Part 3: “What Our Transatlantic Cousins Can Teach Us About Picking Winners. And Losers!”
Let me begin this piece by asking a (loaded) question:
“If you were to place a bet on the likely winner of a 100m race, would you bet the fastest man in the field or the man who won his last two races against inferior opposition?”
I hope that you answered “the fastest man” and, if you didn’t, I hope that by the end of this, you will be converted.
Having said that, it’s not always the case that the fastest man will win. Although in 100m races, this is typically true, sometimes athletes fluff the start and have too much catching up to do.
In races of 1,500m or more, there may be a tactical situation where the fastest man loses his speed advantage over the full distance, and is usurped by the man (or woman) with the best finishing kick.
As it is true for track athletes, so it is also true for cyclists, auto racers, rowers, and horses.
Time waits for no man (or beast). The evidence of the clock is incontrovertible.
However, while the time a horse records in winning a race may be unarguable, the elements that conspired to that win – the jockey, the pace in the race, the going, the wind speed and direction, the track constitution, and whether the ground staff moved the running rails – are all open to interpretation.
This makes the ‘science’ of speed assessment an inexact one, and it is precisely this inexactitude that makes for potential profit.
In this country, there are a number of ratings services who increasingly rely on the evidence of the clock, in conjunction with other imponderables, to identify the likeliest winner in a given line-up. The most obvious one is Timeform, and there are numerous others.
In the US speed guru Andy Beyer’s seminal work, “Picking Winners”, he espouses the virtues of using the evidence of the stopwatch to find winners. In his foreword in that book, Beyer writes,
“Surely it doesn’t require much imagination to conclude that races will often be won by the fastest horse. Yet in 1975, this idea was considered heterodox, even preposterous. Horseplayers believed in class, not speed, and experts would often pose a hypothetical question like this one: A $10,000 [claiming value] horse runs six furlongs in 1:11.0. A $20,000 horse runs the same six furlongs in 1:11.6. Now they are matched against each other, who will win? The overwhelming majority of people involved in American racing would have answered without hesitation that the $20,000 animal’s superior class would enable him to prevail. Even Tom Ainslie, the most astute and literate author of handicapping books, espoused the supreme importance of class.
Of course, there were in America some bettors who recognised the importance of speed and profited handsomely by betting the $10,000 horse who could run faster than his $20,000 rival”.
Now, personally, I don’t think that in this example, where there are only three-fifths of a second between the two runners, that it is necessarily the case that the fastest horse would win, because that time difference would equate to only four lengths on a traditional interpretation of times (see below). And that sort of difference could easily be countered by a troubled passage or a missed beat at the start.
However, the more likely winner, would unquestionably be the faster horse. So the bet would have to be on the faster horse.
What was true in America in 1975 is still true today here for many racing punters. A formerly smart handicapper dropping to claiming company is often assumed to be a good thing, even though the numbers may indicate he is by no means the fastest horse.
The stats for this are instructive.
If you had bet £1 on every horse running in a claimer over the last five years, that had had its previous run in a handicap, you’d have lost a whopping £1618.08.
Even if you limited those runners to horses who appeared in the first three in the betting, you’d still have lost an eye watering £192.08.
Although class can help as an indicator of form (as we’ll discover another day), speed is a more quantifiable measure.
So how does one actually go about calculating speed ratings? It is obvious to even the newest of newbies that it is not simply a case of clocking the time for a race. This would make no account of the numerous variables already touched upon, particularly track constitution and going.
So, in order to factor some of these elements into the calculations, and to create a degree of uniformity, we need some reference data.
Firstly, we need a set of ‘standard times’. A standard time is simply a constant approximation of the time a horse would take to cover the race distance for a particular class of race at a particular track, usually whilst carrying a specific weight. From there, the individual race times on a given day can be derived, and a ‘track variant’, or going allowance, can be calculated.
Although this may sound complicated, it really isn’t. I’ve set up a little Excel spreadsheet for the four all weather tracks that enables me to calculate the ratings for the race winners on a given day in around ten minutes.
The number crunching to manually enter all the data into another spreadsheet takes me a little longer, but the actual calculation part is simple and broadly automated.
