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Tony Keenan meets Feidhlim Cunningham

Feidhlim Cunningham – From Trading Room to Training Yard

Racing and betting can be uncomfortable bedfellows, especially if you listen to some trainers about bookmakers, but the association does not seem to bother Champion Hurdle-winning handler Gavin Cromwell. Instead, Cromwell has been using the relationship to his advantage, employing former Paddy Power odds complier Feidhlim Cunningham as his race planner since 2018, writes Tony Keenan.

The pair first met in 2016 when Cunningham acquired Bottleofsmoke, a nine-race maiden, out of a Dundalk claimer in July that year. “He was rated 45 when we got him and we were thrilled to get him up to 68 and I got to know Gavin through that. We were plotting a course with him so I’d ring him and say there’s a race in four or five weeks that would suit and he always seemed appreciative of that. I hadn’t a clue about the training side but it worked well and he also managed to get a win out of a limited bumper horse at Stratford that I had with a few friends.”

Like many before him, Cunningham got into racing at college where he was a self-described ‘maths nerd’ but spent most of his time in University College Galway punting. After that, there were two years at a spread betting firm where the learning curve was steep. “You had to be so accurate there. At Powers, you could be 5’s about something that should be 10’s but you weren’t getting filled in by being too short on it whereas with the spreads, punters can lay the other side of it.”

There followed five years of odds compiling at Powers where he did “mainly Irish racing… learning plenty from the more experienced lads and as you watch racing everyday, your race reading improves.” He loved working there, “I was dying to go into work and did all the extra hours going”, but at the end of 2017 felt it was time for a change. That was where Cromwell came in and asked him if he wanted to place a few horses and two years later he’s still there.

A typical day for the racing manager starts on the gallops for first lot; this is a relatively new development as he tries to improve his knowledge of the pure training side. Cunningham is at pains to point out that his job is “racing manager rather than assistant trainer… my knowledge of the physical animal would be limited compared to lads working them their whole lives; I know that and Gavin knows that, I’m there to do the job of form.”

“From there, it’s back to the office for declarations at 10am, booking jockeys, declaring headgear, doing the entries for five or six days ahead before liaising with owners about their horses.”

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Some parts of the job are not all that different from his previous occupation: “I’d be half pricing races up in my head and trying to rate them one to five in terms of quality to see what our best option is. I try to have a good idea what engagement we will take up from weights stage, the day after declarations while also keeping an eye on other horses’ entries.”

Other parts of the job are just “a lot of boring office stuff like vaccinations” but he often goes racing when the trainer needs representation; that can be a very nice part of the job when things work out, not so much when there is some explaining to do. Dealing with owners is something he enjoys, some of whom will take an active interest in placing their horses, while his background in the betting industry can be useful for those inclined towards a punt.

There is a plan for every horse in the yard, no matter their ability level, and those are done in conjunction with the trainer. “I give him a list of horses and he tells me when they’ll be ready. I can then make a plan, the odd time I’d try to twist his arm. Every horse has a target but those plans are flexible. If it is not working, we will just change it.”

Last year’s Bellewstown July meeting was a time when the plans of a number of horses came together, the yard managing seven winners across the four-day meeting. “We targeted Bellewstown as a festival last year and aimed to have as many runners primed for it as we could. We picked out a number of horses that would be suited to races there four to six weeks beforehand; it just meant that we would go there instead of an alternative race a week or two either side of it. It is Gavin's local track and thankfully things worked out, he got them there in great nick.”

Plans will typically start with the aim of winning a race in Ireland but if the horse is struggling, they are not afraid to travel. “The initial aim is to win at home but the likes of Dundalk can be very competitive in the winter and, as Gavin says, we want winners.” When placing horses in the UK, Cunningham says that the “fully transparent entries and declarations are a massive help to race planners as can see what is entered before the race closes. Not all trainers have time to look through every race and we’ve won several races in Britain because of that, the Perth Silver Cup with Callthebarman was one example.”

Cromwell’s yard has grown exponentially in recent years; from 18 winners in 2016, their winners have gone 28, 45, 88 in the three years since. They were one of six Irish National Hunt yards to have at least 100 individual runners last season along with Mullins, Elliott, de Bromhead, O’Brien and Meade. This spurt is by design: “when I came here, Gavin was saying he wanted to give it a real go, the aim is to keep growing, you either compete or you don’t. We have a great team in the yard. Jonathan Moore has come in as stable jockey and done really well for us; we have one of the leading conditionals in the country in Conor McNamara, who went from strength to strength last season, and we also have the valuable claim of Breen Kane. Everyone in the yard works extremely hard to achieve the best results that we can.”

Part of that scaling up might be getting the bigger owners on board: this is a yard that, outside of JP McManus, is made up of “the smaller man, the medium man, syndicates”. Cunningham points out that “22 of our winners last year cost ten grand or less, we don’t aim for that and would like a higher quality of horse but we work with what we have”. On the broader subject of attracting new owners he says, “you hope what you’re doing with your horses will be evident to lads, we purchased a couple of horses from big owners that we did well with and that might perk their interest. If you do it on the track, you hope these lads will come to you”.

Getting bigger is not without its difficulties and he warns that “you don’t want to lose the personal touch, and Gavin has time for everyone”. Cromwell is described as a “good delegator” and you get the impression he is not afraid to back his staff. He is “upfront with owners which people tend to appreciate”. He also says his boss is “a brilliant judge of when a horse is or isn’t right” though this is more “a feel thing” than rooted in data.

Cunningham says that Cromwell’s best trait as a trainer is that “he gets the best out of them. He is very level-headed, he doesn’t get too down on himself when things don’t go right and he doesn’t get carried away with success. You don’t see many leaving and doing better elsewhere. The job he did with Espoir D’Allen was different class. To win a Champion Hurdle in the fashion he did really put Gavin’s training abilities in the limelight. Every quality horse he has had has fulfilled their potential”. Darver Star was freakish in this regard – “you just can’t explain his rate of improvement” – but there are other highlights from his time in the yard.

Lever Du Soleil won four in a row in the UK last summer. “We had three picked out and knocked a fourth out of it too but it’s not every horse that can go over and back like that. Over there, the way penalties work, you’ve got more chance of running up a sequence. He went from 54 to 84 in 18 days and it’s funny, lads remember that even though it’s low grade, it captures the imagination”.

The late decision to run Jeremy’s Flame (finished second) in January’s Tolworth Hurdle was another proud moment. “She was a late entry for that race getting the allowance and from my time in Powers I am inclined to take on the talking horses that haven’t done it yet so she was entitled to take her chance. 6/1 for a Grade 1 and 6/1 for a handicap on her next start, that was a good bit of placing”.

Patience and looking ahead is important in his job. “Top Of The Charts won four times last season and from a race planning side there were only two hurdles in the whole calendar that were backing up where he could win at the grade and back up under the penalty within 6 days. That worked well when he won at both Down Royal and Clonmel in late August and early September.”

Finding the next one is a major part of his job and one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects. “With the horse-in-training sales, I’ll go through every single horse which is a fair task as there are 1,500 in some of them. I’ll make notes on everything, go to Gavin with a list of 40-50 that I think have upside, he’ll look at them physically and scratch three-quarters of them on physical aspects he doesn’t like, the other 15 we’ll bid on and hopefully come home with four or five.

“He is happy to back me on form and we have done well from these sales. Wolf Prince was a good one, he won twice and finished second in a Grade 1 juvenile hurdle last season while Running In Heels [despite being nine when she joined the yard] won four times in 2018 having been purchased for £2,500.” Cunningham says that one of his strengths is that he comes at it “from a betting & form approach, not taking lads’ word as gospel who might be down on the horse for one reason or another.”

Doing his own video form and analysis, he is inclined to ignore the noise and “go with the formbook or the angle we have that might see them improve”. There are times when he hears something negative afterwards from someone previously involved with the horse but “you have to back yourself and it has worked out so far.”

Tony Keenan was speaking with Feidhlim Cunningham, race planner for trainer Gavin Cromwell

Tony Keenan: Left-field Horses from Cheltenham

Race-reading was the theme here last time, and I’m going to return to it now having gotten the chance to go through the replays from the most recent Cheltenham Festival in full, writes Tony Keenan. A period without live racing has meant ample time to burrow into those races that are often deep, with even those running down the field quite conceivably posting career-bests.

Rather than focus on the obvious ones – not that there is anything wrong with that – I have tried to find horses that probably shaped better than the result while at the same time finished out of the frame (with one exception), mixing in their previous form to suggest reasons they may be interesting in the future. I apologise in advance to UK-centric punters as there is a distinct Irish lean with these eight horses. I have my own reasons for that!

Heaven Help Us – 7th Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Anything that could go wrong for Heaven Help Us in the Supreme, did. Having had a decent early position chasing the pace, she made slight errors at the first two hurdles and was soon back in midfield before getting squeezed out at the third as Shishkin made his error, forcing her into the rear of the field.

Switched wide after that, perhaps to get a clear sight of the her hurdles as she had not jumped well, she was going fine heading down the hill only to twice find herself as the last domino in the Asterion Forlonge demolition derby, hampered at both two and three out as that one jumped markedly right losing all chance.

Having been tenth at the second last, she ran on well to take seventh and likely would have posted a career-best but for everything that went against her, a fine effort for one of the rags of the field, sent off with a Betfair SP of 399.

Her Christmas form when second to Abacadabras, having looked false at the time, reads much better now and she made her effort earlier than ideal then too, so she must be interesting for minor graded hurdles for mares at least.

Mitchouka – 6th Novice Handicap Chase

The whatever-it’s-called-now novice handicap chase was run in a good time which usually means there are some good horses down the field aside from the winner and runner-up who pulled clear, and Mitchouka might be one of those.

Having settled in midfield early on, he made a mistake at the first down the back which forced him to the rear of the field after which his jumping was none too quick. Still at the back of the main pack three out, he ran on well to take sixth, passing a host of rivals in the straight.

This is a bit of a bet on the trainer who, despite running very few horses (basically a private handler for Chris Jones), has shown himself a capable operator this season. Mitchouka had lost his way with Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown with very few signs of life year before joining this yard.

There have been others too, Cedarwood Road brought along nicely to win a listed novice last time and now looks set up for a good time novice chasing next season; while recent Ulster National winner Space Cadet might have been best of all. He had been without a win under rules since October 2016 before that.

Birchdale – 8th Coral Cup

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Being in front – or even close to it – early on is typically the last place horses want to be in races like the Coral Cup where it usually pays to be delivered late; but this year’s race was unusual in that most of the main players were either up with the pace or not far off it as the gallop was surprisingly ordinary.

Cracking Smart did well to take fourth having raced in rear but his overall profile and often lazy run style mean he’s hardly one to follow while another of the hold-up horses, the sixth Bachasson, already managed to sneak a win in before lockdown commenced.

Most interesting of all might be the eighth, Birchdale, who did well to finish so close given where he started his run from. He had hardly had the ideal prep for this race either with this being his first start since running over fences the previous November.

A slowly-run two-and-a-half miles was hardly his optimum conditions either with connections viewing him as a three-miler last season (sent off 6/1 for the Albert Bartlett) and he retains lots of potential after just five career runs.

