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The Punting Confessional: The Galway Festival

The Galway Festival

The Galway Festival

The Punting Confessional – Monday, July 29th

Many have tried and failed to explain the appeal of the Galway Races to outsiders and many more will try in the next few days. The Irish love a party and quite like racing which just about explains the popularity of the Christmas meeting at Leopardstown, the Punchestown Festival, even the buzz on Irish Derby Day.

But turning out in numbers for quality racehorses is not something we necessarily do as we saw in the relatively poor attendance for Sea The Stars’ sole run as a three-year-old on home soil at Leopardstown and he was one of our own.

Yet at Galway this week we’ll be breaking down the gates to get in to look at horses that struggle to crack a rating of 100 on the flat. So what explains it? Well, firstly there’s the tradition and timing, harking back to the first week in August being the set time for holidays, farmers getting a break between the two cuts of silage and even Gaelic games taking pause.

That’s hardly the way now however as the GAA has one of its biggest weekends of the year over the August Bank Holiday and many of our farmers are now doing pilates and yoga or laying the favourite on Betfair.

Galway of course is the great party city of Ireland – try it if you don’t believe me – and that plays its part and of course so does the drinking; just look at the number of races over the week that are sponsored by drinks companies and hostelries while Galway is just about the only track in the country where you can always get a drink in seconds, no matter the crowd.

Some of the figures quoted by the pubs around the city as to the number of bottles quaffed over the seven days beggar belief; pounds of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon it isn’t.

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All this however is wandering off the point, as what we’re really interested in is the meeting from a punting perspective; how is it possible to make the week-long puntathon pay?

First, however, we’ll get the drinking and pacing yourself out of the way. Let’s be clear, only the most hardened teetotaller can go to Galway and not have a drink; it’s akin to going to hairdresser and not getting a haircut. I’m not going to preach about the perils and pleasures of drinking as plenty of other websites do a much better job but we all know that drinking and gambling don’t mix as it can make punters more reckless.

With the idea that you’re going to do at least a bit of socialising over the week, it makes sense to go through the big races in the days before the start of the meeting as the entries are already out. One should also get a sense of the entries in the other races too and know where your horses to follow are down to run. If you’re picking out the right sort of horse anyway – i.e. ones that are underrated by the market and will offer value – you may be able to get away with a bit less study than usual.

Oh and as for anyone who’s planning on doing seven days racing and seven night drinking; nice idea, but it’s next to impossible.

The ground at this year’s meeting – officially on the soft side at the start of the meeting – could make things very interesting. We’ve had lots of fast ground this summer and the form has been holding up well but with the going already on the slow side and plenty more rain forecast, it’s likely to be different terrain at Ballybrit.

This however should be viewed as an opportunity as much as a change as it offers the chance to back some decent priced winners back on their favoured ground. I don’t think going back to last summer’s form is quite necessary however as there was so much soft ground that most of the mud larks got their wins and those races were invariably run at such as slow pace to make the form redundant.

With the big national hunt handicaps, the Plate and the Hurdle, as a rule it is best to give preference to winter form as it is simply contested by a better class of jumper; this is something that is not so important when dealing with lower grade jumps handicaps where the recent is king. With the Plate and Hurdle being so valuable now it makes sense to keep a good national hunt horse back for it and most trainers opt against running their horses in summer jumps races, preferring instead to prep them on the flat (often in staying maidens) if at all.

As such, Galway trials, particularly those for the Plate run at Down Royal, Limerick and Tipperary, are pretty meaningless with many of the horses contesting them not high enough in the weights to get into the main race. All this said, the market is getting pretty wise to this and perhaps the real contrarian approach is the back the summer form at bigger prices.

In-running action at Galway is always interesting and there was a fine piece in the Racing Post last week in which Pat Smullen and Barry Geraghty discussed how best to ride the track. Both talked about the perils of going too soon around Ballybrit which is oft-underrated error as punters seem more drawn to horses being given too much to do whereas in many of those cases hold-up horses are simply hostages to pace and it’s never easy to change a horse’s run-style anyway for those who say they should have made their own pace.

A more cardinal sin is committing too early and you’ll see plenty of that over the week with jockeys making their move coming down the hill about four furlongs from home which when you think about it is really mental; it’s like going on across the top at the Curragh or when leaving the back straight at Leopardstown.

Galway presents a good jumping test between the Easy-Fix obstacles on the hurdles track and the two fences in the dip on the chase course; the chase course would be slightly more galloping than the tighter hurdles and flat tracks. In the main, on good ground I’d like my horses to be close to the pace though that obviously depends on how fast they’re going and a low draw is certainly a help in that regard.

Over the week, you’ll like see plenty of horses double-jobbing and running more than once; Shadow Eile won two of her three starts at the track last year while Pintura built on a second in the Galway Mile to win the big 7f handicap at the weekend. It’s no negative to see a horse running twice in the week, certainly not on the flat or over the shorter jumps trips anyway, and the ones that reappear tend to be those that have already run well and proven they handle the track.

Remember that these are lower class horses we’re dealing with and they can take racing well as they’re not running at Group race speed and owners and trainers are much too fond of cotton wool anyway; punters may be out on their feet by the end of the week but reappearing horses often aren’t.

I’m sick of making a prognosis about Dermot Weld at the meeting as he constantly proves me wrong and every year we have to listen to him talking down his chances at this time and saying that his team isn’t as good as previous years. There might be some truth in it this year however, particularly as his national hunt numbers are well down, but as ever he’ll be strong in maidens as unlike other trainers he tends to keep good horses back for the meeting.

I wouldn’t be in a rush to oppose him in such races but it’s a different story in handicaps which are my bread-and-butter.

In handicaps, I can rarely bring myself to back his horses as you’re often taking 3s about a horse that should be 8s on form and I can’t change my whole value-based punting modus operandi. It could be argued that they are value at the price as they keep winning but I find it hard to change for seven days of the year and will be hoping for a lean time for the Weld handicappers.

With Goodwood overlapping with Galway, it’s hard to keep on top of the racing there too but it could be worthwhile, especially with the Irish horses doing so well in Britain again this year. It’s certainly worth watching out for the raiders at the Sussex track and not just the obvious ones like Dawn Approach.

After the meeting, the first thing to do is rest but don’t forget to set the Sky Box to record the racing as there’ll be plenty of eye-catchers. Racing at Galway always has loads of trouble from traffic to horses getting trapped wide as well as jockeys going for their race too soon.

If we have soft ground, it might be worth noting those that haven’t handled it and similar thoughts apply to the track; it’s a unique venue and not all horses take to it so a bad run may not be as bad as it seems.

