I’ve been penning on these pages for well over a year now, writes Jon Shenton. As a novice who has never written anything for public consumption previously, it’s been very challenging. It’s also been highly enjoyable, and I’ve learnt plenty regarding racing, and basic grammar, along the way!
For regulars, you'll know the form: a bit of data, a chunk of blurb and perhaps a few nice angles (and some occasionally less nice ones) on the journey.
But this edition is a bit different, a little more reflective and general in nature, aiming to mull some of the challenges associated with a systematic betting approach. I very much hope that it’s not too self-indulgent [it's not. Ed.] and is of some interest to the data driven bettor.
Angles and Demons
My name is Jon Shenton and I have 679 angles / betting systems saved in my portfolio. Many aren’t active but most are.
I’ve been building, maintaining and running angles since April 2016. Prior to that, an annual trip to Gold Cup day was my only exposure to racing and resulted in nine straight years without a hint of trouble for the bookies. However, three winners at Cheltenham on a Friday in March, using detailed but on reflection misguided study, changed everything. My success that day was without doubt 100% attributable to good fortune rather than skill, but in my mind I was up and running.
From that moment, I spent seemingly every spare second researching, analysing and listening in order to develop a deeper understanding of racing. I began betting only pennies (paper trading is not for me!) initially, but over time those pennies have turned into a few pounds as confidence levels and results have improved.
It all sounds perfect, doesn't it? Making a small amount of pocket money on the nags is something that never seemed to be a realistic proposition; having a leisure activity, that hands out a bit of spendo is a wonderful pursuit.
However, in recent times my enjoyment levels from racing, and betting on it, have been waning a little. I haven’t given it a huge amount of thought until now. But when I was challenged to write this article it became a catalyst to think about the bigger picture and to step back from the day to day noise. It was then that I realised that I haven’t really been plugged into the sport in the same way over the past few months.
Ultimately, I think it’s because the process of systematically wagering on racing through angles is exceptionally transactional in nature. Zooming out and evaluating from a distance it can feel - and had started to feel - in large part like a glorified admin function. And, frankly, there aren’t many people in the world who relish a good bit of relaxing admin in their own spare time.
A typical weekday starts in the evening when all the following day's qualifying bets are written down from the relevant website(s) and tools. Then, at 5.15am on the day of racing, the alarm delivers its familiar but always rude awakening. A quick shower, and with a cup of tea all bets are placed for the day. Then it’s out of the door bright and early to the day job.
Working full-time as I do, it’s nigh on impossible to keep across racing during working hours (deliberately avoided for obvious reasons hopefully) and I check the results when I get home. Then it’s the treat of recording all of the results on a tracking spreadsheet and repeating the process. Every single day.
Some days are quieter than others: in 2019 thus far there have been north of 3,200 angle-generated bets that have been struck. Not sure how I feel about that in the cold light of day - perhaps I need to be more selective - but it certainly illustrates the associated admin challenge.
The graph below shows the result of these type of wagers from that start point in 2016.
Predominantly, these numbers have been delivered through win only level stake betting (more on staking later): it’s non-emotive, low engagement wagering; and there is very little in the way of subjectivity or personal thought in the process. That process is rigid: identify a qualifier, write it down, place a bet, check the result and record the outcome.
The results are strong undoubtedly, with margin ordinarily 10-15% over the course of a year. At this point it should be noted that a portion of this return is attributable to best odds guaranteed. Transacting at early prices with BOG presents an element of 'natural value' with the relatively high volume of bets that are placed. The retreat of this offer to later in the day is creating a hurdle that in time will need to be overcome to maintain my current margin. Placing bets any later than 6am is not going to be possible due to other commitments, so I’m going to need to find a way to evolve or accept a lower rate of return.
Putting these thoughts to print has helped me to recognise that it’s the research, number crunching and theory testing that keeps the fire burning. Sure, the results have a certain satisfaction associated with them, but there is no doubt that the overall process is a little cold, clinical and mechanical. The highly structured, highly disciplined, admin heavy approach works financially but my level of engagement with the sport is lacking.