Gealach – 8th Fred Winter

It is hard to believe that it took until New Year’s Eve for Gordon Elliott to have a juvenile hurdle winner and he had been 0/30 with only two places to that point. Fast forward to the Fred Winter where he went one-three-four-eight-nine – it is almost as if there was a plan!

That initial winner was Gealach at Punchestown and he might be the one to take from the Fred Winter, allowing that there were reasons to be positive about the other Elliott runners too, not least Recent Revelations.

Coming into race off a 60-day break, he was awkward at the third and generally struggled with the pace throughout, inclined to be on and off the bridle. But he was moving into contention before a vital error three out put him in behind horses, sub-optimal for a horse that lacks gears.

From there he stayed on well to take eighth, beaten less than six lengths, and given his best flat form was over 12 furlongs-plus, there should be more to come from him up in trip.

Eskylane – 5th Champion Bumper

The standing start looked against Eskylane as Davy Russell wanted to be handy; but his mount was a bit slowly into stride and then got shuffled back early. The six-year-old fairly powered through the race thereafter (as is his wont) and looked a threat to all out wide early in the straight, hitting 2/1 in running.

The final effort wasn’t quite there but he travelled as well as anything before eventually finishing fifth (beaten a neck and a head for third) and it is possible his keen-going ways will be curbed a little when going hurdling; Felix Desjy and Abacadabras (both Grade 1 winners as novice hurdlers) raced freely in this race for the same yard in previous seasons.

This looked a strong running of the Champion Bumper and produced a good time while Eskylane’s previous form reads well too; he was only beaten by the now 141-rated hurdler Assemble on racecourse debut, with Appreciate It in third; while the fourth and fifth from the race have both won their maiden hurdles since.

Intriguingly, the race, run at Fairyhouse, was a memorial contest for Gordon Elliott’s uncle Willie Elliott, so it would have been one that the trainer was keen to win.

Tornado Flyer – 5th Marsh Novices’ Chase

It is rare that Willie Mullins runs his horses in the wrong races at Cheltenham but there is a suspicion he left a win or two on the table with his middle-distance and staying novice chasers this time around; in my eyes, Allaho and Easy Game should have been in the Marsh while Faugheen and Tornado Flyer would have been better off in the RSA.

The last of those doesn’t have the profile of some of the others but has only run two bad races in his life (bizarrely, at the same early-January meeting at Naas, a year apart) and has looked all about stamina since winning an attritionally-run Punchestown Champion Bumper in 2018.

He looked ill-suited by the moderate gallop of the Marsh, not helping himself by jumping badly, but even so did well to go from tenth turning in to a strong-finishing fifth at the line. Three miles looks his thing though we will have to wait until next season to find out if that is the case.

Embittered – 3rd County Hurdle

Strictly speaking, Moon Over Germany was the big eye-catcher in the County, Rachael Blackmore sending him to the front two out which looked a premature move; but he doesn’t entirely convince with his attitude (awkward head carriage here) and Embittered – who had been up there throughout and fought off that rival before the last – seems a more solid option.

Winning a Festival handicap hurdle from the front tends to be difficult but Embittered was good enough to hang on for third despite this. The performance also hinted at abundant stamina: there is a suspicion that despite spending his whole career to date at two miles, he is one that will be better over further.

I am no great judge of this but Timeform say he is a chasing type, which is likely where he is headed next year, while he also comes from the strongest novice hurdle form line of the season having finished fifth to Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond.

The Wolf – 7th Albert Bartlett

Though the complete rag of the Albert Bartlett field when sent off at a Betfair SP of 339, The Wolf didn’t shape that way at all and deserved to finish a bit closer.

Held up near last in a slowly-run race and trapped wide the entire way, he was starting to make a move two out where he made a mistake before rallying well in the straight and passing four rivals from the final flight.

This was his first run over three miles and it brought improvement, with a truer test at the trip likely to see him in a better light again. He’s gotten better for the move to Olly Murphy and there looks to be more to come.

- TK

[Geegeez Gold users may add these horses to your tracker here]

Tony Keenan: Why I’m Worried About Gambling

I’m worried about gambling. Not my own gambling per se, though a couple more winners would always be appreciated, but where the whole pursuit is going, writes Tony Keenan.

The 2010's were the decade when gambling in Ireland and beyond became normalised. It was hardly an illicit, back-street hobby in the early 2000's but recent years have seen it become utterly mainstream through its ubiquity, from TV ads to football sponsorship, odds making their way into conversations like never before. Technology was the great enabler of this expansion: why go to a betting shop when you could have ten of them in your pocket?

Today, where there is sport, there is betting. It was ever thus for racing and indeed this has been its primary attraction for many (myself included) but it is something new for many sports. This normalisation of gambling may have been the greatest achievement of betting companies, opening up markets and customers that were hitherto unavailable to them, but it seems that a tipping point is about to be reached if we are not already there; have they been too successful in this process and about to be hoist by their own petard?

Sympathy for bookmakers has always been in short supply, the profession ranking close to politicians and solicitors in the public’s eyes, but the last few years have seen a sharp swing in sentiment against them. Our society now demands transparency when much betting market activity is cloudy but campaigners like Brian Chappell and Paul Fairhead, and newspapers like The Guardian, have done sterling work in bringing abject abuses into the light.

They are to be commended for this and have played their part in forcing welcome regulatory changes in the UK, from reduced stakes on FOBTs to banning the use of credit cards for online accounts, with limitations on VIP programmes perhaps to come. Self-regulation by betting companies doesn’t work, such attempts inevitably at odds with commercial concerns and there has been a certain acceptance of this from the firms themselves, publicly at least. They have had to take some pain and there will be more to come but while they needed a kick, a kicking even, do they deserve to be kicked to to the kerb?

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Punters need bookmakers unless the whole model of betting in these islands is going to change drastically, and my worry now is that gambling will be used as political capital by those who don’t really understand the area. Gambling and betting companies (and, by extension, punters) are the easiest of targets for politicians looking to score points.

To the forefront of all this is the very real issue of problem gambling. It is a difficult topic to write about, not least because I have thankfully never been there and hope I never will be. The fear of losing everything is something that lurks in the background with most if not all serious gamblers. That fear is not necessarily a bad thing either; fear can be a great motivator first of all but also act as a regulator if tempted to stake too heavily when we may believe we have a huge edge; racing punters are still betting on animals running around a field.

Nor am I any expert in the statistics of problem gambling which seem to throw up mixed messages and, in any case, those numbers could be wrong: losing a lot of money, often in the most private of fashions, does not seem like something people would want to disclose. It is a concern for society as a whole, perhaps even a public health issue, but most figures seem to bear out the truth that it affects a minority of gamblers and how we deal with the whole gambling area should not be dictated totally by the few when the many it brings joy to many.

I love gambling, particularly gambling on racing, which remains the ultimate betting puzzle with all its variables. I won’t pretend that every aspect of it is good. It can be a self-inflicted emotional roller coaster with losses hard to take, while it comes at a significant time cost if doing it seriously; there are other more productive and beneficial things we could alternatively be at. But, for me at least, the positives outweigh the negatives: among other things, it teaches us how to lose (frequently) and can make us learn to be disciplined, while I have made some of best friends through gambling and racing.

There is also the issue of freedom. Irresponsibility is present in most aspects of life from eating to drinking to driving to internet use; there are many things that aren’t particularly good for you when done to excess and a life spent gambling is hardly contributing much to society. But it is fun and if the majority of people who partake are enjoying it without doing significant harm to others, they should be allowed to continue.

This freedom may well be curtailed in the near-future however, perhaps significantly so. Unlike the UK, Ireland has no Gambling Commission yet but it is coming in some form and how quickly it is expedited will be determined by the next government, which may be less than sympathetic to betting interests. The most popular party in the most recent elections on some measures, Sinn Fein, stated in their manifesto that they would "conduct a short review of the gambling sector and introduce reform to the sector", allowing that these manifestos are often not worth the paper they are printed on after the voting is done.

Any new laws would surely aim to protect the vulnerable which is both a worthy and necessary goal, but should also be cognisant of the fact that not all gambling is problem gambling. The concern would be that regulators could be people with an anti-gambling agenda or may have no grasp of the area and thus the rules could be badly thought out or too draconian.

What form these regulations may take is unclear. An increase in betting tax (perhaps passed on to the punter) would be an obvious one, especially as Horse Racing Ireland have been lobbying for it for a while now. But any new rules seem likely to be more wide-reaching than that - some sort of source-of-funds/affordability check perhaps on the cards. This could be applied on or soon after registration for an online account or appearance in a betting shop and would make it virtually impossible for people to bet beyond their means but at the same time prevent people betting at a scale they are comfortable with.

The amount a punter can bet may be linked to their salary. So a person earning €39,000 (the average industrial wage in Ireland at the end of 2019) may be allowed to lose 10% of that in a year; I am guessing completely here, the figure may be much lower or higher. There is obviously a big difference between turning over that €3,900 in a given period and actually losing it all, but would the regulators know that? A punter can make a tank of that size go a long way in terms of time and they might, heaven forbid, even increase it.

Staking is a very broad church and I would not describe myself as remotely high-staking but nor do I want to do this for fivers and tenners at a time; there has to be some tangible reward for success. I realise gambling regularly can inure you to the value of money and you probably need to be a little loose, not thinking about stakes in terms of cups of coffee, nights out, even holidays. Bookmakers telling you what you can and cannot stake is one thing as there will always be ways and means of getting around their restrictions but government regulation might be something different entirely.

One thing that seems certain is that winning punters of any sort, whether they be making a living or simply getting a few quid, won’t be considered in this. That group have a tendency of finding a way but this could present yet another stumbling block with any sort of increased customer due diligence likely to work against them.

Ultimately, these laws in some form seem inevitable. One would hope that they will be constructed by people who have a real sense of subject matter and that punters won’t get caught in the crossfire between politicians and betting companies where betting volume just gets driven underground, which brings a wealth of other potential problems. Perhaps gambling should never have been allowed to become so utterly normalised but I would not want to see it demonised either.

- TK

Four Racing/Betting Books You Should Read

I love both reading and betting so combining the two is time well spent, writes Tony Keenan. More than any other subject, I tend to reread books on racing/betting in the hope that 0n the second or third run-through I will get more out of them. Below are four of my favourite books on the subject and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section below or on Twitter @RacingTrends; I’m always on the lookout for the next good one.

 

‘A Fine Place to Daydream’ – Bill Barich

Racing people and writers often exist in a bubble where ways of thinking become ingrained; sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to draw interesting stuff from insiders because they look at things in a different way. Recent interviews on Newstalk with racing figures like Davy Russell and Willie Mullins support this view and Bill Barich is another example.

Barich is an American writer with an interest in the turf if not an obsession and his account of the 2003/4 National Hunt season in Ireland shows what a fresh set of eyes can do for a topic. After landing in the country with his new partner Imelda, the author is drawn into the jumping scene and moves through all the big meetings from October to March, starting at Down Royal for their November meeting onto the Open at Cheltenham and Leopardstown at Christmas, the Thyestes and back to Leopardstown before ultimately finishing up at the Festival.

