Handicap races now dominate the flat programme. Over the past twenty years or so, these weight-adjusted races have increased in number dramatically and now account for the majority of races run in Great Britain. For instance, on the day of writing there are 25 non-juveniles races of which 23 are handicaps. This is, of course, good news for Bookmakers (who requested the increase) because these races are as close to a casino game that racing gets, which is good for their profits. Consequently it is not good for punters, and the limited choice of races is also bad news for owners, and no doubt is off-putting, for prospective owners.
Consider, for a while, that you have come into some money and have bought an unraced three-year-old racehorse. Maybe not the wisest investment you have ever made, but the fulfilment of a long held dream. The horse, based on pedigree, will be about average in terms of ability so once it is out of maiden company the only option is handicap races, there is no viable alternative: running in sellers and claimers risks losing the horse, and lower end pattern races, though much weaker now than historically, remain just out of reach.
So you are faced with a difficult decision: do you try to win a maiden race which will, in all probability, give the horse a handicap mark that is too high to win off and require several runs, when you know it has little or no chance of success, just to get back to a reasonable mark; or do you take the more subtle route and run the horse down the field in three maidens and get into the handicap on a decent mark? This latter approach is certainly popular and a quick check through the formbook shows that over 1,000 horses in recent years have started their three non-handicaps at double-figure prices, then a single figure price for their handicap debut. Clearly handicap debut runners form a unique group of horses, one that can be analysed in isolation, and hopefully provide a fertile area for betting.
Overall, backing all horses having their first handicap run (excluding nursery races) would lose on average 28p/£ at Bookmakers’ starting price, which is not the best starting point for bettors hoping to develop a winning system. The majority of these horses are running after competing in a maiden race, in fact these runners account for over 80% of handicap debut runners. The loss is 27p/£ for these, but those which could be considered as “dropping in class”, in other words, racing after competing in black type races, have lost over 44p/£ in recent seasons. Stepping up from selling class produces a loss of 37p/£ and from claimers, a loss of 70p/£, not very encouraging results.
If we take a step back in the form trail we do find a couple of interesting statistics. Horses having their third career run in a three-year-old maiden race on turf make a huge loss of 55p/£ and have a win rate of just 10%. However those three-year-olds having their fourth run also in a maiden race, lose just 21p/£ and have a win rate of 19% almost double the previous race ratio.
These are already qualified for handicaps, so persevering with them in maiden company should not be considered to be a negative factor for punters. The figures for all age races are similar with a loss of 39p/£ and win rate of 10% for the third run in a maiden improving to -24p/£ and 18% for the fourth run. The all weather results are also similar, so either horses having their third run in maiden company are significantly under priced, or many of them are simply not intended to win.
Back to the handicap debut runs we find that a quarter are running after winning but these lose on average 19p/£ for all non-juvenile races. The “one-run, one-win” horses lose less at 11p/£, and this negative figure gets worse as the number of previous runs increases. The two best finishing positions for the previous race are second and seventh; in recent years these have lost money at Bookmakers’ SP but have produced a profit at exchange prices. Quite why this is the case is unclear and it is probably just a statistical blip although the sample size was over 650 for each position.
I had thought that maybe a horse which had qualified for handicaps by running only on the all weather may be worth following if their handicap debut was run on turf, but again a big negative of 34p/£ resulted. The reverse (turf to all weather) produced a small profit at exchange prices but not sufficient to cover the commission. However nursery races proved to be the exception. Two-year-olds making their handicap debut on the all weather having previously raced only on turf produced a 2p/£ profit at Bookmakers’ SP in recent seasons which converts to 31p/£ at exchange prices. Three longish-priced winners helped inflate the profit but it is perhaps worth monitoring for a season to see if the trend continues.
One other area which seemed promising related to course absence. If the break between the last non-handicap run and the handicap debut was no more than seven days then a profit was achieved in recent years, however this was dependent on a few long shots so it is doubtful whether it will continue in a similar fashion, but again it is something worth revisiting at the end of 2015 to see if the trend held up.
Finally I checked trainers. For nursery races it has paid to follow Richard Hannon and Richard Fahey in recent seasons, especially on turf, because both have returned a profit with their debut handicappers. For non-juvenile races the trainers with good recent statistics are Richard Hannon, again, John Gosden, William Haggas, and Roger Varian. For all weather runs it is also worth noting horses trained by Marco Botti. All of these have profitable records from a reasonable number of runners.