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1st March 2020

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The whole problem of finding winners without recourse to divination, witchcraft or other forms of magic – that is to find winning horses through the study of published data – was wonderfully symbolised for me in a south London betting shop some years ago.

On entering the establishment owned by Paddy Power for a couple of bets on some extremely lowly night racing at Wolverhampton, I spotted a West Indian man perched on a stool in front of the wall-mounted racing charts with a notebook, pen and many betting slips on a tiny shelf in front of him. Also on the shelf was a thick pile of old fashioned computer printing paper, the kind that links together, with faint green lines and punch holes running down both sides. He was slowly examining a page of this pile one at a time, and when done with it, he would pass it over his shoulder, still attached, like a sort of papyrus tabard. The paper chain lay down his back and terminated in a huge messy pile on the floor. It was a quite staggering sight in some ways. All round the bottom of his stool lay screwed up betting slips.

‘He’s got the Delusion,’ I thought. The delusion being that form study, as the search for winners is properly known, is a science, a science that can be exploited to great profit. Those who succumb to the Delusion imagine that a life of ease is just around the corner. No more working for the Man. No more being crammed in rush-hour public transport with other alienated worker ants. For the deluded, earning a fat living will soon just be a case of consulting the data, strolling down to the bookie’s and having an easy coiner. Down the pub by 4pm.

Meet success like a gentlemen and disaster like a man and treat those two imposters just the same, so said sagacious Brother Kipling. I don’t know if he followed the Turf (his contemporary Edward Elgar did. I may return to that in future columns) but it’s as good advice for gambling as it is in any other area of life.

I have never, even after my occasional wild successes on the Turf, fallen for the Delusion: the true student of form knows it is an art not a science, for if it were a science the game would have been cracked long ago and then ceased to exist: racing requires losers, lots and lots of them.

That is why that poor sod in the Paddy Power was on such a hiding to nothing, as his failed betting slips showed. These days you can amass an extraordinary amount of data, far, far more than was ever available back in the mid-20th century when racing was bigger than football.

Of course, much of what is available now is good and will help do the first onerous job of form study: discarding horses from your calculations. But an awful lot of opinion, stopwatch timing and other abstruse data – hot jockeys, cold trainers, one-ride specialists, the list is endless – is not worth looking at and will only complicate matters.

How do you discard horses from your calculations, I hear you cry.

My favourite races to play in are good handicaps in either Flat or Jumps. Many wagering pundits down the years have counselled bettors to avoid handicaps altogether as they are too difficult. Most serious punters disagree. Why? One big reason is that there is only one man licensed in Britain to ‘stop a horse’ and that is the chief Handicapper of the British Horseracing Authority. He it is who assesses a horse’s performance and allocates weight penalties to stop the nag winning next time out. This simple and obvious piece of information is constantly overlooked by punters. On countless occasions I have seen favourites and ‘front of the market’ horses being heavily bet while being handicapped way beyond their capabilities: horse X wins a little race on good at Brighton by six lengths. He was a 1lb below his last winning mark of, say, 65 and, being a reliable sort, duly dotted up at the seaside track (incidentally my favourite track in the country). The following Monday the new handicap ratings show that for his spirited win he has been pushed up to 70, a 6lb hike. Ten days later he finds himself installed as favourite for a race at, say, Sandown. The ground is soft, he doesn’t much like Sandown, but most importantly, he is 6lb heavier and has never won off a mark higher than the mid-60s. He duly loses, the bookies trouser a lot of favourite backers’ hard-earned and the circus rolls on. You don’t necessarily need to know reams about the horse to make a call on its performance. If you had ten hours on Saturday morning to study and absorb all available information on each and every runner it might, might, help, but you haven’t got that sort of time and that level of data would just complicate the main factors, which are as follows.

If you study a given horse’s form over a period of two or more seasons, you will see a pattern emerge: what sort of handicap mark the horse can win off. Add to this what sort of ground it likes, what courses it likes and what distances it acts best over. There are other less important variables such as jockeys (experienced or otherwise) and trainer-tactics. Having weeded out a lot of horses you don’t like, you then settle to the hard work of picking between those that in your opinion have a chance. This is where art and chance come in.

Saturday, February 22, was an exciting day for me as a horse I have a tiny share in, Blame It On Sally, was running at Kempton. I thought he would run a decent race but as it was a ‘fact-finding’ mission for the Cheltenham Festival, I didn’t build my wagering around him.

The first race was the Betway Handicap Hurdle (Class 3), the sort of mid-range affair that I like. I found myself thinking that finding the winner would be easy – that kind of hubris is usually swiftly punished, and so it proved. But look at my reasoning: I fancied Storm Arising on the grounds that he had performed well at distances around today’s (2m5f) off marks of around 130. True, he’d only won once, in a lowly Class 5 off 121 (9lb below today’s weight) but at six he must still be improving plus his trainer is the genius Paul Nicholls. Surely, I thought, the connections of the horse were going to be wanting more than just a win in a Class 5 donkey race. Today could be the day. Surely he could absorb that 9lb in a way a more exposed horse couldn’t. I backed him modestly at 10/1. Appropriately, he came tenth of 17.

I also backed Midnightreferendum in the same race. In his previous race, a Class 2 (one above today’s), he’d come third but was running on. Now he had an extra furlong to play with and a drop in class. He came fifth – but he stays in the mental notebook.

The second race, the Betway Pendil Novices' Chase (Grade 2) (Class 1), I got right though.

Who Dares Wins was what I call an Alan King Saturday Horse. Mr King being the trainer, Saturday horses being well above average animals capable of winning the sort of valuable races commonly run on Saturdays. King’s horses are often good value because, unlike horses trained by Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls (both regular champion jumps trainers), they don’t attract mug money ‘for the name’.

Who Dares Wins had run respectably on both Flat and Jumps, and in some high class races in the latter code; it looked very much the case that after he had made a seasonal comeback at Plumpton in which he came second in the soft over 2m3f  while bearing down on the winner at the finish, he would be cherry ripe for 2m4f on slightly better ground albeit in a much better race – in any case he had performed well in high class jump races before. I built cases against all the other horses in the race and got a little excited: here was an obvious plot, a clear contender but at a nice price – the sort of horse I am always looking for. Had I won the first race I would have played up the winnings with £50 on the nose and a little in the exchange place market. Chastened by earlier events, on Who Dares Wins I placed the reasonable sum of £25 at 10/1. The form book must tell tale:

Held up in 6th, pushed along and headway chasing leaders approaching 10th, left 2nd 4 out, led before next until 2 out, edged left and rallied gamely to lead again run-in op 8/1.

He’d drifted out to 10/1 before I got on him. Betting against the crowd: just how I like it. It wasn’t an easy win, but Who Dares Wins was game.

Blame It On Sally jumped very well to come sixth in the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide Adonis Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 2) (Class 1). He is going to win a decent race in my opinion, perhaps not at this level. I see him being another Alan King Saturday Horse, hopefully at a large price. I’ll keep you informed of my opinions.


In last month’s column I mentioned Glynn, the Nicky Henderson horse I have a share in. There was talk of Glynn going to the Cheltenham Festival but since it has been solidly raining for what feels like two months, it has proved impossible to find a prep race with ground suitable for him. It therefore looks very doubtful that Glynn will go to the Festival. Sob.

Still, he is another good Saturday horse. Mark my words.

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