much to my chagrin are reluctant to lay a semi-civilised bet to a form-based Irish punter as they seem to believe it’s all hooky. As someone who watches a lot of Irish racing, nothing could be further from the truth and I feel I have to stand up for it.

Irish racing has excellent prize-money (in contrast to Britain for instance) which maintains a fair level of integrity and while the authorities have been slipshod in their policing of the sport with a number of recent integrity budget cuts, the natural competition between those involved means that it’s pretty straight. Those that point to gambles and touches being landed would do well to remember that it is possible to get an edge on Irish racing because it is not as well-analysed as its English equivalent; there is a smaller pool of horses and fewer punters playing so it is much easier to move a market with little money.

I’ll close with a question that every punter needs to ask themselves: where do you stand morally on non-triers? I find it a difficult one to answer and can’t give a full answer. They’re a fact of life for any racing follower and expecting it to change is foolish. They happen a lot less than people think but it doesn’t make them right. And never forget some perspective, there are a lot worse things going on.

Opposing Bad Favourites

The Power of the Negative

The Power of the Negative

The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, May 15th – The Power of the Negative

Probably the best book I’ve read in the past few years had nothing to do with gambling. In ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’, The Guardian’s psychology correspondent Oliver Burkeman dissects what he calls the ‘cult of optimism’ and puts forward the idea that many popular ideas about happiness, success and goals are flawed and indeed aiming for such things can lead to anything but.

For Burkeman, positive thinking is wildly overvalued by modern society, much as things like reputation and jockeys are overrated in betting markets. In place of all this optimism, Burkeman argues in favour of the negative with many fascinating ideas such as awareness of mortality, acceptance of failure, the dangers of goal-setting, non-attachment, imagining worst-case scenarios, stoicism, living in the now and allowing for uncertainty and fear. Some, if not all, of these ideas apply to gambling and this week and next I’ll look at them as well as some of my own thoughts on the power of the negative.

Let’s begin with what my idea of negativity isn’t. It is most certainly not the acceptance by the mug punter (or society at large for that matter) that the bookies always win and there is no such thing as a winning gambler. These are the sentiments of the betting shop loser, the punters who fall into all the stereotypical traps available: they punt only with one bookmaker, having brand loyalty despite a bigger price being available across the road or on another website; they follow stupid systems in the hope of getting rich quick; they believe the hype when a jockey or trainer or some other insider says ‘it’s the best horse I’ve ever ridden or trained’; they love the thrill of inside information and eschew the formbook over the head of it.

Instead, my idea of negative is more like healthy scepticism, perhaps even edging towards cynicism, the cliché about believing little of what you hear and judging with your own eyes has truth in it. I suspect the good punter is the negative punter, the one who sees the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. An outsider might think that racing would be filled with pessimism; most horses never make it to the racetrack, never mind win a race; injuries and setbacks are a feature of the game; at a most basic level, there can only be one winner in a race so most connections leave the track disappointed.

Yet, like the rest of the modern world, the cult of optimism reigns in racing; punters always think the big payday is just around the corner and it’s the same with owners, trainers and jockeys. Perhaps it is living on this dream that sustains them but as a gambler it might be best to think otherwise.

I acknowledge that is it not easy to be a pessimist in racing as optimism is everywhere. One need only open the trade paper or the racing pages of any of the dailies to see that the coverage of the sport is particularly toothless though there are some exceptions. The Monday Jury, where the Racing Post poses questions to jockeys, trainers and analysts in light of what unfolded on track over the previous seven days is a good example; the questions are invariably met with positive responses, with nary a semblance of doubt never mind criticism.

A negative (or perhaps realistic would be a better word) opinion is rarely ventured in racing journalism, and it is easy to see why; the racing correspondent relies on the co-operation of jockeys and trainers for their copy and to criticise would be seen as spitting in the soup. It is similar with jockeys criticising trainers or horses as it is the former upon whom he relies on for employment. All this is understandable – the dole queue is an unpleasant place – but as punters who want to turn a profit or at least grasp what is going on properly, we need to work against it.

Perhaps the best example where optimism overcomes pessimism in a disadvantageous way for punters is the ungenuine horse or, put it succinctly, the dog. Charitable types will say that such an animal doesn’t exist or at worst they are suffering from some sort of physical issue – I hope these forgiving kinds are the same with the people in their lives – but for me there are simply some horses that don’t win as frequently as their form entitles them to.

