Sprint handicaps, including traditional ‘cavalry charges’ such as the Wokingham Stakes, the Stewards’ Cup and the Ayr Gold Cup, remain hugely popular betting mediums with punters looking for a large return for a relatively small stake. However, prestigious sprint handicaps may have a safety limit of 27, 28 or even 30 runners and the prize money on offer dictates that they invariably attract maximum fields.
This number of runners, spread across the entire width of the track, thundering over five or six furlongs undoubtedly creates a thrilling spectacle, but equally presents punters with a nightmarishly difficult puzzle to solve. In fact, so arduous is the task of dissecting some of these races that we were forced to ask ourselves if it’s even worth doing so.
Sprint handicaps tend to be contested by older, exposed horses, most of whom are unlikely to be improving and some of whom may be deteriorating. These types of horses may have risen to handicap marks from which they struggle to remain competitive, but often race against each other week in, week out, with various results that may not, necessarily, reflect their handicap marks.
In a race over five or six furlongs, it’s nigh on impossible for a horse to ‘blow’ the start and recover in time to win the race, while the higher the number of runners the higher the possibility of the field splitting into two or more groups. On certain racecourses, such as Beverley or Chester, the bias towards horses drawn high or low over sprint distances is well established, but on others the bias can change from meeting to meeting, so it’s important to take note of recent results. Throw in the vagaries of lucking in running, which can play havoc with the plans of the most ardent form student, and it becomes easy to see why bookmakers offer apparently generous win and place odds for sprint handicaps. Make no mistake; they’re giving nothing away.
In an effort to illustrate the difficulty involved in deciphering sprint handicaps, we investigated a random sample of 500 races run over five and six furlongs on turf and synthetic surfaces between May and September 2013. Of the 500 races, 146 were won by the market leader, at a strike rate of 29.2% but, with the average starting price of winning favourites working out at a little over 11/5, this translated to a level stakes loss of 175.87 points and a return on investment (ROI) of 64.82%.
Exponents of betting in sprint handicaps may argue that we could improve our ROI by concentrating on fields with fewer than sixteen runners and, indeed, all but seven of our winning favourites ran against no more than fourteen rivals. However, of the remaining 354 losing favourites, just eleven raced against fifteen or more rivals so, at least for our sample, this argument doesn’t really hold water. Of course, the amount of work required to back starting price favourites is negligible but, in our opinion, the amount of work required to turn a level stakes loss of 175.87 points from 500 bets into any kind of meaningful profit is disproportionate to the returns we can expect, so we suggest giving sprint handicaps the ‘swerve’ in favour of more profitable betting opportunities.