 

How to Bet on Horses in High Summer

Summer Punting

Summer Punting

The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, July 24th

We’re in the midst of the best period of weather in many a year, a heat-wave that stands in sharp contrast to the three wet summers prior to this one, and with such temperatures predicted to continue it’s probably worth pointing out a few angles for summer punting; some of these are simple down to the weather while others are more general.

The prevalence of fast ground is an obvious starting point.

At the moment one doesn’t even need to look at weather forecast to ascertain likely going conditions as it’s a generic good-to-firm across the board albeit heavily watered in some cases. Such ground is the natural habitat of flat racers, as the soft is for national hunt horses; the likes of Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and the York Ebor meeting just seem wrong run on a deep surface.

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I suspect that fast ground is a more ‘honest’ surface for flat racing and I mean this in terms of pace; there may still be slowly-run races on it but a lot less so than in summer 2012 when seemingly every race was slowly-run as jockeys adjusted to a prolonged period of soft ground by riding their races slower and doing their best to ensure their mounts got home in the conditions.

That led to a host of strange results – I found last summer to be one of my worst periods punting in quite some time and wasn’t alone in this – as it was often a case not of which horse handled the ground best but rather which horse got away with it. In warm conditions then, pace can become a much more useful angle.

All that said, I wouldn’t say no to a blast of rain to shake things up for a few days and give the soft ground horses that have seemingly been out of form (and had their handicap marks drop) a chance of success, and often at big prices. This is vastly different to a prolonged period of deep ground that just plays with the form book and can provide a real edge; it is the very sort of change that is a punter’s friend.

A knock-on effect of fast ground is that some trainers’ horses thrive on it. I’ll return to why this might be with some of the lesser-known national hunt handlers anon but certainly there are a number of mid-level flat trainers that are flying at the moment, notably Ger Lyons, Eddie Lynam and Mick Halford, all of whom have their strings in top-form. It is no coincidence that these are the very trainers that succeed at Dundalk during the winter as their horses are conditioned for a fast surface and/or bred for it and indeed the sort of stock they have simply tends to be fast.

Lyons, for instance, does very well with juveniles who rarely race over further than a mile while Lynam’s record with sprinters is well-recognised through the exploits of Sole Power and the likes by now. Halford is a top trainer of handicappers but most of them seem best around seven furlongs and a mile and like the aforementioned pair he rarely seems to have good stayers, even middle-distance types. All are good yards to follow as they send out reliable horses and have readable methods.

One area where my punting fell down last year was in being distracted by an excellent summer of sport that comprised the Olympics and Euro 2012 and often losing money punting on them. This year’s sport hasn’t been as much of a distraction, mainly because I dislike rugby, golf and cricket and am lukewarm on tennis whereas athletics and football in its various shapes being more to my liking.

This year’s GAA championship has left me rather cold and I’ve taken only a passing interest though shamefully I must admit to being absent for Monaghan’s first Ulster title since 1988; I gave them no chance of beating Donegal so headed for the Curragh instead! But most of all, I’ve avoided having throwaway bets on the big sporting events which has certainly helped.

While I haven’t been mixing it up with punting across different sports, I have been playing a bit on the better summer jumps races as opposed to looking solely at the flat. I’ve been finding the bottom grade stuff on the level a turn-off as many of the runners in such races are inherently unreliable and concentrating instead on the middle-range and up on the flat and the better races over obstacles.

I’ve had some good results in the latter with Rawnaq at Bellewstown an example though the defeat of Supreme Doc at Limerick (traded 1.04 in the run) was hard to take and it is certainly useful to be following the national hunt form to some degree with an eye to the mixed cards at Galway.

The summer jumping scene has proved quite competitive with many races over-subscribed while the flat racing, away from the big meetings, has been lacking in numbers. Certainly there is less Willie Mullins domination over the summer as he tends to put his best horses away for June, July and August and indeed that is true for most of the big yards; the horses they tend to run are ones that struggled to compete over the winter.

This is not the case for the smaller trainers however as they often keep their best horses for the summer, as we saw with the likes of Rebel Fitz in the Galway Hurdle last year, and such runners often offer value in the face of horses from more high-profile yards.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that this is the time of the year when most normal people are taking their holidays and don’t forget to do the same; this is something I have been guilty of in the past, not wanting to miss a meeting at a time when they are coming thick and fast. Breaks can help rejuvenate and being just back from a good holiday I’m mad for some racing. Even mini-breaks, taking a day or two off a week, can help as some cards just look impenetrable.

Some Thoughts on Headgear

A Blinkered Attitude?

A Blinkered Attitude?

The Punting Confessional - Wednesday, July 3rd 2013

With Royal Ascot just gone and on a lesser scale in Ireland the Derby last weekend and Galway to come, headgear seems a topical issue at the moment.

Now there is nothing surer than punters will be up in arms at the very mention of fashion on mainstream television coverage of the big meetings – coverage I might add that is watched by a far wider array of viewers than just the betting public – but perhaps we should become more aware of a fashion that is becoming much more widespread on the actual turf at our racetracks, namely the much increased use of headgear.

Already this year we have had a Derby winner in cheekpieces – the first horse to do so –  and his trainer Aidan O’Brien is at the vanguard of this trend which may ultimately become a culture.

In these islands, a number of different types of headgear can be used. Blinkers are the most obvious and most severe; they aim to reduce visual distraction by focusing a horse’s attention only on that which is in front of them and tend to be used on lazy horses.

The visor is a slightly modified version of blinkers with a slit in the side, they are less severe with cheekpieces even less so. Made of sheepskin, they are more of a concentration aid, used to sharpen an animal up.

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The hood is a different piece of kit entirely as it aims at reducing noise rather than vision; in the main it is used on keen horses that tend to get geed up and struggle to settle.

For years, the culture in Europe, including Britain and Ireland, was against headgear. The general perception was that blinkers were a rogue’s badge, an admission from the trainer that the horse was less than genuine, perhaps even a last resort in order to get it to reveal its ability. While it was one thing to use them on a lowly handicapper to extract a few pounds of improvement, it was quite another to opt for them on a group horse or stallion prospect.

Even the idea that the progeny of a sire, much less the sire himself, would be in need of an aid was seen as a sign of weakness and breeders would be reluctant to support such a stallion with their mares. In the US however, the culture is totally different. Even a cursory glance at attheraces’ coverage of American racing reveals that half the field often wear some form of aid and Animal Kingdom, the most high-profile American runner in the UK in many a year at Royal Ascot, and Kentucky Derby winner, wore blinkers on every start of his career.

