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Monday Musings: Lies, Damned Lies, and…

Don’t look now, but York starts on Wednesday and every year for me that means the beginning of the end of summer, writes Tony Stafford. The nights start to draw in; evening race meetings begin at 4 p.m. and if they want to stage ten-race cards as they have been doing recently, they’ll need to be over by 8 p.m. at the latest, except on all-weather.

I’m still not going racing, instead waiting for the day that, like the French, the British (and Irish) public can attend. Harry and Alan are going up to York and have got a great deal in the Marriott at the mile and a half gate. All they need now are some of the highly-regulated owners’ badges to go their way. Wednesday looks good apparently, but some of the other days are more questionable. It might be a case of watching on the hotel telly.

There’s been a fair amount of goalpost-moving lately. I’m delighted that I can get back from today to ice-rink chauffeuring. In the end Mrs S and her skating chums didn’t have to resort to chaining themselves to the Downing Street railings like latter-day suffragettes to get their pleas heard. Now she needs to see if she can still skate after six months off since her latest leg operation.

But the biggest movement, and one more than relevant to someone who has meticulously – as you all will be aware – kept the Covid-19 UK daily death figures since mid-March, immediately after the conclusion of the Cheltenham Festival, is how they are reported.

Spikes and the now seemingly-defunct “R” number have kept us all in check – bar the odd quarter of a million on Bournemouth, Brighton or Southend beaches when it got really hot. But in the middle of last week, suddenly the Government finally proved that there really are “three kinds of lies - lies, damned lies and statistics” as commonly attributed to the American writer Mark Twain, though whose true origin may predate that great wordsmith.

Back in mid-April, in the week to April 12 there were 6,425 recorded Coronavirus UK deaths, an alarming figure that mercifully began to reduce steadily. By mid-July we were in the realms of below 500 a week and still falling. During the same period, testing was increasing exponentially from the starting point of barely 10,000 tests – in other words, at that time people were really only tested when it was obvious they had the virus. But, by July, between 100,000 and 200,000 tests were available every day.

Then suddenly last week, the Ministry – amid renewed local lock-downs where clusters of positive tests were revealed – concluded it would no longer count as Coronavirus deaths, anyone tested as having the virus but who died more than 28 days afterwards.

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So from July 31, when the brave new world came in, and when positive tests were going back up again to 1,000 plus each day the daily deaths in the UK were not. Starting on the last day of July the number of deaths has been 5, 1, 18, 14, 18, 12, 3, 5, 17, 14, 20, 18, 11, 3 and 5. Those numbers are probably smaller than many other routine causes of deaths in a population of 60 million. In all honesty, if that is the basis by which it’s judged, shouldn’t we be getting back to normal?

If they don’t yet have a vaccine ready, shame on them. There have been plenty of people willing to act as paid guinea-pigs, especially if their jobs have disappeared. You might even say if the figures can be presented thus, what’s all the fuss been about?

To the racing. It’s expected to be fast ground at York – amazing news for anyone who has been waiting for the action to start at the Test match at Southampton over the past few days, and they are the conditions I prefer to see on the Knavesmire. Frankie Dettori won’t be there but as the great man approaches his 50th birthday in December, he is showing a rare facility for making correct choices.

While the racing goes on at York, he’ll be staying in Deauville having had the news on Friday that the newly-re-imposed 14-day self-isolation period for people returning from France and some other countries has been modified for elite sportsmen. They, it seems, need only face a seven- or eight-day spell under specific conditions in self-isolation at home before resuming full activity.

Frankie was anxious not to miss either Mishriff, the French Derby winner, impressive again at Deauville last Saturday, or the unbeaten St James’s Palace hero Palace Pier in yesterday’s Prix Jacques Le Marois. That fast-improving colt came through to beat Alpine Star with the older horses led home by Circus Maximus, and best of the home team, Persian King, well beaten off. He is now being lined up for the QE II Stakes at Ascot in the autumn.

Alpine Star had been narrowly pipped in the French Oaks by the Donnacha O’Brien-trained Fancy Blue who went on to take the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood with authority. Jessica Harrington trains Alpine Star, and the two Irish fillies – along with the Aidan O’Brien-trained Peaceful – comprise a formidable trio of mile/ten-furlong star sophomores.

None of them will be at York, but the best of the lot among the Classic generation of females will be.

