January 22, 2018

Improve Your Horse Racing Analysis

Key Factors: How many is too many?

I find that a new year is a good time to improve your horse racing analysis and take a look at how your betting methodology is going. Do you need to improve your strategies? Do you need to reassess where things are failing? All questions, as punters we have, to answer at one time or another.

There are plenty of factors or variables to consider when deciding whether to back or lay a horse. Now I am not sure how many there are but the estimates I have seen seem to vary from 17 to 88! Whatever the actual numbers are, we do know that there are too many for the average punter to look into without specialist tools or software. So what we have to try to do is to gather the relevant information, then order it in terms of relevance and importance and then organise the information in such a way that enables us to make winning betting decisions.

The only way that you can make sustainable profit from horse race betting is to put in the ‘hard yards’. Sadly there are no shortcuts that can circumvent the process apart from going through all the key variables that can affect the outcome of a horse race. The big advantage that we punters have over the bookmakers is that we can decide whether we want to bet in a race or not whilst they have to price up every race. This gives us ample scope to find the ‘edge’ over them. It is of course this ‘edge’ that enables us to make money from betting on horse’s long term.

Now it’s impossible to say that a horse is definitely going to win a race but we can use horse racing analysis of key variables to point to the strong probability that the horse will win or be placed in any given race.

In this article I am going to examine which important factors are more relevant than others and whether you need to take into account as many variables as possible or can you do with less. I will begin by looking at information and its impact on betting decision-making.

Can Punters Have too Much Information?

The implicit assumption that is often made is that a lack of information is a major obstacle when it comes to make informed betting decisions.

Just recently, it was announced that race cards will carry a new piece of information on whether a horse had been subject to a wind operation since its last race. This created much debate in the racing press and social media as to how useful information would be to punters given the wide variety wind ops that are carried out on racehorses each year. The general view was that all new knowledge was to be welcomed and the more information that a punter had at his or her disposal should be welcomed.

Now, I am not going to argue that recent wind ops shouldn’t be available to punters, far from it. But will this new extra bit of information lead to punters making more accurate predictions? Not necessarily so. Most of you will be familiar with the term ‘information overload’.

“Information Overload is when you are trying to deal with more information than you are able to process to make sensible decisions. The result is either that you either delay making decisions or that you make the wrong decisions”.*Source: Infoengineering.net.

Horse Racing Analysis – More Means Less!

There are plenty of academic studies from experimental psychologists, mostly North American, using experts in various fields from medicine to weather forecasting that have examined the complex relationship between the amount of information available to the experts, the accuracy of judgments they make based on this information, and the experts' confidence in the accuracy of their judgments.

This research has come up with some interesting results and one of the many study groups used was horse racing handicappers to see how they use information to arrive at decisions.

The study involved used eight experienced handicappers who were shown a list off 88 variables – for example weight carried, the percentage of races in which the horse finished first, second or third during the previous 12 months, the trainer’s record at a particular track and the number of days since the horses last run, etc.

I won’t go too much into the methodology of the study but it’s neatly summarised in Richard J. Heuer Jr “Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” for those of you looking for further reading on the subject.

“Each handicapper was asked to identify, first, what he considered to be the five most important items of information–those he would wish to use to handicap a race if he were limited to only five items of information per horse. Each was then asked to select the 10, 20, and 40 most important variables he would use if limited to those levels of information”.

At this point, the handicappers were given true data (sterilized so that horses and actual races could not be identified) for 40 past races and were asked to rank the top five horses in each race in order of expected finish. Each handicapper was given the data in increments of the 5, 10, 20 and 40 variables he had judged to be most useful. Thus, he predicted each race four times–once with each of the four different levels of information. For each prediction, each handicapper assigned a value from 0 to 100 percent to indicate degree of confidence in the accuracy of his prediction.

“When the handicappers' predictions were compared with the actual outcomes of these 40 races, it was clear that average accuracy of predictions remained the same regardless of how much information the handicappers had available. Three of the handicappers actually showed less accuracy as the amount of information increased, two improved their accuracy, and three were unchanged. All, however, expressed steadily increasing confidence in their judgments as more information was received”*.

Interestingly with only 5 items of information, the handicapper’s accuracy in identifying approximately 18% of winners was almost exactly the same as when they had 40 pieces of information to work with. The difference of course was with the confidence in their selections. The more information they had the more confident they became. The same relationship between information and accuracy and the experts confidence were confirmed when the same study looked at the other control groups.

It seems that many punters see horse racing analysis as more complex than it really is. The tendency then is to overestimate the importance of what are ultimately minor factors, when in reality most decisions can be based around a few major factors, with the rest being just ‘noise’. It’s about being aware of which variables have the biggest influence when It comes to successful predicting the outcome of a horse race but also the need to be aware of which variables are actually are having the greatest influence on that thought process.

So it doesn’t matter whether we use five or forty factors the win accuracy really won’t increase although your confidence will increase the more you deploy.

Big Race Trends

A good example of this would be the use of 10 or 20 year trends when you’re looking to find strong contenders for a big race: The age of the horse, last time out placing or days since last race, etc. Some punters use these trends extensively and I think they are very useful but the reality is that you are just as likely to find these contenders using just five or maybe six of the key trends rather than searching for double that amount.

There is so much data and information published, which is freely available to punters these days. It’s almost information saturation, so how do you reduce it. There is no quick fix that’s for sure but you will with patience and experience be able to sift the relevant from the irrelevant.