This is changing, however and Aidan O’Brien has been the main catalyst. He has won a Derby with a cheekpieced runner and raced numerous classy types in headgear; over the three days of Derby weekend in Ireland he had 27 runners and 14 of them wore some form of headgear.

He has, with the help of his stable jockey son Joseph, offered numerous public pronouncements on the benefits of headgear, particularly cheekpieces, with barely a mention of the issue of temperament, to such a degree that it could almost be called a PR campaign.

O’Brien is just about the only trainer with the power to change the culture of headgear and while perhaps his whole increased use of aids could be seen as him seeking the next edge it is worth remembering who his paymasters are; if he does not satisfy the greater needs of the Coolmore operation, i.e. profits from the breeding sheds, then he will soon be out of a job.

All of this begs the question: does headgear work? At the risk of copping out totally from an answer, yes and no. We must judge each horse on an individual basis and see how they respond though some overall precepts about trainers are worth developing. Often, a piece of headgear will work just once, and on the second start in them a horse will regress back to its previous form.

When they do work a second time however, you may be onto something as it’s worth considering the animal a new horse, much like one that has changed yards and improved, and often this horse will continue to be priced up on its old form for the next few starts.

This doesn’t however mean that headgear will work forever. The horse may get used to it and become wise to what is going on; what was once a concentration tool is now old hat.

With horses like this however, there is still an edge as one needs to watch out for the reapplication of headgear. In this case, the trainer will note that horse has stopped reacting to the blinkers or cheekpieces and remove them only to reapply them at a later date, likely a race that has been a target or after the horse has dropped in the weights or showed a glimmer of promise. In this situation, a punter can expect improved form.

One such horse I’m waiting for with this angle at the minute is Ucanchoose, an Irish 5f handicapper whose last three wins have come in blinkers but hasn’t worn them since September last year.

On the whole, I don’t think headgear can change a horse’s temperament, particularly those are really recalcitrant. In some cases, blinkers can even exacerbate a horse’s reluctance as was seen at Naas last week when Dermot Weld applied them on a horse called Resolute Response who rivals Charles Byrnes’ Courage for the least-aptly named horse in training.

With a horse with a slight temperament issue or a mere lazy streak, headgear can be the key but some are beyond saving.

It is worth mentioning how the bigger Irish trainers use headgear. With Aidan O’Brien, cheekpieces are a positive and so too, the hood; I still think blinkers are a negative with him and while a trendsetter in this area it will take a while to break this mode of thinking.

With Dermot Weld, blinkers are a plus as he has campaigned even his best horses in them, notably Vinnie Roe, which is something to bear in mind ahead of his annual Galway jamboree. John Oxx on the other hand is an arch-traditionalist; any sort of aid from him is a negative, perhaps even an admission of defeat.

 

The Punting Confessional: Getting The Basics Right

Getting The Basics Right

Getting The Basics Right

The Punting Confessional , Wednesday, June 19th

Racing is sport of complexities from pace analysis to ratings figures to sectional times and breeding angles and these nuances should be sought out by the punter seeking an edge. One does, however, have to be aware of the folly of over thinking or at least not forgetting the KISS principle, i.e. Keep It Simple Stupid!

The basics of gambling are important and shouldn’t be forgotten in the rush to grasp the difficult concepts mentioned above; avoiding what one might call ‘schoolboy errors’ while perhaps not making you a profitable gambler can at least cut your losses, a lesson I am repeatedly reminded of.

Perhaps the most common ‘schoolboy error’ is failure to check the ground and going updates. I have ranted about the lack of going updates from the racecourses and authorities through other mediums for long enough and to be fair to both groups, in Ireland at least, their communication of this information to punters has improved markedly in the last year.

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Morning updates are available through Twitter – both the trade paper The Irish Field (@TheIrishField) and Horse Racing Ireland (@HRI_Racing) have going updates early – and any punter that isn’t on Twitter at this point needs to get their act together as it’s the quickest place to get information. In terms of advance weather forecasts, the HRI’s race administration site (info.hr-racing.ie) provides decent predictions, specific to each course, and if you want something more detailed there are plenty of other sites available.

At the risk of sounding like a farmer, met.ie is good for forecasts as is accuweather.com while irelandsweather.com has access to a number of weather stations that register things such as localised rainfall, many of which are close to racecourses. There are similar Twitter feeds and websites that provide such information in the UK.

With changeable weather a fact of life in these islands, as punters we need to be aware that ground can change in a matter of hours as we saw at Fairyhouse last Wednesday; going that was described as good before the first race was yielding to soft by the last. While many bemoan a change in ground, it can also be a big plus as prices that were framed for fast ground can now offer value among horses that may be suited by an ease. Such was the case at Leopardstown last Thursday where good to firm ground became good to yielding in the hours before the off.

This meant that Reply who would have been a strong fancy for the Ballycorus Stakes had his chances ruined as he is dependent on fast ground while the Ballyogan Stakes favourite Tickled Pink was a similar case if not quite so marked; the eventual winner Fiesolana was well-suited by some cut and it also placed a greater emphasis on stamina as she had previously won over a mile. It also made the penultimate handicap more interesting as the two potentially best-treated horses in the field – Bensoon and Dane Street – needed contrasting conditions, the rain swinging the race in favour of the latter.

None of this is to say that the ground should be everything; indeed it is sometimes an overrated factor and it’s worth pointing out that ability, or at least ability relative to mark, remains the most important factor. But not registering what the ground is or how it may have changed is a basic error that should be avoided.

Another mistake one can make involves targets for horses in ante-post races and I got a costly reminder about same when I backed both Olympic Glory and Mars for the Irish 2,000 Guineas on the Tuesday before the race only for neither to turn up, a fact I would have been aware of had I paid closer attention to stable announcements. Nowadays, targets are mainly transparent though some yards are better than others.

Willie Mullins is one I find particularly frustrating with his tendency to hold back on confirmations until the very last minute while Jim Bolger has been known to throw in a volte-face or two. Every now and then one has to take a chance on a big price about a horse and hope it will turn up – just like a few did with Dawn Approach on the exchanges for the St. James’s Palace and it was hardly out of character for the trainer – but in the main it pays to be as certain as one can be that a horse is going to take its chance.

My advice would be read as widely as you can if planning an ante-post bet; search racingpost.com and Twitter and the wider internet. It’s not a bad idea to read the paper Racing Post everyday as not all articles in the print edition make it onto the website though I should follow my own advice here as I’m not a daily reader. Doing so might have prevented me from backing Mars, a bet a felt pretty hard done by given how well he shaped in the Derby on this next starts.

