PICKING A WINNER

By THE CENTAURIAN

Over the last sixty years I have come to learn a thing or two about racing. One thing is for certain, it’s not easy to beat the bookies – but there is much fun to be had in trying, providing an addiction doesn’t set in.

I am a maths man myself and feel that studying form and what the numbers mean can give you a bit of a clue as to which horses might be in the shake-up. Over the years I have developed my own rules of thumb and would be interested to learn if they have any resonance with fellow punters.

The first rule is to forget the jumps. It’s hard enough trying to pick a winner without the added risks of the horse falling, been brought down or the jockey falling off. So stick to the flat.
Then forget first-time outers. What can you know about them – stable whispers? Usually, rubbish anyway.

Then I have an aversion to horses with low handicap or merit ratings – say below 80 or even 90. I have a theory about these sorts of horses and it is that their performance standards are too inconsistent. Take sprinters for example – and assuming level weights and good going – moderate handicappers can put in times which may vary from say 59 seconds to 60 seconds.

What does that mean? Well, it means in my book, eight lengths or 20 metres. That’s a lot. If you have a dozen runners whose time spreads run from 58.5 seconds to 60.5 seconds with a median of 59.5 seconds then this means that anyone of at least six or as many as nine contenders could win the race. The odds are stacked against you. Stick to top handicappers, Listed or Group races – here form is usually more reliable and time spreads narrower.

Now let’s drill into time and lengths. The Americans reckon its five lengths per second. Rubbish. Based on a horse being 2.4 metres long and can cover 200 metres or 83 lengths in say 10 seconds then the number has to be 8.3 lengths per second – call it 8 for easy maths or 0.12 seconds per length – up to a mile.

Now about those weights – kilos and half kilos. The Timeform theory is 3lb means a length at five furlongs, 2lb a length at ten furlongs and 1lb per length at two miles. I am not convinced this is right. The problem I have is that the statistical data does conflict a bit and I have yet to find anything I could really hang my hat on.

And there is another issue. I don’t think there is a straight-line correlation between weight and lengths – for example, I submit that adding a kilo at above 60 kilos has a greater slowing effect than adding a kilo at 52kg. I also wonder if we are overlooking where jockey weights are now as compared to the past and how the old handicapping mantra might be increasingly out of date and inappropriate.

The minimum riding weight in the UK is now 8 stone – or circa 51kg. This reflects the size of poms nowadays. However, consider Fred Archer – The Tin Man – he won his first important race, the Cesarewich on Salvanos in 1872 at the age of 15 years, weighing in at just 35 kilos – but standing at 5 foot 10 inches.

My point is this, as minimum riding weights have risen inexorably, I suspect the impact of the handicap penalties have risen disproportionately – though as I say, I have no real evidence to prove it. But sticking to my guns, my theory nowadays is that a pound or a half kilo is a length or 0.12 seconds in the handicap – up to a mile.

The next bit of info to pour into your crucible of form analysis is historical race times for each horse. These should form the basis of working out the likely finishing time spreads of each horse in the race under consideration. In other words, given the assumptions listed above, what are the spread of times each horse might be expected to complete the race in question.

Filly or colt or gelding? – for a serious punter – reduce the adds against you and stick to geldings.

Sometimes the draw may have an effect on a race – especially in the US, Chester and places like Champs Der Mar. On proper racecourses draw is less of an issue unless one side of the track has better going than the other.

Use of blinkers is important to note – full or half tend to cause a horse to focus a bit more on the job in hand – check if they have been used in previous runs or is this a first run in them.

Distance – in addition to past form, your knowledge of a horse’s breeding should give you a clue about what your selection/s might be best suited to. Look out for the instances where a horse might be stepped up in distance – especially if it is a distance you thought it should have been running over in the first place

Knowledge of going is also important – oftentimes horses show a preference – performance information is there in the race card – check the going on the day and make sure your selection acts on it.

Trainers are important too – some are better than others – focus on those with a consistent track record of success.
Penultimately, there is the jockey – skill and equine empathy are subjective criteria but amongst the ranks of jockeys in every racing centre of the world there are a few which exude these qualities in abundance – stick with them.

Lester Piggott was the best after Fred Archer and Ryan Moore the best since Lester. In South Africa there was Maish Roberts and now you have Gavin Lerena and in Zimbabwe there was Dewi Williams and Quinton Riddle – now Brendan McNaughton is becoming a good ‘un too.

Finally, you really do need to have a look at the choice you have made in the actual parade ring. Train your eye – get an understanding of what a fit and ready horse should and does look like. Muscle tone, coat sheen, stride around the ring, alertness, on its toes – but not too much, not sweating up – all a bit subjective maybe – but try choosing a horse in the parade ring before you check its number cloth!

Next time I will try and demonstrate the maths of the impenetrable art of picking a winner!

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