The alternative to stuffy system/angle betting is the good old emotional roller coaster of traditional wagering: taking stock of all the usual elements and variables of a given race and pinning your colours to the mast around one animal.
I am partial to a “normal” bet too, the general parlance used on geegeez.co.uk is “action” betting so we’ll stick with that terminology from here on in.
Angle/system betting is the rhythm section of the gambling universe, whereas action bets might be seen as the freewheeling, edgy lead guitarist.
Here is a graph illustrating the outcome of my guitar licks over the past 2-and-a-half years.
Not exactly Slash or Hendrix is it?
The graph follows a profile like a Next Big Thing that burns brightly for a time before hitting the skids and hurtling back into relative obscurity.
2019 has clearly been the year of excessive drink, substance abuse, creative differences and a spectacular fall from grace (metaphorically, of course) for my action bets. For context, there have been 645 of them in 2019 to date with 81 successes (counting an E/W collection as 0.2 of a win). Depressingly, I’m not entirely sure why this year has been so difficult, though I suspect there is an element of attempting to be too smart and punting beyond my means and capabilities. A little knowledge can be dangerous, especially when there is a natural attraction to against the crowd punting and (ostensibly) generous prices!
A result of the downturn has been an easing back on the volume of action bets. Roughly speaking, I’ve had less than half the action bets over the past three months that I would have had based on the previous two-year volume averages.
Easing off on the action seems a sensible approach. A brutal personal assessment (stats don’t lie?) is that my race reading ability is not in the same league as the cold data-driven angle approach; so why bother wasting time trying to pick winners when the angles do it better? There is certainly limited financial reason to play in action betting, based on the recent numbers, and locking money away in a cash ISA would make more sense commercially. But not even Derren Brown could convince me that a risk-free return in a tax-free saving account was more fun than poring through race cards, form, pace maps and whatever else.
Through trying to get under the skin of a race and piecing it together, it affords an opportunity to further learn and to develop a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in racing - and in betting on racing. It is sport after all, and an action bet can solidify the link to it. The spectacle and sense of occasion obviously stands on its own merit but evaluating a race closely (betting or not) creates a deeper and more vested interest in the outcome. Most importantly, it generates interest, excitement, and fun.
My life has revolved around sport since I was knee high to the proverbial green jumpy insect. However, my career has generally revolved around the use of data. Racing is perfectly positioned to straddle both. The rational side of me struggles with undue risk and losing money; the sporting and emotional side connects with the characters, animals and theatre of the event, and wants to be financially implicated.
But a recent conscious choice to withdraw from action betting had resulted in less time invested in the sport and, as a result, my previously voracious appetite to consume as much information and knowledge as possible has ebbed a little.
On introspection, then, I know that action betting must be here to stay: I just need to get better at it! It’s a wonderful sport, and to measure the enjoyment of it by financial return and transactions alone is the wrong way of looking at it. Being less uptight about action bets is key. And keeping them separate / treating them as fun, rather than angle-driven investments, is a clear and necessary way forward.
The single biggest challenge with action betting is finding the capacity to do it properly. Finding time to study in any depth is difficult for me due to other commitments, like - you know - work and family! Undoubtedly, that’s where the toolkit on geegeez assists hugely in cutting through some of the noise.
What geegeez cannot do is support with the mental challenges associated with a ticking clock and wagering. It’s a personal thing but occasionally in the evening I’ll put on ATR or Racing TV and decide to have a quick check of the card just before the off. The intent is to evaluate the race at high level and see how that goes. Who’s going to lead? Who has course form? And so on...
However, it’s hard not to get attracted to a bet even in that very short window. Each to their own, but over the past couple of months I’ve refrained from these type of wagers as, for me, they invariably end in disappointment.
A similar limitation related to time, laziness or general apathy is that once pinpointing a “good thing” it can be devilishly difficult to walk away without a wagering commitment. It is the potential opportunity cost of reversing from a successful bet where the problem lies. A race comprises of many possible winners, certainly not just the one identified as having the course form, front-running potential, good draw or whatever edge seems to be apparent. Finding contenders isn’t the main challenge. No, my main challenge relates to understanding how the highlighted horse compares against the rest of the field and knowing when to step back rather than ploughing in regardless.