The book is populated with great characters: Moscow Flyer and Jessica Harrington, Beef Or Salmon and Michael Hourigan, the nascent perennial Champion Trainer Willie Mullins, Tom Costello, Father Breen, Noel O’Brien. In truth, it is all pure nostalgia at this point; written in 2005, before the 12-month Cheltenham news cycle and the arrival of super-trainers, I love – if time permits – to reread it before the Festival if only for the sheer romance of it all.

 

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‘Beyer on Speed’ – Andrew Beyer

You should read anything by Beyer and despite the fact that he hasn’t written a book since 1993, his four efforts – ‘Picking Winners’, ‘My $50,000 Year at the Races’, ‘The Winning Horseplayer’ and ‘Beyer on Speed’ – remain relevant. There is a confidence that borders on arrogance in Beyer’s writing style as he moves from one uncompromising account to another and none of jockeys, trainers or the integrity of the sport are spared. But that self-belief comes from being a long-term winning bettor and basically inventing the modern speed-figure so all is forgiven.

His approach to betting is a mix of objectivity and subjectivity and if you don’t learn something you are probably reading it wrong. Beyer gets across the aspirational side of gambling and the idea that the pursuit of profit is a worthwhile use of your time is never far from his pages. ‘Beyer on Speed’ is my favourite of his canon at present as I’m using times more and more in my betting, but they are all excellent.

 

‘The Undoing Project’ – Michael Lewis

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahnemann (with more than a nod to the deceased Amos Tversky) is apparently a bible of sorts to many modern professional punters; it might be a must-read but it can be a struggle. If you want to take an easier approach then Lewis’s biography of the two men is a more palatable version and covers many of the main ideas in their fields of behavioural economics and prospect theory.

The opening two chapters barely mention the two Israeli economists however as the focus is on Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets basketball franchise. This is familiar ground for Lewis, author of ‘Moneyball’, and he looks at what mistakes Morey tries to avoid making when evaluating talent which are very similar to the ones we should steer clear of when betting. For instance, Morey has banned comparisons of young prospects to players of the same race by scouts in his organisation which can be applied to racing; all too often we lazily compare horses to other horses that have run in same colours or are with the same trainer. There is also a hilarious description (and a warning against judging too much by appearance) when he tells of how some scouts vastly misjudged the talent level of All-Star Marc Gasol because he had ‘man boobs’ and just didn’t look like a basketball player!

We’re more aware of thinking biases than ever now with ‘recency bias this’ and ‘confirmation bias that’ thrown around everywhere but that doesn’t mean we are a whole lot better at avoiding them. Constant refresher courses on the subject are needed and Lewis’s book is an excellent one.

 

‘Tony10’ – Tony O’Reilly and Declan Lynch

Aside from its subject matter, ‘Tony10’ is a brilliantly written book from outset when Lynch describes O’Reilly’s upbringing in Carlow and how the town revels in its own nondescript nature. After that, it has a three-part structure: O’Reilly’s early life in the provincial town, a period of what could only be described as intense degenerate gambling and finally the time spent in jail and life afterwards. You simply cannot stop reading the middle section as it captures a life spiralling out of control with the ratcheting up of stakes, the betting on obscure sports, the nights spent punting on the computer as O’Reilly’s wife and new-born slept in the next room.

It is a masterpiece of ‘show, don’t tell’ as the reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions about what unfolds in the narrative and while most of this is utterly foreign to people who take gambling seriously and are trying to win, it is an important reminder to be wary of the compulsive streak within most of us. And even if we don’t have such a trait, perhaps we should watch out for it in others.

Lynch himself has been on an interesting journey with gambling, starting out with his 2009 book ‘Free Money: A Gambler’s Quest’, essentially a diary of his own punting, through ‘The Ponzi Man’, a 2016 novel about a pathological gambler whose pyramid scheme has come tumbling down, and now to this. He has become polemical in his anti-gambling stance and while that might be too much at times, there is an argument that Irish society with its outdated gambling laws needed to be given a shake.

Rereading books like these is great fun but it does point to something else: there haven’t been too many good racing/betting books penned in the recent past. I enjoyed Paul Jones’s ‘From Soba to Moldova’ though for more experienced punters it may be considered more refresher course than anything else, carried by the author’s inimitable style. Things have changed so much in the modern betting landscape (or that horrible word ‘space’) with statistical models, account restrictions, automated betting and rapidly moving prices among the issues that deserve a fuller treatment. There is interesting material being covered on YouTube and podcasts with Simon Nott’s interview series and the ‘Business of Betting’ with Jake Williams standing out but there is definitely space for a book or two as well; consider that that the challenge laid down!

- Tony Keenan

p.s. which one (or two) books would you add to this list? And, importantly, why? Leave a comment to help build the bibliography!

Tony Keenan: The Bookmakers’ Perspective

The bookmaker-punter divide is one where the boundaries are permeable with many people playing both sides, writes Tony Keenan. Ian Marmion is one such example: Ian has worked with a number of the big betting companies as well as punting professionally for a time; and, along with some friends, he has a few horses in training, not least Ch’Tibello with Dan Skelton.

Much of what I write for Geegeez tends to be punter-centric but it is worth remembering that there are multiple sides to any story. With that in mind, Ian was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the state of the betting industry at present as well as on how racing interacts with it.

 

Let’s start with some biography Ian, what’s your background and how long have you been working in the betting industry?

I suppose I was always a keen punter and got into the industry with various jobs like a cashier and betting shop manager.  I then worked in the raceroom at Paddy Power before moving to Victor Chandler where I progressed through the company, coming back to start operations in Ireland in 2005 when we go some pitches and shops. I thought I was home for good but one day I was over in Gibraltar for a meeting and having been very critical of the firm’s trading policy (which I felt was antiquated) I was asked by Victor to sort it out!

In truth, I was a mug punter up to that point, though I was strong numerically and had a good eye for product. We had a lot of high-stakers and lead accounts, which is very different to how that firm operates now, and I was able to educate myself on how to win. We were aggressive punters in the market and I was following others’ opinions but learning plenty. Over a period of years it got to a point where I was making more money punting than working and having had a tempestuous relationship with Victor I thought I was good enough to give it a go full-time.

I reckoned my bets were coming from about 30% what I got in Chandler’s, 40% other contacts I had made along the way and 30% my own opinion though I probably got that pie wrong! It started badly as I had two consecutive losing months for the first time in a long while but it soon turned around and I was at it full-time for five years.

My skill was getting money on, that’s what I was good at. I was doing business for warm punters with about 10 lads in shops. They’d be ready to go at 10 in the morning, know what shops to do at 10.15, get the message what to bet at 10.30 and have everything done by 11. Getting on is as important a skill as picking winners.

 

You’ve since come back into the betting industry proper; what was your reasoning for stepping back from the punting and joining BetStars as trading director with their sportsbook?

There were a few different reasons. With the punting, I was getting a bit sick of it and some of the developments in the game weren’t helping. It was certainly harder to get on with overnight pricing killing a lot of what we did in the shops in the morning, and the machine [Betfair] was definitely getting more of a grip on Irish racing. Where once we were getting twelve monkeys [£500 at 12/1] at half-ten in the morning, now it was three hundred at 7s. With BetStars, PokerStars were launching a sportsbook and it was going to be based in Dublin; I thought if I turn this down I’m never going back to Ireland and I’m here three years in which time the punting has taken a back-seat.

 

The elephant in the room is account restrictions so we may as well deal with that. When I talk to punters, rightly or wrongly, it’s the only issue they want to discuss. Now maybe there’s some selection bias there as I talk a bit to people who have an idea what they’re doing but restrictions are happening. What are your thoughts on them, both from a work perspective and personally?

With BetStars, we are a new sportsbook so we’re trying to attract customers and inevitably you attract sharp business first. Our horse racing runs profit to 4% return after Best Odds Guaranteed, 7% before BOG which is reasonable and we’ve restricted about 6% of customers this year. Recreational customers have a typical profile. They bet in or around your average stake, they play a good mix of singles and multiples, they tend to do multiples early and singles off the show and they tend to play on higher grade racing. As a new entrant we get a lot of customers that fall outside this typical profile. We don’t have many punters who bet in or around our average stake of €xx [redacted] who we have to restrict. Typically there will be a blatant reason to restrict them and more often than not that blatant reason will be they are arbers.

I’ve been both sides of the fences and for many reasons – cost and technology for example – undoubtedly the quality of trader is not what it once was. There is a part of it where ‘arbers’ is just an excuse where a trader doesn’t want to make a difficult decision, playing lads that aren’t inside the model. That said, I don’t think this is a problem for the tenner and score punter in shops and even online but outside of that, there’s a nervousness and good punters do get caught up due to lack of skills in trading rooms. However, bookmakers have no obligation to feed money to pros or non-recreationals, arbers or bonus abusers.

When I’m looking at it, there are a couple of reasons I wanted to bet a punter. Firstly, when I had a fair chance of beating him and secondly if he told me something I didn’t know myself and that includes bets to a reasonable size.  I didn’t want followers or people just following the machine; you’re not going to beat them and they’re not offering you anything. You can have some winning accounts but you don’t need to pay everyone for the mark.

As for the punting side, a friend says to me that people who can’t get on don’t work hard enough. If you’re that serious and hard-working about it, you’ll get around it. There aren’t as many recreationals as we know it left and, while everybody always criticises bookmakers in saying that they won’t lay without looking at the machine, nobody ever says that the same is true for punters who won’t strike a bet if it is bigger on the machine. We’ve reached a point where nearly every single bet we strike is borderline with the machine price, which is basically borderline zero margin price.

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Let’s go into a little bit more detail on some of these things. Line tracking seems to be the new term for arbing and people at it are copping plenty of flak. Is there much of this going on and can it be done with computer programs?

Punters can do this robotically with programs like OddsMonkey which flag up arbs and automatically places the bets for you. [I ask at this point doesn’t this business stand out a mile.] The biggest industry that has grown up around it is the show arbers, playing off show not earlies. There’s a significant time lag on show and machine prices, where you might have someone backing a horse at 5/2 that is 3.4 on the machine and that business can look square.

I actually think it’s impossible to lose betting show arbs on the front two or three in market with best odds guaranteed as the bookies are betting overbroke. And that’s a scourge for the ordinary punter that people don’t really think about. Recreational punters have to lose to enable some of that money to be distributed to the winners.

 

Some people have suggested that a minimum bet or lay-to-lose guarantee could be a way to go. How would the maths of that stack up?

We have to ask ourselves if can we sustain a minimum bet guarantee without altering the experience of the ordinary punter and I don’t think we can. If minimum bet guarantees came in then best odds guaranteed would have to go and margins would have to increase. Ordinary punters have never had it so good and the fact is that most punters never reach a limit. Increasing margins might well satisfy people who aren’t the typical punter but you would have to remove concessions too. Maybe those who are better than the market would be better off but the ordinary punter won’t be.

 

You’ve mentioned overnight prices earlier. What are your thoughts on them?

They’re the single biggest tool in the bookmakers’ armoury at present as they’re getting to 10am when they typically increase limits and open shops and have prices right for two-eighths of nothing. No one is getting on to any size bar a few VIPs who are big long-term losers and in effect they adjust after every bet and keep adjusting until they get it right. The firms don’t win on overnights and even pre-10am bets and are actually happy to lose as when the limits are upped they are more confident about their prices. Remember, the vast majority still play on the show with the breakdown being roughly 70% show, 30% earlies.

