We are delighted to welcome former author of the successful Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, Paul Jones, to the guest blog section of our website. Paul’s new self-published book “From Soba To Moldova” features 20 chapters of punting theories and philosophies and this blog will hopefully give you a sneak preview of what to expect inside….
Taking Advantage of Punter Prejudice
After football fans, punters must be the second-most fickle group of people connected with sport.
This is amply demonstrated by the very many forms of punter prejudice that we employ from pigeon holing, preferring flashy over substance, being suckered in by a recency bias and opposing smaller stables, perceived second strings and market drifters amongst countless other examples that I could mention. Those are the six forms of punter prejudice of which I try to take advantage.
We pigeon hole horses far too much as they are considerably more flexible than we believe. As such, we shouldn’t take as much notice of the incidentals such as ground, draw and, most importantly of all, race distance, as we do. In Australia, horses race over a wide variety of race distances at all levels and often just a few days apart.
A top class horse can win on any ground over any distance if it has a significant class advantage, which is one reason why we should ignore point-to-point stats. Most point-to-points take place over three miles but, just because a horse comprehensively outclasses vastly-inferior rivals over that distance, it doesn’t automatically follow that it will stay three miles as well under Rules as everything is relative. Class can take a horse a long way but it will have its limit tested eventually.
I know that I’m far too guilty of pigeon holing, especially when feeling the requirement to rule out a horse with a one-liner when writing race previews as that is both easy and convenient. We all do it but, at a slightly lower level, we should be considerably more open minded in this respect. In the very best races though I agree with Nick Mordin when he wrote in one of his old Racing Post Weekender columns: “The higher the class and competitiveness of a race, the requirements for winning such a race become more rigid” so I am stricter when it comes to evaluating the very best races where virtually everything has to be right, including the odds of course, to warrant a bet.
If there is one sport where punters and media are most guilty of pigeon holing then it has to be international cricket. Whatever the next tournament is I reckon that I could knock up a preview in less than an hour based around how South Africa are chokers, the West Indies lack discipline, New Zealand are the perennial dark horses, England’s middle order will collapse under pressure, India can’t play as well away from the sub continent, Pakistan are laden with talent but are unpredictable, Sri Lanka rely too heavily on just a couple of players and then end up tipping Australia as they have a winning psyche. And get away with it too. Jobsagoodun.
My biggest two winners since the launch of pauljoneshorseracing.com in 2015, Rule The World (50/1 ante-post) and Wings Of Eagles (SP 40/1), were not the principal hopes of their connections entering the Grand National and Derby but plenty of punters have a problem backing a horse that the retained jockey for the stable or owner has rejected. I get that entirely but would argue that the market makes too big a deal out of it so inflated odds are regularly on offer about the discarded horse. The jockey may have agonised for days over which to ride and might not have even been given the choice anyway. They might also not be the best of judges.
Since I have been following horse racing, hundreds and hundreds of big races have been won by perceived second, third or fourth strings (let alone at a lower level) and, as I write now ahead of the 2018 flat season, Aidan O’Brien alone has won 19 classics with horses that were not his most fancied according to the betting. That is just classics, not all group races or we getting into ridiculous numbers, so we do need to open our minds more in the best races.
An angle that I like even more than stable second strings for a little added value is looking at perceived second strings (or even further down) for big owners who have their horses in different stables. In this instance the retained jockey can’t be guided as strongly given that his choice is between horses stabled in different parts of the country. In both cases too, the lesser-known jockey will be on board what is perceived to the main hope to throw others off the scent if representing a gambling owner or stable.
Gigginstown are not in that particular boat but Bryan Cooper was consistently on the wrong one of their runners during his tenure as their retained jockey when they ran more than one from different stables in big races and AP McCoy incorrectly chose My Tent Or Yours (Nicky Henderson) over Jezki (Jessica Harrington) and At Fishers Cross (Rebecca Curtis) over More Of That (Jonjo O’Neill) for J P McManus in the two biggest hurdle races of the same Cheltenham Festival in 2014. I bet that he was even more of a bundle of joy than usual that week.