With bookmakers, there is no excuse for anyone not to have an array of online accounts; brand loyalty is a nonsense as by so doing you are playing right into the firms’ hands; they love nothing more than a ‘one bookie’ customer that will take their prices regardless of what may be available with a competitor. And it’s the same with shop punters; Jane in your local betting office may well be ‘a fine bit of stuff’ and very pleasant when you’re backing one but that’s not going to put you in profit.

Top price may be a fiction for the winning punter as bookies are unwilling to lay it but for the beginning punter getting on is not an issue and by always taking the best available price you’ve got some sort of chance if not of becoming profitable then at least of limiting your losses. So take the option of walking across the road or opening another window.

Finally, be wary of night before prices and don’t rush in. While every now and then a price may be completely wrong, the layers at this point are often betting to ludicrous percentages which means there will be bigger prices available the following morning or closer to the off. I find with Irish racing there are certainly fewer moves overnight with more punters seemingly practicing patience in the markets.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Punting Confessional: More myth-busting.

More Myth Busting

More Myth Busting

Today sees the third and final instalment of Tony Keenan's efforts to dispel some of the myths surrounding racing as he sets about debunking another five falsedoms in...

...The Punting Confessional – February 20th, 2013

Let’s conclude this mini-series with a few more clichés, starting with:

‘It suited to be up with the pace on that day.’

While there are a few tracks that may have pace biases – I’m thinking of the round tracks at the Curragh and Tipperary – in the main this sort of view is a ‘wise guy’ (and by ‘wise guy’ I mean trying to be too smart) call borne of American influences that would be best ignored in Europe.

There have been many great books written on the idea of track biases in the US but such concepts apply mainly to dirt racing and not to turf and possibly not even to all-weather racing here as it is run on polytrack or fibresand.

The important factor in racing in these islands is pace within the race, early, middle and late, not any inherent bias on the surface or course itself; a soft lead or early pace battle is a soft lead or early pace battler anywhere.

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‘The owners are a lovely bunch of lads.’

This has nothing to do with betting but is irksome nonetheless and is beloved of the likes of Ted Walsh on RTE Racing who seems to describe every winning set of connections as a great group even if he doesn’t know them. Let’s face it; they can’t all be ‘lovely’, some are bound to be sociopathic.

By the expensive nature of exercise, racehorse owners generally have to be quite if not very wealthy and while income is hardly a barometer of character there are bound to be some well-off people where the septic tank theory applies, i.e. the biggest lumps rise to the top.

We are constantly reminded of temperamental owners falling out with trainers and jockeys over poor rides or placing or other issues and horses being moved as a result. It often seems to be over very little though it must be said that trainers and jockeys are hardly whiter than white.

I suppose it boils down to placing racing in a positive light and getting others involved but the sport certainly isn’t all one happy family.

 

‘This price is value.’

The idea of value, popularised by the Pricewise columns of Coton, Collier and Segal, has made its way into racing idiom and is all too often thrown out there by a pundit because he fancies one at a big price; the conflation of value with longer odds is erroneous, what it really refers to is when a price is wrong, its true odds not reflected in current odds, and can occur at shorter prices too.

When the value comment is reeled off I want to know what the price should be and the argument behind it; if one horse is value, then something else must be underpriced but in the rose-tinted world of the racing media this negative opinion is rarely voiced for fear of offending connections and biting the hand that feeds. In the media, this may be a sensible approach but in betting having a negative view is vital as a bad favourite can lead to value everywhere.

The reasons a horse could be value are manifold and boil down to calling why the market is erring: it could have false or clouded form, its trainer may be underrated, it may be facing a hype horse, better than the bare form last time, the pace may suit well now. The commentator having a knowledge of betting percentages would be a help; that said, one shouldn’t be a slave to percentages as you have to fancy the horse in and of itself and not just because there are a few points out of a hundred in your favour.

 

‘He silenced the doubters.’

Paul Nicholls, with his sometimes adversarial (though admirably open in media matters) personality, has a lot to answer for. He has gotten a lot of mileage out of this phrase, especially when he has managed one of his trademark resurrection in form for one of his older stars like Kauto Star or Denman but it suggests a misunderstanding that racing involves betting; it is, after all, the doubt that makes the odds and a doubtful attitude to horses (and what trainers and jockeys say about them in particular) should be nurtured rather than scorned.

Throughout my betting life, I have made money from being against short priced horses, I am by definition one of the doubters. I slag off and question ‘public horses’ (those with big reputations) the whole time and while I get plenty of them wrong – notably the likes of Frankel and Sprinter Sacre – the fact is that you need to be right an awful lot of the time when playing at those odds, such runners much more often underpriced than overpriced.

They may not get beaten often but when an odds-on shot is turned over, you are getting a price and it pays to play the long game in this regard; most punters can’t countenance defeat for such horses but those than can, profit.

 

‘The yard knows the time of day.’

The shrewd connections argument is often based in punters’ love of a stroke and the likes of Barney Curley, Charles Byrnes et al have a whiff of sulphur off them that is both adored and detested. It would perhaps be better for racing if they were not around and we had a more trustworthy formbook but they are so we have to find a way to address them.

I am against any sort of insider nonsense and by that I mean any idea that there’s a golden circle that knows what’s going on more than others and as a general rule I want to be against gambling yards (though all yards are gambling to some extent or other) as they tend to operate a low percentages and short prices. You’re far better to be with yards whose runners tend not to be punted; the prices tend to offer better value and it is much easier to get on.

The Punting Confessional: Exploding more clichés.

Exploding More Clichés

Exploding More Clichés

In last week's Punting Confessional, Tony Keenan began to explain why much of what we hear about racing from (usually) self-appointed "experts" should be taken with a pinch (or two) of salt. He expands on that topic this week, as he sets about exploding some more common clichés often heard around the race courses in...

...The Punting Confessional – February 13th 2013

In his collection of essays and reviews from 2001, The War Against Cliché, novelist Martin Amis wrote that ‘all writing is a war against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.’ He was referring to literary pursuits but could so easily have been writing about racing, an area that is jam-packed with clichés. Let’s explode a few more of them, starting with that old chestnut...

"He’s due a win."

Probability has no memory and each race needs to be taken on an individual basis so the idea that a horse is in line for a win, by dint of its form figures, is fallacious. Figures of ‘322’ may suggest success is imminent but what matters is not the figure itself but the context it was achieved in; a ‘2’ that was achieved in a low-class race may not be as valuable as a ‘6’ in a better race and the former is more likely to be overrated by the market while the latter may slip under the radar.

