Tony Keenan: Focus for Optimal Betting Decisions

Over the summer, I read a book called ‘The Organized Mind’ by Daniel Levitin, a handbook of sorts on how to get by without being overwhelmed in an age of information overload, writes Tony Keenan. Levitin’s central idea is that we should offload information from the brain onto the physical world, be it in the form of compiling a to-do list if we struggle to recall all that has to be done or simply buying a key hook if you constantly lose your car keys.

Along with simple advice like that, there are detailed explanations on the importance of sleep and illusion of multi-tasking: Levitin is ‘death’ on the latter, saying that rather than increasing productivity, multi-tasking leads to less work and sloppier work. Multi-tasking is all about trying to do too much at once, asking the brain to make lots of decisions when there is a finite limit on the amount of information it can absorb.

This, I think, is where betting comes in as it is essentially a decision-making game. For Levitin, the best decision-making comes from using something called optimal complexity theory, the idea that too little information is no good but so is too much. This applies with any decision we make, like buying a house or car say. Having too many parameters to consider leads to confusion in decision-making, with humans apparently unable to process more than ten variables for any choice, the optimal number being closer to five.

Consumers (and punters) make better choices when they get to control the parameters they get but that isn’t always easy as research shows that people are unable to ignore information that isn’t relevant to them. This is one of the dilemmas facing the modern racing punter. Racing has always been a complicated sport and is getting more complicated, or at more more information rich; whatever your thoughts on sectionals, striding and horse weights, there is only going to be more data coming.

Sorting between what is important and what is noisier is the challenge, especially when most analysis of an individual race is time-bounded from declaration stage to post-time. With all this in mind, I spoke to three experienced punters about the handful of factors they believe are optimal for their analysis and some variables they believe are overrated.

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Nick is a UK-based punter who has been betting for nearly 40 years and tends to focus on better handicaps, dismissing maidens, juvenile races, claimers and anything below Class 4 with the aim of being what he calls ‘a happy backer with uncluttered thinking.’ Watching replays of races is at the core of what he does, paying more attention to the first half of the race than second.

“First of all, I see the performance [on the day] and think what is the right kind of race or track for the animal in question. In the end you must live or die by your judgment even if it is sometimes wrong, there are certain horses you see and think that’s got County Hurdle or Ayr Gold Cup written all over it.”

He uses niche angles (my term, not his), “trying to look at things in a different way and the more you look or read, sometimes these things come to you.” He cites the example of the old Breeders’ Cup Marathon when one of the commentators jokingly mentioned that the US horses would ‘need oxygen’ over the staying trip which put him onto the non-US horses that won several of the later renewals of the race.

He is less keen on the usefulness of the draw. “With rail movements and selective watering, draw biases are changing so much unless it’s on a round course and even then there are places like Chester that can have their rail so far out that it wasn’t a disadvantage to be drawn high. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic about these things and keeping up with every course is difficult.”

Pre-race pace analysis is another variable Nick thinks is of questionable value. “Analysis of how the race might be run is probably read by all now, including connections, and I think this leads to races being run differently to how we might think. There seem to be fewer pace burn-ups than there used to be, and I can’t remember many big handicaps being won by hold-up horses; my tracker is full of them to my cost!”

Like Nick, Irish-based ‘Paul’ (not his real name) says “the number one is watching the replays of all the races and while it can be a grind nonetheless it has to be done.” He goes on, “I don’t tend to spend much effort on time or sectionals as there is little or no data available on Irish racing anyway so there’s no point in worrying too much about it.”

Handicaps are among his favourite races to play in though he rarely backs a horse first time in one as “a lot of horses coming from maidens have never really been asked to race hard. Most of them might never have been ridden out in a finish with four or five taps of the whip, and a first run in a handicap is usually much more competitive than anything they’ve been doing in maidens.” He does like “horses dropping in grade from a 0-75 handicap into a 0-65”, something that can be missed a little.

With such variety among the Irish tracks, ‘Paul’ often looks at “horses for courses with the quirky tracks like Tramore, Galway and Kilbeggan.” The weather also plays a part in his betting with the Met.ie website in constant use. “The ground can change very quickly at places like Roscommon which can be helpful when backing ones in the morning knowing the rain may be due and softer ground will hamper the market leaders.”

In common with the previous two punters, ‘Matthew’ (again, not his real name) believes in the value of replays, watching “pretty much every race, every day” while making as many notes as possible, but knowing that obviously unlucky horses aren’t going to be much use as he bets late and that information will already be in the market. Betting mainly on UK races, he places a lot of importance on “knowing the track quirks” and “any biases caused by pace, wind, kickback or uneven going can be rich source for finding bets.”

‘Matthew’ was a relatively early adopter of sectional times, on board since the early part of this decade, and says they “are very useful when looking at lightly-raced types because most maidens and novices are so sl0wly-run that speed figures don’t cut it.” With young horses, he looks out for “ones that are held up and/or slowly-way and the pace has a [finishing speed] of say 105% or more, but they make a move into the race and maybe flatten out with the overall time-figure not looking great.” He cites A’Ali on debut at Ripon as a good example of this where “Spartan Fighter dictated against a favoured rail while A’Ali made up a couple of lengths on the bridle in the hot part of the race which is typically the three-furlong pole to the one-furlong pole in most slowly-run races.”

