Prior to any of the major sprint handicaps, such as the Wokingham Stakes at Royal Ascot or the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood, the conversation inevitably turns to the impact of draw bias on the outcome of the race. Conventional wisdom dictates that the greatest impact is felt in large, competitive fields over sprint distances, where the runners may split into two or more groups. The discussion often includes the distance of the race, the size of the field, the position of the stalls and the varying state of the going due to indiscriminate watering, inconsistent drainage, etc.
However, while speculation about draw bias is a favourite of TV commentators and pundits, punters would do well to take any comments about perceived draw bias with a pinch of salt. Certainly, perceived draw bias can boost confidence in a selection if it’s supposedly favourable and vice versa, but even if it’s unfavourable it shouldn’t be a reason for not backing a selection that has everything else in its favour. Pace bias, rather than draw bias, has by far the greatest impact on the outcome of any horse race.
The myth of draw bias is perpetuated by TV commentators blaming draw bias, alone, for the occurrence of ‘surprise’ winners in major sprint handicaps. What they fail to acknowledge is the fact that surprise winners occur for all sorts of reasons and, more often than not, the horse in question is fully entitled to win, despite starting at long odds.
Dandy Boy, winner of the Wokingham Stakes in 2012, was considered one such ‘surprise’ winner, at 33/1, but closer inspection of his form reveals that he had every chance of winning granted a decent pace and luck in running. Colonel Mak (drawn 5) took the field along at a suicidal pace, aided and abetted by Joe Packet (drawn 8), effectively setting the race up for hold-up horses, four of which filled the first four places.
Dandy Boy had comfortably won a valuable handicap over 7 furlongs at Meydan the previous season off an identical handicap mark and signalled a return to form when going down by just a neck in another, over a mile, at the Curragh the previous month. The fact that he was able to win over a testing 6 furlongs, coming from off a fast pace, shouldn’t really have been that much of a surprise, but all the hoo-hah surrounding him was purely down to his 33/1 starting price. If he had been in the first half a dozen in the betting, no-one would have mentioned draw bias.
As another example of how pace bias is often far more significant than any perceived draw bias, consider the result of the Wokingham Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2013. In the preceding 11 years, horses drawn in stalls 1 to 10 had won the Wokingham Stakes 7 times. Of course, the numbering of the stalls on right-handed courses was reversed in 2011, with the 2011 winner, Deacon Blues, coming from stall 11 and the 2012 winner, Dandy Boy, coming from stall 15. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom dictated that horses drawn against either rail held a significant advantage over those drawn in the middle of the course.
In the 2013 renewal the field split into two groups, although only 6 of the 26 runners remained on the stands’ side. Poole Harbour (drawn 8) led overall, with Babak Chinta (drawn 16) helping to force the pace, as the main group of runners bunched in the middle of the course. As such, the race not only favoured runners drawn in the middle of the course, but also those coming from off the pace and, in the end, three hold-up horses, York Glory (drawn 22), Shropshire (drawn 18) and Dinkum Diamond (drawn 15) filled the first three places.
Ultimately, unless your selection is running on a racecourse with an established, distinct draw bias, such as Beverley, Chester or Thirsk, it may pay to concentrate on whether or not the race in question is likely to be run at an end-to-end gallop, where the pace is likely come from and where your selection is likely to be positioned in relation to the pace. Certainly, this is a much better use of your time than trying to identify any perceived draw bias, which may, after all, be a figment of the imagination.