Can We Really Trust The Clerk Of The Course?

Can We Really Trust The Clerk Of The Course?  The going or, in other words, how hard or soft the racing surface is on any given day, is an important factor in determining the outcome of a horse race. Indeed, it may also dictate which horses participate in the first place, because trainers are often loath to run their charges on going which they know is unsuitable. If the horse in question does run, you’ll often see a statement from the trainer that the horse was unsuited by the prevailing going on the ‘Why They Ran Badly’ page of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) website.


It has been suggested that the best horses can act on any of the official going designations (hard, firm, good to firm, good, good to soft, soft or heavy) but, while this may be true for the superstars, every horse tends to prefer specific types of going. It’s worth noting that even the all-conquering Frankel, officially the highest rated horse in Flat racing history, never raced on going softer than ‘soft’ or firmer than good to firm.


On turf, moisture softens the racing surface, allowing horses’ hooves to penetrate deeper below the surface. Some horses relish ‘cut in the ground’, while others prefer firmer underfoot conditions. Serious punters will therefore want to know (i) the state of the going as accurately as possible and (ii) which horses are capable of reproducing their best form on the prevailing going.


The state of the going at any racecourse can usually be determined by reference to the official going description published by the Clerk of the Course on the day on which racing takes place. In addition, the Rules of Racing stipulate that the official going description must be accompanied by an objective, numerical reading taken with a device known as a GoingStick. The GoingStick measures the penetration and shear of the racing surface at a given point and converts these variables into a final, mechanically consistent reading.


The GoingStick has eliminated the subjectivity associated with traditional going descriptions but, of course, it’s possible for the going to change after the initial GoingStick reading is published. Serious punters know to keep an eye on winning times during the day as an indication of possible going changes.


The trick, of course, is for punters to know which horses are capable of reproducing their best form on the prevailing going and which are not. For ‘exposed’ horses, going preference(s) can usually be determined by reference to the form book but, for ‘unexposed’ horses, which may have very little, or no, form in the book, punters need to rely on other factors.


Breeding, configuration and the way in which a horse moves its legs, known as its ‘action’, may determine which type(s) of going it prefers, but there are no hard and fast rules. It’s true that the progeny of some sires perform better on one type of racing surface or another, but don’t be mislead by commentators peddling outdated, often inaccurate, opinions. There are plenty of websites offering up-to-date sire statistics for all racing surfaces, including synthetic surfaces, free-of-charge, so rely on these if need be.


It stands to reason that, for horses of approximately the same size and weight, one with larger hooves, in terms of surface area, applies less pressure per hoof than one with smaller hooves and is therefore less likely to become ‘bogged down’ by soft or heavy going. It has been suggested that prospective ‘mudlarks’, or otherwise, can be identified by inspecting the size of their hooves in the paddock but, as this luxury is only available to on-course punters, off-course punters must rely on seeing a horse in motion.


Some horses have a pronounced knee action and lift their feet relatively high off the ground with each stride. As a result of this ‘rounded’ action, their feet strike the racing surface much harder with each stride than their counterparts who have a less pronounced, ‘daisy cutter’ action and keep their feet relatively low to the ground. It makes sense that the former type of horse is more at home with cut in the ground, on which it can fully let itself down without fear of injury, while the latter type is more at home under firmer conditions.


Of course, there will no doubt be an exception to prove every ‘rule’, but we hope we’ve provided a little insight into the going and why it’s important to everyone involved in racing. We hope you enjoyed ‘Can We Really Trust The Clerk Of The Course?’ and we will be back soon with another advanced betting guide. In the meantime, we would love to hear your thoughts on ‘Can We Really Trust The Clerk Of The Course?’ in the comments section below. If you missed our previous post in this series, ‘The Zen of Form Study’, you can read it here.


Ratings  Ratings come in various types, ranging from the extremely simple to the highly complex, but they’re all based on the same concept. They express – often, but not always, in Imperial pounds – the abilities of racehorses, so that it’s possible to compare one with another.


The rating that you’re most likely to come across for any horse, provided it meets certain qualifying criteria, is the official rating (OR) allocated by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) Handicapper, which appears in the Racing Post and similar publications.