Potential opposition to Love in Thursday’s Yorkshire Oaks again seems to fall principally on Frankly Darling, who disappointingly failed to provide much of a test at Epsom for the Coolmore filly as she added the Oaks to her 1,000 Guineas honours in spectacular style. The four-year-old Manuela De Vega is smart but conceding lumps of weight? Hardly! Dettori’s absence from York – he’s staying en France an extra week – tough! – to wait for a Wesley Ward runner in next weekend’s Prix Morny.

That will still give him time for the requisite eight and a few more days before teaming up with Enable in Kempton’s September Stakes, a cleverly-thought-out target from John Gosden which obviates the need to tackle Love before the Arc. Enable won the September Stakes two years ago as a prelude to her second win in Paris in October. How they would cherish a third as a six-year-old after the shock of being caught close home by Waldgeist last year.

The York meeting opens with another Gosden star, Lord North, the major loss this week for Dettori judged on the four-year-old’s upward-mobility this summer. Winner of six of his nine career races with two seconds and a luckless eased last of eight in the other, Lord North has progressed from a laughably-easy Cambridgeshire winner to outclassing his Prince Of Wales’s Stakes opponents at Royal Ascot. James Doyle is the beneficiary, as he was at Ascot when Dettori rode Mehdaayih. Who’s to say Lord North cannot progress enough to beat Ghaiyyath, as well as the 2,000 Guineas winner Kameko and possibly Magical in the Juddmonte International?

We won’t have Saturday’s Ebor Handicap runners until around 1 p.m. today and I can’t wait to see which potentially top-class horse Messrs Gosden, Haggas or Varian will have lined up to win it. Even though the total prize pool has been slashed from £600,000 to a relatively frugal £250,000 I’m sure there will be enough horses to fill the 22 available stalls. It would be great if a hard-knocking horse from the North could see off the aristocrats from Newmarket.

Another race that I’m looking forward to is Friday’s Nunthorpe Stakes, not least because Wesley Ward is bringing a lightly-raced but clearly talented juvenile to tackle Battaash, Art Power and A’Ali. His Golden Pal, runner-up after making the running to The Lir Jet in the Norfolk Stakes will be going there as a maiden with form figures of 22, having earlier been beaten when favourite for a Gulfstream Park maiden in the spring.

He will be echoing to a large degree the pre-Nunthorpe record 13 years ago of the John Best-trained juvenile Kingsgate Native, a 66-1 debut runner-up in the Windsor Castle Stakes and then second again in the Molecomb at Goodwood.

Backed down to 12-1 (among many, by me!), Kingsgate Native easily beat Desert Lord with future stallions Dandy Man and Red Clubs the next two home. I note the weights will be unchanged from then, so Battaash carries 9st11lb; three-year-olds Art Power and A’Ali 2lb less and Golden Pal only 8st1lb. He will have Andrea Atzeni, who rode him at Ascot, back on board.

I know the other three are highly-talented, and it would be another feather in the Charlie Hills cap if Battaash could win a second Nunthorpe, but I’d much prefer Wesley’s undying love for British racing to get a reward after a couple of less than wonderful years. He certainly seems to have all his ducks in line this time.

So in conclusion, I say enjoy York, if you are, like Harry and Alan, fully documented-up. If not, the wonderful coverage – free and flourishing on ITV though I still doggedly stick to Racing TV – deserves watching for all four days. Please then, start taking off the restraints, Mr Boris. Five months using only two tanks of fuel has been sacrifice enough.

York Ebor Stats: Draw, Pace and Trainer Profiles

It's York's Ebor meeting next week, with its smattering of Group 1 features as well as the first ever £1,000,000 handicap in British flat racing, attached naturally enough to the race which gives its name to the meeting (and which in turn was derived from the name, Eboracum, the Romans gave to a fort which resided on the site of what is now the town of York).

In view of four heady days on the Knavesmire, with what general information should punters at York arm themselves? This article, revised since last year's meeting, should help.

York Racecourse Configuration

The track at York features a six furlong straight down which races at up to that distance are run. There is a dogleg start from a chute for seven furlong races, and a pretty tight bend into the home straight for races longer than that. You can find more York racecourse insights on our dedicated York course info page.