 

On the subject of punters beating you are there any cardinal sins that they can avoid or that make them stand out? And if you don’t like their business, do you think there would be any point in having a yellow card-type system where they are warned about how they are operating?

Customers who consistently beat the Betfair SP are impossible to beat long-term. They are buying something for a dollar and selling it for a dollar ten. Followers who are price sensitive and just follow warm money either because it drops under on the machine or because they work in a trading room offer no long term value. Customers who abuse antiquated systems like traditional each way terms or Rule 4 are no good to you either.  On the subject of bad each-way, a lot of that is a problem with the system and the rule 4 model is broken too, completely out of date. If I had my way, I’d get rid of each-way terms and have separate win and place books. There would be a correlation between the win book and the place book but there would also be changes depending on the make-up of the race. The each-way system is too entrenched though and another thing we’d be better with is decimal pricing as 6/4 to 13/8 is too big of jump, what about 2.55 or 2.6?

I don’t mind anyone having the conversation about how they are betting. We don’t do this well as an industry and this is where the skill deficit is coming into play. You should be good enough as a trader to look at an overall basket of goods to see he’s getting the better of me overnight but not overall. So I can’t let him win the lot overnight but you can have more on the show. The problem is when you get restricted with most of the firms, BetStars included, it doesn’t matter what you want to bet on, whether it is the Gold Cup or a seller at Lingfield, which makes no sense.

Technology has contributed to this in a big way. More and more firms don’t have a call centre and make hard and fast rules about limits to be applied online. A few have an over-ask tool that allows you to request bigger bets but it’s generally not afforded to non-recreationals.

 

In the past year or so, regulation has become a much bigger deal in the UK. How do you think the industry is responding to this?

Responsible gambling has become a massive part of our industry though I do think it’s important to say that being a high staker and being a problem gambler are different things. For some people, big stakes are normal. There are plenty of important developments going on in UK at the moment including staking limits on FOBTs, the Gambling Commission and firms being held accountable for responsible gaming.

As an industry we’ve been let get away with too much for too long. I had a boss who used to say ‘never feel sorry for them [punters]’ but in this day and age that’s not acceptable.  Gambling is 24/7, and punters have access to so many opportunities to feed an addiction. I know it sounds hypocritical of me to say I’m anti-FOBTs when I get my living from people losing money but I’m not a fan of them. They prey on a demographic that shouldn’t be preyed on. There’s a counter-argument that they can go online and do it just as easily but I’m not so sure they can as you need debit cards and access to funds in a bank account.

I remember reading an article about FOBTs where a manager in a William Hill shop said ‘I’ve never seen anyone play them happily’ and that about sums it up for me. Obviously they are an incredible money-making machine with over half of Ladbrokes’ profit from them and you saw the impact of reducing the stake limit had for the GVC bid for Ladbrokes Coral. Personally, I’d much prefer to see 1,000 punters lose a tenner than one lad lose €10,000 as it’s just more sustainable. Stuart Kenny [one of the founders of Paddy Power] was an absolute visionary in this regard as he wanted the punter to go away thinking he got value for his few quid, it was something he intrinsically believed and it was him who came up with money back specials and such like.

 

Racing remains a big part of your life, Ian, and you have a number of horses in training, not least Ch’Tibello with Dan Skelton. I always thought it was a little unusual that you opted to have your horses trained in the UK rather than at home in Ireland, allowing that Skelton is excellent. What are the reasons for that?

There are two reasons. When we got into them, we were abroad and it didn’t matter while latterly, it’s too hard to win a race over here. Dan has trained about 105 winners this season for 40 different owners but with the stranglehold the pair of boys [Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott] have over here, Ch’Tibello would struggle in graded races so there is a better chance of him winning one in the UK.

The punting opportunities are better too. It’s impossible to get on in the mornings in Ireland but you have half a chance of getting on in the UK. We landed a small touch with one last January and got to back him at midday when he was still 25/1 which would never happen in Ireland.

I was at Fairyhouse for Bar-One day earlier this month and there was a great crowd and atmosphere but it was like Jebel Ali with the same colours going around race after race. Maybe I’m being negative but I can’t see us winning graded races over here; though it must be said that what Elliott has achieved is incredible and we all should have stood up and noticed when he won the Grand National way back.

 

What do you think racing is doing right at the moment and where do you think it could improve?

For one, we’ve so much more wrong with the game than the declaration of wind ops. I think racing and betting are one and the same and we need to look at changing the demographic of who is going racing. In Ireland, we’re not too bad at it but in the UK you have silly stuff where they won’t let you into the owners and trainers without a tie. I would abolish enclosures and some of the entrance prices in the UK are ludicrous.

From a betting point-of-view, integrity is still an issue. With Douvan and the Tingle Creek, Altior and Nicky Henderson it is more transparency than integrity. Racing is competing for the betting euro with sports that have 24/7 transparency or at least the perception of such, football being the main example. If that is their expectation then it’s important that we try to emulate that. The ordinary guy in the street thinks racing is crooked to start with, which he doesn’t think that about a football game, and racing needs to work against that notion. The younger trainers are much better at this but we need to reach a level of transparency where when an owner tells a trainer to stop a horse, the trainer tells him to eff off.

The bad racing during the week has integrity issues. Battle-hardened punters know how to factor that into equations and to use it in the decision-making process but if we’re trying to attract an ordinary guy to spend his leisure pound on us, it’s never going to happen. Maybe racing just doesn’t have a product that it can sell to a punter Monday to Friday. Football is the one that is targeting the betting pound more than any other with the good stuff spread out over the week, group races most days in racing parlance, where we’ll have dross Monday to Friday.

I don’t know if this is practical but perhaps we should have a more concentrated programme, less racing but better racing. Some of the issue is horses rated 45 on the flat that are simply useless; what are they even running for, they shouldn’t be able to get into races. If they were not able to get into them, they’d as soon not be bred and the industry would be better off in the long-term after a period of pain.

 

I know you’re not a fan of the bookmaking firms using trainers and jockeys to provide content through blogs, and your horses with Dan Skelton don’t run under the Ladbrokes sponsorship that his yard has. What’s your thinking here?

I don’t think from a transparency point of view that bookies should be sponsoring trainers and jockeys. For the ordinary guy in the street who don’t forget thinks racing is bent anyway, this looks terrible; how many guys told you Ruby jumped off Annie Power? Optics is the big word at the minute. Nor do I buy the content argument that they are providing material that engages people in racing; if that were so, why aren’t they doing it for Geegeez or the Sporting Life or for free? It’s for money.

The firms are doing this for marketing first and foremost, you are associating your brand with something premium which is always a plus. Bwin did this well with Juventus and Real Madrid a while back and people believe in you instantly when you associate your brand with another premium brand. I don’t take any of them seriously as I don’t believe you’re ever being told anything significant.

 

Let’s wrap up with a final question: Where do you see the industry going in the future? I listened to a podcast recently with Marco Blume of Pinnacle where he said e-sports were their sixth biggest market which I couldn’t believe. Is this the case and what else is coming down the line?

I think the e-sports stuff is a lot of spin. I don’t believe in them as a fixed-odds betting product, it’s like badminton in terms of turnover. Pinnacle might be trying to popularise it, Marco Blume has a background in that area, and to be fair the age of your typical e-sports punter is lower than that of football, 27 and 40 in our case. It makes sense trying to make a go of it in that regard but I don’t buy it. Mind you I didn’t think cash-out would work so I’ve not exactly got a strong pedigree in this area!

There are massive changes coming in football around how markets are done and presented. The whole Request-A-Bet stuff will be automated and we need to remember that football betting looks the way it does because that’s how a football coupon looked in a shop 40 years ago. We still tell punters what they want to bet on but in 6 months’ time punters will tell you what they want to bet on. They will be able to drag in what they like to bet on. The maths isn’t the most difficult aspect of this, it’s the tech that is the hard part with issues of how you present it and do it quickly.

We are all trying to convert betting into gaming where the punter can circulate his money, bet on next corner, throw-in or goal. Nobody has got this right yet but it’s coming.  The thing is when a punter has a bet on the win-draw-win in football, he is dead for 2 hours. I’m not sure how this would work with racing, perhaps with punters who miss the off or are waiting for a bet to settle or have had a faller in a race and want plough back in again. This appeals to the young demographic who want things quickly. We are a world that doesn’t read anything anymore and is so used to 140 characters, and punters are naturally the same.

The views expressed above are the personal opinions of Ian Marmion and not necessarily representative of The Stars Group.

Tony Keenan (twitter: @racingtrends) was talking to Ian Marmion (twitter: @marmobet), sports book trading director for BetStars

When Classy Hurdlers Go Chasing…

There is understandable excitement when a high-class hurdler proven in open company goes chasing, writes Tony Keenan. The horse may have been Champion or Stayers Hurdle level with a mark in the high-150s or even 160s and the expectation is that they will translate that form to fences. However, I’m generally sceptical of this kind of prospective chaser, working off the truism that it is difficult to teach older horses new tricks.

Just as in the human world where a young child can pick up a new language with relative ease, older people tend to struggle with learning a foreign tongue. It makes sense that this would apply with horses too. The typical national hunt horse might start its career in bumpers at the backend end of its fourth or fifth year, run two or three times before being put away for novice hurdles the following season where it might have four or five runs. As a then six- or seven-year-old, it would then go chasing rather than stay over hurdles. Those horses that do stay over hurdles seem at a disadvantage as a larger proportion of their short careers are spent doing something other than chasing and this lack of practice can prove detrimental to their prospects over fences.

That’s the theory at least but with all theories it’s best to test them against a body of evidence. Ideally, I wanted to look at the record of horses going chasing that had varying numbers of hurdles runs but unfortunately the excellent HorseRaceBase didn’t have the facility to run that system which must be the only thing missing from their database; if any readers have access to other databases they might like to look at the figures for themselves. So instead I took a different tack and decided to look at the records of the best chasers in Ireland along with the best hurdlers (non-novices) that went chasing in the same jurisdiction.

I began with the 50 top-rated chasers in Ireland currently, a listed that is topped by Don Cossack on 177 and completed by Mozoltov on 149. Of those top 50, only five were better over hurdles than over fences and in many cases the differences were minimal; they were Champagne Fever (chase 156, hurdle 157), Rule The World (153, 156), Shaneshill (153, 156), Zabana (153, 155) and Identity Thief (150, 159). Of the 27 chasers rated highest, only one (Un De Sceaux) had more than one season over hurdles and the average seasons spent hurdling across the top 50 was 1.2, the average hurdle runs being 6.6. The vast majority of our top chasers have gone over fences directly after their novice hurdle season with their average hurdles mark being 141.9 and their average chase figure 156.6, an improvement of just over a stone, and a number we’ll return to later. This improvement is readily explainable as there is only so high most novice hurdlers can rate given the races in which they run.

