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Monday, 30 July 2007

Part 3: “What Our Transatlantic Cousins Can Teach Us About Picking Winners. And Losers!”

Using Speed To Assess A Horse’s Chance

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…

Matt

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Sunday, 29 July 2007

Sunday Service

Hello again, dear reader, and another short weekend post.

The lays this week have had a torrid time, bordering on embarrassing for yours truly.

Nevertheless, my loss is your gain. (You will have been paper trading only, while my confidence in the selection criteria means I've been shedding hard cash this week alas).

Your gain because I will be featuring the lays for another week, because I am determined to demonstrate the long term opportunity they present.

Also, I'm delighted to be able to tell you that I'll be trialling a tipster on this column next week for you.

And not just any old tipster. Oh no... this is the Nag3 site after all!

This guy is top of the Racing Index Tipping League by a country mile - in fact, here is his service and the next best...

Service Bets SR% Profit ESP
Winning Racing Tips 176 38.1 36.81 915
B4racing 99 29.3 14.85 229

The ESP number (915 against next best of 229) is a formula used to calculate value and, as you can see, there's no contest.

So I'll be looking forward to sharing this guy's wisdom with you next week.

Today's lay is the old monkey, Tam Lin, at Pontefract.

Matt

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Saturday, 28 July 2007

Saturday's Lays

Just a quick post today, dear reader, for the sunshine beckons.

Today's lays are as follows:

Ascot 4.20 Dylan Thomas
Ascot 4.55 Ektimaal (lay for a place)
Newc 2.20 Low Flyer
Salis 6.40 Norisan

Matt

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Thursday, 26 July 2007

Now The Tour Loses Its Ras-Matazz! And Today's Lays

Well, just when you thought the Tour could stoop no lower, dear reader, so it manages to scrape itself sub-terranean.

Yesterday came news of a positive drug test for Christian Moreni (about the only Italian in the race to make the news!).

But worse was to follow, as suspected doping offender, and clear race leader Michael Rasmussen, was sensationally booted out by his own team.

Nobody at cycling's world body or in the Tour organising committee shed a tear for the very suspicious Ras.

It transpires that he has recently failed to notify authorities of his whereabouts on four occasions, when three failures is treated as a positive drug test with an ensuing ban.

But worse than that, and what his paymasters could not accept, Rasmussen lied about his whereabouts in the run-up to the race. He had said that he was in Mexico, where his wife is from.

In fact, he was in Italy working with Dr Michele Ferrari, the infamous cycling quack known to make his wheelers go faster, by fair means or foul.

The cloud of suspicion became too heavy for Rabobank and then it burst, leaving Rasmussen without a job and without a team, and the Tour with a new young (hopefully clean) rider at the helm.

Step forward Alberto Contador. He is around two minutes up on Nag3 selection Cadel Evans, with just one meaningful stage to go.

That stage is the time trial this Saturday, and Evans will be favourite to win it. Whether he can beat Contador, who is a fair TT man himself, by two minutes is doubtful but not impossible.

Either way, barring any more drama, and my top 3 and top 6 wagers on the Aussie look safe. (I also had a small wager on Contador at 22/1 if you remember).

Onto racing, and the Laying System selections. A winner and a loser yesterday, so I'm definitely in the midst (ideally at the end) of a poor run.

Today's lays are:

York 7.30 Secret World
Sandown 3.55 Amarna

On the subject of these lays, and in response to a very surprising email I received, my advice is always to paper trade with a new system.

Moreover, any lay system has the propensity for significant short term losses, which in no way hinders its chances of long term gains.

It happens that this week I started to share the lays on a down cycle, but that will pass. To the gentleman who contacted me to tell me he'd lost money and would be better with a pin, I say you are right sir. You clearly do not have the right attitude with your betting to make something like this pay.

Perhaps you might try Laying Seven or the Laying Maestro systems: I'm told they're very good... (granted I'm told that by their own marketing spiel, and I've never seen them put up a selection ahead of time, but it might be for you sir...)

To take laying seriously, you need a bank of at least 40 points, you need patience and discipline, and you need to see a mid- to long-term view.

Lecture over. Sometimes people just p155 me off!

Back later with part 2 in the series on US vs UK form analysis, for those of you who are interested in such things.

Matt

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Wednesday, 25 July 2007

“What Our Transatlantic Cousins Can Teach Us About Picking Winners. And Losers!”

Introduction

Horse racing as a sport has thrived in this country for over 900 years. It is said that the Crusaders returned from their battles with lightning swift Arab horses as early as the 12th Century. Known as the Sport of Kings, it was the likes of Lord Derby (after whom the principle race in the UK flat calendar is named) and his moneyed cohorts who exclusively enjoyed the thrills of ownership for most of the intervening years.

