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Horse racing analysis: How it could pay not to be 2 reliant on eye-catching numbers

by Aidan Elder | November 13, 2014

We’ve all been there. The second tier of the podium. Both physically and figuratively. A-number 2, not quite top of the heap, next in line to be king of the hill.

Finishing second can be good and – depending on the particular context involved – may be considered the polite thing to do. In horse racing betting however, it’s an ambiguous concept. If you’ve backed a horse that’s either narrowly or more convincingly beaten into second place, there’s a temptation to think ‘he’ll definitely do better next time out’. It’s a natural punting inclination to assume we haven’t quite seen the best of the horse and next time out it’ll all come together. We don’t want to miss out when that cash cow comes waddling in.

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But that’s a dangerous and potentially costly assumption to make. While the ‘redemption’ narrative is a nice one for Channel 4, Racing UK or AtTheRaces pundits to talk up ahead of a race, how often does it happen? How often do second place horses ‘go one better’ next time out? In short, is the value punters place on a ‘2’ in the form lines too high?

Choosing the month of May this year as a decent sample (features good mix of both flat and jumps action raced on generally normal ground), the Paddy Power Blog has looked at all the winners from that month to see where they figured in the race prior to victory.

Second Place Finishers

Clearly, horses who have finished in the top three in the previous race have an obvious attraction to punters, somewhat based on the potentially flawed ‘he’ll do better or at least the same next time out’ theory. While a 2, 3 or 4 stands out on horse’s recent form when you’re scanning through a race card, 6s, 7s, 8s, 9s or even the distinctly unpromising ‘0’ carry very little appeal. That completely justifiable bias will be most likely reflected in the odds and the volume of bets that come for horses with eye-catching form figures.

But, of the over 1,300 winning horses in May:

  • 16% had won their previous outing
  • 16% had finished second on their previous outing
  • 20% finished between 6th and 10th last time out
  • There was no substantial difference between the jumps and the flat
    (other than the fallers, pulled up or unseated riders – which all came from the National Hunt game)

The caveats to this info are big enough to land a 35,000 mph space probe on. Grouping horses who finished between 6th and 10th into one category gives us a much bigger total than breaking it out into individual placings. It also doesn’t take into account distances or SPs. But it’s not so much about the specifics digits themselves as how they our categorised in our heads.

If first, second and third are the placings of the main contenders for the race, fourth and fifth are generally taken to be horses that were close to getting into the frame but not quite up to it, then the sixth to 10th place category is meant to represent horses who didn’t really get in the frame for victory. Somewhat forgotten, easy to overlook and not fancied by too many people – kind of like all the Pussycat Dolls who weren’t Nicole Scherzinger. They may not have run badly (although in some cases they definitely did), but they will almost certainly get dismissed based on the lowly placing.

The stats say that they can come good. Not all the time, but on a surprisingly regular basis. The benefit for punters is that it looks beyond the more obvious selections and suggests there’s value to be had lower down the market. As the big guns come out to begin campaigns they hope will climax with a victory at the Cheltenham Festival next March, it’s easy to presume their class will see them home even, if they’re not at peak fitness. That’s a dangerous assumption to make and there will be upsets.

This theory won’t supply the names and numbers of every winner, but it tells us certain outsiders may well be worth a second glance.

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