Winning Systems: Nurseries

    In his latest update, Dr Peter May looks at the betting trends behind two-year-old handicaps, commonly known as nurseries, and highlights some routes to profit for punters.

Although two-year-races are staged in the right from the start of the turf season, juvenile handicaps, also referred to as nurseries, are not introduced into the programme until mid-summer, normally July. The reason for this delayed start is to give the handicappers sufficient form on which to base the handicap marks. Whilst some private handicappers calculate an initial mark based on pedigree and trainer statistics, the official ratings are determined by performances on the track and hence the requirement for a pool of races to be run before the process starts.

Before we get into the details of this race type, here is some basic data. There are around 150 nursery races run on turf each year with the average loss to bookmakers’ starting price (SP) approximately 16p for every pound staked.

This is a significant loss to overcome, however betting with bookmakers at off time is not an option that should be considered. If you cannot bet earlier in the day, when it is possible to choose from a range of prices, then bets should be placed on the exchanges, particularly those with lower commission because although these rates appear, at first sight, to be insignificant they do seriously erode any profit over time. Using exchange prices recorded just before the official race time for a comparable set of races, the overall profit/loss for nurseries changes from -16p/£ to +2p/£ before commission.

For favourite backers the SP loss is about 8p/£ over the last five years, but there was a 2p/£ profit for the same horses backed on the exchanges before commission. So whilst the loss is reduced significantly using SP, the exchange figure for market leaders is the same as it is for all runners. Another interesting statistic relates to course winners. At SP these 300 horses returned an insignificant loss which converts to a 9p/£ pre-commission profit for exchange users. This is worth noting, but an average return of about five points profit per year is hardly earth-shattering.

Whilst the majority of juvenile races are subject to some form of handicapping such as penalties based on previous successes and weight differences due to how much the runners cost as yearlings, weight adjustments based on the official handicapper’s assessments are only applied in nurseries. An analysis by weight shows that horses carrying 9st or more have a success rate much higher than the rest and these lose just 9p/£ compared to 16p/£ for all runners at SP. The exchange equivalent is a profit of 6p/£ for the 2900 runners analysed which increases to 7p/£ for those which were made favourite. There were just 183 course winners in the sample, but they did make 21p/£ before commission and previously beaten favourites returned a profit of 10p/£ from 199 bets suggesting that the weight carried should be considered carefully when determining a betting strategy for nurseries.

Recent form is normally a useful guide in handicap races and this holds true for nurseries. Horses competing after a success had the best win rate at 15%, as would be expected, those which ran second or third on their latest start scored at 12%, with the rest winning one race in eleven, 9%.

However the profit and loss figures are not in line with usual expectations. Previous race winners lost 28p/£ in nurseries at SP and 21p/£ before commission using the exchanges. Horses which made the frame last time out without winning returned a loss of 4p/£ at exchange prices, but the remaining 3774 runners produced a profit of 16p/£ before commission, a remarkable figure. There were two losing years in the period, -3p/£ in 2010 and -2p/£ in 2011 before commission, with three profitable years essentially due to a dozen big priced winners, which always rings a few alarm bells for systems followers. Capping the upper price limit at 20.0 reduces the sample size to 2370 bets, improves the strike rate to 13% but shrinks the profit to 9p/£, still a good figure, but with two losing years remaining it is more something to monitor and maybe modify rather than bet.

Whilst last-time-out winners have a poor record overall, those returning within seven days of their winning run have been profitable to follow. Over the last five years these runners have made a profit of about 8p/£ before commission which mirrors the profit for all runners making a quick return to the track. So in this instance the course absence nullifies the negative impact of a recent win.

Often in handicaps the race type a runner contested on its last start can be informative. Almost 50% of nursery runners previously ran in a handicap, with the next largest race typr, maiden races, accounting for 36%; the remaining runners were spread amongst all other race types except Group 1 contests, which is not too surprising.

Whilst the loss for horses which had raced most recently in another nursery was 17p/£ and for maiden races was 11p/£, reverting to exchange prices these figures become 0p/£ and 17p/£ before commission. This impressive figure for maiden contests is clearly worth further investigation. Horses which won a maiden race before running in a nursery lost 20p/£ at exchange prices which is in line with previous findings. The profit would have been achieved by following those which failed to make the first three. Whilst this reduces the sample to 1,200 the profit jumps to a staggering 48p/£.

A quick check by price reveals that horses priced up to 4.0 for their nursery run made a heavy loss with the bulk of the profit coming from the long shots. In fact seven winners were priced at over 40.0. However with only around 20 winners per year from the sample priced at 4.0 or higher there is naturally a high degree of variation in the profit and loss figures for the five seasons and would necessitate a very large bank for anyone considering a system based on these runners.

One factor many of these runners have in common is that they are making their handicap debut, which in part explains why previous race winners perform so poorly. If the maiden race winner is well below average then options include sellers and claimers; if it is well above the norm then pattern races are a possibility, but for the vast majority there is no other option except nurseries whether they are handicapped reasonably or not, and this is reflected in the profit and loss figures for these runners.

Two-year-olds making their handicap debut after winning a race returned a loss of 18p/£ to exchange prices (24p/£ at SP). But fortunately a profit could be found from those which failed to make the frame most recently, 19p/£. This is not too surprising since many of these would be qualifiers under the previous findings relating to horses running in a nursery after competing in a maiden race. But a more interesting angle concerns run number.

Juveniles racing in a nursery on their second or third career start lose heavily – it appears the handicapper takes few chances with these less-exposed runners, and of course they will have to have been successful to qualify with such limited experience. Horses having their fourth run, the first opportunity to qualify for a handicap for runners which have failed to win, made up over 50% of debut runners over the last five seasons. The sample of these extends to approximately 1,200 juveniles, and the profit at exchange prices before commission is a decent 23p/£. Clearly there are many trainers who target these races from the outset with the aim of making the most of the first opportunity which I am sure many readers will already have established. Interestingly, though, the price available significantly understates the chance of success providing a route to profit for punters and well-informed stable staff alike.

Another feature of these horses which is beyond the scope of this piece, but I will explore in depth in a future article, relates to the price movements of these debut handicap runners, specifically the price ratio for the runner’s previous (non-handicap) run compared to it’s handicap race, this can often be an indication of a “live” horse. Coupling this with trainer data could prove to be very lucrative.

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