• CAN YOU MAKE A PROFIT BACKING FAVOURITES?
    Author: David Renham

    For those of you who know me, I rarely back favourites. I have always perceived favourites, or any short prices to be poor value in the grand scheme of things, with little edge for the backer. However, after a moderate year by my own standards, backing bigger priced horses I decided to do some detailed research into the performance of favourites. My aim was to find either a profitable method for backing favourites, or a profitable method for laying favourites.

    What got me thinking about backing favourites / short prices in horse racing was a sports bet I made on Sunday 3rd October 2004. It was in the televised Superset tennis competition at Wembley and it was a match bet between tennis legend John McEnroe and the young 17 year old Andrew Murray. I assume everyone knows about John McEnroe, but maybe not much about Andrew Murray. Murray had just won the US Open Boys’ Singles title – some achievement, and clearly he has the potential to be the next Tim Henman. However, he was still only ranked 403rd in the world, and would have never encountered such a big occasion as this.

    Although McEnroe was now 45, he was still beating players on the Seniors Tour who had only just finished playing competitive tennis. Last December I saw McEnroe win in London defeating two only recently retired top 20 players in Guy Forget and Michael Stich. Even now McEnroe looked capable of giving players in the current top 20 a decent game, let alone someone ranked 453. I am not an expert in odds lines but I felt McEnroe was at least a 1-4 shot (4-1 on). Hence, I could not believe my eyes when he was available with some firms at 6-5 against. This looked the bet of the century, despite 6-5 being a very short price for me, even in a two player contest. I had my biggest bet for some time in terms of a sports bet, and was pleased that my judgement proved to be sound when McEnroe overpowered the youngster to win the set 6 games to 1.

    Just imagine if you could get 6-5 regularly on what amounted to a 1-4 shot in reality. I decided to work out the edge in the following way : imagine a series of 5 bets at 6-5 where the true odds are in fact 1-4. On average you will win four bets and lose one. Hence working on that premise, you should make a 3.8 point profit per 5 points stakes (level stakes at 1 point per bet). That equates to a 76% profit and a strike rate of 80%. That would be living in fantasy land perhaps, but it certainly started to make me think about the merits of backing shorter prices.

    For this research I decided to stick to favourites, rather than all “short” prices – I thought it would be difficult to determine what in reality was a “short” price. For example, 2-1 would be a short price in a 24 runner handicap, but not in a 4 runner maiden, etc, etc.

    With 2003 being the last full season, I decide my starting point would be to look the figures from 1995 to 2003 for flat racing only. I would then try to draw some conclusions and test the conclusions on earlier data from 1986 to 1994.

    It seemed sensible to look at the results of some more general data first, which would include comparing forecast favourites to actual favourites at starting price. My logic being, that to use any system on favourites at starting price would require you, the punter, to often place your bet at the last possible moment as there are many races where it is unclear which horse was actually going to start favourite. If you could find a winning system with forecast favourites, it would make life much easier, and less time consuming! The table below shows the findings :

    All Races (’95-’03)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    Forecast favourite

    41367

    12030

    29.1%

    – 3328.3

    – 8.05%

    Favourite at SP

    43136

    13294

    30.8%

    – 3305.6

    – 7.66%

    Results are fairly similar as would be expected. Starting price favourites have the edge, due to the fact that the betting market should be more accurate than a forecast price in the paper. However, the results are still encouraging from the statistics for the forecast favourites – for every £100 staked you would only lose around £8. (It should be noted that there are more starting price favourites than forecast favourites due to the fact that the sample includes joint or co favourites).

    It is generally considered that favourites do best in non handicaps as compared to handicaps. Here are the statistics for non handicaps :

    Non handicap races (’95-’03)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    Forecast favourite

    20395

    7317

    35.9%

    – 1286.6

    – 6.31%

    Favourite at SP

    21070

    8044

    38.2%

    – 1042.6

    – 4.95%

     A much higher strike rate coupled with a better return for both groups.

     The handicap stats read : 

    Handicap races (’95-’03)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    Forecast favourite

    20972

    4713

    22.5%

    – 2041.7

    – 9.74%

    Favourite at SP

    22066

    5250

    23.8%

    – 2263.0

    – 10.26%

     A much lower strike rate in handicaps (between 1 win in 5 and 1 win in 4), and a loss of around £10 per £100 staked.

    From these initial findings, it seems prudent to restrict any betting strategies on favourites to non-handicap races only. Likewise any laying strategies would be restricted to handicap races.

    BETTING STRATEGIES for non handicaps

    Having narrowed races down to non-handicaps we need to try to find profitable areas. I decided to focus on forecast favourites, for the reasons stated earlier. 

    The first area that came under the microscope was finishing position last time out. One would assume that recent form would be an influential factor. The results are shown below :

     Position last time out (’95-’03)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    1st

    3585

    1318

    36.8%

    – 307.3

    – 8.57%

    2nd / 3rd

    8288

    3225

    38.9%

    – 456.9

    – 5.51%

    4th or worse

    7126

    2509

    35.2%

    – 281.8

    – 3.95%

    At first glance it may seem surprising that horses placed 4th or worse have the best return for forecast favourites (a loss of under 4%), but invariably this type of horse starts at a slightly bigger price than the horses that were placed last time out. Hence, despite a marginally lower strike rate, they are able to outperform their “in form” counterparts. However, taking into account where the horse finished last time out, does not prove profitable on its own.