‘Matthew’ uses a database and he says “it is great for throwing out bad theories you have as well as working out when angles are being adjusted to by the market.” He also uses it for sire and trainer stats as well as “pace stats by course and distance which can point in the direction of more biases.”

As with Nick, he finds “the draw is an overrated factor by pundits [and] normally the market has adjusted for it and if anything tend to over-adjust so wide draws can be a smidgen of value.” Another factor he thinks is overbet are “horses that look like they will improve going up in trip” and he much prefers “a horse that’s gone too fast recently dropping in trip.”

So that is what some of the judges think are optimal factors for making betting decisions, what about you?

- TK

9 replies
  1. lechuck
    lechuck says:

    A couple of seasons ago I tried a strategy that provided about a 15% ROI for the first half the season, and then collapsed in the second half. I need to try it again at some point, but perhaps it’s just too simple to work. I basically went through the recent form of each horse in a handicap, and isolated the races that were similar in track style / going / distance, and calculated the official rating it ran to, by comparing the horse’s finishing position to those around it, and looking at how the other horses’ rating had changed since this race.

    So say horse A won a race off 100, and horse B finished 3 lengths behind at 104. Horse A is now at a mark of 120, which makes horse B (using 1 length for 1 mark in NH races) rated 121.

    I used this basic theory to find the ‘best-handicapped’ horse in the race, and backed it, as long as the odds were over 3/1. As I said, it worked very well during the first half of the season, which happened to be summer jumps racing. Perhaps it was better suited to this.

    Nowadays I don’t really have time to look at things like variations in going at a track (as mentioned in the article). Now most of my ‘ins’ are based on pace reading, which does not provide an angle in itself, but at least usually works in allowing me to discount several runners.

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    I think the cliches about ‘weights’, every day in pre-race speculation, deserve a thorough abusing.
    A recent example, a last time out winner was alleged to have more to do its next race, as it was ‘2lb higher today’.
    It was dropped in class.

  3. kemal
    kemal says:

    Really?? The draw is useless?? pace analysis is useless? Not in my opinion! Are they successful punters? The old stalwarts of recent form,track,trip,draw and going have always served me well!

  4. Nick McKenna
    Nick McKenna says:

    This tallies with Malcolm Gladwell’s finding in his book ‘Blink’…. the more information we have the worse the decisions we tend to make.

    He goes on to explore what he calls ‘thin-slicing’ which is making decisions based on a partial set of information… and finds that it is at least equally, if not more likely, to produce better results.

    a fascinating book which I highly recommend.

    • buchanskii
      buchanskii says:

      Sounds a lot like the 80/20 principle – a book which I have on my “to-read” list.

  5. Dandy
    Dandy says:

    Agree with Kemal. Haven’t you spent the last few months plugging race pace analysis on your Geegeez Gold service, Matt?
    Now, according to your pros, it’s irrelevant?
    Try telling that one to supporters of Battash (like my brother!!).

    • Matt Bisogno
      Matt Bisogno says:

      I obviously think pace is very important as well. But the pro’s are right that the likely setup is factored into starting prices these days. There is still plenty of value for those able to get on at early prices or with Best Odds Guaranteed.

      Also, and this is absolutely crucial, nobody is saying pace is irrelevant. They are saying that they don’t believe it has the market edge it had, say, one to five years ago. Nothing is a strong edge forever; but it’s still a fundamental piece of my betting approach. If I don’t like the pace setup I don’t bet, simple as that.

      There is no single way to find value bets, as we all know – so there is no point in getting too vexed that someone else discounts a factor which is crucial for you (or me). If it’s working, it’s working!

      Best,
      Matt

  6. iain
    iain says:

    problem is we are talking about information we are conscious of .. while decision making is influenced by factors that effect our weighting but are less tangible. Many of the known biases in our perception can be seen in betting markets , however putting a value on these is difficult. If we consider recency bias for example. We have to balance the fact we weight recent events differently than less recent events. However in horse racing , recent events should be weighted differently as they imply well being . To what extent ?
    I have followed racing for many years and still fall into the same traps I did and always will.
    I find it easiest to write down the facts i have and start from there
    Watching races yourself is important as the press comments are poor in many cases.

  7. Nicholas Elmslie
    Nicholas Elmslie says:

    My belief is that one system is enough and it can focus on just one or two factors. I my case it’s the draw in shorter races or speed ratings in graded stakes races.

    I bet in small stake multiples and the key thing is that whatever system you use gives you a reason to pick the horses without spending hours studying form.

    On the occasions that your system works over 5 or more races on the same day you hit big. I have had a £30k Tote Jackpot payout from a 64 lines X 10p ticket. £10.5K from 5 winners out of 6 over the Irish jumps for a £20 stake.

    If I used multiple factors I would more often than not apply bias to the wrong factor in my picks.

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