This is not to say that they don’t win as even a broken clock is right twice a day and sometimes circumstances conspire that a dodge cannot but win; the opposition is useless, they find themselves in front before they know it, the pace collapses. But keeping an eye out for those that show temperament, be it awkward head carriage, tail swishing, hanging, finishing weakly or even a poor win/run ratio is one of the best applications of the value of negativity in racing; such horses invariably run well without winning and take up too much of the market on their starts.

One of the central cogs in Burkeman’s wheel of negativity is certainty, or more accurately, our excessive desire for certainty and security. So much do we long for both these things that we are willing to accept even the illusion of such; his example of airport security as a glorified piece of theatre that is unlikely to protect us from a determined terrorist attack is a master-class in logic. I suspect a similar mind-set is at play when punters love backing horses at short prices; even the language is the same, such runners often described as a ‘certainty.’ This applies across the gambling board from the myth of the Cheltenham banker to putting short-priced runners together in accumulators despite much of the evidence about successful punting suggesting that playing away from the head of the market is the way to go.

Two most successful tipping services around are Pricewise and Hugh Taylor and both excel at the back-end of the market and there is nothing surer that if you back every favourite over time, you will lose in the long-term. No more than in life, there is no security or certainty in gambling and instead of looking for it, we should turn away from it and be willing to take a risk. Fear of failure is something that troubles us all but by acknowledging it and taking the chance anyway we may make a success of it, whatever success may be.

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The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, May 22nd – The Power of the Negative (part 2)

If asked who my favourite horse is, I wouldn’t reply Frankel, Sea The Stars or even Wrekin Rock (a Jim Gorman-trained handicapper who landed me a nice few quid at a Curragh May Bank Holiday meeting a few years back; you had to be there). Instead, my all-time great horse is the bad favourite.

A rising tide lifts all boats and having a runner that is too short at the head of the betting can make a number of its rivals overpriced. Punters have to differentiate between a bad favourite in an absolute sense, i.e. one that almost cannot win the race and would need to be a massive price for one to even consider backing it, or one that you have to be against at the price.

We saw a good example of the latter in the shape of Declaration Of War in the Lockinge at the weekend where he was simply too short at 5/4 for what he had achieved on the track; had the same horse been 8/1 off the back of a good reappearance win and quality connections then he likely would have been a strong bet. In terms of absolute bad favourites, one stands out from recent years and that is Wonder Of Wonders in the 2011 Irish Oaks.

Here was a filly that finished second in the Epsom Oaks but had shown attitude in her previous starts and to my eyes there was little chance of her winning as he was going to throw victory in no matter the circumstances, a trait she further revealed next time in the Yorkshire Oaks.

As punters, we need to be careful about becoming too attached to horses and a version of the Buddhist belief of non-attachment is worth applying here; this concept, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective.’

If we become overly attached to a horse we can follow it off a cliff and hardly allow it run without a bet; instead a preferable situation would be to attach ourselves to the idea of a good bet rather than a good horse.

Having a negative view as a way into a race is a good place to start, whether it is a doubt about a fancied horse’s stamina, ability to handle the ground, form or whatever. We hear trainers – Paul Nicholls being one – talk about silencing the doubters but in truth it is doubt that makes in the odds. Of course, positive angles into races work well too – there are few better approaches than finding a well-handicapped horse as they must go close, all things being equal – but doubting a horse or a form line can provide an edge.

Just because a handicap has been strong down the years does not mean it will be the same this and not all group races are equal; there is a logic to race standardisation where one expects a certain level of performance will be needed for victory but there are times when a race is much worse than it should be. A good recent example of this would be the Tetrarch Stakes at the Curragh won by Sruthan in a Racing Post Rating of 108 whereas in reality he probably had to run to little better than 95 to win; it was a listed race in name only.

Another area where punters can utilise the power of the negative is in imagining worst-case scenarios. Again, Burkeman’s The Antidote (as mentioned last week) is informative and his quotation from JK Rowling’s speech on receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard in June 2008 is illuminating; in it she speaks of benefits of failure and what it can teach us. For her, prior to the success of the Harry Potter books, she was the biggest failure she knew yet she was still alive, in many ways living out the worst-case scenario she had imagined in her youth. The point here is that the worst had happened, all her horrible imaginings realised, but failure hadn’t killed her.

