If, like me, you’re a racing fan who’s migrated to Australia then the first race to attract your attention is Australia’s greatest horse race, the Melbourne Cup.

This race has immense stature and prestige associated with it and, since I began to study it, it has been a pleasure to immerse oneself in the history of the race and its winners.

Sure enough, when the first Tuesday in November arrives, you encounter a tidal wave of information surrounding the Melbourne Cup. All of this information feeds into one’s fascination, for this is the most competitive flat staying race in Australia.

A phenomenal amount of data is offered up to the general public at this time and more than a few “mug” guides to the Melbourne Cup are thrown at the unsuspecting public. Amid the myriad of racing titbits are plenty of illogical pearls of wisdom such as “don’t back the greys” or “miss the mares” and a whole host of other maxims to live by.

However, there is usually one fact that all the daily newspapers and mug guides never miss and it is a fact that could easily be casually tossed away as just another part of the myriad “quirks” of this almost mystical race.

This intriguing bit of information relates to the barrier draw and it is quite simple. “Never back the horse in barrier 18. No horse has ever won the Melbourne Cup from this position”. This barrier possie is otherwise known as “The Devil’s Barrier” (cue spooky music).

Most everyday punters in the world, who are trying to deduce the winner of the Melbourne Cup, will happily absorb this important piece of information but will usually, in the next second, utter the slightly sarcastic and weary moan, “Fan-bloody-tastic. That’s one down, only twenty-three to go!”

So, hopefully, this article will offer some wider information about what constitutes a good barrier (and a bad barrier) by thinking about racing styles and why the Devil’s Barrier is not a phenomenon that is confined just to the Melbourne Cup.

One of the best ways to investigate the nature of barrier positions is by looking at the results of a Group 1 race spanning a long period of time. This is because a certain amount of truth is delivered at Group 1 level.

Horses winning from certain barrier positions in a Group 1 are unlikely to win simply because they are outclassing the opposition. As Group 1 races represent the elite level of racing then it is far less likely that the barrier position, by itself, is giving any particular horse an overwhelming tactical advantage.

If you pick up a copy of the Sportsman on a Friday morning and leaf through its pages you will come across a “Barrier Guide” for each racecourse holding a meeting that day. It is a numerical matrix that will tell you where the winners have sprung from for all barrier positions at all distances. Just about every one of them will give you the same data time after time and the immediate conclusion you will draw is that many more winners come from the inside barriers than do the outside.

This information isn’t necessarily wrong but it only tells part of the story. The first flaw to point out from information like this is that it makes no concession for the numbers of runners fielded within a race at each distance. This can skew the information you’re looking at because, as you’ll be aware, field sizes may vary but one fact that never varies is that inside numbers will nearly always be represented in a race.

If there is a big field or a small field then the inside barriers will always have representatives but the outer barriers are only intermittently represented. As a consequence, there will be even fewer outside barriers producing winners from the minority of races that have big fields. So, what exactly is a good barrier position? Well, this may depend on the horse and its racing style.

The question you must ask yourself: “Is my horse suited to the barrier position it has been given?” Let us name the three general racing styles of the racehorse. These are:

  • To lead from the front (Leader)
  • To sit handy in a position just in behind the leaders, perhaps through to a point in the middle of the racing field (On-pacer or Handy type)?
  • To sit at the back of the field in preparation for a swoop to the line in the straight (Swooper)

Now, imagine a set of barriers in your mind. Load up the stalls with as many runners as you like, and then find the mid-point along the barrier stalls. Every horse between the inside running rail and the halfway point we will call the inside half of the draw and every horse drawn between the halfway point and the widest barrier we will call the outside half of the draw.

If a horse, whose racing style belongs to points 1 or 2, is drawn with an inside barrier, then a jockey has many more options to allow a horse to be settled exactly where they want it to be. The horse can be ridden positively causing it to lose as little of its energy as possible.

Once these kinds of horses take their racing style to the outside half of the draw then things can become quite different. If a jockey attempts to steam out of a wide barrier, to take up a handy position, then a horse is likely to use up too much of its energy reserves to get to that position.

A good example of this happening occurred in this year’s Rosehill Guineas when Hotel Grand attempted to execute this very game plan. Needless to say he didn’t get home.

A horse with a racing style that belongs to point 3 will probably be best advantaged if it is either drawn on the inside in a section that is a few berths away from the rail, or in a barrier on the widest part of the outside draw.

A “swooper” drawn at the widest point of a barrier (or a few places in from the outer edge) can be just as well advantaged with its wide barrier as any front-runner on the inside. This year’s Stradbroke winner, La Montagna, was faced with this exact same scenario. Another Stradbroke hero, Show A Heart, won all his Group 1’s from wide barriers.

Jockeys on swoopers can ease their mount to the back of the field and from there they can manoeuvre a horse steadily through the field to produce it for a late run.

Now, as far as the Devil’s Barrier is concerned, we begin to hit on the anomaly in the barriers that seem to give the greatest hardship to a horse’s chances of winning regardless of its racing style.

After copious hours of investigation into the results of Group 1 races within Australia, Britain, Ireland, France and the USA it would appear that a Devil’s Barrier could be found in just about every major race. What is more, the barrier number could potentially move around due to the change in distance and racecourse.

Additionally, the most consistent observation seen was that a Devil’s Barrier would also move around in accordance with the numbers of runners in a race so that, even though the distance and racecourse would be the same, the Devil’s Barrier would change if the field size simply increased. However, if the field size dropped to just a few runners (around six or less) then such a barrier would pretty much disappear.

These problem barriers would locate themselves in a spot, not unlike the barrier 18 in the Melbourne Cup – i.e. at a point somewhere between the halfway point of the barriers up to a point where a barrier still had at least five to six horses on its outside.

We are talking about a narrow, but significant, segment of the barrier draw. The key issue arising from such a position was that it suited neither an on-pacer nor a swooper.? An on-pacer would want to press forward from this position but would find itself using up too much energy to get on the pace.

This is a fairly normal happening for a horse with such a racing style and such a fate will befall a horse like this in just about any outside barrier. What was perhaps more interesting was that swoopers suffered just as much.

Other swoopers, drawn wider, would be better advantaged to drop into a good spot at the back of the field but a jockey on a swooper drawn in a Devil’s Barrier would try to find a position and fail because they get caught in a maelstrom of horses pressing forward and dropping back.

In conclusion, barrier positions must be considered carefully when assessing the chances of a horse. If you need to clarify the running style of any horse that you fancy then you can consult the Sportsman’s “Chartform” section where they will give you the running style of every horse for every race.

It will be up to you to work out if the horse is truly disadvantaged in its barrier position. It is a relatively straight-forward task to get to grips with racing barriers but the trick with them is to understand whether a horse, and its racing style, will fit into that barrier.

You must also be aware that a Devil’s Barrier is hidden in the starting gate at every distance at every track and it will be dependent on the size of the field leaving the stalls. If a horse manages to win from a Devil’s Barrier, then he or she should be followed.

Once you have got to grips with the subtle dynamics of the starting stalls then, hopefully, the devil will not ride with your jockey, your horse or your cash.

By Julian Mould