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Similarly a ‘6’ achieved  when cutting out a fast pace and just fading inside the final 100 yards could be more meritorious than a ‘2’ that came from a closer in the same race that was run to suit hold-up types.

Often horses that are running well in handicaps are less likely to win rather than more so; because their marks are rising they are becoming less well-treated. Runners that constantly hit the frame without winning, poor win/run ratio types, can also be ungenuine and in the main it pays to go with horses that are serial winners rather than serial losers. Also, it goes without saying that those that run well in defeat tend to be short prices on their subsequent start.

Runners that are "due a win" should not be confused with horses working up to something, say one that is gradually coming back to form, perhaps off a break, and who may be able to take advantage of a dropping mark. Such horses are often undervalued as their form is clouded; the combination of a slipping mark, more than typical improvement from run-to-run and a likely value price making them always of interest.

"Anything he does over hurdles is a bonus."

A cliché beloved of the racing fans I wrote about on these pages in September (seen here) and October (here) of last year, it is one of the ways to the betting poorhouse. Trainers and jockeys certainly have a lot to answer for in this regard, often filling the racing pages with comments about how they cannot wait for a certain bumper horse or novice hurdler to go over fences such is the scope they possess.

And certainly there are times when these horses make up into top chasers but they’re just the type to be underpriced when they do run and in fact the horses punters really want to be with in novice chases are the opposite, those limited hurdlers that have improved for the bigger obstacles and who are underrated by the market that places too much emphasis on their hurdling form.

Generally, it takes the market a number of starts to cotton onto this improvement, the same market that overvalues classy hurdlers that have not taken to fences and keeps them short prices.

All too often, punters and racing generally live in the future, focusing on big races and targets in the future. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as it does help build excitement for the big days but in life it’s probably best to live in the now and that’s true of punting too. Rather than looking ahead to a big race at Cheltenham we should seek to get an edge this week in the lesser races that are far less likely to be analysed to a point where any value has been squeezed out of the prices.

None of this is to say that we can’t take a long view and such an approach doesn’t pay off, but perhaps we do it too much.

A development on this idea is that of trading a race, backing a horse in the hope that it will shorten up because of a good run in a trial race before laying back to guarantee a profit. I just don’t get this; why not just back it for the first race and not tie your money up? The price may be not quite so generous but if it is offering value in the ante-post race it is likely to be the same for the prep race and if it’s going to shorten up for its ultimate target it’s nearly going to have to win its trial.

"The weight beat him."

Even the best are referring to this one, Willie Mullins using a variation on the theme when referring to his recent Boylesports Hurdle winner Abbey Lane as having a ‘lovely racing weight’ and it becomes a particular touchstone in marathon handicap chases or on soft ground where poundage is thought to have a greater effect.

Looking at this logically, it just doesn’t make sense; we’re talking about a half-ton plus of horseflesh carrying a maximum weight differential of 28lbs (more allowing for claimers) so how can a few pounds one way or another make any real difference?

What matters is not the weight but the mark as it dictates the class of race a horse can compete in; generally, it’s better to carry lots of weight against inferior opposition that having a feather burden against classier types. For me, class is a key concern whereas weight simply isn’t and punters would be advised to keep an eye on the class structure at play in their racing jurisdiction; in Ireland, the difference between competing in a 0-65 bottom grade handicap and a 0-80 can be monumental.

One offshoot of this is that classy horses at the top of the handicap are often underbet, the assumption being that they have too much weight. Preference is given to those at the lower end of the handicap by the market but there is certainly value in looking to the proven ones with plenty of weight, Tidal Bay in last year’s Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown (run on atrocious ground, incidentally) being a good example of where class won out.

The Punting Confessional: Avoiding “expert” nonsense.

Punting Confessional: Avoiding Nonsense

Punting Confessional: Avoiding Nonsense

Tony Keenan believes that the vast majority of advice doled out by racing "experts" should at least come with a caveat or taken with a pinch of salt at best and that we need to apply our own thoughts to what we get told, as he explains here in...

...The Punting Confessional – February 6th, 2013

On the wall of my office, I have a quote from Buddha: ‘Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.’ It’s one that applies to racing where so much of what is written or spoken on the subject, well-intentioned though it may be, is wrong-headed and needs to be questioned. Holding doubts, and applying them to the odds, is central to punting and we saw a good example of this on Festival Trials Day with Oscar Whisky and whether or not he stays three miles.

That question hasn’t been conclusively answered with the Cleeve Hurdle having been run in a much slower time than last year’s World Hurdle; the former was run in 5 minutes 44 seconds, the latter in 6 minutes 32 seconds. Does this mean he stayed because the ground was very deep and it was a true test of stamina or was it run at a slow pace that allowed him to get home? I can’t answer that and the odds in March would have to dictate the play; there are too many grey areas here to hold a strong opinion. Racing has many more black-and-white cases and that’s what I’d like to explore now; racing clichés that the need to be queried and what I perceive as the truth behind them.

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‘He did it the hard way from the front.’

This one reared its head on RTE Racing on Irish Champion Hurdle Day at Leopardstown where the inclement conditions had Ted Walsh saying how it difficult it was for Pont Alexandre to make all in the sleet and even mentioning how it was like cycling and getting some cover would help. Getting cover is an aid in terms of settling a horse and not having it do too much, too early, but this concept of drafting and slipstreaming just doesn’t apply; wind is a largely irrelevant factor in racing, even in extreme circumstances.  Unlike cycling, horse races don’t go on for long enough for this to have an impact.

To say that it is hard to make the running shows a misunderstanding of pace which is an all-important factor. There is nothing difficult about sitting on the front if the horse is getting a soft lead, pace pressure – where a number of runners battle for the lead – is the key thing. With this in mind, punters should look pre-race at the likely front-runners and prominent racers to see if a horse may get an easy lead and be flattered by the form or whether there’s going to be a battle for the lead.

A linked comment to this is ‘the pace wasn’t strong enough for him.’ It’s nowhere near as bad as ‘he did it the hard way from the front’ but it is often used in a throwaway fashion as a catch-all excuse for a poor run. Certainly there are horses that do need a strong pace, particularly hold-up types or those that need a test at the trip, but one needs to differentiate these from the ones that are getting a twee excuse. Punters should avoid the response to this that horses that want a good pace should make their own running; it’s more complex than that as run-styles cannot be changed easily.

 

‘The owner/trainer is in attendance; they must fancy their runner.’

