We ended last month’s session with the following comments:

“The biggest one of all for a form follower is what we call the wrong day.”

We were talking about reasons and specifically about losing favourites. I decided to bring The Optimist into today’s second part of “Form under Scrutiny” because it is well known that he has made a special study of losing favourites over many years. What follows is the transcript of our conversation on this particular topic and others.

JH. Favourites win about one race in three, or in a bad year about one race in four. Do we agree on that?

TO. Yes, no problems there, the figures can be as high as 35 per cent and as low as 25 per cent, but if you take a large enough sample figure, you end up somewhere between 28 per cent and 32 per cent. The trick is always to work out which one in every three, give or take, will win, and so of course which two in every three will lose!

JH. I suppose the very first thing associated with the favourite is its actual price. For example, if we knew that one in three favourites starting at better than \$3 was going to win, we would be onto the perfect system. But it doesn’t happen that way does it?

TO. Unfortunately not, Jon, and every punter knows, or should know, that a short-priced favourite really does have a better chance of winning, long-term, than a longer priced favourite or an equal favourite. If this wasn’t the case, you would find that the whole first principle of racing would collapse. The professional punters would lose all their confidence in prices. That doesn’t mean that a favourite at \$6 or \$7 is a bad bet; it is still the favourite and statistically speaking it has the best chance in the race. The argument goes that the percentage of winning favourites at \$6 will be much lower than the percentage of winning favourites at \$1.60. If this was not so, as I’ve just pointed out, short priced favourites and in fact the whole betting structure would collapse.

JH. This seems so simple, so basic, and yet you see all sorts of things getting in the road of punters’ understanding it. For example, the word “value”, which we both agree is amongst the most misused word in all of racing, comes into play so frequently when it is confused with odds or price. A horse at a price of \$6 is not necessarily “a value bet” just because it is 5/1. It is only a value bet if its true price should be \$4 or \$5.

TO. And of course, that is only in the eye of the beholder, as we have so many times talked about in relation to “value”. What represents value to me, let’s say this \$6 horse, might not present itself to you as value, if you think \$6 is about right anyway. Value must, as a 100 per cent inarguable fact, represent an advantage to you, the punter. If the favourite, to get back to favourites, is at \$1.80 and you reckon that it will probably have to do a Stainvita to get beaten, you might reckon that 4/5 (the odds) is a damn good bet. Just think for a minute. You can have \$100 to win \$80 on what you think is just about a certainty, something you reckon should be around \$1.20.

That has to be a bet unless you have certain rules in place, such as in fact I do, which don’t allow me to bet
odds-on. I have enough trouble winning without laying the odds, but there’s an argument for it.

JH. That reference to Stainvita might need some elucidation for younger readers. Stainvita was, as I recall, as good as they get at Sandown on the old track and was heading for his heaven knows how many wins in a row, and was well clear in the straight, when he put his foot in a hole and broke his leg. That’s why The Optimist made that comment about “having to do a Stainvita”: everybody on track that day would have been counting their money if they were on that super-reliable animal. It certainly was the wrong day for the favourite punters, but even more so for the poor unfortunate horse.

TO. I have to admit that I had that horse marked as a certainty and, at the price, regardless of the weight, as one of the best value bets of the year. The wrong day indeed! Back to favourites. The brilliant English writer Alan Potts, in his masterful book Against the Crowd and again in his follow-up, The Inside Track, makes much of the wrong day. It was when I was living in England (and I’ve said this elsewhere), that I first encountered the “B.F.” symbols after a horse’s name. Out here, most of our formguides simply print a “b”, which is fine. It’s one of the more recent additions to formguides and one that no thinking punters should ever overlook.

JH. But if they don’t know anything about class, they can run into all sorts of problems can’t they?

TO. Not only class Jon, but also they are up against every decent computer in the land and every tipster worth his or her salt. For example, if the horse should have won and was beaten by a bad ride, a bad barrier, interference from another horse, the state of the track, carrying too much weight on the day, racing in a class beyond its capability, or a combination of these and other factors, then in all likelihood people will have noticed and made mental and written notes. They’ll be waiting like lions watching zebras for the next time the horse steps out.

JH. You seem to have wiped out just about every possibility for making a kill on a beaten favourite! What’s left?

TO. Firstly, your own eyes! Secondly, a pair of tight lips. We are in the business of providing information, so as punters we probably do ourselves a disservice, strange as it may seem. Some of my Profit Page horses, for example, will have caught my eye because they did not do quite what connections expected them to do on the day, and I can see why. Everybody is an optimist when they are on a racecourse, and particularly when they own a horse. Put a racehorse owner in a betting ring and at the time he won’t be able to resist betting on his own horse. If the horse has a real chance, and the group of owners have enough money, they will back it into favouritism.

