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The Value of Scarcity in Race Reading

Scarcity. An insufficiency or shortness of supply.

It's what makes stuff valuable: gold, bitcoin (depending on who you listen to), etc.

But it can also be manufactured to trick people into making bad investment decisions: fool's gold, bitcoin (depending on who you listen to), etc.

Returning to matters closer to home, how does it manifest in racing, and how can we use it to our advantage?

Scarcity in racing form terms equates to a trait or performance metric consistent in contenders but less prevalent in the race runner population as a whole. Put another way, the stuff which separates the winners from the also rans.


When trends are your friends

The most obvious use of this sort of scarcity metric is in big race trends. Most 'big races', be they major big field handicaps or top class Group races, have a scarcity about them as a matter of course: after all, there are only so many heritage handicaps, and the Pattern is only so big (though expanding inexplicably from year to year).

To compete in such a race a horse must either be within x pounds of the top-rated runner in the field (Class 2 handicaps), or possess either proven or implied class (Group races). Such animals are scarce and generally self-select - if a horse is good enough for a certain race, it will generally run in said race - but that doesn't help us punters.

We need a way to whittle the field once it is known, i.e. after the self-selection process. Trends are a popular means of doing this and, despite being bashed somewhat by employers of other methods, they can be a fine means of shortlisting.

The problem comes when data is misused. For example, knowing that nine of the last ten winners were chestnut in colour doesn't help if a) 95% of runners were that colour, and b) there is no logic to such an inference anyway.

However, knowing that nine of the last ten winners had been rested between 30 and 75 days, where only 65% of the runners matched that criterion is likely material. Better yet if such horses made the frame 78% of the time, or beat 60% of rivals - in other words, if they outperform bigger samples than just 'winners'.

We might deduce that horses entering such a race fresh are more likely to give their running than those who raced more recently or were rested too long.

With a trend like that, there is a logical scarcity. Some people like to use bigger populations of horses from which to infer meaning, for example using handicap chases over three and quarter miles or more as a starting point for Grand National trends analysis. I can see the general utility in this, but don't agree that it's a good approach for a handicap as unique in terms of distance, field size, number of obstacles and class as the National.

Another danger with trends - aside from 'unearthing' flawed patterns - is in throwing the winning baby out with the also ran bathwater. Again, this is a by-product of lazy rigidity. It can still happen of course, just as the ratings junkie can overlook the big-priced fourth top figure in favour of something with a sexier profile and a commensurately shorter price, or the form book guru can misinterpret the strength of a key formline.

As punters we have decisions to make. The vast majority of winning punters, and most losing ones as well, make many more poor - or at least ultimately incorrect - decisions than they back winners. Such is the nature of the game. But we're not in it for winners, are we? We're in it for profit. And the craic, natch.

Getting back to lazy rigidity and trends, if we unearth four or five solid looking angles which each filter out 15% or 25% of runners on a given characteristic, we can expect to be left with a short shortlist. Often zero, in fact. But the game is not to chisel away at our stone block until we have no sculpture, only chippings; rather, it is to produce the outline of a smart bet before digging into a bit of form or overlaying ratings or using some other method to cross-refer, sanity check and refine our early work.

There's no sense so uncommon as common sense, and it is that which we must apply to both the trends discovery phase and the shortlisting phase. Sometimes you'll be left with a long 'shortlist'. So what? That means you either need to take a punt at a price after further investigation, or pass the race. That, passing the race, is allowed, by the way 😉


Sensible everyday trends

There are plenty of schools of thought about what constitutes a solid basis for a 'trend'. I've intimated mine in reference to the National above and, for me, it's the bridge to bread and butter racing too.

The first thing I look for is what might be the most extreme element of a race. With the Nash, it's any or all of the distance, field size, number of fences and class/weight carried. I have to concede to filing that race under 'national spectacle' rather than 'punting vehicle' these days, however, and perhaps that is how it should be (except for the mug misconceptions visited on everyday horseracing as a consequence of that solitary exposure to the sport in most people's living rooms).

In more mundane - ostensibly at least: I'd rather back the winner of a Wednesday afternoon handicap than a faller at the first in the National! - events, there remain plenty of opportunities to spot material scarcity.


The winner of a Wednesday afternoon handicap...

Take this race from Beverley yesterday, for example, which conveniently enough popped up just as I was having a break and wanting a tiny interest dabble to recharge the flagging fingertips before round seven of my day's keyboard pugilism.

I checked the computer clock. It was 3.59pm. I had literally one minute to review the race, make a decision, and wager accordingly. Obviously stakes were kept to a minimum, but in that minute I could see it was a Class 5 five furlong soft ground handicap at Beverley. That immediately set me thinking about low draws and soft ground form.

Those, for me, are the two most important factors under such conditions. On quicker ground I'd replace going form with a speed rating over the minimum trip, but I'd still want a low draw.

Two horses, One Boy and Flash City, had plenty of soft ground placed form - at least 60% each on at least six soft ground runs - and they were drawn two and three of twelve. The clock had still not clicked over to 4.00pm by the time I'd staked a massive four quid on each. A moment later they were off. I was entertained through my tea break by the sight of the pair of them fighting out the finish.

They returned 16/1 and 16/1. My eight pound coins manifested into four twenty pounds notes, as near as damn it after the exchange had taxed it, which was all right for about 3o seconds analysis. I might have bet more if I'd taken longer to cogitate, but probably not: the wager was merely to revive the sagging synapses. [Click the images below to see my 20 second thought process visualised by Gold]



What's the point?

What's the point here? The point is this: look for those elements in a race which are both material and scarce.