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Next, I looked at the record of the best Irish horses who spent at least two seasons over hurdles that later went chasing. Starting with the 2006/7 season to present, there were 31 such horses and they are listed below with their peak hurdle and chase marks (for those that didn’t get official marks I made an estimate based on what they achieved):

 

Horse Hurdle Mark Chase Mark Difference Chase Runs Chase Wins
Taglietelle 154 125 29 5 0
Monksland 157 149 8 7 2
Identity Thief 159 150 9 3 2
Alpha Des Obeaux 158 147 11 5 2
Diamond King 157 148 9 3 1
Lieutenant Colonel 156 149 7 4 1
Gwencily Berbas 151 130 21 3 0
Briar Hill 155 142 13 4 1
Kitten Rock 160 148 12 4 4
Tiger Roll 150 146 4 10 3
Rebel Fitz 155 155 0 9 6
Un De Sceaux 156 172 -16 10 6
Oscars Well 162 152 10 12 2
Rule The World 158 150 8 15 1
Tarla 150 144 6 6 2
So Young 158 115 43 2 0
Whatuthink 152 143 9 21 1
Donnas Palm 161 140 21 17 2
Blackstairmountain 152 147 5 6 2
Oscar Dan Dan 151 128 23 4 1
Shinrock Paddy 150 136 14 10 0
Powerstation 157 130 27 9 2
Muirhead 158 143 15 21 3
Catch Me 164 141 23 10 1
Aitmatov 160 131 29 8 0
Sizing Europe 167 177 -10 31 17
Jered 158 142 16 8 1
Harchibald 166 143 23 1 0
Sonnyanjoe 150 116 34 5 0
Adamant Approach 151 142 9 16 4
Rosaker 154 120 34 1 1

 

The most obvious point to make about classy hurdlers going chasing is that they regress for the switch to the tune of about a stone. There are exceptions, notably Sizing Europe, but also Un De Sceaux and Rebel Fitz; but as a general rule this is probably a negative move which brings up the question of why connections might want to do this. If the motivation is that the horse will improve for fences, the evidence suggests this is unlikely but if it is simply that they want to pick up some soft races back against novice chasers then it is probably a fair move; the horse may have reached its ceiling in open company over hurdles and be disqualified from races it can win whereas the switch to fences opens up other avenues.

Jumping would be a concern with these switchers but it is not necessarily backed up by the statistics; this group of classy hurdlers had a fall/unseat rate of 8.1%, which is below average. I covered this in an article last year and the national average in the period covered is around 10%. That said, I do wonder if these horses are more careful at their fences than those who went chasing earlier in their careers.

Of the 32 horses listed above, Noel Meade had seven of them (Monksland, Donnas Palm, Muirhead, Aitmatov, Jered, Harchibald and Rosaker) and it’s hard to make a case that any of them were much of a success over fences: Muirhead may have won a Munster National but that feels fluky along the lines of Tiger Roll’s win the in the same race and Rule The World’s Grand National victory this past year. If any punter found that pair, I admire your perseverance and hope your bank was still intact!

Willie Mullins had six such horses and Un De Sceaux has been a triumph, especially given his early jumping woes, but Henry De Bromhead is the one that stands out. From a single classy hurdler going chasing, he produced Sizing Europe which gives hope for the long-term prospects of currently injured Identity Thief who fits a similar mould.

It has been understandably difficult for these classy hurdlers, many of whom will have competed and even won at Grade 1 level over hurdles, to compete at the top level though there is an interesting contrast to how such horses do over different trips. Both Sizing Europe and Un De Sceaux won a number of Grade 1 chases around two miles as did Blackstairmountain, Barker and Mansony. The record of such horses over staying trips however is dismal with only Zabana at the most recent Punchestown Festival winning a Grade 1 chase over three miles or further.

Interestingly, this is backed up by the hurdles record of the winners of the feature chases at the Cheltenham Festival. Recent winners of the Champion Chase like Sire De Grugy, Dodging Bullets, Sizing Europe and Moscow Flyer all spent an extra season over hurdles but we have to go back to Imperial Call in 1996 to find the last Gold Cup winner who didn’t go straight over fences after its novice hurdle season.

All of which brings us nicely on to the current season where Thistlecrack is making a mockery of any such concerns in the staying chase division. But great horses will always make general rules seem silly and I’d be more interested in how the more typical classy hurdler going chasing will do. In the current season, we have seven such horses and the early returns have been ordinary. The group comprises Taglietelle, Identity Thief, Alpha Des Obeaux, Diamond King, Lieutenant Colonel, Gwencily Berbas and Briar Hill. While Identity Thief might yet make the grade over fences – he has both trip preference and trainer in his favour – most of the others are likely to compete over further and history points to them falling well short of their hurdles high in this sphere.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Some Views on Garnering Viewers

My first memory of watching racing on TV is the 1991 Grand National. My father had backed the eventual runner-up, Garrison Savannah, but my puritan eight-year-old self was horrified at the thought of losing hard-earned money on horses jumping over things, writes Tony Keenan. My mother’s background as a banker and consequent financial rectitude played its part in that but dad was at pains to point out after his bet had finished second that he had backed him ‘each-way, the only way.’

I have no real recollection of racing on TV in years afterwards until the 2002 2,000 Guineas. For me, that will always be Hawk Wing’s Guineas regardless of who won, and the post-race discussion about whether or not he had been beaten on merit was fascinating. The complexity of pace, draw and race position - and their respective roles in the outcome - piqued my interest and when I found out you could bet on whose version of the race you believed I was hooked. So I followed Hawk Wing through that summer from the non-staying second in the Derby to the underwhelming Eclipse win to his defeat by Grandera at Leopardstown, a meeting I define as my first proper trip to the races and a losing one at that; I had not learned that ‘each-way was the only way’ though a starting price of 8/11 likely precluded against that bet in any case.

That initial race, covered at the time by Channel 4, was the start of something that is now an obsession. In the years since I’ve been down every rabbit hole of racing analysis imaginable, from trends to trainer patterns to pace to replays to sectional times. I’m just the sort of fan sports should aim for, committed to the game and willing to spend money and time, studying form, listening to podcasts, betting on horses and paying into racecourses. But that sort of consuming passion had to start somewhere and engaging the interest of embryonic fans is one of the many challenges that ITV Racing will face as the station starts its run as racing’s terrestrial broadcaster in 2017.

Racing can be an insecure tribe, constantly questioning its position in the broader sporting world, and this naval-gazing attitude has predictably emerged in the months leading into ITV’s return to covering the sport. We are comprised of so many different interests from owners to trainers to jockeys to breeders to punters and all have their own concerns about how the sport should be covered; just as everyone has an opinion on teachers, because everyone went to school, so too does everyone have a view on racing coverage as everyone watches it. I naturally tend towards the punters’ point-of-view who make up the majority of the TV audience but are often seen as a necessary evil by other parties.

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No matter what our agenda may be, it is important to remember that there is a more general audience out there beyond the racing bubble that has, at best, only a passing interest in the sport. They need to be recognised to some degree. There is part of me that would love ITV to simply cater to the racing nerd audience and the people I speak to about horses would likely support that view wholeheartedly; whether it would serve the broader health of the sport is another matter. Striking the balance between this general audience and the more hardened racing fan is another major challenge faced for those stations covering racing.

There are difficulties arising from the inherent nature of the sport itself. In contrast to something like football, racing tends to be made up of frenetic bursts of action that last a matter of minutes interspersed with longer periods of analysis and chat; this is the case for terrestrial stations at least that rarely cover more than two meetings on a given broadcast and thankfully prevents it from becoming mere betting shop fodder with one race blending into the next over a period of hours.

Then there are more the more generic challenges that any sports coverage faces in the current media climate. We are in an age where we can watch sport live via devices other than television and we are told that viewing figures may not be trustworthy as so many people are watching through other channels than the traditional coverage. Points like that are fair but genuine fans will, in the main, still want to want to watch the coverage live if at all possible; it is impossible to miss the result in the social media age and in any case watching a sporting event on your phone is a deeply unsatisfactory experience with streams tending to be herky-jerky and unreliable. Mainstream coverage remains important and, as James Willoughby pointed in an excellent article on the Thoroughbred Daily News website, deserves to be treated with seriousness.

It is hoped that ITV will bring this sort of seriousness to their coverage. Their position as a legacy station, the button on the remote that people reach for out of habit, should provide a boost in viewing figures above what the less mainstream Channel 4 could manage. The hiring of Ed Chamberlin as host was a significant acquisition and gives the sport a broader appeal; that the presenter has a background in the bookmaking industry and odds-compiling is even better. But there are areas that I hope will be addressed by the station, chief among them being the excessive reliance on ex-pros on the broadcast team.

The initial list of ITV presenters comprises a hefty dose of insiders; looking at their press release, we have Tony McCoy, Francesca Cumani, Mick Fitzgerald, Hayley Turner, Jason Weaver, Luke Harvey and Frankie Dettori. Regardless of one’s opinions on the merits or otherwise of the individuals on that list, it’s hard to get away from the belief that such people bring a certain tone to the coverage. While I acknowledge the need for some insiders, the concern is that too many of them leave the general audience ‘on the outside’ which in turn leads to them changing the channel. While station chiefs will argue that these people bring insight to the coverage it comes at a cost and that is excessive deference and a tendency to close ranks when one of their number are challenged; no one likes criticising their friends after all, even when they are clearly in the wrong.

There are many other voices out there in the racing world that could be used to bring fresh angles. One such is the official handicapper, Phil Smith, who has his share of critics but has proved to be brilliant TV on his occasional ‘Ask the Handicapper’ slot with Matt Chapman. There is something fascinating about a man who believes he is never wrong and Smith has never been afraid to voice strong opinions which Chapman excels in drawing from him; as an aside, Chapman should prove a fine addition to the ITV team.

Smith’s area of expertise is of course ratings and I wonder if they could be incorporated more into the broadcast; the modern sports fan loves nothing more than some numbers that help build informed content. All too often broadcasters fall into the trap of recency bias and get excited about the winner of a race that has just happened without placing it in its proper context. If we had a handicapper, official or otherwise, putting a number on that horse in the minutes after the race, provisional though it would have to be, would it not add to the quality of analysis? Not only would we be able to understand where the horse fits in with its peers but also, in the case of championship races, where it falls in the pantheon. There are plenty who bemoan the pointlessness of comparing horses across generations but one of racing’s great selling points is the depth of its history and this should be embraced.

All this brings me inevitably onto the role of data. There is much good work being done with the use of data to analyse racing, blowing many of the myths about the sport up in the process, but the problem in putting this onto the TV is presentation. Data like sectional times needs to be presented in a palatable way that the audience can understand and not sound like an Open University tutorial. Punters make up the bulk of the viewership and they want to know how the numbers can help them to back winners. In general, I think you need outsiders rather than racing insiders to cover this part of the broadcast; the insiders are often sceptical of the numbers, entrenched as they are in the traditional approaches of the sport. Furthermore, these outsiders seem more willing to criticise the participants in the sport, something that in the main is sorely lacking. This is not to say there should be criticism for criticism’s sake but I would love nothing more than a well-argued case that a jockey gave a horse a poor ride backed up by a sensible sectional timing-based argument or the critique of a trainer’s handling of a horse that is based in fact.

Finally, there is the most basic aspect of any sports broadcast: the live pictures of the events themselves. ITV Racing should not suffer from having the terrible angles that AtTheRaces present from some of the Irish tracks - like Punchestown, Leopardstown and Down Royal - where all too often we are given prolonged shots of the backsides of horses running away from the stands. Arty close-ups are a complete no-no and as far a possible the audience needs to see the whole field, preferably in high definition. Some punter, somewhere, has had a bet on a horse in that race, even the 999/1 rag on Betfair, and he wants to see his horse and understand what is happening.