I’ve committed to at least evaluating the top four or five in the market before making an action bet now. It sounds basic and obvious, but part of the process of trying to improve is assessing why things aren’t working. My hope is that, by implementing this basic rule, there will be an upturn in action-based performance. We’ll see.
General angle betting thoughts
Getting back to angle betting, I have a few other observations to share.
Firstly, should all qualifiers get backed blindly or not? A lot of people use an angle as a starting point and then apply subjective judgement to that qualifier in determining whether to put the money down.
This does not work for me. I am an advocate of backing blind. Here's why: the angle works because it’s not subjective, and it can throw up contrarian winners to which the market is largely blind. By applying a judgement filter there is a danger of conforming to the market view and losing the angle's edge.
Below is a case study that burns, even today.
This race from 2017 is taken from my 'I know better' phase where I’d evaluate each qualifier and exclude some from a bet based on my opinion.
The qualifier in question is Guishan from a Mick Appleby sprint angle, number 3 on the card above. This animal was discounted due to its sub-optimal draw in box 11 of 12. Everyone knows a horse can’t win from that draw over a sprint trip at Chester, don’t they? Anyway, as I sat down to watch it with a nice cup of tea and a smug feeling of avoiding an inevitable loss, I was gripped by unfolding sense of horror. Guishan tacked over from a high draw, secured a reasonable position and swept by all-comers in the home straight to win with a degree of comfort. At 25/1. There are lots of other case studies with resemblance to this one but I'll spare you - and me! - the details.
Moving on, if there is a good reason to adapt an angle I will. For example, certain trainers may qualify at specific tracks or under certain conditions but they have a poor record with horses first or second time out. In such a situation, I would have no qualms adjusting or improving the angle by excluding these, because that decision would be evidence-based. But those subjective, opinion-based exclusions need to be consigned to the wheelie bin of history.
Before closing, a line or two on staking. There are countless words available on this subject and no doubt the vast majority are better informed than what follows. However, I hope my relative inexperience can be of some reassurance to those of you who are still finding your way.
Quite frankly, in terms of staking, keeping it simple is the most important for me. I have researched and read a fair amount on optimising stakes but, in all honesty, I don’t understand a great deal of it! I certainly have no real idea how much value there is in each bet to adjust stakes accordingly, and I’d be guessing if applying something like the Kelly Criterion in the real world. I’ve tried measuring value by creating my own tissue prices but I’m a million miles away from making that work for me effectively.
Basically, the less I think about from a staking perspective the better. In general, level stakes keep it a thought free process for me. That said, there is some room for manoeuvre, depending on the category of bet and my track record with them. My current staking plan is as follows:
- 2 points win – All-weather premium angle
- 1.5-point win – All-weather standard angle
- 1.5-point win – Flat turf premium angle
- 1-point win – Flat turf standard angle
- 1-point win – National Hunt angle
- 1-point win / 0.5 points EW – Action bet
The only subjective part is what makes a premium or standard angle. That’s down to performance and chi score (one for another day) which is a statistical measure to indicate the likelihood of results being attributable to chance or not.
An example of a premium angle is the Derek Shaw, Chelmsford Class 4-7 at 11/1 or shorter contained within the below edition of punting angles. That is proven over a period in a live environment.
I think staking plans boil down to understanding ones strengths and weaknesses, and betting accordingly. If you do struggle or worry about staking, then in my experience a level stakes approach takes a lot of the noise and confusion away.
In fact, I think that’s what this article is predominantly about. Strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Writing it has certainly helped me to think about my betting - specifically, what I’m good at and what I have as development areas (corporate speak).
Even if the experiences I've shared in this article don’t help directly, taking a bit of time out to reflect on your betting approach, strategies and performance is a sensible and pragmatic thing to do occasionally. And no better moment than during this break.
I hope you enjoy the festivities, and here’s to an exciting, fun and profitable 2020 racing. It really is a special sport like no other.