If any reader is interested in the spreadsheet template and my set of standard times, which I got from speed guru, Nick Mordin, please let me know and I’d be happy to share them.
So, the process for working out the speed figures is as follows:
1. Enter the distance and race class for each race on the card
2. Enter the actual times the winners recorded
3. Calculate the track variant
4. Work out the ratings for the beaten horses
The first part is simple, especially using my spreadie.
Point two is equally straightforward.
Thereafter, life gets a bit more interesting. Lest you think that everyone who does this will get the same results, and therefore the value is diluted, let me disabuse you of that notion.
The track variant is interpretable. What I tend to do, in line with the Nick Mordin approach outlined in his book ‘Betting For A Living’ and stated in full in the excellent ‘Mordin on Time’, is throw out the fastest and slowest (after applying the class allowance elements) run races.
I then look at the subset of data I have left to see if there are any further outliers (i.e. race times that are obviously out of kilter with the remainder).
For all of the remaining race times, I calculate the average, based on the adjusted time difference per mile. This then becomes my track variant.
It really is a lot easier to do than to explain, but if you’re interested in learning more, I heartily recommend you get a copy of Mordin on Time. (It’s available on Amazon for about eight quid).
To calculate the ratings for the beaten horses, you simply divide the distance beaten by the race distance in miles, and subtract that from the winner’s rating. So for instance, a horse beaten two lengths in a one mile race, would get a rating of two less than the winner (2 divided by 1 = 2). Likewise, a horse beaten three lengths in a six furlong (or 0.75 mile) race, would get a rating of four less than the winner (3 divided by 0.75 = 4).
I need to clarify two points here:
Firstly, the numbers create a relationship between time and distance beaten, by assuming that one point on the ratings equates to one length beaten over a mile or, in time terms one fifth of a second per mile. So, in theory, a horse beaten a length over a mile has run to the same relative mark against the race winner as a horse beaten two lengths over two miles. (I hope this makes sense).
Secondly, you’ll notice I’ve made only passing reference to weight in my assessments. This is because my experience, and that of much better qualified judges, suggests that the influence of weight is overrated, especially on all weather tracks, where I focus my attentions.
It’s true that a horse due to carry a stone more weight may struggle, but a pound or two here or there is rarely as important as the horse’s winning / trying attitude.
By following this simple rating procedure, you can quickly build up a database of numbers against horses. And you will find that sometimes a horse will surprise you with a very high rating. Do not be afraid to accept that a horse can improve significantly for a change of surface, or if unexposed on the surface. Be more sceptical if the horse is more experienced and suddenly throws in a freakishly fast time: the chances of a repeat are slim.
I mentioned recently that Les Fazzani ran very quickly in what seemed a fairly ‘run of the mill’ race at Kempton. She came out and won again next time by four lengths at odds of 5/1. (I didn’t back her because the race was on turf but, had she been running again at Kempton, I’d have pulled the boots on! And she’d surely have won).
It’s this type of information that is not necessarily available to the public, and that is fairly objective (remember, there is some interpretation in the numbers) that can be so powerful.
Before work commitments precluded me spending the time on them, I kept ratings for Lingfield, Southwell and Wolverhampton for four winters in a row. I made money each and every year.
I plan to reinstate the ratings for this winter, which is why I have been dusting off the old spreadies, and why I’ve acquired some up-to-date standard times.
I’m very much looking forward to a profitable winter season!
[Note, the reason I only look at speed ratings for all weather tracks is because generally there are many less variables to deal with. For instance, the running rails are never moved and therefore the distance is always as advertised; the going changes much less markedly than on turf tracks; horses who act at a track once are pretty likely to replicate that; horses who don’t are equally likely to replicate their failure; and there is a good chance that horses will continue to run consistently at the same location, due to the number of fixtures from October to March.]
One important note of caution which is worth repeating: as I mentioned at the top of this piece, a fast horse can only run a fast time in a fast run race. I appreciate that may be a statement of glaring obviousness.
But remember that small field races, or races where there is no obvious front runner(s), or races over a longer trip (a ‘route’ as they say, Stateside), often become tactical and any advantage a fast horse has can be nullified unless he also possesses a turn of foot.
This brings us nicely onto pace as a means of identifying race winners, which I will discuss in more detail next time…