    The second area to be researched was fitness. Usually, horses that run more recently out perform those that have been off the course for longer time. The results below combine forecast favourites with days since last run :

    Days since last run (’95-’03)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    1 to 3 days

    263

    113

    43.0%

    + 40.6

    + 15.45%

    4 to 7 days

    1681

    600

    35.7%

    – 31.5

    – 1.88%

    8 to 15 days

    5734

    2043

    35.6%

    – 414.2

    – 7.22%

    16 days or more

    10862

    4016

    37.0%

    – 540.6

    – 4.98%

    It seems we have found a profitable area. Horses returning to the track within 3 days have shown a profit during this period. Indeed 8 of the 9 years produced a profit. Clearly fitness counts.

    The third area to consider was position in the market last time out. Would beaten favourites have a better record than those who were not favourites last time? The results are shown below :

    Market position last run (’95-’03)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    Favourite

    4869

    1973

    40.5%

     – 68.4

    – 1.40%

    2nd / 3rd favourite

    6066

    2252

    37.1%

    – 403.0

    – 6.64%

    4th or worse

    7605

    2547

    33.5%

    – 474.3

    – 6.24%

    Beaten favourites last time out (shown as “favourite” in the above table), have provided a very good strike rate and only a small loss on investment. However, no profit!

    I have also looked at course winners, distance winners, in form trainers, etc, but none showed a profit. Hence, it looks like we need to concentrate on our fitness edge – horses that have run within the past three days. With a profit shown from 1995 to 2003, I hoped that this success would be mirrored from 1986 to 1994. Below are the 1986 to 1994 results for forecast favourites in non handicaps returning to the track within 3 days :

    Days since last run (’86-’94)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    1 to 3 days

    155

    77

    49.7%

    + 67.9

    + 43.79%

    As with the previous sample there were 8 winning years out of 9, but with even more healthy profits. Looking at the two together we get : 

    Days since last run (1 to 3 days)

    Qualifiers

    Wins

    Strike Rate

    Profit

    ROI

    1986 to 1994

    155

    77

    49.7%

    + 67.9

    + 43.79%

    1995 to 2003

    263

    113

    43.0%

    + 40.6

    + 15.45%

    1986 to 2003

    418

    190

    45.5%

    + 108.5

    + 25.96%

    To conclude : this looks a profitable area to consider, although the results have dipped slightly in recent years. Not many bets a year, but using the 3 day forecast favourite rule, it looks possible that we could make further profits in the future.

    All in all though, despite good strike rates, it is hard to find profitable ways to back favourites in horse racing.

    LAYING STRATEGIES for handicaps

    We have already seen that making money backing favourites is not easy. Therefore, one would think that it should be possible to find a profitable method for laying favourites. The initial research indicated that laying favourites in handicaps would look the soundest strategy. This makes sense when you consider handicap races are designed so that all runners theoretically have the same chance of winning. Again my attention was focused on forecast favourites.

    In order to find a viable laying method, a profit margin at least 15% would be necessary, when taking into account the prices one is able to lay at on the exchanges.  I looked at numerous ideas and came up with the following laying “systems” that seemed to work over the period from 1995 to 2003:

    1.  Backing fillies in open handicaps that were forecast favourite – the reason behind this idea is that in open handicaps the female sex, tend to be at a disadvantage over their male counterparts. This method produced a massive 4498 bets and a loss of 16.5% for all runners. Hence, just poor enough to qualify for a laying system.

    2.  Backing forecast favourites whose last run was in a seller – the reason behind this idea is that sellers are generally much weaker than handicaps and the step back up to handicap company is often difficult to bridge. This method produced only 303 bets (roughly 34 bets a season on average) and a loss of 27%. The winning strike rate was also less than 1 in 6, and in 2001 there were 0 winners from 34 qualifiers.

    3.  Backing forecast favourites whose last run was in a claimer – essentially the reason for this system was the same as for system 2. It is difficult for horses to step up from claiming company back up to handicap company. The results saw that this type of favourite produced a 33.9% loss on the 470 bets.

    4.  Backing forecast favourites that are 3 years old running in a 3yo+ handicaps over short distances (5 to 7f) – the reason for this idea is that 3 years olds generally struggle against their elders in this type of contest. Hence one would expect 3yo favourites to struggle. Of the 894 qualifiers there were 165 winners producing a loss of over 21%.

    5.  Backing forecast favourites that end up 5th favourite or worse – the theory behind this is that this type of horse is clearly unfancied by the betting public / bookmakers. To be forecast favourite and not be in the first four of the actual betting suggests a horse that is unlikely to win. Although this means we have to wait for the last minute to put a bet on, the figures are too positive to ignore. Only 26 winners from 413 qualifiers for a hefty loss of 39%.

    Now these five laying “systems” show promise, but as with the research into betting strategies, we need to check the data from 1986 to 1994 to see if the results are similar.

    System 1 – fillies struggled again showing a loss over the 9 years of nearly 19%.

    System 2 – favourites that ran in sellers last time had a poor record overall with a loss of over 23%. However, there were 3 years where they showed a profit, which is a slight cause for concern.

    System 3 – favourites that ran in claimers last time had a poor record overall with a loss of just under 22%.

    System 4 – a loss of over 16% for 3yo forecast favourites in 5 to 7f handicaps.

    System 5 – forecast favourites that end up 5th favourite or worse had a poor 1986 to 1994 with a loss of just over 39%. Less than 1 win in every 14 runners.

    All five systems showed similar trends over the two periods of study, and hence one would hope that these trends would continue in the future. Therefore it seems there is scope to lay certain types of forecast favourite, assuming we can get a competitive price on the exchanges.  This is definitely an area, which I will monitor personally in the future.

    Note about the author - David has written four books on racing including the Raceform published Sprintline 2002, and he runs his own racing service at www.drawn2win.co.uk He also has set up www.punterprofits.com ...