By and large, official ratings are based on the same variables, such as distance, going, weight and so on, that form students use when assessing horseracing form. The Handicapper also takes into account any incident that may cause a horse to have run better, or worse, than indicated by the bare result and includes that information in his calculation of a handicap rating.


By themselves, official ratings are only useful in non-handicap races, where it’s possible to determine, at a glance, those horses which are favoured by the race conditions and those which aren’t.


Other types of ratings, such as those published by Timeform or under the Topspeed banner in the Racing Post, assess the performance of each horse in terms of time, against a fixed, standard time for the distance on the racecourse on which its is competing. Note that the highest rating achieved by any horse will reflect its optimum conditions, so closer inspection is usually required to determine if the horse in question is likely to reproduce the same level of performance under the prevailing conditions.


These speed ratings are the type of rating that you can produce for yourself, if you’re sufficiently dedicated and you have access to racecourse standard times. Racecourse standard times are available on the racecards on the Racing Post website, if you join the Members’ Club. Obviously, higher class horses are expected to run nearer the standard time for any distance on any racecourse than lower class horses, so you’ll also need a table that shows you how many seconds per five furlongs, or per mile, a horse of a particular class is expected to run slower than the standard time.


The exact method for calculating speed ratings is beyond the scope of this article, but several excellent books, such as those by Andrew Beyer or Nick Mordin, deal thoroughly with the subject. Essentially, you need to compare the winning time of each race at a meeting with the standard time, discard the fastest and slowest times and take an average of the remainder to produce what is known as the “going variance”, which takes into account underfoot conditions on the day. For each race, calculate a speed rating for the winner and, by dividing the number of lengths each horse finished behind the winner by the distance of the race and subtracting the result from the speed rating of the winner, calculate a speed rating for the other runners.


A simple, but surprisingly powerful, ratings system was marketed as the “Fineform Ratings Formula” by professional punter Clive Holt in the 1980s. The Fineform Ratings Formula doesn’t involve race times, per se, but instead assigns points to each horse according to its finishing position in its last two races and whether or not it’s a previous course and/or distance winner. For example, a horse that had won its last two races and was a previous course and distance winner would be assigned a maximum rating, whereas a horse that finished unplaced on its last two starts and wasn’t a previous course or distance winner would be assigned a minimum rating.


Even if you go to the trouble of producing your own speed ratings, don’t expect them to provide you with a “magic bullet”, which will enable you to unearth the winner of every race you analyse. The number of variables influencing the outcome of any horse race will ensure that they won’t. However, even simple ratings can help you to narrow down a field to two or three runners on which to concentrate your efforts and can be a boon if you only have limited time available for form study.

Weight: Does it Mean Everything or Nothing at All?

Weight: Does it Mean Everything or Nothing at All?  In horse racing, weight is always a contentious issue and nowhere more so than in handicap races, where all the horses have similar ability and are weighted according to their official rating and relative to the opposition. According to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), a horse that wins a handicap typically rises 6lb or 7lb in the weights which, using the approximate pounds-per-length conversion employed by the BHA Handicapper, translates into anything between two and seven lengths, depending on the type and distance of the race contested.


However, given that a typical thoroughbred racehorse can weigh up to half an Imperial ton, or more, it can be argued that adding 6lb or 7lb to the burden it carries is unlikely to make much difference and the effect of the extra weight is over exaggerated. In fact, Phil Smith, Head of Handicapping at the BHA once said, ‘We are thought to have a decisive influence, but in reality there are far more important factors in a horse’s performance than the weight it carries. The key things are its health, the ground and the trip.’


The effect of weight in handicaps has been widely studied but, before we discuss possible profitable betting angles, it’s helpful to identify the types of horses that contest handicaps. The eligibility rules for handicaps, including ‘nursery’ handicaps for two-year-olds, mean that all the participants are ‘exposed’ to a greater or lesser degree. However, all of them also generally fit into one of the following categories:


Proven horses are those that have won a similar race, on a similar course, under similar conditions to those prevailing, off a similar handicap mark. In theory, they need only to be fit and have luck in running to win, provided the opposition isn’t equally proven, progressive or promising.