In this case, there was a fixed scarcity, low draws, and a variable scarcity, soft ground lovers. There will always be low drawn horses in double-digit Beverley sprints and, all other things being equal, they will generally have an advantage up the hill and around that deceptively angular dogleg.

However, on another occasion, the ground may not be testing, or there may be an abundance of low drawn soft ground lovers, or the soft ground lovers may be drawn away from the low draws. None of those situations would have been as attractive as this setup. I'd have still wasted eight quid on the race, but I'd have been venturing far deeper into guesswork territory.

This is the way my brain looks at a race now. It is second nature, which is how I can assimilate the required intel in, literally, a few seconds. I also have tools which pinpoint what I'm looking for. So do you!


Example Scarcity Scenarios

Of course, it takes time to build up a picture of the requirements of a given scenario. So, in case you need a leg up, here are a few things I'm always on the lookout for. In each case, it is important to think about what is the least common, yet relevant, factor in the race.

Class 4 handicap hurdle on heavy ground: There are lots of handicap hurdles, and lots of Class 4 handicap hurdles. But there are not so many heavy ground races. The further away from middling going a track is, the more interested in proven ability to handle such terrain I am. Heavy and firm are polar opposite turf states and they tend to appeal to specialists. Better still, very often such horses will look moderate under most other conditions. Their unsexy form figures will add currency to their trading price, in the early go at least.

Instant Expert gives me pretty much all I need to know for a route in to such races.

Class 2 3m4f chase: Stamina and class are needed, but mostly stamina. I'd rather be with a Class 3 animal I know stays three and a half miles than a Class 2 beast stepping up from three miles flat, especially if the track is testing. The first thing I'm interested in is which horses have won beyond 3m2f and, ideally, between 3m4f and 3m6f.

Again, Instant Expert is my friend.

Class 2 3m4f chase, five runners: In small fields over longer distances, I'm on the lookout for a horse which might get a soft lead. A habitual front runner against hold up horses may steal four or five lengths with a quarter mile to go. If the leader is not outclassed, it will take a rare smart stayer to make up that sort of ground late in that sort of race. Almost all staying chasers are grinders; granting an easy lead to a horse in a staying chase and expecting to pass it late on would not be a good proposal for your mortgage advisor.

A two second glance at the pace map will reveal how things are projected to play out; check Instant Expert and the ratings to ensure the horse has the class and the contextual ability to contend.

Seven furlong heritage handicap, 22 runners: Big field, specialist trip. In big fields, I want to know if there's a track bias or a pace bias, or both (and are they aligned). I then want a horse drawn on what I believe to be the correct part of the track, that is proven in big fields; and I want them to have seven furlong form. If the going is soft or slower, or good to firm, I want evidence of effectiveness on that, too.

Draw tab first here, sorted by place for the bigger sample size that offers; then pace tab sorted by draw position to map out where the field looks likely to race; then Instant Expert (place view) Field Size column to see which horses have run into the frame consistently in big fields - and fit on other form-based credentials.

And so on.


Don't force it, and be careful...

It's important to remember that there isn't always an exploitable 'scarcity' element to a race. Indeed, there generally won't be such an angle. But on any given day they'll be lurking like truffles in the mud waiting to be snouted out by keen punters.

If you can't find anything material and scarce about the runners in the context of the race, then pass and move on. Or use a different approach to the puzzle.

Also note that this approach works best - perhaps exclusively - when all runners have exposed levels of form. That is, when all runners have had at least a couple of attempts at most of today's race factors.

Caution is advised when looking at horses doing things for the first or second time, especially if their human taskmasters have 'previous' in a given context. Horses can, and very often do, step forward markedly on their first or second run in a handicap; it is rather less common to see a horse improve ten pounds on its twelfth or fifteenth start in weight-for-ability races.



This post has attempted to offer a morsel of food for thought regarding an approach to the search for value in a horse race. We're looking for horses whose overall recent profile may not be terribly compelling but which are noteworthy against a material race factor where many/most rivals are not.

Demand a price about a horse in this context. If the market has already factored in significant improvement, move on.

Work out what your key differentiators - material elements - are; they're probably different from mine.

Have fun with it. This is just another of the myriad routes into picking a horse in a race. It can be done in very short order, which is part of the attraction for a busy person like me and, most likely, you. As well as the nags flagged at Beverley above, I used the same approach to snaffle those recent big-race Saturday winners (25/1 Mattmu, 14/1 Nakeeta) as well as last week's 8/1 runner up, Vibrant Chords. And each time I invested no more than five minutes into the process.

Now, sure, I fired two darts at those targets; and sure, over another three week period they all run rank. That's not the point at all. The point is the process - as Tony Keenan mentioned earlier this week in this excellent post, "Trust the process".

Don't expect instant success; don't use just one approach: different types of puzzle demand different tools from the box. Do enjoy mucking about with it. Don't bet the farm. Do look for some meat on the odds bone.

Hone your handicapping skills, and enjoy the trip. After all, if it's not fun we may as well get a job, right?



For whatever it's worth, some of my 'material factors' - the ones which spring to mind while penning this - are listed below. Don't take them on trust; do your own digging, but hopefully there is enough herein to help you turn the first few shovels of soil.

Course Form: Ascot, Bath, Cartmel, Cheltenham, Epsom, Fakenham, Hexham, Kelso, Stratford, Towcester, Worcester

Going: Heavy, Firm

Distance: 5.5f, 7f, 1m1f, 2m2f, 3m4f+

Field size: 6 or fewer, 16+

Class: 1, 2, 3

Draw: Numerous, check Draw tool

Front runners: Catterick, Chester, Chelmsford, Newmarket, Pontefract, Yarmouth