- Tony Keenan

Follow Tony on Twitter at @racingtrends

Why Sectionals Matter

Galileo Gold wins at Royal Ascot. Sectional times tell us how good a performance this was.

Galileo Gold wins at Royal Ascot. Sectional times tell us how good a performance this was.

One of the more surprising stories to emerge from Irish racing in the past few weeks was a revelation from Johnny Ward of the Racing Post that SIS plan to back the establishment of sectional timing at all Irish tracks from the start of 2017, writes Tony Keenan. This news was unexpected on a number of levels, not least because Irish racing is essentially backward in nature, and whether it comes to fruition or not, be it in 2017 or beyond, remains to be seen.

But I for one would be strongly in favour of not only their use but the idea that they could be widely disseminated to the betting public and it is hoped this initiative is not a pipedream. The reasons why sectional times matter have been covered many times before, and often by bigger and better brains than mine, but even so it is worth restating their benefits here, if only to put my views on record. Much of the focus of these articles is on punting as that is the perspective I feel best qualified to represent but for this one I have tried to keep the focus away from mere gambling and look at the industry as a whole.

 

  1. Reading Races Better

The central cog to the sectionals argument, the one that most the other benefits stem from, is that these times allow for much better race reading. Pace is a vital component of any race, as even the most limited club runner who has gone off too fast or finished with running to give in a 10k race can tell you, and the naked eye simply cannot capture as much about pace as a number can. From my own perspective, my understanding of a how a race has unfolded is enhanced greatly by using sectional times to such a point that I now find that my reviews of races without these times are missing something.

There are a number of punters currently either taking their own sectional times or using Timeform’s archive of the same and they have an edge; from experience I can say that sectional upgrade horses are often underbet in the market now. The public availability of these times, and the eventual understanding of what they mean, could erode this edge to a degree but punters who want it to continue as such are being selfish; a strong sport is better for everyone.

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Moreover, this sort of data-rich sporting landscape is exactly what the modern fan wants, indeed expects. Analytics may have been born in America with the likes of Baseball Prospectus and Football Outsiders, but such methods are over here now in soccer (yes I do call it soccer) through people like Michael Cox of Zonal Marking; and bringing something similar to racing would surely attract more followers to this most complex of sports.

 

  1. Early Talent Identification

The fact that a number of racing yards, not least Ballydoyle, already use their own sectional timing in training their horses speaks plenty about how useful they can be and it can certainly help those go-ahead stables in ascertaining what they have from an early stage. This applies on the track, too, where horses like Golden Horn have stood out from an early stage on the clock. So, while it is only one method of talent evaluation and may get horses wrong, it seems as reliable as any purely visual approach: indeed, it would be best if both methods were combined.

If we can understand a horse’s sectionals within overall times we are able to place them in a historical context and get a sense of where they might fit in terms of ability, for instance by looking at all the sectionals at a given track over a period of time. This would not only help punters but also owners, trainers and breeders. The owner might spot an undervalued horse he wishes to buy; the trainer might become better at rating his horses from an early stage and thus place them more appropriately; and the breeder can know what sires or dams might be over- or underrated.

 

  1. Accurate Rating of Jockeys

One of more interesting developments in American sports analytics has been the idea of WAR or Wins Above Replacement, a number that rates how superior a player is to a limited (or replacement level) alternative and is basically one of the best ways of evaluating how good a player is. I have a dream that we will one day have a WAR statistic for jockeys that will allow us to properly discuss their respective skillsets and abilities, because so often analysis of riders now boils down to the ‘how many winners have you ridden’ argument.

Sectionals could play a part in this sort of analysis and, over the course of Royal Ascot, they were able to inform on a number of poor rides that the oft-unimpeachable Ryan Moore gave over the few days: importantly, with the substantial logic to back this up. Of course, there is more to evaluating a jockey; these figures would not be able to put a value on how good a jockey is at riding work or dealing with connections or providing feedback on a horse. But to say that such numbers are useless would be as wrong-headed as to say they are everything.

Not only would such times help us to properly rate jockeys but they might even improve race-riding as jockeys become aware of mistakes they are making. Every jockey gives bad rides as race riding is simply too dynamic for anything else, but we have far too much preciousness around criticising them at present. Arming ourselves with the facts and not personalising these critiques would go a long way to building a proper analysis – and development – framework for jockeys.

 

  1. Improvements in Integrity

If sectional times allow us to rate rides better, then surely they can also be used for integrity purposes, providing the authorities with facts and data - rather than the current opinion and conjecture - to support their battle for a cleaner sport. The Turf Club have suffered some high-profile defeats in integrity case appeals this year and it is ironic that one of the central arguments that saw Barry Geraghty and Tony Martin exonerated in the Noble Emperor case came from sectional timing as Donn McClean explained how the horse was making up little to no ground on the winner late on.

It is bizarre that the defendants rather than the prosecution was using this approach and it makes sense that stewards on the track would have access to such data at the time rather than merely after the event, perhaps comparing them to historical events. Rightly or wrongly (and it’s wrongly if you ask for my view), Irish racing has a reputation for skulduggery, a sort of nod-and-wink conspiracy that we’re ok with horses being none too busy. Sectional times could certainly play their part in improving this perception and making our racing more appealing.

 

  1. Opens New Data Horizons

There is a sense from some racing people that it’s cool not to be interested in sectional times, or times of any kind for that matter, and it is almost as if the ‘sectionals boys’ are being set up against the traditionalists, much like the scouts and the data nerds in ‘Moneyball.’ Even the term ‘sectional boy’ is dismissive and I find it disappointing that many in the industry, not content with adopting an ‘each to their own’ philosophy, seek to actively block developments in this area.

I am for more and more data and sectional timing is part of this; if you want to know about wind operations and weights of horses then already having gotten the sectional times can only help you get this information. Data begets data. With all this information, people can then decide what they do and don’t want to use; maybe ten-year trends are your thing: if so, good luck to you, I won’t stand in your way.

The establishment of sectional times in Irish racing would demand higher standards around going reports and measurements of race distances both of which are badly needed and could eventually lead to the sort of next level data that makes modern sports analytics so interesting. But only if we in racing allow it…

- Tony Keenan

The Favourite-Longshot Bias

Value betting is the most mainstream concept in the modern betting landscape, writes Tony Keenan. It has passed into the lexicon of gambling and there can hardly be a punter around that hasn’t heard of the idea. We’ve reached a point where Tom Segal, the public face of value betting, is on The Morning Line more often than Tony McCoy and it has even spawned parody comments like ‘value loser’ and ‘you can’t eat value.’

For most, value betting means one thing: big prices. While a value bet can theoretically be a 1/3 shot that should be 1/10, in the main such examples aren’t referenced and the typical comment about a favourite in much racing writing and programming can be summed up as ‘he’ll probably win but he’s a bit short.’ Rarely do we hear mention of the odds-on shot that should be even shorter.

But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other way and the runners that appear short, far from being priced lower than their real chance of winning, actually aren’t short enough. This favourite-longshot bias certainly seemed at play over the recent Cheltenham Festival with some of the Mullins hotpots but it’s not just that; the place markets on the exchanges for the Grand National on Saturday were wildly out of sync with the same place odds available in an each-way bet with the bookmakers, the favourites seemingly bigger than they should be and the outsiders representing the flip-side.

I think this applies far more in day-to-day racing now than it used to and we need to be aware that markets are fluid and don’t remain the same: it is important to zig when most people are zagging. And that can be a problem for an old-style value punter who is used to looking on shorties with scorn. In fact, many of these punters – and I include myself here – would have personal betting rules like ‘never bet odds-on’, tenets that might have served you well in the past but have become outdated. As we’ll see later, taking that approach to the current Irish national hunt season would have meant there were 311 odds-on shots (judging on BSP) that you refused to back; 195 of them have won so you were taking out a large chunk of possible betting opportunities.

In the tables that follow, I will look at the fortunes of odds-on shots, defined as having a Betfair Starting Price of 2.0 or shorter, in recent Irish jumps campaigns. Using Horse Race Base, I’ve put together the numbers to see if there are any patterns emerging. When I refer to actual over expected in the final column of the table, it is done to official starting price rather than the Betfair equivalent as this is the method used on Horse Race Base.

Let’s first look at the number of odds-on shots to run over jumps in Ireland in each season since 2008/9:

 

NH Season Bets Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
2008/09 164 104 63.4% +3.16 1.02
2009/10 217 125 57.6% -16.23 0.93
2010/11 180 109 60.6% -3.89 0.97
2011/12 227 130 57.3% -21.69 0.91
2012/13 272 162 59.6% -19.37 0.92
2013/14 250 159 63.6% +1.36 1.00
2014/15 303 184 60.7% -18.06 0.95
2015/16 311 195 62.7% -10.00 0.97
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The first thing that jumps out is the gradual rise in the number of odds-on shots; again, punters who are excluding themselves from betting in races with money-on pokes are ruling out a hell of a lot of races. We see that prior to last season, there was not a campaign with more than 272 odds-on shots but there were 303 last year and already we are at 311 in 2015/16 and there are three weeks of the season left. The other notable feature is that backing all these odds-on shots, though not profitable, has come close to breakeven point in each of the last three seasons judging by the actual over expected. Given that those figures are worked out from official SP suggests there is an edge here; Betfair SPs are typically bigger even allowing for commission while many of these winners will have been available at bigger prices before the off.

I suspect at least some of this edge is down to the attitude punters approach the market with, i.e. they want to oppose the fancied horses as they are perceived as too short. There are other reasons though. The concentration of talent in the Mullins yard has played a big part as has that trainer’s approach in that he tries to keep his horses apart as much as possible to maximise the number of races won, rather than run them in what might be seen as the most logical races. Racing has facilitated much of this with a greatly expanded programme book and I’d be in the camp that competitiveness has suffered because there is too much racing. Competitive racing, of course, produces much fewer odds-on shots.

Next, we have the record of odds-on favourites by month and instead of going back as far as 2008/9 here, I’ve worked from 2010/11 to the present day in the hope this will provide a better picture of the current state of the markets.

 

Month Bets Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
January 174 107 61.5% -11.31 0.94
February 144 75 52.1% -30.36 0.80
March 126 71 56.4% -11.97 0.89
April 79 46 58.2% -5.97 0.92
May 115 72 62.6% +2.63 1.02
June 50 25 50.0% -8.06 0.82
July 83 55 66.3% +1.72 1.04
August 128 73 57.0% -9.21 0.92
September 67 50 74.6% +14.74 1.22
October 155 104 67.1% +6.37 1.05
November 206 129 62.6% -8.81 0.96
December 216 132 61.1% -11.42 0.95

 

The findings here are surprising. One might expect odds-on shots to do best in the traditional jumps season from November to April when Willie Mullins has his best horses running. In fact, the opposite is true as betting the odds-on over summer jumps is [much] more profitable with the exception of June. It may just be a quirk of sample size – there are fewer jumps races at this time of the year – but the pattern is still quite marked and it offers food for thought at least.