Unproven horses, on the other hand, can be usually identified by a marked disparity in class, distance or weight between what they’ve achieved in the past and the race being contested. This category includes horses that have won races in the past, but have risen sufficiently in the handicap to prevent them winning again; such horses are often said to be ‘in the grip of the handicapper’ and usually need their official rating to be lowered before they become competitive again.

Progressive horses are those whose form shows advancement from one run to the next. This category includes less exposed types, with the scope to defy rising handicap marks, especially when racing against more exposed opposition.


Regressive horses are those whose form shows deterioration from one run to the next. Regression may actually be caused by declining ability, as the result of age, or by stepping up in class off too high a handicap mark. In the case of the former, the downward trend is usually irreversible, but in the case of the latter, it can be halted by a drop in class, official rating or both.


Promising horses are those whose form is likely to improve, for whatever reason, based on the evidence already to hand. By definition, this category also includes less exposed types and a similar comment to that for progressive horses applies.


Obviously, there may be a degree of overlap between categories; a ‘progressive’ horse could equally be labelled ‘unproven’ if, as the result of the advancement in its form, it is stepping up in class off a handicap mark higher than its previous winning mark.


The reason for mentioning these categories is that weight is only one variable of the many that determine the outcome of a horse race and, as such, cannot be considered in isolation. The fact remains that horses going up the handicap ratings are usually improving, while those going down are regressing and the two groups react differently to weight changes. An American study conducted a few years ago suggested that for horses running in two consecutive races, over the same distance, under identical conditions, those carrying more weight required 3lb more to worsen their performance by one length, while those carrying less weight required 6.2lb less to improve their performance by one length.


This phenomenon, if we can call it that, may account for the fact that, despite the BHA Handicapper’s best efforts, a remarkable linearity exists between the position of a horse in the handicap and its winning strike rate. Although none of the top three in the weights wins often enough individually to generate a level stakes profit, collectively the top three win over a third of all handicap races, with the highest rated horse winning most often, the second highest rated horse winning second most often and so on. The rating allocated by the BHA Handicapper is supposed to reflect the ability of the horse in question, in Imperial pounds, so it makes sense that those horses carrying more weight are more able than those carrying less but, by the same token, all the runners in a handicap are supposed to have an equal chance, at least in theory, which clearly they do not.


It’s also interesting to examine the relationship between class and weight as a horse moves up the handicap ratings. With a few exceptions, any horse that wins a handicap race will inevitably have its handicap rating raised to some degree and, sooner or later, a rise in handicap rating will necessitate a rise in class. It’s a fact that horses that carry more weight in the same, or lower, grade after winning vastly outperform those that carry less weight in a higher grade after winning. In other words, it’s not extra weight that beats the horse, but the fact that it’s racing in a higher class, against better opposition.


Contentious though it may be, weight is an issue that largely takes care of itself, so it’s not one with which we need to tie ourselves in knots. The fact remains that the vast majority of handicap races are won by horses at, or approaching, their peak, attempting little, or nothing, more than they’ve achieved in the past and facing limited opposition. It’s usually to satisfy ourselves that a horse is physically capable of carrying the weight allocated and has won off a similar handicap mark, in a similar race, or is sufficiently progressive or promising to overcome a rise in its handicap rating.

What’s in a Name?

Lot’s of casual punters, when asked how they came to pick a horse to bet on, say that they just went with a name they liked. They often sound quietly confident when they do so, as if they’re suddenly in the know, or that a name conveys  secret all revealing informatin to them. It puts me in the mind of the Carry on Film scenes with Joey the Budgie:



I’m sure horse owners too appreciate the importance of a name, but some of them have a comedic take on the process. Certain names are disallowed if they are too full on or inappropriate in some way. Here’s a list of funny horse names that got the go ahead though. They’re all real. Some of them are mischievous – designed to make commentators to look silly – others are witty, others silly. Take a look:

Flat Fleet Feet (tongue twister!)

Arrrrr    (scream, commenttor, scream!)

Geespot  (naughty play on words)

Ha Ha Ha (how to make a commentator sound unprofessional)

Pianist (I beg your pardon!)

Hoof Hearted (Kicking up a stink)

Mucho Macho Man (I prefer ‘In The Navy!)

Hoarse (Pass that nag a lozenge)

Horsey McHorseFace (the legend.. needs no introduction!)