Ahead of the 2016/17 season I wrote a Trainer Trends article featuring 25 top stables covering their stats over the previous ten years and the most interesting aspect I discovered with regards to Willie Mullins was that we would be £190 down if we backed just Ruby Walsh’s mounts for him in Ireland to £1 but £15 up if backing all of Paul Townend’s. Given that they both operate on a similar strike rate when riding for Mullins, that is telling and why we shouldn’t be so dismissive of supposed second strings. It was pretty much the same for when Robert Thornton was stable jockey to Alan King but his understudy, Wayne Hutchinson, had a massively superior level stakes figure.
As for the flat race equivalent of Mullins in Ireland, Aidan O’Brien, James Pyman wrote an article in spring of 2017 in The Racing Post outlining that in two-year-old races and three-year-old group and listed races over the previous five seasons that he was showing a level stakes profit of £127 to £1 with horses that were not his most fancied in the market.
Any poker player is more than capable of being dealt a pair of aces and, likewise, any trainer can be sent what turns out to be a very good horse, especially over jumps, and in the not-so-distant past Sirrell Griffiths, Fergie Sutherland and Mark Bradstock have all trained a Gold Cup winner and Richard Price and John Carr have won a Champion Hurdle. Many racing fans would be hard pressed to name a couple more horses that have passed through their hands.
Most of the time if the horse is good enough then generally so is the trainer, hence horses from less-fashionable stables are regularly overpriced and the battalions from the big guns are underpriced. Despite banging in 100+ winners a season, you only need to see their end-of-season heavy level stakes loss for that. Shortly after her retirement Criquette Head-Maarek commented that success was only 10% down to the trainer, with another 10% down to the jockey and 80% down the horse.
If two horses have a similar profile and one is housed in a powerhouse stable whilst the other is in training with a much smaller yard, we can pretty much guarantee which way the market will go and, in more cases than not, that will turn out to be correct. However, I’d still argue that the overall price difference between the two is too great as most punters prefer to latch onto the big yards in this situation just as they do for the flashy, unbeaten horse over a rock-solid alternative as they feel the need to be with the potential superstar that usually isn’t.
I quite like taking on the big stables in classic trials as they are generally the ones that punters latch onto even if they enter the race with the same profile as a horse from a small stable that also won a maiden last time out. We’re all guessing to a large extent in those races anyway so why not guess at the bigger prices?
Before a big race I don’t think it’s a bad idea to revisit all the main trials again via video before making a final decision because, whether we like it or not, naturally we are too often drawn in by a recency bias, as that is what is freshest in the memory.
This is true in almost all public votes and why a later draw is advantageous in TV voting shows. The programme makers are fully aware of this so manipulate the running order schedule around what suits them best. Ditto with Eurovision where a very low draw is considered a nightmare and stall 2 has never won during its long history. We are going back a while to 1987 but I remember being agog when in an all-time 100 best songs rundown it was Glen Medeiros’s vomit-inducing ballad Nothing’s Going To Change My Love For You that was voted in at No. 4 splitting Bohemian Rhapsody and Wuthering Heights having been all worldwide smash hit that year. It wouldn’t make the top 5,000 now.
The starkest case of a recency bias that I encountered was when I attended The Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar as the American punters that I spent time with and who knew their horses were changing their minds from race to race depending on whether an outsider or favourite had just won! Outsiders were winning the early races so they started to play the long shots but once World Approval had justified favouritism in the Mile they then switched back to favourites. Madness. I can understand changing policy due to noting the early track bias that was apparent that day (only Gun Runner won from a very prominent early position all day in the Classic) but for them it was more about what dividend the winners were being paid out at that they were interested in.
Where I think a recency bias is different from horse racing, so therefore important, is in golf, except for the Majors where I think that you can throw out recent form in terms of it being a negative. The top players are often just preparing for the biggest events so how they played the previous week or two is neither here nor there. Where I sometimes like to use a recency bias is in the First Round Leader market for the previous week’s winner as they often start very well being full of confidence and with the pressure off. As such they are often towards the top of the leaderboard in the early stages the following week and with there being 150+ runners, the odds are not small. On the other hand, I like to oppose a player who went very low the previous day as it’s unlikely as many putts drop or they will get the rub of the green in consecutive rounds.