The key of course is to find out what the key trends or factors are. Let’s start by looking at big race trends and as a working example I will use the 6f Wokingham Handicap at Royal Ascot, a big field handicap which normally attracts a field of 30 runners. There are plenty of trends, I can think of at least 10 to 16 possible factors, there are more, that can help identify the profile for the most likely winner of the race. But as we have seen from the academic studies there is no need overcomplicate matters and you would be better advised to find the most relevant five.

In the case of the Wokingham, my five, would be in no particular order:

Last time out placing
Days since last run
Official Rating
Age of horse

I think these five trends are the most relevant for a race like the Wokingham. Of course the draw would be irrelevant in a jumps race and I may not consider it a top five trend for every flat race either so I would replace it with another trend that I think is more relevant for that particular race.

Looking at the jumps races and using the Grand National as an example. Here are the five trends of most relevance to me, again in no particular order:

Last time out placing
Days since last run
Official rating
Age of horse
Runs in season

The first four trends appear for both races and the last one would be more for me relevant to the Grand National but I probably wouldn’t use when researching say other big handicap chases or handicap hurdles. Others would probably use different combinations.

Some Important Analysis Factors

What about the relevant factors when looking at races in general? The variables will of course vary depending on the type of race. Here are some of the notable ones that you need to consider:

Going – For many punters their most important factor is the horse’s ability to handle the going of the race. Breeding of course has an impact on their ability to act on particular underfoot conditions as does a horses size and shape. In general horses with large feet handle soft & heavy ground better as do horses with a notable knee action. Conversely those who keep their knees low off the ground with each stride are better suited to faster ground. You will notice that plenty of horses have a going preference which needs to be taken into account when you are thinking of a placing a bet. The accuracy and consistency of the going reports by some Clerks of the Course has been the subject of plenty of controversy in recent seasons which can complicate matters for punters. As a rule of thumb, if the going is different from the horses going preference then its winning chance is reduced.

Distance – Like with going, horses do have an ‘ideal trip’ and once again a horse’s pedigree plays a determining factor in its distance preference. I like to see a horse that has a good win percentage at the distance of the race but looking at UK flat turf handicaps for 4-year-old+ horses since 2015 horses with a minimum of 2 wins at the distance and a win percentage of 25% + at the distance are 228 winners from 2035 runners 11% A/E 0.82 whilst that have never won at the distance of the race are 1049 winners from 10148 runners 10% A/E 0.87

So it would be easy to get to carried away with distance so watch out for horses who are stepping up distance that finished their last race off strongly or horses dropping down in distance that travelled well through their previous race either in the lead or up with the pace.

Class – Horses that are not up to the class of the race they are running in rarely win and can be quickly eliminated from further consideration. Can the horse that has won three Class 4 handicaps on the spin win again when it’s now moved up to Class 3 race or higher? There have to be compelling reasons to think that your selection can handle the stronger company it’s racing in. Conversely you may find horses that have run well to finish close up in higher class handicaps and dropping down a notch or even two in class. This drop may enable the horse to outclass its lower rated rivals.

Course – The old saying “horses for courses” holds plenty of water. One of the great things about British and Irish racing is the variety of racecourses. From sharp turning tracks like Chester to very undulating tracks like Cheltenham. Some tracks have a stiff uphill finish to the line whilst others are much flatter.

A previous course or course & distance winner always merits attention at tracks like Chester. If the horse hasn’t run at the track before has it form at a track with a similar configuration? Some horses do better going left handed than going the other way around and vice versa. You will be surprised how many horses prefer going right handed and have a terrible record when going the other way.

Trainer & Jockey – I always take into consideration the current form of the trainer and jockey. Always be looking to see which trainers horses are running well and beware those trainers whose horses are not running well. Likewise we know trainers are ‘creatures of habit’ and they target certain big races and prefer certain tracks. Check out a trainers win percentage at a particular course and how profitable they are.

Jockeys have to be riding with confidence to enable then to ride winners. The fine margins in racing only amplify this. When the confidence is high they can make all the difference to a horse’s chance in a tight handicap. Likewise when the confidence is low they just can’t seem to buy a winner, however, hard they try. Like trainers, jockey’s have their favourite courses that they seem to excel riding and even certain distance at a given track. Whilst I don’t order jockeys as highly as trainers in my list of important factors it’s not something I totally ignore either.

Others – There are other factors that can be taken into consideration depending on the nature of the race under review, such as the likely pace of the race, fitness, official ratings or private ones such Racing Post Ratings (RPR’s) or Timeform. The draw can also be very important over certain distances and courses, such as Chester, Beverley and increasingly Chelmsford.

The most important factors that you will choose when analyzing a race will be different to mine as they are down to the individual and they will suit your style. However, the most important thing to remember is that for each race, you are unlikely to be more accurate in your predictions by looking at more than five or six factors. The key is to find the most relevant trends or variables for the race that you are studying.

So for me it has to be – Less is Best in 2018.

Until next time.

John Burke
Victor Value Racing

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Steve Carter

Steve Carter is the Associate Editor of On Course Profits magazine. He has relied on his betting skills and knowledge for his income for the past 15+ years. He specialises in horse racing and football betting & trading and knows what it takes to make a living from betting. He is always looking for new angles for himself and On Course Profits readers.

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