Historically, course absence could be used as a guide to fitness. A long break from the track often meant that the runner was not fully fit and commentators would normally use lines such as “should benefit from the run”, “probably not fully tuned up for today’s race” when delivering their pre-race analyses. Naturally, this gave on course punters a significant edge, especially in the early season.
When I used to attend meetings in the Autumn a careful study of the runners in the pre-parade ring would often help me highlight unfit runners. Even to my inexperienced eye some horses were clearly short of work, which always surprised me. My reasoning was that if the horse needed the run, why race it at all? Surely a better approach would be to run the horse at home in order to get it fully fit thus avoiding the expense of entry fees and travel. However, there must have been good reasons for not following this course of action because horses from many stables were allowed to run when nowhere fit.
In recent years there does seem to have been a change though. Far fewer unfit horses are raced nowadays which is clearly illustrated by an analysis of the results. For example, over the last ten seasons runners in handicap chases which had been off the track for 15 days or more scored at a rate of around 12%, roughly one in eight. For those returning from a longer break of 100 days or more this figure reduced to 11%, hardly a significant change.
This suggests that training regimes have improved and now the occasion of a horse running when not fully fit is much less frequent. In fact, some trainers have a better win rate with horses returning from a prolonged absence than other runners. David Pipe is continuing his father’s remarkable form with long term absentees in handicap chases, along with Venetia Williams, Emma Lavelle and Fergal O’Brien. All four trainers have made a decent profit with these runners during the period of analysis.
There is a shift in win rate for horses making a quick return to the track though. Handicap chasers running after a break of no more than seven days have a win rate of 18%, which compares to 12% for all runners. Whilst this does not translate into a profit at Bookmakers’ starting price, it does when bets are placed on the exchanges: the 5p/£ loss is transformed into a 9p/£ profit before commission.
Furthermore, there have only been two losing years out of the last ten. However, this is more a product of the handicap system than training methods. Evidence for this is the fact that the trend is not apparent in non-handicap races, but is repeated for handicap hurdlers. Of the 3,400 hurdlers running in handicap races after a break of seven days or less, the win rate is 20%, double the overall rate; a remarkable statistic.
Making a profit by backing these at Bookmakers’ starting price is a non-starter though, with a 10p/£ loss over the ten seasons analysed. On the exchanges it is a different matter with a profit of 9p/£ before commission. Three negative years would have been encountered following this simple rule since the 2008/09 season, and last year was poor at just 3p/£, so maybe this trend has run its course.
A slightly more intriguing statistic relates to race distance changes and time off the track. Handicap chasers running after a break of 100 days or more broke even at exchange prices, but those running over a distance that was greater than the last distance over which they raced made a loss of 9p/£; horses competing at the same distance made a loss of 2p/£; but those running over a shorter distance made a profit of 7p/£ from over 5,400 bets. The sample size is decent, but the pattern is not reflected in handicap hurdle races and after a run of seven straight profitable years the last three seasons have all produced losses.
That makes me think this is either a statistical anomaly or the exchange now accounts for it in the prices on offer. I will monitor it this year though, just because it’s an interesting feature of these runners.
For non-handicap chases the pattern is very different. The average win rate of 17% is exceeded by those runners returning from a 100+ day break, but for those making a quick return to the track the figure drops to 13%. And in fact, a level stake bet at Bookmakers’ starting price would have produced a loss of 44p/£ for horses running after a break of up to seven days, but just 26p/£ for those returning from a long lay off.
This significant difference is also reflected at exchange prices with losses of 38p/£ and 13p/£. Interestingly, analysing horses that have been off the track for 100 days or more by the price they started for their last run, shows that the 195 horses which were odds on previously made a profit of 34p/£ at exchange prices with a win rate of 32%, and those which had started in the evens to 2/1 range on their latest run (over 99 days ago) made 10p/£ from 350 bets with a win rate of 27%. So even after a long break, the price of the runner on its last start is worth checking closely.
It’s a similar pattern for non-handicap hurdle races with no significant change in the win rate with respect to days off the track. Whilst the price the horse ran from on its last run is again helpful, it is not such a good discriminator as it is for non-handicap chases. The only profitable group are those which were odds on last time out, producing a profit of 16p/£ at exchange prices with a win rate of 30%.