I usually switch off mentally when the betting ring reporters pop up on my screen in many cases desperately trying to make something out of nothing. With the exception of certain owners and stables who have a reputation for ‘not today’, I don’t let market weakness bother me at all. In fact, many a time I have pressed up when I see my horse is on the drift.
Some punters like to take the advice of Deep Throat in All The President’s Men and ‘follow the money’ which has more merit and, in my experience, if a horse is say backed in from 33/1 to 8/1, then that has a much better chance of winning than a horse which has been a steady 8/1 all day. Many will take the view that they have missed the boat if the big prices have already vanished whereas others will follow like sheep hating the thought of missing out and that will help to contract the odds further still. I would argue that if the gamble is not media-led, like a Pricewise pick for example, even the final SP will underestimate its chance as something is clearly afoot more often than not.
I would also argue that this line of thinking is even more important for a run-of-the-mill greyhound meeting where the winner’s prize money would be around £100 as they are not paying their bills from that so just ‘following the money’ when it all kicks off when they are entering the traps when the proper cash is down from those that seemingly know something the the rest of us don’t is the way to go. That’s my theory anyway.
Whilst we are on the subject of punter prejudice, let’s also debunk a few myths that could have fitted into this category. If there was a horse racing stand-up comedian (I know of a few who think they are), they could have a good few years’ material on this subject alone.
Top of the shop in my view is ‘the bigger the field, the bigger the certainty’. WTF is all that about? I’d say with a large degree of confidence, the smaller the field, the bigger the certainty. If you are in disagreement, I know a very good psychologist.
‘Doing it the hard way’ would also be high up there. Give me a front runner every time over the hold-up horse for many obvious reasons such as lack of trouble in running, a clear sight of the obstacles, more chance of finding a rhythm, no chance of being hampered or brought down and generally going the shortest route next to the rail. In most cases, though not all as the best way to get a horse to underperform intentionally without getting into trouble is to deliberately set too fast a gallop, leading also shows a sign of intent whereas that is not so evident for those held up, as anyone who watches big-field maiden hurdle races in Ireland will tell you.
Always ‘back the outsider of three’ has been proven to be mathematical bollocks as you would lose even more doing that than if blindly backing the favourite or second-favourite. “Good horses go on any ground’ is also nonsense as it’s often how they are put together physically that will determine what set of conditions suit them best and ‘the bounce factor’ when returning quickly on their second run after a break is also not a theory I buy into. Without going into endless stats, professional gambler Declan Meagher concluded after studying a very large sample size that they didn’t fare any better or worse, but the reason you would make a loss blinding backing such horses is because they started at shorter prices on their second run after their comeback run, if that first run after an extended break was a promising one.
Oppose After Posting a Big Number
I like to take on horses who run a huge rating next time out as take the view that in putting in such a massive performance that it is likely to have left some kind of mark for their next run. The most recent example in terms of before this book being published was Bristol de Mai recording the widest-margin win in any Grade 1 jumps race when he won the Betfair Chase by 57 lengths and then finishing a well-beaten sixth of eight in the King George VI Chase just over a month later.
Other examples that immediately spring to mind are Kauto Star winning the King George by 36 lengths after which he was given an official rating of 193 (a modern-day record) but he was then under pressure when he fell in the Gold Cup at odds-on on his next start. His stablemate, Master Minded, is another perfect example as his rating soared to 186 after he beat Voy Por Ustedes to win the Champion Chase by 19 lengths. However, that monster effort then had an adverse effect on him next time at Aintree as the runner-up reversed placings.
A couple of examples from the flat. The enormous effort that Arrogate put up to win the Dubai World Cup after blowing the start and passing the field on the outside basically ended him as a world beater as he was then beaten at odds of 1/20 in the San Diego Handicap on his next start and he never won again. Even Frankel only just scraped home in the St James’s Palace Stakes at 30/100 after his huge effort in the 2000 Guineas to be so far clear at half-way. Of course, ratings will determine that horses who put up jaw-dropping performances will start at very cramped odds more often than not for the next time they take a step on a racecourse and, although these opportunities don’t present themselves very often, we can look to take advantage of them when they do.
If you would like to read a few more snippets of Paul’s excellent “From Soba To Moldova”, please visit this page:
From Soba To Moldova can be purchased for £20 by emailing Paul on firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo of Bristol De Mai by Michael Harris.