Winning Systems: Unexpected winners

In his latest piece for, Peter May takes a look at unexpected winners in horseracing and how they fair on their next starts within different selected frameworks.

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Like most sports fans I enjoy a range of sports.  Naturally I watch football when it’s on, darts of course, and I try not to miss a frame of snooker whenever it shown on TV from 9am to midnight.  Athletics leaves me a little cold, so this year’s Olympic Games will not interrupt my usual sports viewing, but I will certainly make time for the Six Nations’ Rugby in the Spring, and any episodes of Timbersports which are shown during the Winter. 

What has this got to do with racing?  Well, from watching alternative sports for many years one trend seems to be consistent and somewhat unexpected: when a player or team beats the best in the tournament, why does he/she/they often perform below par in their next match?

Take snooker for example.  In this year’s Masters Barry Hawkins played some outstanding snooker to beat the more fancied Judd Trump 6-4 in the semi final.  He was clearly at the top of his game and playing the best snooker of his life.  But in the final, against Ronnie O’Sullivan he lost 10-1. 

In the World Championships Hawkins played to an arguably higher standard when gaining revenge on the “Rocket” (the best player ever to lift a cue) to win a nail-biter 13-12 only to lose the in the next round to the less talented Marco Fu when starting at odds of4/7. 

But this phenomenon does not just affect the Essex cue-man; Anthony McGill (5/2) beat former World Champion Shaun Murphy (2/7) in the 2016 event, only to lose in the very next round.  

In darts this pattern was recognised many years ago when Phil Taylor was at his very best.  At a time when “The Power” would start a tournament featuring 128 players as the odds on favourite he was considered by many to be almost unbeatable.

But he did get beaten on occasions, inevitably by much lower ranked players who would then lose in the next round.  This makes no sense really: for a player to beat the best, then he/she has to be in top form and full of confidence, so why would they fail next time?

Snooker and Darts are, in the main, individual sports, so this could be purely related to the psyche of the player.  However, whist watching France get the better of the vastly superior tournament favourites Germany in the Euros I wondered whether they would go the same way in the final against much poorer opposition. 

Well, they did, and not because Portugal played exceptionally well, but more because France under-performed. But again humans were involved and maybe once a sportsperson or team peaks it is difficult to reach that high again in quick succession.

Barry Hawkins showed that his good win over Judd Trump was not a fluke by beating O’Sullivan in the World Championship, but there was a gap of four months between the tournaments and that could have been a key factor. 

So we have a trend based on unexpected winners in other sports, but does it also apply to horseracing? In order to test the theory it is first necessary to define an unexpected win.  Using the starting price is an obvious method and I have chosen a price of 10/1, so will be analysing all runners that won at a starting price of 10/1 or greater on their latest run.

All age handicaps, in other words those which are not restricted to just juveniles or three-year-olds, constitute the largest pool of runners and hence are the best starting point for the analysis.  In recent years, of the 10,300 runners in this race classification that were running after winning, 1570 were successful, producing a win rate of 15% and a level stake loss to starting price bettors of 13p/£. 

Refining the analysis by the price the horse started at for its last run shows a gradual decrease in the win rate from 19% for those which had started their last run at odds on, to 12% for those which had started at 18/1 or higher.  The horses we are interested in produced a success rate of 12% and a level stake loss of 11p/£. 

The lower win rate does support the theory that these are not the most reliable selections but, remarkably, using exchange prices these qualifiers made a profit of 7p/£ though this was due to a few very long priced winners. 

A similar pattern was exhibited for all age non-handicaps, three-year-old handicaps and juvenile non-handicaps.  For three-year-old non-handicaps there was the usual decline in win rate as the price the horse started for its last run increased, but the profit increased dramatically with qualifiers returning a staggering 41p/£ to Bookmakers’ starting price. 

This could be due to the fact that these runners are improvers and can more easily follow up a win, but the sample size is not that large and that is more likely to be the reason.  However it is worth monitoring for another season.

For nursery races the decline in win rate was slightly more pronounced and this produced heavy losses for starting price bettors. With the 215 qualifiers producing a loss of 37p/£.  Interestingly, if the last race win had come in a maiden race the loss on the next start was just 22p/£, but for horses which had previously won a handicap the loss was a huge 49p/£ and these had a win rate of just 9%.

One possible important feature of the theory was that the sports events all concerned matches that were played shortly after the unexpected victory.  Setting the course absence from the win to next race to less than eight days produced another set of informative results. 

For all age handicaps the win rate increased to 25% for all runners, but for those starting at 10/1 or higher for their last race this figure dropped to 16% with the 3p/£ profit at Bookmakers’ starting price for all runners falling to a 19p/£ loss for qualifiers under the unexpected winners rule. 

This is much more in line with the expectations based on other sports and also means that the 1050 runners that won their last race at less than 10/1 returned a profit of 8p/£ on their next start which is possibly worth noting. 

Whilst small sample sizes render the results for the other race types very unreliable, this result shows that, as well as just considering the finishing position of the horse for its last race, it is equally important to take into account the starting price for that run, with unexpected winners treated with a higher degree of caution.

Winning Systems: Unexpected winners
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