Such a comment is beyond irrelevant, the worst kind of insider nonsense. The fact that ‘Willie [Mullins] is here today’ matters little; he may have had to meet an owner or prospective owner, oiling the social wheels of racing often as important as results on the track. Also, this is what owners and trainers do, they go racing because they enjoy it or it’s their job. I won‘t even dignify the statement about backing a runner from the first trainer or horsebox you see with a comment.

Also, I place little stock in how far a trainer has sent a horse to run in a race; in Ireland, a relatively small country, this matters little. That Willie has sent one to Downpatrick, probably as an out-of-the-way track as one can find for the Closutton trainer, is more a product of him trying to find a race so bad that one of the lesser lights in his stable can get a win. Punters should base their views on the formbook, not on inside information, as the vast majority of same has had the value squeezed out of it by the time it reaches their ears.

 

‘I was at Navan when horse X won impressively.’

The availability bias or heuristic is a mental shortcut where people make judgements about the probability of events by how easy it is to think of examples and being in attendance at a race meeting and seeing a horse in the flesh is a good example from racing. That a punter saw a horse in high-definition at the track is neither here nor there; nothing says that it would have been any more impressive whether one was in attendance or not. In any event, watching a replay of a race on TV or a laptop is much better than live from a punting perspective as you will learn more; you now have the rewind function so you can watch it back over and over and make an informed decision on what happened while doing it at a later date means you now have more information to hand and have critical distance.

I like going racing as much or more than the next person but I attend for the social aspect and I simply enjoy the atmosphere at live sport and it gets me out of the house as being a follower of racing can mean a lot of time in front of the TV and laptop. The truth is that you learn little new at the track however, apart from perhaps speaking to some good punters on various subjects but the idea that there is some sort of inner circle at work at racecourses needs to be put to bed.

The Punting Confessional: Finalising the Tissue

Finalising the Tissue

Finalising the Tissue

Last week, Tony Keenan started to show us how he would theoretically set about compiling a tissue for a given race and he continues along that line today, as he explains more specifically how to go about this task in...

...The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, January 23rd 2013

I did my best to duck the question about how to actually compile tissue prices last week – probably because it’s like an experienced cyclist trying to show a maiden rider how to ride a bike (answer: ‘you just do it!’) – but I better address it in full now. Firstly, there’s nothing mystical about putting a tissue together, this isn’t alchemy. Like most things in life, you get better and more comfortable with it the more times you do it.

At this point in time, I have reached a stage where I would find it hard to have a bet without tissue prices; I suppose one could use target prices as a guide (i.e. a price below which you are unwilling to back a horse) but it’s best to have a full sense of the race by giving every runner a price.

When compiling a tissue you need to work in a vacuum so ignore all other prices, tissue or otherwise, that are available in the public domain. This isn’t an easy thing to do – it’s a bit like trying to avoid picking a scab – but is necessary.

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The last thing you want is for your attention to be drawn by a price that seems out of line and have your whole interpretation of the race skewed before you start; it’s always best to start from an objective rather than subjective position.

There is a chance here that you will miss a price every now and then taking this approach for races that are priced up early but in the long-term it will pay for itself.

It’s next to impossible to do a tissue without having done form study beforehand so go through the race as you normally would now, using the usual angles. For me, this basically means what I outlined in last week’s piece. From here, I’ll be getting a feel for what horses should be fancied and unfancied, overpriced and underpriced, the latter pair more important than the former.

My tissues will be based totally on feel, there’s nothing numerical or figures based, that’s not how I work. Feel, instinct, intuition, call it what you will, is built up over time. The argument can be made that a numbers-based approach where you assign different variables a value and work the prices from there could be used but that’s not what I do.

From here, I get down to the maths of the project. I have my list of betting percentages which can be easily accessed by typing same into an internet search engine though at this stage I know them almost by rote, a 6/4 shot is 40%, an 8/1 horse 11% and so on. It’s easy to pick this up when you’re doing it regularly. I go through the race in racecard order, not looking at the favourite or outsiders first, and assign each a price.

For instance, in an 8-runner race, you could have prices that come out like this: 33/1, 10/3, 14/1, 9/2, 4/1, 4/1, 50/1, 14/1 which add up to 100% probability. I like my prices to come out as close to 100% first time as possible, not way over or under, and I tend not to spend a huge amount of time tinkering with them; at this point, I trust my workings and shy away from second-guessing.

Pricing to a 100% book is the only way to as you’re getting at the true probability of the race outcome. Taking this approach, you’re going to have to put some of the outsiders in at big prices but that’s what they deserve to be and often bigger.

Would I lay the prices I put them in at? No, but that’s because I’m simply not a layer and if I think a horse is underpriced I want to get it beat by backing against it rather than laying it, it’s a matter of approach.

When compiling the tissues, one should have a sense of the horses that are likely to be overpriced beforehand. I’ve written about this before and there are many angles that could lead to an overpriced horse such as pace, video analysis or something as simple as a low-profile trainer.

Be aware though that horses can, every now and then, be inexplicably overpriced, particularly should a drift occur close to the off; the exchanges are the place to go to back such drifters as the Betfair market can resemble the course market on speed in this regard.

All tissue prices have limitations and you should be aware of yours; are you better at one type of race than another? In my case, handicaps are where I do best. No one’s prices are totally accurate and allow for broad error; I don’t see how anyone can differentiate between a 4/1 shot and 9/2 shot.

I don’t have a rule as to how much I want a horse to be overpriced before I make a play though obviously you want to play stronger the more they are overpriced; for instance, I would back a 7/2 shot that I think should be 2/1 stronger than a 7/2 shot I think should be 11/4.

When your tissues are in, it’s largely a case of comparing them against the available odds and making your plays. There’s a case for backing more than one horse in a race – I often do so and more – but bear in mind there are times when none of the runners will be overpriced when compared to the bookmakers’ prices as they’re betting to an overround.

This is less likely when playing into the Betfair market near the off as it will be closer to 105% (100% plus commission) and there should be a few overpriced runners at that point.

Making tissues is something that can be developed over time; it could take you a while when you start to do them but it will become old hat over time and is certainly a useful edge.

The Punting Confessional: Compiling a Tissue

Compiling a Tissue

Compiling a Tissue

To make your betting profitable, it is essential to make sure you get the best value from your selections. Compiling your own tissue is the way to ensure that the odds you take represent enough value to be successful in the long run. Backing 2/1 horses at 4/1 is the way forward where possible, of course! But by not knowing the "true" price of a horse, you may well end up doing the exact opposite.

This week, Tony Keenan takes us through how he would approach the compilation of a tissue for a race in...

