Prior to any of the major sprint handicaps, such as the Wokingham Stakes at Royal Ascot or the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood, the conversation inevitably turns to the impact of draw bias on the outcome of the race. Conventional wisdom dictates that the greatest impact is felt in large, competitive fields over sprint distances, where the runners may split into two or more groups. The discussion often includes the distance of the race, the size of the field, the position of the stalls and the varying state of the going due to indiscriminate watering, inconsistent drainage, etc.
However, while speculation about draw bias is a favourite of TV commentators and pundits, punters would do well to take any comments about perceived draw bias with a pinch of salt. Certainly, perceived draw bias can boost confidence in a selection if it’s supposedly favourable and vice versa, but even if it’s unfavourable it shouldn’t be a reason for not backing a selection that has everything else in its favour. Pace bias, rather than draw bias, has by far the greatest impact on the outcome of any horse race.
The myth of draw bias is perpetuated by TV commentators blaming draw bias, alone, for the occurrence of ‘surprise’ winners in major sprint handicaps. What they fail to acknowledge is the fact that surprise winners occur for all sorts of reasons and, more often than not, the horse in question is fully entitled to win, despite starting at long odds.
Dandy Boy, winner of the Wokingham Stakes in 2012, was considered one such ‘surprise’ winner, at 33/1, but closer inspection of his form reveals that he had every chance of winning granted a decent pace and luck in running. Colonel Mak (drawn 5) took the field along at a suicidal pace, aided and abetted by Joe Packet (drawn 8), effectively setting the race up for hold-up horses, four of which filled the first four places.
Dandy Boy had comfortably won a valuable handicap over 7 furlongs at Meydan the previous season off an identical handicap mark and signalled a return to form when going down by just a neck in another, over a mile, at the Curragh the previous month. The fact that he was able to win over a testing 6 furlongs, coming from off a fast pace, shouldn’t really have been that much of a surprise, but all the hoo-hah surrounding him was purely down to his 33/1 starting price. If he had been in the first half a dozen in the betting, no-one would have mentioned draw bias.
As another example of how pace bias is often far more significant than any perceived draw bias, consider the result of the Wokingham Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2013. In the preceding 11 years, horses drawn in stalls 1 to 10 had won the Wokingham Stakes 7 times. Of course, the numbering of the stalls on right-handed courses was reversed in 2011, with the 2011 winner, Deacon Blues, coming from stall 11 and the 2012 winner, Dandy Boy, coming from stall 15. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom dictated that horses drawn against either rail held a significant advantage over those drawn in the middle of the course.
In the 2013 renewal the field split into two groups, although only 6 of the 26 runners remained on the stands’ side. Poole Harbour (drawn 8) led overall, with Babak Chinta (drawn 16) helping to force the pace, as the main group of runners bunched in the middle of the course. As such, the race not only favoured runners drawn in the middle of the course, but also those coming from off the pace and, in the end, three hold-up horses, York Glory (drawn 22), Shropshire (drawn 18) and Dinkum Diamond (drawn 15) filled the first three places.
Ultimately, unless your selection is running on a racecourse with an established, distinct draw bias, such as Beverley, Chester or Thirsk, it may pay to concentrate on whether or not the race in question is likely to be run at an end-to-end gallop, where the pace is likely come from and where your selection is likely to be positioned in relation to the pace. Certainly, this is a much better use of your time than trying to identify any perceived draw bias, which may, after all, be a figment of the imagination.
A recent study suggests that just a single-figure percentage of horse racing punters make a profit in the long term. According to the British Horse Industry Confederation, at £10 billion a year is bet on horse races, so what ‘edge’ has this tiny minority of punters established over the hoi polloi, which allows them to generate a profit where others cannot? The answer to that question can be summed up in a single word, ‘discipline’.
Bookmakers are in business to make a profit and successful punters must adopt a business-like approach to their betting activity, based on record-keeping, staking, strategy and work ethic if they are to have any hope of doing likewise. Unsuccessful punters often rely heavily on ‘luck’ and are willing to accept almost any explanation for backing a loser, other than that their judgement was at fault.