 

York Draw Information

So what impact, if any, does the shape of the racetrack - and indeed drainage - have on draw positions? The weather is set fair for the week and the going is currently good to firm, good in places - the clerk has stated that he will water to ensure broadly that ground. Using geegeez.co.uk's Draw Analyzer tool, offers the following insights:

Five furlong draw at York

Looking only at bigger field handicaps on good to soft or quicker, we can see that there is a slight bias towards lower drawn horses. It is important, however, to check for an even spread of pace across the track: if high numbers have the most early dash, that could be enough to overcome any implied bias in the data.

 

Six furlong draw at York

Over the longest piste on the straight course, low again seem just about to have the best of it, particularly when reviewing the place data: this reveals a gradation from low (best) to high (worst). There is nothing insurmountable in these straight data but, all other things being equal, lower numbers may shade it.

 

Seven furlong draw at York

On the dogleg, there is a small advantage to be drawn middle to high. Looking at the constitution of the track, that makes sense as such runners can cut the corner of the dogleg, especially if breaking alertly. Again, though, it probably won't make the difference between a horse winning and losing, it's just a mild negative for those drawn low.

1m/ 1m1f draw at York

The mile and nine furlong trips are the first we've considered which take in that sharp bend quite soon after the start of races; that can make life challenging for those trapped wide. As a jockey, do you use up petrol trying to get handy, or take back and ride for luck? This challenge is borne out in the data, which shows those on the outside winning far less often - and placing less often - than those inside (low).

This time I've illustrated using the full draw chart table as well as a chart showing IV3, a unique geegeez perspective of draw based on the average Impact Value* of a stall and its immediate neighbours.

*Impact Value is the name given to an index created from the number of winners having a certain characteristic compared with the number of runners having that same characteristic. In this example, we are looking at the exactly 1000 runners to race in 8/9f 12-runner-plus York handicaps since 2009 (good to firm through to good to soft) which contested the 61 races in that sample.

So, for instance, we can see that the number of stall 1 winners was five, and the number of stall 1 runners was 61.

Our calculation is:

(number of stall 1 wins / number of stall 1 runs) divided by (all wins in the sample / all runs in the sample)

Numerically that's

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(5 / 61)    /    (61 / 1000)

which equals

0.0819672131 / 0.061

which equals 1.34 (see the IV column, second from the right)

The IV3 for stall 4, for instance, is the mean average of the IV of stalls 3, 4, and 5. That is, (2.96 + 1.88 + 1.88) / 3 = 2.24

Of course, you absolutely do not need to understand how it is calculated to know that it is useful in probability terms. Not necessarily in profitability terms, which is a different fish entirely. (We use A/E - Actual vs Expected - more of which another day, or here).

All you need to know is that 1.00 is 'par', 'standard', 'normal' and/or otherwise unremarkable. The further away from 1.00 you get the better or worse such horses have fared, bigger numbers being better.

Management summary: numbers greater than 1.00, especially on bigger sample sizes, imply a greater probability of success.

Hopefully that makes sense - don't get bogged down in the method, but do take note of the meaning.

Draw at longer trips at York

There is no noteworthy draw advantage over longer distances at York.

 

**

York Pace Information

So that's draw, but what of pace? Are particular run styles favoured on this expansive track with its near five furlong home straight?

As with most courses, the front is the place to be in sprint handicaps: front runners at York in big field 5f or 6f handicaps win around two-and-a-quarter times as often as random, and are very profitable to back blindly. See the image below, taken from Gold's Pace Analyzer.

Of course, the problem is that we don't know which horse will lead until the race is underway. However, we can often project that fairly accurately based on historical run styles. Naturally, Geegeez Gold will inform you of what you need to know with a couple of mouse clicks.

There is no discernible pace bias at seven furlongs in big field handicaps, though when the going is good to firm those on the speed have a better chance of seeing it through.

Over a mile, it doesn't pay to be too far back as this somewhat linear chart attests. Although the fewest number of races were won from the front, the number to attempt that feat was commensurately small: a win strike rate of 12% compares favourably with the other run style cohorts. We can see from the table below (Place% column) that these data are backed up by those horses to make the frame.

 

There are no nine furlong races at York's Dante meeting, and at ten furlongs there is no discernible pace bias. That said, those trying to make all are 2 from 78 (-40 points, IV 0.4).

And at a mile and a half, it pays to be played later: those which led or raced prominently in big field twelve-furlong handicaps are a collective 21-374 (5.6% strike rate) for a starting price loss of £205.75.