Different types of Irish national hunt race are also worth considering:

 

Race Type Bets Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
Chase 413 261 63.2% -0.63 1.00
Hurdle 849 513 60.4% -54.64 0.94
Bumper 281 165 58.7% -16.38 0.95

 

Again, the results here are unusual. One might expect chases to be the least predictable of the three disciplines as fences bring in a great possibility of falling but the opposite is true as odds-on shots here do best and come very close to making a small profit off level-stakes.

Finally, the record of trainers with odds-on runners since 2010/11 and for the purposes of the table I’ve looked at those with at least 20 such qualifiers. The table is in alphabetical order.

 

Trainer Bets Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
H. De Bromhead 56 39 69.6% +7.80 1.14
C. Byrnes 29 16 55.2% -2.90 0.89
G. Elliott 128 74 57.8% -10.76 0.91
J. Harrington 51 29 56.9% -3.97 0.92
T. Martin 38 20 52.6% -6.96 0.83
N. Meade 71 49 69.0% +5.31 1.06
M. Morris 20 10 50.0% -4.03 0.82
W. Mullins 640 403 63.0% -32.68 0.95
E. O’Grady 31 20 64.5% +0.83 1.04
D. Weld 36 23 63.9% -0.16 0.99

 

Willie Mullins has had just a staggering number of odds-on shots; in fact, in the period covered he has sent out 41.4% of the total odds-on favourites. Finding an edge with Mullins is difficult – though betting his shorties at the Cheltenham Festival makes sense – and I prefer to look at other trainers. Henry De Bromhead is one that stands out. He comes out best both on overall strikerate and actual over expected and the best spots to back his short-priced horses are in graded races and over fences and ideally a combination of both. Noel Meade also does well; his 69% return his hard on the heels of De Bromhead and, along with Edward O’Grady, they are the three trainers with actual over expecteds of greater than 1.00.

From a brief glance at the figures for the flat in Ireland, the rise in odds-on shots seems nothing like as marked but it is something I may return to over the summer. For now, be wary of opposing short-priced runners in Irish jumps races for the sake of it and, indeed, don’t be afraid to back some of them; though starting the project at Punchestown might be a little too brave as the meeting can produce some surprising end-of-season results.

- Tony Keenan

Follow Tony on twitter at @RacingTrends

Related Contingencies at the Cheltenham Festival

Multiple bets are sometimes viewed as the preserve of the desperate, with wise heads pointing out that there is nothing lucky about a Lucky 15, writes Tony Keenan. But, on occasion, punters can multiply their value rather than boost the bookmaker’s edge. Related contingency bets are one such example.

By and large, these bets are not allowed by bookmakers: in this Sunday’s Super Bowl, for instance, one cannot back the Denver Broncos to win and Peyton Manning to be MVP in a double at their current quoted odds, as the performance of the team’s most important player, the quarterback, is intrinsically linked to the outcome of the game. So instead of multiplied odds, a punter has to take a watered down price on both events happening, similar to that offered on a double for a team to win Euro 2016 and that side’s main striker to be the tournament top scorer as they are also linked.

Yet at Cheltenham next month, you can do just that. By backing two or more representatives of the same form line to win separate races you can multiply the strength of your opinion on a race being a hot piece of form and there are many examples of this happening at recent Festivals. Take the two and a half mile Grade 2 novice hurdle run on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham in 2013 where At Fishers Cross narrowly beat The New One, the latter in front too soon, with Grade 1 winners like Coneygree and Whisper in behind. Two months later, the pair won the Albert Bartlett and Neptune respectively at the Festival and those watching back the Trials Day run could have, rightly as it turned out, assumed that one horse would be suited by going up in trip while the other would enjoy competing at the same distance on better ground where his speed would be seen to better effect.

An even better example occurred last year when the Grade 2 novice hurdle run at Leopardstown on the Irish Champion Hurdle undercard produced three Cheltenham winners; the second Martello Tower won ‘the run for the spuds’ (Albert Bartlett); the third, Killultagh Vic, won the Martin Pipe (benefitting from some lenient handicapping); and the fourth, Windsor Park, won the Neptune.

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Perming those horses in multiple bets, even allowing that the Leopardstown winner Outlander would surely have been included, would have produced a bonanza, the trio returning 14/1, 7/1 and 9/2 (659/1 treble) with bigger prices available in the weeks beforehand.

Both examples were novice races which isn’t the greatest surprise. Connections of the beaten horse(s) can want to avoid the winner next time, and at the Festival they have the option to do so with races over further and shorter, as well as the handicap route and now even a mares’ alternative. There aren’t as many options for those competing in open company who may have to face off with the same opponent again, however.

Furthermore, value is created by a bias against beaten horses in novice races in particular. Punters want to be with last time out winners and especially sexy, unbeaten animals in novice events despite the fact that horses that were beaten last time may have run better in defeat, the idea here being that a horse that was failed to win last time won’t be winning any race at the Festival.

You don’t just need to focus on a single form line either as you can get a good idea of the strength of a crop of horses from a series of races. In 2012/13, the Irish novice chasers over middle distances and staying trips looked a decent group and Lord Windermere and Lyreen Legend fought out the finish of the RSA that spring after Boston Bob fell at the last; needless to say, I backed Texas Jack in the JLT that year, a horse I believed was the best of the lot, and he made no impact in the finish! A year later in 2014, the Irish hunter chasers proved a deep crop and provided the first three in the Foxhunters and were five lengths clear of the fourth; perming the four Irish horses that weren’t complete no hopers (those priced 40/1 or shorter) would have produced a tricast of £1812.28.

This type of thinking doesn’t apply to multiple bets alone as forecasts and tricasts can be used to produce the same related contingency end. Punters who fancied Sire De Grugy to win the 2014 Champion Chase, but wanted more than his SP of 11/4, may have cottoned onto the fact that it was Somersby in the Tingle Creek that gave him his closest race that season and it was the same horse that chased him home at Cheltenham at 14/1, the forecast paying £40.57, which was generous in light of that one’s tendency to run well without winning. While not a related contingency as such, you could also have backed both Sire De Grugy to win and Somersby without the favourite. Those ‘without’ markets, once the preserve of Irish on-course layers only, are something we might all need to be wise to at this year’s Festival with Willie Mullins rolling into the meeting with a number of short-priced favourites.

Finding the strong form lines, what American writer Steve Davidowitz calls a ‘key race’, is the difficult part but there are some sensible places to start. Form that is working out is an obvious point, though perhaps too obvious, and times, sectional and overall, might be of more use or at least be more hidden to the wider betting public. It boils down to good race-reading and sometimes the logical spots are best; meetings like Trials Day at Cheltenham or the Hennessy card at Leopardstown this weekend make sense as does the Betfair Hurdle meeting at Newbury.

As for this year’s possibilities, the Yanworth (Neptune) and Shantou Village (Albert Bartlett) double rather jumps out after Saturday; there are reasons for believing the second is better than the form with his run having come off a break and the ground against him. The sense that a horse can shape better than the form in defeat is a big angle and it could be for a number of reasons be it fitness, distance or ground, the last-named perhaps of most significance given that many of the trials will have taken place on ground vastly different to that encountered in March.

The Ivanovich Gorbatov maiden hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas looks strong form and Let’s Dance, the second who seemingly went into the race with a massive reputation, could be worth looking at in forecasts with the JP McManus favourite in the Triumph; while those further down the field like Lagostovegas and Tocororo could pitch up in the Fred Winter. Long Dog and Tombstone on their run on the same card is an interesting combo with that pair likely to take in different Festival targets. In light of Vroum Vroum Mag dismantling the English mares at Ascot recently, with the likeable but limited Jennies Jewel chasing her home, looking at Irish mares to perm with Annie Power in the David Nicholson could be interesting and the market hasn’t really taken cognisance of this with the shortest priced Irish entry in the race outside the Ricci pair being 20/1.

One form line I am looking to follow at the meeting is the Clarence House Chase from Ascot. I think we saw the best version of Un De Sceaux thus far and Traffic Fluide was unlucky not to finish closer, not brilliant at the third last, conceding first run to a degree and barely getting a hard time to get within a short head of Sire De Grugy. The presence of the fourth Vibrato Valtat gives substance to the belief that Sire De Grugy ran his race as they’d been mixing it all season and suggests that Traffic Fluide, with improvement to come, may already be better than not only his stablemate but also Sprinter Sacre as that pair are closely matched. Another factor is the time argument – both Sire De Grugy and Sprinter Sacre have been underwhelming on the clock this season – and I want to be with Traffic Fluide in exotic bets at the Festival. The concern however is that he might run in the Game Spirit beforehand, win easily and thus become the biggest danger to Un De Sceaux in the market so it could be worth seeking out some ‘without’ prices at this point (as recommended in this Champion Chase preview).

- Tony Keenan

Why Horses Fall…

Data won’t tell you everything about why horses fall, writes Tony Keenan. There are too many intangible factors at play, variables that can’t be number-crunched. Race flow plays a big part; horses can be drawn into mistakes by how the race unfolds, be it the pace it is being run at or simply by being distracted by another runner jumping alongside it.

Physical issues can affect jumping; an underlying injury can be found out in the heat of battle while the effort of in-race exertion can cause a fresh problem. That’s not to mention mental issues: some horses seem unable to concentrate on jumping consistently or lack the self-preservation instinct to get from one side of a fence to the other.

But numbers can still tell us plenty, not least because of a large sample size of chases and fallers/unseats each season. Unless otherwise stated, I have looked at all Irish chases since the start of the 2003/04 season until the end of the 2014/15 campaign (in hurdle races, jumping just isn’t as important with fewer and smaller obstacles).

In that period, there were 4,932 chases with 57,626 runners; 6,107 horses fell or unseated, a faller rate of 10.6% with an average of 1.24 falls/unseats per race. When I refer to ‘faller rate’ I mean the combined number of falls and unseats.

 

Irish and UK Chase Faller Rate by Season

Season UK Ireland
2014/15 7.7% 9.9%
2013/14 7.1% 9.3%
2012/13 7.1% 8.7%
2011/12 8.3% 9.6%
2010/11 8.1% 10.5%
2009/10 9.3% 11.3%
2008/09 8.7% 11.9%
2007/08 9.1% 11.1%
2006/07 8.8% 10.3%
2005/06 9.6% 10.5%
2004/05 9.4% 11.7%
2003/04 10.4% 11.8%

 

The first thing that stands out is general downward trend of faller rate in the UK and Ireland over the period covered; there are some blips along the way as the table above shows but the broad picture is clear. On the whole, fences in the UK appear to be easier which isn’t the greatest surprise; the animal rights lobby, regardless of what you may think of them, are certainly stronger there than in Ireland.

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The Grand National fences are the most high-profile example of this but another interesting case, albeit with a small sample size, was made by Matt Tombs in his recent book ‘How to Bet and Win at the Festival’. Tombs points out that while there were 22 fallers at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival there were just eight in the most recent iteration, a marked decline. Irish faller rates are dropping too, though they remain higher than the UK which may help Irish horses on their raids as they are more tried and tested jumpers.

