Yesterday saw the first flat turf meeting of the season run in Ireland; and Britain's traditional curtain-raiser is scheduled for this Saturday at Doncaster.
It's a tough time for punters without connections, as much of the fitness side of the race equations can be addressed with little more than educated guesswork. The markets are clearly a good barometer of a horse's wellbeing, and should be tracked closely in the early weeks of the flat turf season, but what other clues might there be?
In this post, I'll explore two other early season scenarios which may be played out for profit.
All weather to turf
The first races on the turf each season are characterized by two distinct symbols to the left of horses' names on the race card. There will either be a bold number at the right hand end of the sequence, or there will be a hyphen. The former relates to a finishing position on the all weather, the latter to the absence of a run since the last turf season. [There is one other element to consider, when a horse last ran in a National Hunt race, and I'll touch on that too].
So, which is better in terms of the likelihood of a first time out win: a run on the all weather, or an absence since last turf season?
To answer this, I ran a few scenarios through the excellent horseracebase system tool. I looked at the period beginning 2010, to the present. And I only considered flat turf races run in March or April - in other words, the early weeks of the flat turf season.
The horses whose last run was on the all weather won 8.92% of the time, whereas those whose last run was last flat turf season won 11.17% of the time. First blood to the absent turfers.
However, the ROI - heavily negative in both cases, as you might expect - is worse for the absent turfers than the fit sandsters.
So far, nothing to make a blind bit of difference to the speed with which you enter the metaphorical poorhouse. How then can we find a profitable angle for those turf nags which have had a sharpener (or six) on the all weather?
The answer is hardly ground-breaking, but it may prevent your early season betting being bank-breaking. Here's the rub: back horses with proven turf form in their right grade.
Specifically, if you'd bet all the horses swapping sand for grass in March or April since 2010, where they'd previously won at least two turf races, and at least one race in the same class as today, you'd have won exactly 10% of your bets, for a profit of 72.38 points at SP. That's an ROI on the 280 bets struck of 25.85%.
Clearly, that's a fairly attritional strike rate - 90% losers is not everyone's cup of tea - but do keep in mind that if a horse has turf winning form, class winning form, and a recent spin on the sand, it may well be under-rated in the market.
Compare those figures with the same class and form criteria for absent turfers. In their case, a) there was a lot more of them (639 versus 280), b) they won less often (8.29% versus 10%), and c) they were considerably less attractive betting propositions (-171.17 units / -26.79% ROI versus +72.38 units / +25.85% ROI).
What about National Hunt horses reverting to flat turf? I'll keep it brief: they're deeply unprofitable to follow as a collective, and even when employing the same filters as for the all weather fitness edge brigade, still under-perform.
Juveniles: Benefit of a run / Trainers to follow and avoid
Let's now switch our attention to the two-year-olds. The turf flat season will be just 35 minutes old when we first encounter the babies, as the Brocklesby showcases precocity over relative talent. Be that as it may, as bettors we need to arm ourselves with information that helps read between the, erm, lack of form lines... if you catch my drift.
There are lots of angles when trying to mitigate for absence of form. Some look at breeding, some at stable form, some market confidence. All of these have logic in their corner, but the two I prefer are trainer patterns and - though this is cheating a bit - the benefit of a run (cheating because when talking about horses with no form, favouring those with some form is slightly off-topic).
Let's look first at the benefit of a run in juvenile races. These horses are real babies, and despite all the schooling drills they've been through at home, nothing can prepare them for that first racecourse experience. The crowds, the noise, the starting stalls with so many other buzzy babes. There is much to faze a talented yet inexperienced equine.
Comparing stats between juveniles with no runs and those with experience shows the following:
Two-year-old first time starters to the end of April won 68 of 700 starts (10%), for a loss of 130.78 points and an ROI of -18.68%
Two-year-old second time starters to the end of the April won 43 of 253 starts (17%), for a profit of 13.48 points and an ROI of 5.33%
Two-year-old third time starters to the end of April won 11 of 56 starts (20%), for a loss of 9.71 points and an ROI of -17.34%
Clearly then, the optimal combination of experience and profitability is those with the benefit of a single run. That they can be backed blindly for profit is surprising, though the year-by-year figures reveal strong fluctuations between plus and minus, before settling on the final mildly profitable figure.
Is there anything we can legitimately do to pare the second-time starter sample down? In such contexts, I prefer distance beaten to finishing position, so let's look at second run juvies by distance beaten on that first outing.
There are two profitable areas, one obvious and one perhaps more surprising. Or maybe vice versa. The obvious one - which, when you think about it, should probably be more surprising - is the group that won on their debut. After all, it would make sense to back these again, no?
Well, there were only 18 of them to run before the end of April since 2010, and eight won (44%) for a profit of 3.86 points at SP, an ROI of 21.44%. Not earth shattering, but interesting nevertheless, especially given that last time out winners overall score at a rate of just one in six.
And the surprising one - which, when you think about it, should probably be more obvious - is the group that was well beaten on debut. Those horses beaten five lengths or more first time out, for whom the experience was often too much (and, of course, many of which were simply nowhere near good enough), won 22 of 148 races (14.86%) for a profit of 50 points at SP (ROI 33.8%).
Even better, these well beaten 'rags' have been profitable to back in three of the four years in this sample. Before you dart out to bet every well beaten second time starter, note that the longer term track record is less attractive: whilst a profit has still been achieved, backing all such qualifiers since 2005 would have resulted in three losing years and one break even.
The key here is that previous experience for juveniles is hugely advantageous in the early weeks of the season, and the market doesn't always fully account for that.
Regular readers will know I'm a strong advocate of trainer profiles, and there are definitely trainers to follow/swerve when it comes to youngsters; even more so in the first few days and weeks of the season.
Of those with a meaningful number of runners before the end of April each season since 2010, Bill Turner (8/29, 28%, +12.04) and Richard Fahey (12/46, 26%, +12.04) have the best records.
Richard Hannon, Sr. notched at a rate of 33% for a negligible profit in the sample period. Though the name above the door is now Richard Hannon, Jr., little is expected to change in the training regimen, and Hannon horses can be expected to continue to be ready from the get-go.
Keep Bill Turner, Richard Fahey and Richard Hannon onside with their early two-year-olds.
At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Channon and Tom Dascombe throw a lot of mud at the races and little of it sticks. Their ROI's (-41.25% and -53.75% respectively) are testament to profile rather than performance, and layers may want to keep this in mind, as a lay of all such runners was worth a profit of nearly 40 points at Betfair SP.
Tread carefully around the juvenile runners of Mick Channon and Tom Dascombe in the early weeks of the season.
Elsewhere, and The Shortlist has been going great guns in recent weeks, topping up with a 12/1 winner on Saturday, from four picks. Sunday is a rest day for the tipping here on geegeez, but The Shortlist is back today, alongside Stat of the Day and Double Dutch.
And if you've not used the geegeez racecards yet, why not?! Seriously, although I'm obviously biased, they are the best form tools out there. Just this weekend, one subscriber won £7,000 (!) from 25p e/w stakes (an £11 bet!).
If you're still to be convinced...
1. This report I wrote might help you understand why they WILL help you with your betting.
2. You get 17 days to try them out gratis
Not long now. Bring on the flat season!