Such an approach needs to be modified for punting – I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to take this as advice to punt you brains out, find yourself in massive debt yet realise you’re still alive – but when gambling it is probably worth realising what one can lose should everything go wrong. A punter doesn’t have to be comfortable with this (no one likes losing) but it should be bearable and if it isn’t then it is time for a rethink. Planning stakes and realising all that can go wrong rather than just pottering along hoping for the best could be a worthwhile exercise.

In terms of the ideal punting mentality, I often think a sort of stoicism, where life’s slings and arrows produce a somewhat indifferent response, comes close to what is needed. This is best exemplified by someone like Hugh Taylor who whenever he is interviewed about the quality or otherwise of his selections The Form Factor, seems never to be excited one way or the other.

If things are going well, he will remind the presenter of the bunch of donkeys he tipped the previous month whereas if results have swung against him, he will talk about sticking to the process that has worked for him in the past. The game is filled with highs and lows and if one allows themselves to get too drawn into one or the other, it can end badly.

The very nature of racing seems concentrated on the future; barely is one race over than everyone wants to know where the horse is going next. So it was with Dawn Approach’s Derby bid after the Guineas and we can spend our lives wishing away the jumps season by giving too much emphasis to the Cheltenham Festival. All anyone has at any time is the moment they are in and this living in the now is certainly an idea that can be applied to racing; perhaps we should enjoy our punting wins as they are and live with the failures rather than trying to move on quickly to the next race.

The now of racing is invariably made up of more mundane racing and instead of spending so much time focussing on the bigger meetings we could be better served by trying to find an edge on the much less analysed day-to-day racing.

Finally, and bizarrely, let’s finish with goals. Modern society is obsessed with goals, with the general tenor of much of ideology behind it preaching that a person cannot get anywhere without goals. The most famous of all studies on the subject is the Harvard Goal Study where a group of students were surveyed about goals they had before leaving college and the small percentage that had written aims ended up achieving much more than the rest of the students put together.

The results of the study are often wheeled out as proof of the benefit of goals but no proof of it was ever found and it likely never happened.

Punters have to be careful with goals, particularly where the goal becomes the only thing; I’m thinking particularly here of profit targets. One has to be wary of achieving a pyrrhic victory in that profits may be realised but the expense may be too great; like a marathon runner who is so dogged in lasting the distance but injures themselves in the process, the punter has to watch the personal cost of aiming for (too much) profit.

Sometimes focussing on the process rather than the outcome is the way to go.

Punting Confessional: Away from the limelight…

Away from the limelight...

Away from the limelight...

The Punting Confessional – May 8th, 2013

Looking at trainers over the past two weeks, I focussed mainly on the bigger yards and how they carry out their operations; let’s now turn our attentions to the less known yards.

One punting angle that stands the test of time is grabbing onto the coattails of a trainer on the up whose prowess is as yet not reflected by the market. Racing is the sort of sport where hope is always in plentiful supply and many a young man or woman who knows how to put a horse’s head through a bridle will harbour dreams of training a big winner or even a winner at all.

There are always new trainers coming on the scene, some of whom will make the grade, most of who won’t.Why some succeed and others fail is a question as old as man but suffice to say we all know successes and failures (and everything in between) in other walks of life.

Yet punters are creatures of habit, often reluctant to part with their hard-earned on an unfamiliar name on a racecard or in a newspaper, preferring the comfort of the recognisable. Breaking this habit is a way to profit and finding a trainer that does well with limited sources can provide an edge on the market; while such trainers may lack the experience to handle a really top-class horse well, a point I alluded to in last week’s piece and in reality the chances of them getting a talented type without big-spending owners is slim, they tend to get the best out of middle-of-the-road horses in need of individual attention where the same sort of animal would be lost in the ruck of a bigger yard.

In Ireland at present a few names stand out in this regard. Andy Oliver is becoming quite well-known at this point so the edge may be going off his runners but the fact that he trains away from the main training centres in Co. Tyrone means the dogs aren’t barking about his horses and he does well across a number of categories, winning a few notable pattern juvenile races in 2012 and achieving success with cheap buys, both unraced horses and ones that have been in training.

Damian English has only been training since 2011 but things have really taken off in the last 12 months with the improvement of the seemingly limited Cash Or Casualty (gone up 24lbs since this time last year) the standout in his career; his All Ablaze is a 3yo to watch this year over five furlongs. At an even lower level, Miss Claire Simpson seems to know what to do with very limited resources; she had Enigma Code for one race this winter and it won while she even knocked a flat win out of the 10yo Head Waiter at Leopardstown last month.