...The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, January 16th 2013

Back in the comments section of this diary in January 2nd, a reader Ger asked that I write something on compiling my own tissue and that’s the spur for this piece. As a contrarian I’ve never been great at doing exactly what I’m told so I’ve decided to take a race from scratch and look at how I played it, from analysis stage through pace and tissues to striking a bet.

The race in question is the 8.50 from Dundalk on Friday January 4th, a ten-furlong handicap for horses aged four and up with the top-weight racing off 89.

The first notable about this race is that it’s an older horse handicap; these are my bread-and-butter races and I know I’m not alone in such things, Dave Nevison having commented similarly in one of his books. With horses like this, inside information becomes much less relevant as their form is in the book as they have had a number of runs and this provides the pure form student with an edge.

I will have an intimate knowledge of the horses involved, having watched most if not all of their recent starts on replay, and will know what to expect. Also, this is a classic example of the middle-of-the-road racing I prefer; the horses are good enough to be reliable as opposed to the bottom feeders yet not well enough known by the betting public to have the value squeezed out of their prices. Finally, the race was at Dundalk, a track whose virtues I have extolled in the past.

My notes from the race are below. Initially I cut-and-paste the entire race-card from Horse Racing Ireland’s race administration site after which I add my own notes, pace comments, tissue prices and shortlist. It’s handy to save these files on your computer as you can look back and check them again.

(8:50)  4E Floodlit Friday Nights At Dundalk H'cap
€6,900.00  ( 1m 2f 150y - 4yo+ )[MAX 14]    

  1  2 King's Trail (JPN) (89) (TKodama) - RCoakley(7) ................ 10,00 – no recent form – NO – prominent – 20/1

  2  7 Salam Alaykum (82) (JFEgan) - JFEgan .....  9,07 – is likely one that is ahead of his mark still, the Placere form worked out; interesting in a race like this – tracks pace/prominent over this trip – 9/2

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  4 Denny Crane (GB) (81) (ELynam) - SFoley(V) .....................  9,06 – isn’t in form nor well-treated – NO – held up – 12/1

  4  1 Shake The Bucket (79) (NMadden) - LPDempsey(7) .............  9,04 – obvious chance with affinity for course – tracks pace – 9/2

  5  6 Alghanem (76) (MPhelan) - DEMullins(3).....  9,01 – rising out of bottom grade to take on decent types; one to be against in this good company as also a dodge – ? – chases pace – 8/1

  6  3 Prince Of Fashion (76) (JGeoghegan) - PJSmullen(T) ...............  9,01 – met trouble last time and drop to this trip won’t be a problem; player and does go well for Smullen – mid-div – 9/2

  7  5 Shukhov (76) (GMLyons) - GFCarroll ...........  8,13 – would be one to take on having gotten a rise in the weights, taking a long time to win beforehand; last time out winner likely to be overbet – chases pace – 8/1

  9 Hurricane In Dubai (73) (DMarnane) - FLynch .........................  8,10 – stable switch – NO – new connections; hard to call – 20/1

  8 Silverlord (FR) (69) (GElliott) - .(T) ...............  8,08 – dog –  NO – chases pace – 16/1

 

PACE: King’s Trail may go on with Salam Alaykhum a possibility but it’s unlikely to be break-neck.

SHORTLIST: This looks between Salam Alaykhum, Shake The Bucket and Prince Of Fashion; the first-named most likely to be overpriced.  
First to explain each note; after all the factual stuff about weight, trainer and such like I add my own comments. They tend to be quite short here as I’m dealing with horses I know well and after that I put a NO if I think they have no chance, a question mark if I have doubts or leave it blank if I give them a chance. Next I put in the pace comment which is an amalgam of their run styles over their last three to five starts with a mix of intuition if I expect something different today; perhaps there is a dramatic change in distance or headgear being applied.

Having done each horse in sequence, I’ll look their pace comments to see how the race is likely to be run and only then will I do the tissues; they come after the pace as the I want to factor that into my figures, pace being an underrated aspect that can provide an edge. I price up the race to 100% and for a small field like this it only takes a matter of minutes and if I’m out on my first set of figures, I’ll adjust them until they’re right. Only then will I put together the shortlist which is more of list of overpriced horses than likely winners.

Now the really interesting part comes as you compare your prices to others in the public domain and those offered by the bookmakers.
Here, in three columns are the relevant prices, the first is my tissue, the second the best morning odds and the third the final starting price:

King’s Trail                          20/1         16/1         18/1

Salam Alaykhum                9/2          8/1           9/2

Denny Crane                       12/1          9/1           7/1

Shake The Bucket              9/2          4/1           10/3

Alghanem                            8/1           3/1           4/1

Prince Of Fashion              9/2          11/2          5/1

Shukhov                               8/1           7/1           7/1

Hurricane In Dubai            Non-runner

Silverlord                              16/1         14/1         14/1
It’s pretty obvious the horse(s) I’d want to back looking at those prices but one also needs to know why they, and others, are the wrong prices. Let’s start with Alghanem who is the key horse in the race in many respects as he’s a bad favourite. A bad favourite is the best thing a punter can have as it makes it a betting race. Alghanem was a bad favourite for a few reasons; he was just one from sixteen before this race, having shown head carriage and weak-finishing tendencies in the past, and he was also coming out of the bottom grade of handicaps having copped a 12lbs rise from 63 to 75 for his sole win.

He was facing a seismic jump in class, going from racing against horses rated in the 50s and low-60s to taking on a handicap where the top weight was rated 87, essentially skipping a couple of grades, something few horses can do and much less, ones with dodgy temperaments. Not only that he had a really interesting betting profile and by this I mean how he tends to move in the market. He had landed a colossal on December 7th, backed from 8/1 in the morning to 9/4 on course, and I suspect the layers were still nursing their wounds from this and priced him up far too cautiously which meant other horses were value.

Shukhov was another I wanted to be against as he simply won in his turn last time in a weak race having been a long-standing maiden beforehand and was going to find this tougher upped in the weights; disappointingly however, he was not put in short in the morning even though he was a last time out winner which may have been to do with his trainer Ger Lyons. Despite being the preeminent handler at the track, his horses are not often punted.

The trio to note were Shake The Bucket, Prince Of Fashion and Salam Alaykhum. Shake The Bucket was just a fair price in the morning as his chance was there for all to see, an in-form course specialist. He often drifts in the market pre-race so may have been of interest at that point but I felt a slow pace would be against him as this trip was his minimum and he is often dropped in. Prince Of Fashion was a touch overpriced at 11/2 though not hugely but Salam Alaykhum was the rick and the reason was simple: out of sight, out of mind.

