Horseracing Bettors Forum, Simon Rowlands talk to us this month.
1.Hi Simon and many thanks for joining us this month. Would you start by telling our readers a little about yourself and your background? What attracted you to the world of horse racing?
I am from a non-racing background, but my Dad used to have a bet on the Grand National and get me to guess what it was. That got me interested in the intrigue of betting, as well as the spectacle and stories of the sport.
I started trying to pick winners from the race cards in the daily paper, but the clincher was when my parents, short of ideas for my tenth birthday, bought me a racing annual featuring ratings.
In perhaps the single most important “lightbulb” moment of my life, I suddenly realised that there was much more to this than some horses running round a field: that it had a logic and an explanation, and that trying to figure it out could be immense fun.
I learnt everything I could about the sport and started handicapping (ineptly, as I later realised). The numbers and the data are always what have gripped me.
By the time I went to University (English degree, as it gave me more spare time to spend on racing than Economics), I was obsessed, and after it my first job was managing a betting shop in London, back in the days when betting shops were about the best way of keeping in touch with the sport on a daily basis.
Then, I got a position with Timeform, and soon found myself doing my dream job of handicapping for a living. Later, I bet for a living for a short while when Betfair first came on the scene, was racing editor of a short-lived national sports newspaper, established and ran Betfair Radio for a few months, and have been a freelance analyst and writer on racing and betting for much of the last decade.
2.We understand that you are a big advocate of sectional timing in horse racing. For those of our readers not familiar with sectional timing would you give a brief explanation of the term?
While I am a form handicapper by background, anyone doing that properly has to understand time analysis. As Phil Bull, founder of Timeform, once said “a time won’t necessarily tell you how good a horse is, but it will tell you how bad it isn’t”. Both good and bad horses can run bad times, but only good horses can run good ones.
However, although a good horse can run a bad overall time – due to a slow pace, for instance – it should reveal its superior ability at some stage along the way. Sectional timing captures this by breaking a race into its constituent parts.
A horse may run 13.0s per furlong for much of the race but by running 11.0s per furlong for some of it demonstrates that it has more talent than a crude interpretation of the end result implies.
By deconstructing a race into a number of smaller races within the race overall you can – or so the theory goes! – spot which ones are better or worse than it might otherwise appear, which possess speed and which possess stamina, and which jockeys are best at distributing their mounts’ energies, too.
I used to be quite a good, and certainly a keen, runner: much of what I understood about maximising performance and minimising times transferred from that discipline to racing.
An important thing to emphasise about any formalised approach to racing analysis – especially numerically-based ones like ratings and times – is that by engaging with the puzzle in such a way you get to understand your subject better. That has benefits over and above simply picking winners.
3.What benefits do you see with sectional timing in terms of its potential use as punting tool?
There is a simple way of expressing sectional times which is intuitive and lends itself to easy but meaningful comparisons. That is to calculate a “finishing speed %”, which is the speed late in a race as a % of the race overall. By doing this, you imply what happened earlier in the race also.
If a race is run in 12.0s per furlong overall but the last two furlongs are run in 11.0s each, the FS% is 12/11 multiplied by 100 = 109.1%. Over time, you can establish what figures reflect peak efficiency for each course and distance, and even what impact on a horse’s overall time, differences from this “par” will have.
So, sectional timing helps you understand the run of a race in general terms (fast/slow, suiting held-up horses or prominent-racers) and the abilities of individual horses within that race, some of whom may be significantly better or worse than implied by that result.
Sectional timing can also help you to strike good bets (hopefully!) in running, though it involves quite complex calculations. If, as an example, you know that par for halfway in the 2000 Guineas, given the apparent speed of the surface, is 48.0s to 48.5s you can strike good bets before the effect of a too-fast or too-slow pace becomes obvious. That requires instantaneous and accurate on-screen sectionals, though, and they exist for only a few courses.
4.Do you regularly bet yourself? What style of approach do you take to your betting?
I don’t bet as much as I used to. Much of the time I am too busy with other things to know a population of horses as well as I would wish. When betting predominantly for a living I would know my horses inside out, price up maybe 10 to 12 races a day, and be prepared to back or lay them accordingly, both on win and place markets. I also used to bet quite a bit on Placepots, where an in-depth knowledge of all runners in several races sometimes paid big dividends.
Nowadays, I bet maybe once or twice a day, always with regards to form ratings, usually with regards to sectional times, and I dabble ante-post, too, as a result of a lot of my paid writing being more attuned to that sort of thing.
5.As Chair of the Horseracing Bettors Forum we are sure that you are aware that the gambling industry is regularly being criticised for its treatment of its customers with “restrictions” and “closed” accounts often in the headlines. What would you suggest to punters who find themselves in these situations with their gambling accounts? Would you tell us about “The Betting Charter” which we believe the Horseracing Bettors Forum was integral in putting forward at the end of last year?