The antithesis of the trainer on the up is the handler that is dining out on past glories, the old boy who is living on a reputation and just isn’t getting the horses he used to. Oftentimes however, this reality is not reflected by the market. Racing is a sport that is fluid and transient and in many cases you are only as good as your last season and punters should be ruthless in selecting their bets and avoid yards that have gone cold despite the winners they may have provided in the past. As to why they have gone bad, ours is not to reason why; there is an endless list of possible reasons from personal issues to owners moving on to getting the virus to losing a key member of staff.

Arthur Moore is probably the best example of this in Ireland, the esteem which is held in not being reflected in his strike-rate. Be careful however not to consign a trainer to the scrap-heap on a whim and I think some have done this with Kevin Prendergast on the flat this season especially in light of Declan McDonogh leaving the yard to join John Oxx; Prendergast is still capable and his runners seems a bit underestimated this year albeit that they’re not winning the number of races they have in the past.

There is of course a cohort of trainers that have never been any good at their job and are worthy of being viewed as an instant downgrade to a horse’s chance, low percentage trainers that make mistakes over and over again. Whether it is putting a horse in a race that it can’t win, consistently running horses on the wrong ground and/or trip, being unable to keep a horse in form for anything more than a couple of races, if there are errors to be made, they will find a way of making them and they will keep making them. You need a pretty good reason or a pretty good price to back horses from such yards.

At the moment, I’d include the likes of Tom Hogan, Tom McCourt and Philip Rothwell on my negative list but these can change – Tom Mullins (the name Tom seems to be a problem for whatever reason) has improved markedly in recent years, having a winner at the last two Cheltenham Festivals – and it’s worth repeating that anyone can train a limited horse but you need a little more juice in the price when backing one from a bad yard and they’re probably worth opposing when a short price. It’s also worth paraphrasing a point from Davidowitz’s book again here; bad trainers tend to be bad punters too so money for one of their runners can lead to the other horses in the race becoming value.

Do not make the mistake however of thinking that all low-percentage trainers are bad trainers as some do well in certain circumstances. Many would say Harry Rogers and Jim Gorman are poor trainers and perhaps the numbers support this but over the years I have made money backing their horses because they tend to be disrespected by the market; for whatever reason, they tend not to be backed. With middle-of-the-road handicappers, both are competent, something the market doesn’t reflect.

Finally, a word on a relatively new phenomenon, stable switches. This seems to be happening a lot more frequently than in the past with the most glaring example being the improvement of runners from other stables when moved to Willie Mullins. Owners are becoming wise to this and how it can turn a horse’s career around but I still think they don’t do it anywhere near often enough; loyalty and personal attachment to yard holds too much sway and if you think about it, you wouldn’t keep returning to a mechanic if he kept messing up your car, so why would you do the same with your horse and a trainer?

When a horse moves yards, it’s worth keeping a very open mind as sometimes they become a totally different animal, as seen in Paul Nicholls’ handling of Tidal Bay, who went from being a jade with Howard Johnson to returning to his high-class form both over hurdles and fences. Sometimes, the oddsmakers place too much emphasis on what went on prior to the switch, information that can become redundant following the move.

Punting Confessional: The trainer’s role.

The Trainer's Role

The Trainer's Role

The Punting Confessional – May 1st 2013

To continue last week’s discussion of the role of the trainer as a punting angle, it’s probably fair to say that the bigger names are doing an entirely different job to those at the bottom end of racing’s food-chain; the top yards have the luxury of long-term planning and aiming their horses at targets often months in advance whereas for those with lesser animals it’s more a case of run them when they’re fit and any sense of sort of strategy will be on a much smaller scale.

One tried-and-tested method of the bigger yards is the prep race, an approach that in general doesn’t apply with a lowly handicapper with the possible exception of their seasonal return. Particularly on the flat, where all that matters is that a stallion prospect wins its Group 1 in order to boost potential breeding income in the future, top horses can meet with defeat in a prep race in a lesser group contest; the horse may be the most talented runner in the field but not hit its peak on the day and punters need to be wise to this, especially in the early part of the season.

Aidan O’Brien is certainly one that takes this approach, tending to leave plenty to work on for debut, and so too does Michael Stoute; I’m thinking particularly of the improvement Stoute garnered from Workforce between his run in the Dante and his record-breaking Derby win in 2010.

