Sport Horse Racing

Monday 21 August 2017

Money trail always the most reliable route for punters

The flurry of late betting on last weekend's big races told a familiar tale, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

Voltaire once wrote that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. However, the concept of things not being at all what they appear is nothing new to anyone involved in racing. Indeed, it is central to the thrill of the horse-racing proposition. Even when you think you know, you don't know. And even those who we trust that should know, often don't know.

The glorious uncertainty and mercurial unpredictability are both the sport's core attraction and the engine room for a betting industry that fuels the sport. A better example of the imponderable attraction we could not have witnessed than the events of the rescheduled King George fixture last Saturday -- in particular concerning the two Grade One races on the card.

Beginning with the Christmas Hurdle. Betting for the race had begun in the week leading up to Christmas, so to say (given the same declarations stood three weeks later) the market was as mature as a stoutly decent cheddar by race day is an understatement. Any arbitrage had been quickly ironed out in Christmas week; any edge had been smoothed over; and bookmaker reps reported very little action in the Christmas Hurdle market on the morning of the race.

Then, less than a quarter of an hour before the race, the market went atomic. Binocular, lukewarm in the morning, was suddenly paparazzi-fodder, contracting from almost 3/1 on Betfair to a very tight 13/8 SP. In the old days, the convenient wisdom would be that JP was on, but technology being what it is today, that would not explain why Escort'men drifted from a robust 9.6 to a friendless 17 on Betfair in a lightning fast spell.

Neatly, these dramatic shifts in a high-profile race in an almost stagnantly mature market in the small minutes before the off reflected itself absolutely in the outcome. Binocular wins impressively and Escort'men is beaten 107 lengths, last of six.

In the King George itself, the weight of expectation backed by public money was always going to ensure Kauto Star would never be a market drifter. However, it didn't prevent stablemate The Nightingale (so substantially supported throughout the week) from sliding like Bambi on ice from an early morning 12.5 to almost double those odds on Betfair by the off.

By contrast, the only two horses to attract significant sustained support in the quarter hour before the start of the King George were Long Run and Riverside Theatre. In the event, Kauto underachieved, The Nightingale returned "clinically abnormal", while Long Run and Riverside Theatre filled the first two positions.

If such significant market fluctuations and the resulting parallel outcomes were a feature of a seller at Lingfield on any given Monday, then it would be seen as a source of serious enquiry, but we are talking here about the two Grade One races on perhaps the second most high-profile jumps card of the entire NH calendar.

One contributory factor to the heady half-hour in the market and on the racetrack was certainly that of trainer-form. When Kauto Star won the King George in December 2009, Paul Nicholls had a 21 per cent strike rate for the month. In 2008, he was 23 per cent for the month; in 2007, he was 26 per cent; and in 2006, he was 18 per cent.

This time around, however, the yard started the day four from 35 in January, a strike rate of only 11 per cent and finished the afternoon four from 43 (nine per cent) after eight losers on the day, amongst them Escort'men, The Nightingale and Kauto Star. Nicky Henderson, by complete contrast, came into King George day with a 17 from 41 (42 per cent) and finished it with a

further five winners (that would have been seven but for two fallers). Cue the "inspired" support for Long Run, Riverside Theatre and Binocular.

But while trainer-form can in part be cited as a basis for the market fluctuations mentioned, it doesn't by any means explain it away in entirety or anything like it. No, the yard statistics were available to anyone for hours, even days in advance, yet the extremes of the market variations only manifested in the minutes before the respective events.

It's less a reflection of a single significant insight than an example of the Wisdom of Crowds: where the aggregated wisdom of a wide-ranging diversity of knowledge and opinion converges, providing a more accurate prediction than any single expert view. And the most transparent prediction market for that wisdom is the betting Exchange.

So in future, instead of paying attention to any one expert and their view, simply flip open your Betfair terminal and follow the money. The irony is that if everyone followed this advice then the wisdom of crowds might cease to be so wise.

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