I recently represented in Parliament on this matter, at an All-Party seminar at which we got a very favourable hearing. Some bookmakers may be beginning to realise that ultra-cautious treatment of customers who even hint at having the first idea of what they are doing could be harmful to their business, and certainly harmful to the sport of horse racing, in the longer-run.
Bookmakers should be skilled enough to take on informed punters and still beat the majority of them: they have the odds on their side! If they are not, perhaps they are in the wrong game.
In the short-term, punters have little option but to suck it up. But Horseracing Bettors Forum has had some interest in its Betting Charter – launched just before Christmas and to be found at ukhbf.org – and that Charter asks for a number of commitments from punters and bookmakers, including, with the latter, a minimum-bet liability similar to the more substantial ones which have been adopted successfully in Australia.
The Horseracing Bettors Forum wants it to be clear in advance what sorts of behaviours may lead to a customer’s account being restricted or closed, so that those behaviours may be modified if desired. Customer service is dreadful in some areas of betting, and even the bookmakers are starting to concede that.
While the consequence of this may be neither here nor there for the bookmaker in question, it threatens to turn off a lot of people who are, or could become, the sport’s enthusiasts and advocates.
Readers could write to their MPs about some of the issues raised. Account restrictions and HBF’s Betting Charter have now been raised in Parliament, and I understand that the All-Party seminar came about, at least in part, as a result of one disgruntled member of the betting public lobbying his MP.
6.Another common gripe of many a punter is the number of races and poor quality meetings very often with low levels of prize money. Many race goers would rather see fewer better quality races. Is there anything that you would like to see changed within the horse racing industry and why?
I don’t know of anyone at the Horseracing Bettors Forum who wants quite as much racing as we currently have, but we have chosen to be pragmatic and (up to this stage at least) ask that the fixture list does not increase still further. There are too many vested interests of people employed in the sport for a significant reduction to happen any time soon, unless forced on racing by economic events.
More generally, I have long called for British racing to distance itself from FOBTs, which are a game of mindless chance when betting on racing should be promoted as a game of skill. But the craven and short-sighted attitude of those who have run the sport in the last dozen years means that chickens are now coming home to roost.
I would like to see more and better data – such as sectionals, horse weights and compulsory declaration of mares in foal – and for there to be information hubs at racecourses at which the more committed follower of the sport can access race replays of their choice, automated post-race assessments of form and time, video archives and the like. It is ages since I went to a race meeting for anything other than social reasons: to do so cuts me off from the kind of information which interests me and keeps me engaged.
I would like to see a lot less rank-closing when outsiders question how the sport runs its affair, and I would like to see much less emphasis on jockeys in the media. The current situation encourages the idea that to understand the sport you have to be “in the know” or “have the inside track”, when it is perfectly possible to do that from a position of detachment (indeed, I would argue it is easier!). Unfortunately, the best way to get a job in racing on telly or on a paper these days is not to be smart, innovative or insightful, but to be a jockey or ex-jockey.
7.New and old punters alike often struggle to make a success of their betting. If you could give them one piece of advice to improve their profitability what would it be?
Specialise in terms of which races or horses you look at. Get to know one aspect of the sport well and you have at least half a chance. You don’t have to bet in every race but bookmakers do. Make it your goal to know more than almost anyone about two-year-old maidens in the North, or bumper horses anywhere, for example.
That said, in terms of how you tackle the specific puzzle you have chosen you should seek to be versatile. Speed figures are not the only answer, and neither is draw analysis nor pedigree information. Try to bring as many of these angles together to get a fuller understanding. There is a regrettable tendency in the media these days to identify people as experts in just one area, as if it is impossible to be multi-skilled when tackling a multi-faceted puzzle.
8.What do you consider to be the highlight of your racing experience to date? Do you have any personal racing / betting experiences which on reflection bring a smile, or for that matter any which bring a grimace; you can share with our readers?
Watching a horse called One Way Or Another win a £14,000 handicap at Haydock in my colours was a personal highlight.
I was becoming disillusioned with racing for the first time five or six years back, when, lo and behold, Frankel came along and ensured that, whatever nonsense might be going on off the course, I was reminded of the search for equine perfection that had inspired me all those years ago. Going racing in Hong Kong, Mumbai, New York, Singapore and Melbourne has been exhilarating.
Picking up a couple of five-figure pay-outs on pool bets early this century were my biggest wins: I am much more of a “chiseller”, trying to return small but steady profits, on the whole.
A recent experiment with in-running betting went badly wrong: I had just installed some new anti-virus software on my computer and as I went to place a bet in-play a message popped up and obscured my “enter stake” box. I still went through with the bet, only to find that I had lost not £65 but £650 due to fat fingers. Ouch!
9.What do you do to relax and unwind? Do you any interests outside of the world of horse racing?
Ha! Not as many interests as I should have, I reckon.
I like traveling and wildlife – Belize and Costa Rica were brilliant – music (mostly repetitive ambient stuff), walking, films, good vegetarian food and (less often these days) drink. I am, however, meant to be spending my spare hours on writing a book about form and time analysis at present!
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