Should you wish to read more on these sorts of ideas and the role of the trainer in general, Chapter 8 in Steve Davidowitz’s excellent ‘Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century’ called ‘The Trainer’s Window’ is worth looking up with perhaps the most interesting line of all in the section coming from the American trainer Jerry Hollendorfer: ‘Every race takes something out of a horse, or puts something into him.’

There’s so much in that simple phrase and I think it is something that bigger trainers really grasp in their use of prep races as a means to an end whereas often the smaller trainer, perhaps less experienced with a good horse, fails to understand, asking their potentially decent sort to do too much too soon.

That said, this idea of over-facing a horse, i.e. fast-tracking it into a class of race that can be beyond it too early, can happen to the best of trainers, even someone like Willie Mullins in his handling of Mikael D’Haguenet. Anyone who watched him lumber over his fences at Punchestown Saturday just gone would have seen a horse that was a shadow of the 2009 Neptune winner, an unbeaten novice season that included three Grade 1 wins.

I suspect the key to his downfall was his fall on chasing debut in the 2010 Drinmore as he hasn’t looked the same horse since and surely starting his career over fences in an ordinary novice, especially as he was coming off an injury, would have a been a better approach? Such are the decisions upon which a racing career can hang though Mullins has many more success stories than sob stories.

The bigger trainers understandably attract more attention in the media than the lesser ones but punters need to be careful of those that are particularly media-friendly as their runners are often overbet. Just because a trainer is good for a quote and might be the sort of person to go for a pint with does not mean one should back their horses and in general the runners from lower profile yards tend to be underestimated by the market.

A few years back Nick Mordin conducted a study that revealed the number of column inches received by a horse (or in this case mentions in the Racing Post database) was directly linked to their market position in subsequent big races which backs up my belief that runners from media-friendly trainers tend to be underpriced; instead, punters would be better to focus on lower profile handlers. In Ireland the best example of a trainer that talks bigger than he actually is would be Paul Nolan as his strike-rate shows him to be no better than mediocre.

Noel Meade is another beloved of the press-pack – indeed he seems a genuinely nice guy and is certainly forgiving seen has he’s put up with the antics of Paul Carberry down the years – but his runners are often shockingly short in the betting and he is someone I would find extremely difficult to make pay.

I wrote last week about becoming aware of a trainer’s patterns with their horses and how they like to win their races but it could be argued that losing patterns are at least as important; there is no trainer that excels in every field, just like there is no human that does the same, as anyone who has seen me attempt to either sing or dance would attest. Again, Meade is a good example with his record at the Cheltenham Festival throughout his career; for whatever reason, perhaps that he trains his horses for early season targets, his runners just do not perform in the key four days of March.

This is by no means a personal attack on Meade, or indeed any trainer; I am merely pointing out that they all have flaws and one can go broke backing a trainer in races they struggle to compete in.

To conclude, I’ll go back to Davidowitz’s book for perhaps the best idea with trainers, the niche angle. In a short chapter called ‘The Money Tree’ he writes about an obscure trainer called Glenn Smith whose overall figures were poor but had a sixty per cent strike-rate with first-time starters and absentees, despite their workouts showing no sign of form. This sort of angle is something that will dip under the radar of most punters and if you can cotton on to one then you too could have a found a money tree.

As to a couple for Ireland: always note Bill Farrell’s runners in Curragh handicaps as the trainer excels with aiming his best horses (which admittedly would be viewed as limited by most other handlers) at races there; in the midst of the Weld hegemony at the Galway Festival, respect Kevin Prendergast horses in the big mile handicap on the Tuesday and the equivalent seven furlong race on Saturday; he may not aim good maidens at the track but his record in those races in enviable, with Vastonea adding to it last year.

Trainer Patterns

Creatures of Habit

Creatures of Habit

The Punting Confessional – April 24th, 2013

In the equine/human equation that makes up any horse race, the animal is always the most important factor; their talent, much more so than any preference for ground, trip or otherwise reigns supreme. Of the Homo Sapiens involved however, the trainer is the vital person, more so than the jockey, an oft-overbet angle; one only need look at the amount of time spent by the respective roles with the horse, the trainer and his staff taking care of the beast night and day, the jockey (in most cases), appearing on its back for a matter of minutes.

The trainer plays a role in the horse’s condition as well as the selection of its races and in this article and next week’s follow-up I will look at some angles on trainers.