He hadn’t run since October 5th but looked a well-treated horse, his form with Placere from the summer having worked out particularly well and he had been a well-backed favourite in the Ladies Derby at the Curragh on ground he wouldn’t have liked. That wouldn’t always be the best guide as such market moves can be false but I felt it was true in his case and he was certainly overpriced, indeed the opposite of the recency-biased thinking that had Alghanem in favourite.

In the end I backed Salam Alaykhum at an average of 8/1 and Prince Of Fashion at an average of just over 5/1 to split stakes. The former was a great bet as the market told, supporting him into 9/2 at the off. I hoped he would go on at the trip as he had done in the past with no real pace pressure likely. The latter was a poor bet as I got suckered into backing him in the morning when there appeared to be some support from him and I punted at just over my tissue price which isn’t a good move; you really need more of an edge.

I saw the market shift for him and panicked which was a mistake and I also should have remembered that he’s not really the horse to back at a short price; he wins a low percentage of his starts and is inconsistent and is mainly one to take a chance on at bigger prices.

In the end, the pace scuppered the race for as neither King’s Trail nor Salam Alaykhum went on and it was run at a crawl with Shake The Bucket making all and winning with a bit in hand; he got a soft lead. It was a surprise to see him do such as he’d never raced on the pace before. I made one good bet in the race with Salam Alaykhum and he shaped like one ahead of his mark, held up in rear and the only one to make any ground up in the closing stages, ultimately finishing fourth of eight in the manner of one that can win soon. Prince Of Fashion was a poor bet and ran like one.

In this race, I got it wrong in terms of the result but not with Salam Alaykhum at the prices; he was definitely a bet. Not every race will throw up overpriced horses like him but tissue prices are certainly a big help in finding his like.

The Punting Confessional: Opportunities and Threats

Opportunities & Threats

Opportunities & Threats

Tony Keenan has taken us all the way through race analysis to bet formation, followed by an explanation on how to review your year as a whole. Last week, Tony gave us a review of his own personal performance in 2012 and he closes this chapter by taking a look back at the opportunities and threats that he was presented with last year in...

...The Punting Confessional – January 9th 2013

Let’s conclude this short series on analysing a punting year by looking at the opportunities and threats that arose in the last twelve months for me.

Opportunities: Chances for development take many forms in betting; for someone who struggles to get on, something as small as the arrival of a new betting shop in the locality with fresh staff who don’t know you could be an opportunity.

On a larger scale, the arrival of the all-weather track at Dundalk in 2007 was a boon to me though it took a few years for me to grasp it; the course offers just the grade of racing I like betting on, wild market fluctuations (particularly on the exchanges), consistent ground conditions, draw biases and pedigree angles. Best of all, some seem prejudiced against it – perhaps due to the perception from the UK that all-weather is muck or at least monotonous – which has led to it being largely under-analysed and resulting in overpriced horses.

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Opportunity also refers to planning for the next year and I could write a full article on this itself. The backbone of my form study in the past two years has been doing video reviews of almost every flat meeting run in Ireland during that period and some of the results have been published on a sister site to this one.

While profitable in terms of throwing up future winners, the time cost of doing these is huge and I am not quite sure I can afford it in 2013. There is no replacement for doing one’s own video analysis as it is exclusive by nature and I still intend to do as many as I can but already I am going to raise the white flag in terms of doing every meeting.

To compensate for this I am seriously considering using Timeform is some shape or form to plug the gap and it may not be the perfect solution there are only so many hours in the day.

Pace is another area that I want to develop my knowledge. While it wouldn’t be the determining factor it is in dirt racing in the US, pace is an important component of racing in these islands and crucially it is underrated by the market.

The absence of sectional times is central to this as it becomes a subjective issue with no data to analyse; in this regard, backwardness is a plus for punters. Pace is perhaps a better tool for post-race analysis rather than pre-race prediction as tactics often change but it is noticeable how often Hugh Taylor puts up eye-catchers based solely on pace and there is an edge to be had here.

In terms of improving in this area, I want to do some reading on the subject, particularly the somewhat arcane ‘Modern Pace Handicapping’ by Tom Brohamer, a literary Everest I have stalled on the foothills in the past. In other areas, I’m interested in reading ‘Fooled by Randomness’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and ‘Risk Intelligence’ by Dylan Evans.

Part of me wants to get into the area of speed figures but with the exception of Dundalk where there are no rail movements, I am very dubious about the accuracy or otherwise of race distances in Ireland which would render such calculations difficult. I recall a letter from Naas racecourse manager Tom Ryan to the Irish Field last June in which he talked about rail movements at the track and I suspect that is the norm at Irish venues.

This is by no means to get a dig into Ryan as he is one of the better track managers (though the competition is hardly stiff), merely support for the belief that compiling speed figures on Irish racing would be difficult. Instead, I’d like to work on pedigrees and find those sires whose progeny have strong predilections for particular surfaces or distances.

Some of these are well-known – such as Captain Rios on soft ground – but there are certainly less obvious ones that are underestimated by the market.

Threats: The main threat for any even moderately successful punter is no more than the obvious, getting on. These days the clampers at the big bookmakers are out in force at even the whiff of a winning punter and while actual account closures may not be all that common, restrictions to buttons and phone-calls to the trading department are constant.

There are ways and means of getting around this (and if anyone wants to reveal more, don’t be afraid to comment on the bottom of this post!) but one also has to deal with it psychologically; there are times when you see a price that you just cannot take and it’s important not to get frustrated by this and go on tilt.

Restrictions are the job of the modern bookmaker and it’s best to look for solutions not problems as you would drive yourself mad at the unfairness of it; some sort of equanimity, difficult though it may be, seems the best approach.

Coping with the boredom and grind of day-to-day punting is another challenge. Sometimes the slog of the summer is difficult with meetings almost every day and you can be threading water in terms of making a profit for a long period; as I’ve said before, touches tend to come sporadically not regularly.

You have to tell yourself that every piece of form study, though not always valuable, has the potential to be so, one just doesn’t know it beforehand, akin to a prospector looking for gold. There are times when I struggle with the boredom angle but it can be good to think that I’ll deal with it when it becomes unbearable which it probably never will, it’s more the thought of it than anything.

My ideal punting scenario would probably be somewhere between the meetings mania of the summer and fallow lands of the winter with about three meetings per week. The reality of course is that you can’t have your cake and eat and you have to go with the calendar. You may tell yourself that you can’t miss out a meeting but you must do that sometimes in order to have a break.