Unsuccessful punters often keep no records at all and therefore have little, or no, idea about their strike rate, return on investment or profitability. In so doing, they deny themselves the opportunity to create, and refer to, the most valuable betting information they’ll probably ever come across. Perhaps understandably, they tend to take a very short-term view of their betting activity, calculating their profit or loss on a daily basis, if they do so at all. Successful punters, by contrast, not only keep accurate records of every bet they place for future reference, but analyse the form after, as well as before, the race.
Unsuccessful punters tend to focus on finding winners, regardless of the odds on offer, and fail to understand that a high strike-rate doesn’t, necessarily, translate into profitability. Successful punters, on the other hand, tend to focus on finding value selections – in other words, horses that are available at longer odds than their chance merits – and may be prepared to sacrifice strike rate in favour of profitability. Of course, they understand odds and percentages and can recognise value even in short-priced selections. They’re much more likely to shop around for an extra point, or even half a point, to increase their profitability in the long term.
Continuing the mathematical theme, unsuccessful punters typically have little interest in odds, percentages, probability or staking. They tend to bet haphazardly, based on how things are going at any given moment, rather than knowing what stakes to use, and how to use them, regardless of whether they’re winning or losing in the short term.
On the subject of ‘value’, successful punters typically don’t just rely on the same information that is available to everyone else. They may, for example, produce their own private handicaps or speed ratings or simply focus on a particular ‘niche’ of horse racing, in which they become expert. By their very nature, successful punters are more likely to investigate information, such as overall and sectional times, speed maps, etc., which are not readily available, but can nevertheless provide them with an ‘edge’ in their betting activity. As a result, they’re confident and unlikely to be swayed by journalists, TV pundits or anyone else with an opinion; successful punters lead the market rather than merely following it.
Sprint handicaps, including traditional ‘cavalry charges’ such as the Wokingham Stakes, the Stewards’ Cup and the Ayr Gold Cup, remain hugely popular betting mediums with punters looking for a large return for a relatively small stake. However, prestigious sprint handicaps may have a safety limit of 27, 28 or even 30 runners and the prize money on offer dictates that they invariably attract maximum fields.
This number of runners, spread across the entire width of the track, thundering over five or six furlongs undoubtedly creates a thrilling spectacle, but equally presents punters with a nightmarishly difficult puzzle to solve. In fact, so arduous is the task of dissecting some of these races that we were forced to ask ourselves if it’s even worth doing so.
Sprint handicaps tend to be contested by older, exposed horses, most of whom are unlikely to be improving and some of whom may be deteriorating. These types of horses may have risen to handicap marks from which they struggle to remain competitive, but often race against each other week in, week out, with various results that may not, necessarily, reflect their handicap marks.
In a race over five or six furlongs, it’s nigh on impossible for a horse to ‘blow’ the start and recover in time to win the race, while the higher the number of runners the higher the possibility of the field splitting into two or more groups. On certain racecourses, such as Beverley or Chester, the bias towards horses drawn high or low over sprint distances is well established, but on others the bias can change from meeting to meeting, so it’s important to take note of recent results. Throw in the vagaries of lucking in running, which can play havoc with the plans of the most ardent form student, and it becomes easy to see why bookmakers offer apparently generous win and place odds for sprint handicaps. Make no mistake; they’re giving nothing away.
In an effort to illustrate the difficulty involved in deciphering sprint handicaps, we investigated a random sample of 500 races run over five and six furlongs on turf and synthetic surfaces between May and September 2013. Of the 500 races, 146 were won by the market leader, at a strike rate of 29.2% but, with the average starting price of winning favourites working out at a little over 11/5, this translated to a level stakes loss of 175.87 points and a return on investment (ROI) of 64.82%.
Exponents of betting in sprint handicaps may argue that we could improve our ROI by concentrating on fields with fewer than sixteen runners and, indeed, all but seven of our winning favourites ran against no more than fourteen rivals. However, of the remaining 354 losing favourites, just eleven raced against fifteen or more rivals so, at least for our sample, this argument doesn’t really hold water. Of course, the amount of work required to back starting price favourites is negligible but, in our opinion, the amount of work required to turn a level stakes loss of 175.87 points from 500 bets into any kind of meaningful profit is disproportionate to the returns we can expect, so we suggest giving sprint handicaps the ‘swerve’ in favour of more profitable betting opportunities.