**

Top York Handicap Trainers in August (Ebor meeting)

You may well have seen lists of trainers to follow elsewhere, and fair play to the publishers. Here I want to look at trainer performance overall, and by race type.

York Ebor Meeting: Overall Trainers, 25+ runners, 2014-2018

There are some interest headlines here. First, Mark Johnston runs a lot here but wins with very few. The 21% place rate is way down on this yard's overall rate, normally hitting the frame at around 36%.

Next, Aidan O'Brien. Tony Keenan established chapter and verse on the Ballydoyle Ebor efforts in this excellent post, and it can be seen from the below that York's meeting is not a hugely successful one for the Coolmore head handler: five wins from 56 runners, 0.65 A/E is moderate for this preeminent operation.

Richard Fahey, Brian Ellison, and Richard Hannon are others about whom to be apprehensive in the general context, though further digging below may shine a more favourable light on some sections of their entry.

On a more positive front, William Haggas, famously a Yorkshireman exiled in Newmarket, relishes the opportunity to plunder pots at his home racetrack; and he does so regularly. His 11 winners in the last five years is four better than the next best haul, with Haggas even managing to chisel out a profit and a positive A/E for followers.

And it's been a good meeting for the Godolphin blue, especially the Charlie Appleby team, which has recorded positive punting figures from seven victories. A 24% hit rate is exceptional given the depth of competition at this fixture.

Andrew Balding and Charlie Hills are both solid operators with a mildly positive wagering expectation.

York Ebor Meeting: Handicap Trainers, 15+ runners, 2014-2018

Specifically in handicaps, there is little of value to be gleaned from this table, except perhaps that the place records of Richard Fahey, Tim Easterby and notably William Haggas - whose overall record is so strong - suggest that caution is advised.

Ebor meeting handicaps are notoriously difficult to win and, as such, the hat-tricks notched by Messrs. Ryan, Balding and Appleby (C) are meritorious. In each case the place rate backs up the higher profile statistic.

 

York Ebor Meeting: Pattern (Listed or better) Race Trainer performance, 10+ runners, 2014-2018

In the good races at the Ebor meeting, we see the emergence of Charlie Appleby as a main man. Just nine runners in such races have yielded three winners, and a further placed effort. Although those numbers are unlikely to be completely lost on the market, there may remain some punting nutrition in his Pattern entries.

William Haggas has claimed two wins from ten runs, with four more placed: excellent figures and testament to the 'target' nature of this meeting for his better horses. Note that Haggas has saddled a 20/1 winner and a 14/1 second in that small group.

Nobody else has managed more than two winners.

On the downside, Mark Johnston's zero from 11 is poor, as is an 18% place rate. I'd be against them, on balance. Aidan O'Brien has an overall win rate in UK Pattern races of 15.78% (16th August 2014 to present), which makes his 5.56% Ebor Festival hit rate highly unsatisfactory. Indeed, just three places from 18 runners in this context in the last five years suggests the meeting is not a material consideration for Coolmore.

 

York Ebor Meeting: Class 2 or lower Non-Handicap Trainer performance, selected, 2013-2017

Here we are essentially talking about maiden and/or novice races, and we can see that man Haggas sits top of the tree. Richard Hannon's otherwise middling record at the meeting is solid if not bankable in this race type.

Local lads Ryan and Fahey look to be largely entertaining owners at their marquee home fixture and their entries can be pretty much overlooked in this context, though the latter did hit his mark with 33/1 Red Balloons last year - which paid for a lot of losers!

 

Ebor Trainer Summary

Overall, one does have to be careful with small sample sizes and current trainer form. But, accounting for those, the main trainer takeaways from the last five Ebor meetings are:

- Beware Johnston, Fahey, Ryan and O'Meara. They've collectively won 19 of the 127 races at this fixture since 2014, having saddled 353 of the 1660 runners. An Impact Value of 0.70 compares with their overall five year IV of 1.23 across more than 24,000 runners. It's likely they'll win four or five of the 25 races, but they're also likely to send out around 70 runners most of whose prices will be more indicative of the 'better than peer group' global IV rather than the poorer local IV. That's a verbose way of saying they'll represent poor value overall.

- William Haggas is the man to follow in non-handicaps.

- Charlie Appleby runners should be given two looks without exception.

- Aidan O'Brien appears not to target the meeting, so his runners may make the market for anything else you fancy.