May 2018

Sprint Handicaps – Are They Really Worth The Effort?

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.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals to be Limited to £2

Just last month I wrote that Fixed Odds Betting Terminals were due to have their maximum stake cut from £100 every 20 seconds down to possibly £30. A seemingly successful campaign by bookmakers had, it appeared, thwarted their concerns that it could be cut to as low as just £2.

Now however it appear that the government did in fact take anti-gambling campaigners concerns very seriously, and these terminals are indeed set to to cut to £2. Known as the crack cocaine of gambling some will no doubt be cheering on this decision, but it does leave a lot of questions to be answered.

Half of the revenue of some bookmakers comes from these machines, and by extention of that, many thousands of betting shop jobs rely on them too. In addition bookmakers have stated that this serious impact to their bottomline could dramatically affect the amount of money they plough into horse racing and the like. With all of this in mind, it makes me wonder what will follow on from this shock decision. Stay tuned.

Sectional Timing: Does Time Only Matter When You’re in Jail?

The Racing Post first started carrying sectional times, produced by TurfTrax, in November 2007, but the regular use of sectional timing in Britain was abandoned less than a year later and, despite periodic attempts to resurrect it, has never really taken off in the same way as it has in other countries, such as Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and North America.

However, the reintroduction of sectional timing for the QIPCO British Champion Series, which incorporates the top 35 Flat races in the British horse racing calendar, is a step in the right direction. Consequently, we thought we’d have a look at what sectional times are, how they’re measured and, more importantly, how they can be used to identify profitable betting opportunities.


What are Sectional Times?

Sectional times are the times, in seconds, taken for a racehorse to cover the various sections of a racecourse, usually a furlong or two at a time, during a race. The overall time taken for a racehorse to run a race, compared with the standard time, is important, but fails to take in account the pace at different stages of the race. Sectional times, on the other hand, allow us to assess whether a race was run at an end-to-end gallop or developed into a sprint over the last few furlongs after a dawdling early pace.


How are Sectional Times Measured?

The TurfTrax Tracking System requires a small, lightweight radio frequency transmitter, or ‘tag’, to be placed in the saddlecloth of each horse. The tag transmits encrypted signals to network of fixed receivers positioned around the racecourse which, in turn, forward them to a central processing server via a local area network. The server applies a set of rules, or ‘algorithm’, to determine the location of each tag and, by reference to a surveyed model of the racecourse provides the sectional time of each horse as it progresses through the race.


How do Sectional Times Help?

Conventional wisdom dictates that the form of horse races run at an end-to-end gallop is more reliable than those that aren’t so, at a basic level, sectional times can provide a guide to how much faith to place in past performances on the racecourse. Essentially, sectional times reveal at what stage of a race a horse expending its energy and, hence, the effect of pace on its performance, whether it failed to stay or was simply outpaced and so on.


However, in Britain in particular, the variety of racecourses and racing surfaces dictates that, in order to exploit sectional times to their full potential, detailed data from individual racecourses is required. Even in the United States, where the majority of horse racing takes place on uniform, left-handed oval courses, raw sectional timing data needs plenty of interpretation. What constitutes an optimal sectional time, and what doesn’t, can only really be determined by comparison with previous sectional times over the same course and distance under the same conditions.


Ultimately, what we’re trying to do by analysing sectional times is determine how to, or how not to, run a race in order to achieve an economical, or optimal, overall time. It stands to reason that any horse expending energy in an uneconomical way will record a slower overall time than one that doesn’t, all other things being equal. However, with sectional timing data at our fingertips, it may be possible to identify horses that have recorded a decent overall time, despite racing in an uneconomical way for whatever reason. In this case, the implication is that the horse in question may be capable of significant improvement when allowed to adopt a more favourable racing style.


Sectional Timing Data


For anyone interested, sectional timing data collected by TurfTrax for all the races in the QIPCO British Champion Series in 2012 and 2013 is available, free of charge, in .pdf or .xls format here.


In fact, the sectional timing data collected on behalf of British Champion Series Limited and the participating racecourses provides an opportunity to compare the performances of two of the best European colts of recent years, Sea The Stars and Frankel. In 2009, Sea The Stars won the Juddmonte International Stakes at York, on good to firm going, in a course record time of 2m 5.29s. Three years later, Frankel covered the same 1 mile 2 furlongs and 88 yards on the Knavesmire, on the same going, in an overall time of 2m 6.59s or, in other words, 1.30 slower.


However, closer inspection of the sectional timing data reveals that for the last two furlongs, which he covered in 23.55 seconds, was travelling at 103.4% of his average speed throughout the race, while his nearest rivals, Farhh and St. Nicholas Abbey, were travelling much closer to 100% of theirs. The 2012 renewal was run at a sound pace throughout and, adjusting for conditions, including wind, Frankel’s performance was comfortably the better of the two, something that is not at all apparent from the respective overall times.


We hope you enjoyed ‘Sectional Timing: Does Time Only Matter When You’re in Jail?’ and we will be back soon with another advanced betting guide.