 

Irish Chase Faller Rate by Track since 2003/4

Track Faller Rate
Sligo 6.0%
Naas 6.5%
Roscommon 6.6%
Tramore 7.5%
Killarney 7.7%
Ballinrobe 8.0%
Wexford 8.2%
Kilbeggan 9.1%
Navan 10.2%
Galway 10.3%
Fairyhouse 10.9%
Punchestown 11.0%
Tipperary 11.0%
Limerick 11.2%
Leopardstown 11.3%
Gowran Park 11.4%
Downpatrick 12.0%
Clonmel 12.0%
Thurles 12.0%
Cork 12.6%
Listowel 12.7%
Down Royal 15.2%

 

Faller rates at the various Irish chase tracks produced surprising results, not least the bizarre mix of tracks that comprised the bottom five. Down Royal is a big galloping track with one of the widest circumferences in the country and a few tricky downhill fences that are met at speed, Listowel is flat and tight but they tend to stick close to the rail over fences and racing room is at a premium, Cork is flat and galloping, both Thurles and Clonmel have downhill fences but beyond that have few similarities.

Perhaps the most encouraging finding is where the main winter jumping tracks fall in the table. The big four of Leopardstown (eighth), Punchestown (eleventh), Fairyhouse (twelfth) and Navan (fourteenth) bunch around the middle which is a good sign as they host the majority of our graded races. These tracks should be fair, a test without being an ordeal, and the numbers suggest this is the case.

Down Royal is the outlier here. Not only is their chase track top in terms of faller rate, it is also 2.5% higher than any other track in the country and there is no bigger discrepancy between one track and the next anywhere else in the survey as there is between the highest and second highest. The fences at the Ulster course have long seemed ultra-stiff and it’s probably not the place to run an iffy jumper or even to start one off over fences.

 

Irish Chase Faller Rate by Trainer since 2009/10

Trainer Faller Rate
R. Tyner 5.5%
C. Roche 6.9%
C. Swan 7.9%
H. De Bromhead 7.9%
N. Meade 8.0%
F. Flood 8.2%
D. Hughes 8.4%
E. Bolger 8.7%
G. Elliott 8.9%
E. O’Grady 9.0%
P. Nolan 9.4%
A. Moore 9.4%
M. Morris 9.5%
M. Hourigan 9.8%
J. Mangan 9.9%
J. Harrington 10.4%
O. McKiernan 10.5%
T. Martin 10.6%
P. Rothwell 10.9%
J. Lambe 11.0%
W. Mullins 11.4%
C. McBratney 11.6%
C. Byrnes 12.0%
L. Burke 12.6%
J. Hanlon 12.7%
J. Walsh 15.8%
J. Ryan 16.7%
C. Murphy 18.1%

 

There is a host of contributing factors to why a trainer may have a high or low faller rate. The type of horses they typically handle plays a huge part; if they tend to get national hunt types, their faller rates should be lower as such sorts are more physically able to jumps fences while forcing flat types to do the same is a somewhat Sisyphean task. Good schooling facilities have to help too as would access to good jockeys, both for homework and on the track.

This table takes into account the top twenty-five trainers in terms of chase runners since 2009/10. Colm Murphy comes out worst on these numbers and he’s been cursed by some of the worst jumpers around in recent times. Zaarito (five falls/unseats), Big Zeb (four) and lately Empire Of Dirt (four) have all tried his patience though whether this is randomness or something to do with the trainer is impossible to say. The numbers suggest that Willie Mullins horses aren’t the best jumpers and the visuals back this up; a few of his stable stars have had their issues over fences but it hasn’t necessarily stopped them winning.

There isn’t a huge correlation between those with low faller rates and high return in terms of winning chases. I looked at trainers’ success rate in various types of races last month and the bottom five here – Tyner, Roche, Swan, De Bromhead and Meade – have a mixed record. De Bromhead (18.0% over fences since 2010) does very well, Tyner (12.0%) and Meade (11.7%) do ok while Roche (9.3%) is below average.

 

Irish Chase Faller Rate by Jockey since 2009/10

Jockey Faller Rate
M. Walsh 6.4%
B. Geraghty 6.8%
N. Madden 7.1%
T. Doyle 7.2%
P. Carberry 7.3%
A. Lynch 7.3%
P. Townend 7.5%
B. O’Connell 7.8%
A. McNamara 7.8%
A. Crowe 8.1%
R. Power 8.2%
P. Enright 8.3%
R. Walsh 8.4%
D. Condon 8.7%
D. Russell 8.8%
J. Cullen 9.1%
B. Cooper 9.6%
D. Casey 9.6%
M. Ferris 10.0%
A. Heskin 10.5%
S. Flanagan 10.8%
M. Darcy 11.2%
P. Mangan 11.6%

 

The sample size for fallers with jockeys is bigger than for trainers and their faller rates have nothing like as wide a spread. Like the trainers’ table above it takes into account the top twenty-five jockeys in terms of chase rides since 2009/10. The two JP McManus-retained riders come out very well, particularly the much-improved Mark Walsh who tops the table.

I certainly won’t get into jockey bashing here when you consider that one fifth of the riders listed above aren’t riding any longer; David Casey, John Cullen, Davy Condon, Andrew McNamara and Tom Doyle have all retired recently. One thing that emerges is the overall level of competency across the board; even the worst faller rate is only 1.3% higher than the national average since 2003/04.

- Tony Keenan

Bookies: Rights and Wrongs

A few weeks back, I wrote a piece on racing and the data revolution, an article that to my mind had little or nothing to do with bookmaker restrictions. The response to the blog surprised me as it provoked a rash of comments about bookies restricting punters so I’ve decided to return to that issue as a separate matter now.

There are those that tell us that the subject of restrictions concerns only a small minority of punters and by extension people. I disagree. There is an aspect of social justice at play here and companies behaving unethically will always interest the mainstream, regardless of whether they are bettors or not. Bookmakers have become ubiquitous in modern life; odds are everywhere and having a bet is becoming more socially acceptable where once it was not. If nothing else, that is a credit to the PR teams of the major firms.

However, we do have to ask: what are we allowing into our lives? Bookies sell the chance of making a profit, but are the promises of winning hollow? There seems to be a rising tide of questioning if not open opposition to bookmakers in the media of late, from the Final Furlong Podcast to Kevin Blake of ATR and perhaps most notably Aaron Rogan of The London Times (paywall) which suggests the debate is about to be opened up.

Reasonable discussion on this topic is difficult. It is a complex area but more than that both sides are deeply entrenched, the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States cordial in comparison. I can bookie bash with the best of them and have done in the past but it’s pointless: I don’t think anyone wants to read about the clichés of bean-counting accountants or the cancer of FOBTs. Bookmakers do have a side to tell too in this partisan debate and while it is hard for them to present a unified voice – different firms have vastly different attitudes to risk – it is at least worth acknowledging their perspective.

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Bookmaker black ops are a fascinating part of this issue. From the punter’s side of the divide, there is so much we don’t know about the dark arts used to monitor and restrict customers so some of this is necessarily vague. The firms rightly use methods to prevent fraud like slow counting but there is bound to be a huge grey area between using the technology available for limiting crime and using it to trap winning punters. This can be achieved relatively easily online as Matt pointed out in an excellent recent piece on IESnare (recommended reading if you haven’t already done so) while systems like OpenBet can monitor and limit stakes.

It is in the shops that things really get interesting though as security cameras, facial recognition and handwriting analysis are all open to use and misuse. None of this is to suggest that punters are squeaky clean; they are anything but. From ghost accounts to commission agents to arbing to bad each-way races, bettors have used them all but one is conditioned to take the side of the single underdog against large corporate powers. I do believe that there is the exposé of all exposés to come on dodgy practices in the bookmaking industry if a journalist can get an insider to go on the record; everything from the baiting of losing customers, to money laundering, to underage betting could be hiding under the rock.

There is an argument to be made about the ethics of laying a bet and whether or not a bookmaker should feel a moral imperative to allow a decent stake. At least, I think there is, but other punters tell me that you can’t apply emotion and feeling to business. Bookmakers, like any company, can argue their primary loyalty has to be with shareholders and providing as much profit as possible. Researching this in an Irish context, I found that the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement here states that ‘[company] directors must exercise their power in good faith and in the interests of the company as a whole.’

This is suitably vague but those in charge of the big bookmaking firms have applied it to mean they should maximise profit now over the long-term health of betting on racing. And we can be in no doubt that restrictions do impact racing; people become disillusioned with them and, in turn, the sport. This might point to there being no such thing as ethical capitalism and perhaps laying limits need to be legislated for as part of license application. The bus company that applies for privatised routes may have to satisfy legislative requirements to continue to run some unprofitable services along with the more valuable parts of the pie so why not the same for bookies?

Bookmakers do have a solid argument for restrictions though. Racing is one of the sports where wild fluctuations in odds can take place; we have all seen instances of a debutante being backed from 20/1 to 7/2 from a yard not known for prepping runners first time out. This doesn’t really apply when punters are playing both sides of an NFL over/under total and a massive swing is two and a half points either way. A lot of this comes back to data and integrity, and Irish racing are world leaders in neither, sadly.

I can sympathise with the bookmaker that finds themselves with a one or two horse market on an Irish race, as is often the case, and they are left with a totally lop-sided book; this is far from bookmaking in the traditional sense. A cynic could of course argue that poor initial pricing of the race was the problem and bookmakers deserve to be punished at least to some degree; their odds compilers, if indeed they have any, have missed something that punters have spotted. So often, modern bookmaking firms are much better at risk management than odds compiling.

A further problem bookmakers run into when left with a big bet or multiple running up is that they have no real avenue to have the bet away; hedging accounts provide some respite but someone is always left carrying the can whereas the Betfair market close to the off may see the price having totally collapsed. A further problem that may develop here, albeit infrequently, is that the big loser in the book is disqualified and the bookmaker is caught on the hook for paying double result; punters may have no sympathy for the big firms in this regard but what of the smaller independent? Double result has a lot to answer for as it is part of the wider bonus culture that has eroded margins and played a part in increasing restrictions, the genie seemingly having escaped from the bottle here.

So is there a way forward? I’m probably not qualified to answer that, but there are certainly some small things that could be done to improve things and it’s basically a list of bookmakers eradicating ‘punter irritants’. For instance, the quoting of massive bets in the media grinds on any winning punter, and that they are unsubstantiated even more so; they are just an unnecessary annoyance.

So too is having a bet knocked back and the price remaining the same: take the bet (or some of it) and move the odds. Technology has been a vital tool in the bookies’ war against the winning punter but there has to be a place for more human common sense; it is intensely frustrating when a punter looks for a bet of €30 and is knocked to €28.57. I know it’s a computer algorithm at work but wouldn’t it just be simpler to allow the full bet and reduce the level of punter ire?

An area that bookmakers need to consider is the restricting of recreational, and by that I largely mean non-winning, punters. The feeling abroad is that too many of these punters are being caught in the limits net and while they may hit on the odd gem or springer in the market, their overall pattern is a losing one. Surely these are just the sort of gamblers – let’s call them the 80% to 95% group in terms of return on stakes – worth having on the books.

One firm that does deserve a little praise is Coral. They drew more than their share of criticism in my initial article on racing data but their new position on laying horses in good class races to lose up to £2,000 after 11am in shops can only be a good one. That allows for a reasonable bet at a time when prices have settled down and I hope that they get the benefit of being first movers on this rather than having their heads blown off, as an extension of the guarantee to other bookmakers – and, dare I say it, online betting – would be excellent.

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.