Winning systems: Summer three-year-old handicappers

    In his latest article for attheraces.com, Dr Peter May takes a closer look at three-year-olds competing against elder handicappers and how the distances they race over can affect profitability.
  • Thursday 28 June 2018
  • Blog

Summer Three-Year-Old Handicappers

I appreciate that many racing enthusiasts who read this blog feel that I am anti-handicaps.  That’s not strictly accurate.  Handicaps do have a role to play in racing, but it’s unfortunate that they now dominate flat racing with, on average, three out of every four non-juvenile races weight-biased contests. 

For example today, 14th June, 27 of the 30 non-juvenile races are handicaps.  Supporters of handicaps stress that it is important to give all horses a chance of winning, even those of very modest ability.  Again this is true and needs to be considered when designing the calendar, but having so many handicaps compared to other contests is not a solution.  In fact, a calendar with such a large proportion of handicaps actually makes it more difficult for a large swathe of the horse population to win. 

By way of explanation, consider a horse of moderate ability that is weighted too highly in the handicap.  Where can it run?  The only choice is a handicap, since claimers, sellers and low-grade conditions races are all but extinct. However, given its handicap mark the horse does not have a realistic chance of winning so has to run again and again, making sure that each defeat results in a lowering of its handicap mark. Making the frame is not an option: horses that finish runner-up are, on average, increased in the handicap by 1.1lb. Those that run third tend to be left where they are.  Finishing fourth will probably result in a slight drop, less than a pound on average, with that figure increasing to 1.7lb for those beaten by nine or more runners.

Consequently, a horse that wins a handicap needs to race at least a further five times, failing to make the frame in each race in order to possibly return to an acceptable mark.  In reality, the median number of runs between handicap wins is seven.  Given that these runners are competing for very limited prize money, and the general costs associated with competing in races, this is clearly an uneconomic situation for the owner.  

One simple solution is to replace a number of handicap races with ratings-related, non-handicaps.  Horses on a good mark can then continue to run in handicaps if connections deem this to be an appropriate course to take, whilst those set a handicap mark off which they have no chance of success have viable alternatives in non-handicaps.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen in the near future because Bookmakers prefer handicaps and, given their influence over the sport, changes such as this will not be implemented.  As a result, punters are left with very limited options on many days during the summer, and therefore have to consider strategies for betting in handicaps even though the odds are weighed markedly against them.

Around ten years ago I was using a flat racing profiler to gain an insight into the type of horse that wins all age handicaps (i.e. handicaps which are not restricted to just juveniles or three-year-olds) and noticed that three-year-olds held a distinct advantage from mid-summer onwards in certain races. 

In recent years, for example, they have won at a rate of one in seven compared with one in ten for all runners.  Whilst they still made a heavy loss at Bookmakers’ starting price, I believed this higher win rate might be significant. Isolating the three-year-olds and digging a little deeper I found a trend that appeared relatively consistent and, fortunately, has remained profitable up to 2017. 

Checking the performance of these younger horses by race distance it becomes clear that the races to focus on are those over a mile or longer.  In recent seasons, races up to a mile have produced a win rate of 11% for three-year-olds, with a heavy associated loss, but for longer distances the strike rate is 16% and a level stake profit has been returned.  Keeping bets to horses at the front of the market (up to 10/1) increases the success rate to one in five, and over the last five years would have generated a profit of 5p/£ from 5,883 bets placed at off time on the exchanges. 

Whilst last time out winners have the best win rate, they do drag down the profit with an average of only 2p/£.  Interestingly, keeping bets to colts and geldings does not significantly improve the profit, nor does any restriction on course absence.

Last year, the BHA made an adjustment to the weight-for-age scale which should have impacted on the approach, however the 1,417 qualifiers in 2017 produced a win rate of 22%, the highest for five years, and a level stake profit at off time exchange prices of 12p/£.

I believe this is certainly worth monitoring, or even following especially if you are allowed to bet early in the morning with Bookmakers, though variations of it may prove to be even more profitable.  If you find any then please let me know.

As a postscript, three-year-olds taking on older horses in handicaps after racing just once also have a decent record.  Over the last five years they returned a profit of 67p/£ at off time exchange prices, but there have been just 89 bets and 2016 produced a heavy loss.  Whilst it is difficult to recommend this as a betting strategy, it is surprising that such a simple approach has performed so well, and with a success rate of one in three I certainly would think twice before opposing these runners.

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