The kind of horse likely to produce a 'surprise'....

Last Updated: 14.04.2021

Wednesday, 14th April 2021

The kind of horse likely to produce a ‘surprise’….

You might recall that back in 2015 there was a bit of a controversy surrounding the Grand National. The staring prices (SPs) of the 39 runners represented an eyewatering overround of 165%....

Off-course bookmakers were publicly accused of manipulating the SP system to the detriment of punters. On-course bookmakers – whose prices at the off play a big part in the mechanism used to establish SPs – were accused of behaving unlawfully….

Nothing came of it. But the issue of SPs is in the spotlight again this year – for different reasons….

During lockdown – in the absence of on-course betting markets – off-course firms have been handed the central role in reporting SPs. And the off-course firms are keen to highlight just how well the new system is working – for obvious reasons….

Just as government ministers like the power to mark their own homework, off-course bookies would like permanent control over an SP process that determines day-to-day market liabilities….

And what better way to advertise for that permanent control than to point at the 146% overround for last weekend’s Grand National – the lowest overround in 16-years….

A breathless Simon Clare – PR Director for Ladbrokes Coral – was out on maneuvers yesterday. He said this: ‘We priced the race just as we would any other, reflecting our trading position, and the fact the current starting price mechanism has returned such a competitive and fair overround reflects the fact it is working effectively and fairly for consumers and operators.’

It reads well. Punters can’t complain. And betting firms get to look like paragons of virtue. But don’t get sucked into this nonsense. One swallow does not a summer make….

The true efficacy of an off-course SP reporting system – and how well it really works out for punters – will only come to light once the off-course firms have succeeded in strong-arming permanent control of SP reporting from the on-course bookies….

Once the off-course bookmakers are in the driving seat for good, the direction of travel is sure to change – and we’ll get a much clearer idea of where big-race overrounds are heading long-term. It won’t be down….

  • Looking for losers.... 

There’s more to finding handicap winners than just ratings and weight. The game is a bit more complex than that – involving any number of relevant and effecting variables. But the official rating is where it starts….

Once a horse gets too high on the rating scale there isn’t a variable in creation – with the exception of outstanding and inexplicable good luck – that will enable it to win a handicap race….

The number one priority for handicap punters is to find well-handicapped horses that can win….

And the truth is that finding well-handicapped horses is very often the same thing as finding horses that have been off the boil for a significant period of time – for whatever reason….

That’s the only way some handicappers can win – by embarking on a sequence of poor performances that encourage the official handicapper to repeatedly downgrade the horse’s rating….

Eventually – when the sequence of poor performances has endured long enough – the horse’s official rating drops to a point where the horse can get competitive again….

Where that point lies is different for each horse. One might be capable of winning off 95 or lower. Another might need to drop as low as 90 or 82 or 76 – depending on basic ability….

It’s not an exact science. But it’s there or thereabouts. A horse whose true level is 94 to 96 isn’t going to be winning many races if he’s rated 105….

  • Taking something on faith.... 

When the search for winners is partially based on a search for losers, there’s always a danger you’re going to come a cropper. Try to catch a falling knife and the consequences can be painful….

It’s the same with a horse dropping down the ratings. You can latch on to it and then later wish you hadn’t. Sometimes horses keep losing for reasons other than an official rating that’s too high….

Sometimes horses lose because they’re not right. They might be suffering from some undiagnosed condition or some overlooked injury that’s causing them discomfort….

Sometimes they lose because they’ve lost interest in the game. They don’t want to race. They don’t want to win. They’ve lost their enthusiasm….

As a punter, you’re sometimes taking things like fitness and enthusiasm on faith. Without being in the yard and observing the horse day-to-day, you can’t know. But faith plays its part too….

I’m taking it on faith that Well Done Fox is fit, injury-free and retains enthusiasm for the game. If my faith is not misplaced, he’s a well-handicapped horse going into the new season on a mark of 93….

  • One of those sequences.... 

Well Done Fox started last season in the G3 Palace House Stakes at Newmarket – where he ran 4th of 12 runners. He was beaten just under 2-lengths from a disadvantaged starting berth….

It was decent performance – one that encouraged the official handicapper to raise the horse 5lbs from a mark of 100 to 105 – 2lbs shy of his career-best mark of 107 which he achieved as a juvenile….

Richard Hannon thought the Newmarket performance encouraging enough to put the horse in the G1 King’s Stand Stakes next time out. Hannon said he anticipated a lot more improvement….

It didn’t go well at Royal Ascot. Well Done Fox was a big price and he made no better impression than his big price suggested he would. Maybe the grade was too hot for him. Maybe the step-up came too soon. Maybe the cut in the ground didn’t help….

His four subsequent races last term – all over 5f and 6f – saw him beaten an aggregate of 20-lengths. He beat just 14 of his 34 opponents home in those races….

Over the season he was 0 from 6. The last time he won was at York in 2018. He was rated 100 that day and the handicapper subsequently raised him to his career-high mark of 107….

This is a horse that’s had one of those sequences I was talking about. He’s been on a dry spell that’s endured across 11 races. Now, he’s down to a mark of 93 – his second lowest career mark….

Has he gone at the game? Is he going to keep losing? Is he going to keep dropping like a stone through the ratings? Is trying to grab a hold of this falling knife going to hurt?

  • A catalyst for change….

It might be that this horse is finished….

Or that he was never really as good as the official handicapper thought he was….

Or that he was good at 2 but hasn’t really trained on or improved as an older horse….

He’s one of those horses you can come a cropper with – where you show the faith but the faith is not rewarded….

But he could also be a well-handicapped horse after a lengthy dry spell – a horse ready to strike in a decent handicap at a big price off a rating he can do business from….

He’s down 12lbs from his mark in June last year. That’s a swift drop in the greater scheme of things – for a horse that was considered a G1 prospect. Some connections wait a hell of a lot more than five races for that kind of leeway to be shown by the handicapper….

We can’t know if Well Done Fox will bounce back. Not for sure. But he’s still in training. And if he’s in a better place this term – then he’s dangerous off this kind of mark. And he’ll be there to back at a big price in a big-field handicap….

On quick midsummer ground – if the price is there – he’s the kind of horse I might just be prepared to show a little faith in. He’s the kind of horse likely to produce a ‘surprise’. He’s the kind of horse that might reward a ‘stop-at-a-win’ betting strategy….

He goes on to the Watch List – along with the other horses I’ve highlighted this week….

  • The final word….

That’s all from me for today. I’ll be back tomorrow. Meanwhile….

Anything to report? Anything to say? Anything to share? Contact me at: nick.pullen@oxonpress.co.uk

Until next time. Stay tuned.

Nick Pullen

Against the Crowd