We have been involved in an enormous study of favourites, preparing for a rather large and important article in the 2000 PPM Annual.

We, being Steve and Scan McAllister and Yours Truly, took all those favourites that ran between the start of the 1998-99 season and now, and we put them through some tests.

We got rid of all the dual and multi favourites, as we only wanted outright favourites so we could deal with one per race. The results of some of these tests fulfilled all our expectations: outright favourites lose just over seven out of every ten races. They win about 28 to 30 per cent of races they contest. They get as high as 33 per cent in some odd years and as low as 25 per cent in others, but on average it's somewhere close to 29 per cent.

That was only confirmation of what we have been taught since the cradle. On the other hand, at least, there were no surprises in that department. To have found that the rate was, say, two in 10 (20 per cent) would have been a bit unsettling.

We ended up with about 2600 outright favourites and, of these, about 750 won. That's again in round figures and it's 28.85 per cent.

They lost the other 1850 races. Never lose sight of that.

For every winner you get, you will have more than seven losers. On the other hand, and you can bank on this too: stay away from favourites and you have a chance of backing seven winners in every 10 races.

And in all likelihood, not one of them will be at a poor price. They won't be favourite. However, to change sides again, this implies you know which horse to back!

If you use favourite-based plans, you are told, just like a mechanical system tells you, that A or B is the horse to back. No ifs or buts there. However, if you are not into straight systems, or even only partly into them, and you like to do a bit of dabbling yourself, then the pressure shifts onto you.

This might be why many punters stay with the favourites. At least they are getting the best of public opinion. Some people might say it avoids thinking, but someone's done that for them.

Let me put another possibility in front of you. Say you had lived in Victoria this past year. Say the State elections were coming up. Let's call the favourite Mr K.

Mr K would have started with the tipsters at unbackable odds. All the papers said he was unbeatable, all the tipping polls, bar one, said so too. The Sunday papers even announced that he was home and hosed (they were written Saturday evening, and without too much consideration for the finer points of honest journalism).

Mr K ran his race as if he were unbeatable. In fact, he didn't even need the help of his own team. If I'd offered you favourite odds, say 4/7, meaning seven wins in 11 tries, you'd have been a mite tempted. He looked a good thing. If I'd offered you 4/6, you'd have gone for it with the house mortgage.

And lost the house.

Because you cannot ever make assessments based on one race, or a hundred. Mr K lost the unlosable race. But he was one bet. And in a field of two. I don't want to get into the political arena, so I won't buy into the post-election subtleties, but you take my point here. A race field is usually 10 or so. And so maybe the favourite odds on Mr K in a match race should have been about 1/20. I would not have taken them, but we all know there's one born every minute, and someone would have.

The odds about a favourite in a horse race ought to be somewhere around 4/6 or 4/7, other things equal. Which, as we well know, they never are. In the PPM Annual I do some digging around on these points and try to establish trends from the 2600 outright favourites. I haven't come up with a superduper winning system, but I am a long
way further along the track than I ever was before.

For example, with the installation of one simple criterion, we established a virtual "square" record. The losing percentage of around 9 per cent virtually disappeared. That is what I call a breakthrough, and it's in the Annual.

Why? What's so special about breaking even? Breaking even is not losing, and if there is one thing I know for sure about my racing activities, it is that if I do not win, then this is the next best thing.

Coming out square, backing outright favourites, is pretty hard. Yet we have managed to get very, very close. The implications for multiple betting are phenomenal, with several hundred losers gone and several short-priced winners, too. Sure, we lost a few nice ones. A 6/1 and a 5/1 winner spring to mind. You don't find many of those mongst the favourite ranks. But if, overall, they are part of a group that is losing, you try to get rid of them. And
we did.

To explain further: if we found a 50/1 winner, and three others at 5/1, and 66 losers in a random 70 bets, there would be no point whatsoever in persevering. You get your 5011 winner, and for the 70 bets you pocket 69 units and you lose 95 per cent of the time. So much for the 50/1 winner you see advertised in some unscrupulous places.

I could tell you, equally misleadingly, that there were situations where favourites won strings of races. Great for all-ups! True, but there were also horror runs, and when horses are starting at favourite odds, it doesn't take much of a run to put you under the table.

We looked at the weights, the prices, the dates and tracks and names of the horses, their past form and most recent form, their barrier draws and their finishing positions, together with their prices.

We didn't think there was any point in trying to analyse the prices for our readers, as most of you are TAB bettors and cannot control the prices. I know you can check on SKY or AUSTEXT, or your net sites, with a couple of minutes to go, but the "edge" is not usually available to you. Unless, maybe, the favourite is blowing. Then you should end up with the best price, but on the TAB that's hoping for a lot.

Rather, we took the SP price as a fair median, with the possibilities of TAB prices being above or below that in reasonably proportionate numbers. A 5/4 favourite is expected to pay about $2.25. It won't always happen, and it may pay, say, $2; but then one will start at 7/4 and pay $3, and overall there is a fair balance. The problem will always be that we cannot be sure that the 29 per cent that actually win will be evenly balanced. We have to assume that, with a big enough sample, this is likely.

In the Annual there will be a sample page showing you our layout, and a full explanation of the computer input. I think you will find the simple reduction rule has a remarkable effect.

If you were at the track, and the edge referred to above were available to you, how much would you give to be confident that the favourite was a good bet? I don't mean pricewise, that's another issue completely.

I mean that you were confident it was in the group that cuts even, rather than the one that doesn't.

What it means to a punter is that he at least knows this: if he can get an edge, and can restrict himself to backing the favourite when he can get it above the starting price, he statistically has a strong chance of winning overall. In one season this may happen irregularly, and there may be periods of inactivity in betting. But not in actual identification of the horses concerned, as there will be perhaps 30 of them going around every week. There are several possibilities here. They may all be in Brisbane this week, or all in Melbourne.

But you won't care if that is your chosen way of selection. You will be watching the boards carefully, and simply moving in when you are convinced that a favourite is being underbet somewhere.

This is not hard. With a 20/1 chance it is very hard. Two bookies may offer 25/1 and even 30/1, and there will be no way of telling that another won't put up 33/1 with half a minute to go.

But a favourite is different. The outright favourite is being traded, sometimes briskly, sometimes sluggishly. With a few minutes to go there will be activity concerning this fellow.  If business is brisk, he will be a firmer. If it is not, he will be blowing as the bookmaker tries to entice you in. The public have made it clear that they don't like what he is asking them to take, so he has to bait his hook a little more.

In the case of a firmer, you can see the horse coming in everywhere. He is mostly 6/4 and 11/8. He will clearly start at 6/4 or even shorter. There is 7/4 in two places, and there is a bit of 13/8. That will go, but it is still there as certain bookies get their books in order.

They have probably written sizeable bets on two, three or four other runners. They need some money on this one.

So, forearmed with the knowledge that this is a favourite that statistically cuts even, or at worst goes as close as you can get to that, you take the edge. Over a period you know your chances of winning are excellent.

by The Optimist