Indeed, the colours of Lord Derby are still carried with honour, most recently by the incomparable race mare, Ouija Board.

Across ‘The Pond’, in America, it was also the British settlers who instigated horse racing as a sport. The first recorded US track was built at Long Island, on the East Coast, in 1665.

Both sides of the big watery divide, the single common element that increased the popularity of horse racing was that the outcome could not be predicted with any certainty.

And of course the consequence of an uncertain outcome is, and always has been, a wager.

Gambling continues to pay the way for horse racing everywhere, though for how much longer so much poor sport can sustain itself (especially here in UK) is in some doubt, in the mind of this scribe at least.

The point of this rather ragged and incomplete history lesson, lest you wonder, is to emphasise the fundamental role of betting in the sport.

Betting makes for winners and losers, and – in the case of horse racing – the result is binary. You either have a ‘1’, and a win and a payout. Or you have a ‘0’, and not a win, and a loss.

This risk / reward scenario has been embraced since time immemorial as an opportunity to make money.

Historically, when communications such as we have in this digital age were less plausible than putting a man into space, foul play abounded, and scams were commonplace.

It was a brave (or foolhardy) man who struck, or accepted, a wager. Of course, this ‘glorious uncertainty’ deterred neither the aristocracy nor the peasant classes from wading in with their size nine buskins.

In more recent times, with the formation of various governing bodies, from local to international levels, and the appointment of senior on-course judiciary, the scope for skulduggery has reduced manifold (despite what the conspiracy theorists and terminal losers will try to peddle to you if they think you offer even half an ear in their direction).

This makes the practice of trying to find winners more scientific and less susceptible to the unknown and underhand machinations of a preconceived plot.

With the possibility that science or at least artistic study could identify the most likely winner of a race among thoroughbreds, came the students to whose dedication to methodical analysis we owe everything we know today about what is commonly called ‘form’.

The interesting aspect, and the key theme of this mini-series, is the disparate evolution of horse racing form analysis that has developed on the two respective sides of the Atlantic.

The concept of collateral form – that is, A beat B by 5 lengths, and B beat C by 3 lengths; therefore, A should beat C by 8 lengths – is almost utterly alien Stateside. And yet it is the staple here in Britain and Ireland.

By the same token, the notions of pace, class and speed – which underpin US form study – are still the poor relations of collateral form in our verdant lands.

In the course of some of the following posts, I hope to introduce you to some of the key principles of US race analysis, and illustrate how prudent employment of these ideas can lead to real value in one’s betting here in Blighty.

Furthermore, if a methodology can identify the horse best suited to the prevailing conditions, or the fastest horse and, therefore, one to bet, it follows that the same methodologies can identify slow horses, or horses patently unsuited by the race makeup and, consequently, those to oppose.

In this day and age, this affords both bettor and bookmaker opportunities, and it is in both of these spheres that we should seek to take advantage of our window of opportunity.

And but a window it is. For, as with all systems and methods, its effectiveness will be finite and timebound. What works today because it is the premise of a minority of anti-establishment thinkers will tomorrow be the accepted wisdom of everyman.

Although it is sometimes difficult to take the less well-trodden route, it is unequivocally there that the path to financial gain lies.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the history and evolution of UK form, and briefly consider its strengths and weaknesses as a means of identifying horses to invest in.

Matt

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Today's Racing

Back from the gym, dear reader, and my head is somewhat clearer.

Time to escape the murky waters inhabited by sharks on bicycles, and revert to what we all know and love best: dear old horses.

Alas, again, I can't find anything to get excited about. It really is pretty mediocre fare this week. (Fear not, though, for Glorious Goodwood is next week!)

At Catterick, there is a pretty strong draw bias towards high numbers, and a rag with a squeak is Northern Candy in the 4.20. He's only had four runs, gets weight (for age and claiming price) from most of these, and has the best of the draw.

His best run was last time, and might improve enough to hit the board at around 50/1. In a race full of professional losers, I'd rather tickle at an unexposed one than plunge on the favourite.

Elsewhere, and the Laying System selections today are:

Catterick 5.50 Rare Coincidence
Leicester 6.45 Art Master

Let's hope for a change of fortune on what, thus far, has been a pretty miserable week in that department.

As promised, later I'll be posting the introductory synopsis for a little alternative form study series I'm writing. Warning: if you don't like my verbosity, look away now... (or at least then).