I abhor clichés but the idea of leopards never changing their spots has lots of truth when dealing with trainers; they are the great creatures of habit in racing. Some trainers are capable in some areas but not others and recognising these is a way to punting success. Knowing a trainer’s strengths and weaknesses is important as is not getting them confused.

Take David Marnane as an example, a relatively new trainer I respect. Marnane excels with his raiders in Dubai and the big English handicaps with Elleval the most recent example in Meydan this spring. On the day-to-day Irish handicaps however, where I do much of my betting, the Bansha trainer is not so good but the market is often framed around his ability in a totally different type of race.

Why this is so, I’m not sure. Perhaps English odds compilers and layers are guilty of availability bias and overvaluing events that happen in their own jurisdiction or maybe it is just the draw of familiar name in the midst of a field on unknown handlers with limited handicappers. In this regard, one is reminded of Philip Hobbs’ comment that training racehorses is little more than galloping them up a hill twice a day and I certainly think this is the case with ordinary types; there is no great skill involved, especially with flat horses that can be readied quickly, and overvaluing the role of the trainer could be a mistake.

This whole area of trainer specialisms should also be considered by prospective owners and they should match up the type of horses they have the trainers rather than blindly sticking with a handler to whom they have a personal connection; that said, it is worth remembering that some owners have more money than sense and racehorses are the definition of a discretionary spend.

Of course, the really good trainers are ones that don’t specialise, not jack-of-all-trades but masters of all. They are few and far between however and unsurprisingly they are habitually found at the top of the trainers’ table. On the flat, Aidan O’Brien is as close as there is to one, doing well with juveniles, three-year-olds and older horses while winning across the distance spectrum too. His record in handicaps may not be so hot but he wins his share and he does well with tailoring individual campaigns around individual horses; he does not use the ‘one size fits’ all approach.

It is Willie Mullins however who really is the master trainer in this regard, excelling with juvenile hurdlers, bumper horses and staying chasers, as well as everything in between. While perhaps fewer of his classy novices progress as expected, in the main Mullins is better than everyone else in every category and isn’t afraid to push boundaries as was seen most recently with the victory of Blackstairmountain in the Grand Jump in Japan. This was a masterful piece of placing as much for the horse’s obvious limitations as anything else; the classic tweener horse, too high for handicaps and not good enough for graded contests, he would struggle to win a €30,000 race at home yet landed the world’s second richest jumps race on his travels.

Playing the bigger, though not always better, yards is another area of watching the trainers. With Mullins and O’Brien, I’m basically against them in the majority of Irish racing; despite their high percentage returns, their runners are often overbet relative to their form and I prefer to take them on with a more formful runner from another yard in the expectation (or is that hope?) that they will win often enough at rewarding odds to turn a profit. It’s a different story with the champion training pair go on their travels and I often find myself playing their horses at the big English meetings when the prices can be bigger; the competition is stiffer, no doubt, but parochialism tends to be at play too.

Among the better known handlers, Dermot Weld is an interesting case study in how he campaigns his horses at different tracks. Everyone knows about the dictatorship he applies at Galway each summer but his excellent record at Leopardstown is sometimes underrated. This angle is best appreciated when placed alongside his record at the Curragh, a track that hosts a similar standard of race and is his local track, yet the Weld figures at Leopardstown far outstrip those from the Curragh. For whatever reason – perhaps the promise of better ground as opposed to the gloppy Curragh – he tends to send his best horses at Leopardstown.

One also has to know when to admit defeat and I have long since done so with Jim Bolger; I find his methods incomprehensible. Bolger seems to mould his horses in his own image, tough and loving a challenge, but the problem is that not all horses respond to such methods; his best runners do though. No more than any other trainer, Bolger is a creature of habit as seen by his winning of the opening 6f 2yo race of the season at Leopardstown and on the bigger stage in the Dewhurst in recent years. In reference to the Leopardstown race, Bolger won it this year with Focus On Venice having previously started off the likes of Finsceal Beo and Parish Hall in the same race.

I’m not a great believer in trends but these trainer patterns have definite value, largely due to the trainers knowing what is required to win a typical renewal of the race and aiming the right sort at it. It is worth remembering however that such trends are not set in stone and a major change on a macro level can alter them; Willie Mullins rethreading the fabric of Irish national hunt racing is the best example. Whereas five years ago, Mullins was just another trainer (albeit a good one) that liked to target specific races, he now does well across the board and has won many races he previously failed in.