For now, ciao
Matt

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Tuesday, 24 July 2007

An Inauspicious Start for the Laying System...

The secret of great comedy, as you may know dear reader, is..... *checks watch, and counts to fifteen*.... timing.

As is the secret to launching a great product.

In the micro-economy of the past two days, the laying system has had the proverbial stinker. No matter, for bloodied but not unbowed, we continue: the mission now is to climb the (small category 4) hill back to level stakes, then push on.

Ainama hacked up today, making two big priced winning (and therefore losing) lays in two days.

The nature of any approach is that it will have good and bad turns. As long as the rationale is solid, the method will out.

In this case, I'm conscious that the method is somewhat translucent to you currently, so over the course of the next few days, I'm going to share with you the key elements that I look for in a (hopefully) losing horse.

Its no secret that I look to lay Racing Post favourites. A glance at the history of the qualifiers will show you that.

But there are a number of other factors which inform my decisions: primarily, pace, speed and class.

Now you may or may not know what these mean, and you cannot know what they mean specifically in the context of my interpretation.

But, starting later today, you'll get an inkling into my thoughts and then, irrespective of the results in the short term, I hope that you'll appreciate the consideration that frames the choices.

Enough already, and on with the show... tomorrow, I'll introduce my overall mindset, which is to try to find a different approach than the traditional 'pounds and lengths' scales of collateral form study which, frankly, I've always found at best ethereal (and at worst, downright misleading).

Then, on Thursday, I'll touch on why I think traditional British form study is due for retirement (in the main), before continuing next week with a look at the triumvirate of 'newfangled' tools: pace, class and speed. (Actually, as some / many of you will know, they're not new at all, and have been evolving nicely for decades Stateside without really taking off in a major way here... yet!)

More later.
Matt

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Raise A Glass To Vino...

Well, dear reader, it seems I was foolish and premature (not the first time I've been either of those two things!) in writing off the inimitable Kazakh, Alexandre Vinokourov.

After smashing the field to pieces on Saturday in the 'contre le montre', he wilted like a badly wilting wilty thing on Sunday in the Pyrenees.

But the man with more stitches in his knees than I have in my jimjams made a superlative comeback of Lazarus proportions yesterday, again riding away from the field, and descending down a mountain path at 60mph to score his second stage victory of the race.

Having lost about half an hour on Sunday, he is now no threat to the overall lead in the race and, with a rest day today, it's far from impossible that he could win the last mountain stage tomorrow. Certainly, the main players for the overall title will not chase him, and none of the other riders can live with him in the form he showed yesterday.

Furthermore, on Saturday, there is the second and final time trial, for which he must again be favourite.

And, as if four possible stage wins wasn't enough, he has previously won the final stage on the Champs Elysee, an event traditionally collared by a sprinter.

What a bizarre situation it would be if a rider won five stages of the Tour, and yet still didn't finish in the top 20 overall!

I have nothing but admiration for this guy, for the way he has refused to give up, and has fought on with honour and humility. He is the ultimate sportsman for me right now. 'Chapeau', as they say in France. (Or 'hats off', as we might say).

Onto racing, and wouldn't you just know it... As I launch the trial of my laying system, so we get smacked in the chops with an 11/2 winner. No matter, a few points loss on the day, but the overall pattern is positive, and let's see where we are come the end of the week.

Today's lays are:

Yarmouth Tonnante
Yarmouth Ainama

(Incidentally, Tonnante was one of my alternative ten to follow for the season, so I have mixed feelings about that one! You can read about the other mutts I tipped up here.)

On the punting front, Neil Callan did indeed plough Beverley's near side rail yesterday as hoped (and many others followed him), and he prevailed by a comfortable margin for a nice 10/3 winner for me and TrainerFlatStats punters too.

Over at Windsor, my bet of the day - Marozi - fared less well, coming in a well outpointed 4th. He travelled like a winner until the business end of the race, but found nought. Disappointing, and I suspect he may be a much better horse on sand. It wouldn't surprise me to see this one race in the States before the season is out. He's certainly bred for it.

I can't find anything worth backing today, so - like my friends at the Tour - I shall have a rest day. It's high time I did some work!

Pip pip!
Matt

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Monday, 23 July 2007

Do NOT Sign Up For Laying System... Yet!

Quick update, dear reader, to request that you hold fire on signing up for Laying System trial just yet.

There are three reasons for this:

1. I've cocked up the subscribe buttons (thanks to Roger for letting me know)!

2. I'll be putting the selections on here this week so you get a 'bonus' week's trial if you like.

3. I'll also be offering my loyal Nag readers a better price than the official site.

Cheers
Matt

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