JH. Yes, but you would be unlikely to list those horses.

TO. Absolutely true, but we do see situations where the trainer has got the horse ready, the money has gone on and something’s gone wrong. Or we see situations where computers or the public opinion has made a horse quite a warm favourite, it goes down for one of a number of reasons and within, say, 14 on 21 days it turns up in a very similar race. Sometimes those horses are really good bets. Alan Potts so many times in his two books cites this kind of horse, when it goes down at \$2.50 and turns up again in a similar race a short time later at, say, \$4.

JH. A huge amount of our rank-and-file punters will never take on board that all you have done is double the odds there. It wouldn’t get through to them that \$2.50 is a half of \$4 in terms of the odds. Just to clarify this, the first figure is 6/4 and the other one is 3/1. In other words, double the odds. They don’t look to have doubled and yet if the horse wins this race you are doing 100 per cent better than you would have done at its previous start.

TO. Yes, and that isn’t an extravagant or outlandish example of the wrong day. Bookmakers did not come down in the last shower. They know jolly well if something went wrong with the horse which probably should won. They won’t be doing the public any favours, but then if there is another horse in this new race that attracts public favour, then our horse may well do exactly what we’ve been describing above. All the bookmakers are concerned with at the end of the race is showing a profit, and although they may be a little wary about our \$4 horse, realising that it really is a huge chance, they will still offer twice as much as they did at its last start.

JH. So the wrong day has a lot to do with losing favourites, but it doesn’t stop there. For example, many of those possibilities you rattled off above might just as easily happen to a non-favourite. In fact, they will happen to many more non-favourites than favourites.

TO. True, so true. Another aspect of the wrong day is that anybody or everybody might simply have got it wrong. Take the case of my best result in 2007, Sirmione in the Mackinnon Stakes. I managed to lose three times on him before the Mackinnon, when he won.  (God bless him!) I had 100/1 about him earlier in the week, but my really big doubles etc., were ending in the Melbourne Cup and he never got hot in that one. As to the wrong day, I did think as a grandstand critic that appalling rides ruined two of his earlier spring runs. I stress that I’m speaking several months after the events and when my blood has cooled. Sometimes in the heat of the moment you can get thoroughly angry, only to realise some time later that it wouldn’t have mattered much what the jockey did.

However in these cases, the trainer totally agreed with me that the efforts did not represent high points in the jockeys’ careers.

JH. But focusing on the wrong day, I think what you’re getting at here is that you backed the horse on the wrong day and you were fortunate enough to also have backed him on the right day?

TO. Dead right. Sometimes you just have to persevere because you believe in your own judgement. And that judgement can be totally wrong and you end up very badly out-of-pocket. But when it’s right, there are few feelings to match the emotion of knowing you are one of the few people on the track, or even in the country, to have figured it out. I might say here that I don’t think, particularly in metropolitan racing, there are too many examples any more of a trainer or connections ignoring the opportunity to win the race that it is contesting today.

There is too much money involved and we have too many very good cameras. The easiest way to “ pull a horse” is to bury it at the back of the field.  You might get away with that in a country meeting, but in the city you run the risk of a very serious inquiry. No, I honestly don’t believe that there is very much of “waiting for the right day” any more.

JH. So Sirmione, for example, won at those huge odds because he had in simple terms, been unlucky?

TO. Totally, 100 per cent, correct! Had he lost, I would have done one of my “it happens” shrugs and blamed myself for getting it wrong. But in truth, two of the races he should have won had turned out to be the wrong day for reasons other than his excellence as a racehorse. Somewhere else in this magazine we’ve talked about him in relation to the Australian Cup. A lot of good weight for age winners return to their best in this race. It might turn out to be the right race for him. Of course that’s totally speculative at this stage, but I’ve taken \$31 to find out and because I see that price as value.

JH. Just moving away from “the wrong day” . . . is there anything else we should mention before we conclude this “form under scrutiny” discussion?

TO. Well, I’m going to make an admission here. I might as well make it here as anywhere else. After all my years in the game, I still am firstly attracted by the horse’s formline. We have had numerous systems based on the number of wins in the last three or four runs, or last start winners for that matter. We have also looked at horses which follow a win with a zero, or horses which have placed in all their last four starts, and so on. I reckon that winning form is the very best guide the average punter is ever going to get to a horse’s chance.

JH. What’s the worst guide he will get?

TO. Oh Jon, you’re saying that tongue in cheek! You know my response I’m sure, which is that it’s a toss up between the jockey and the trainer. They represent the worst two guides anybody will ever get on a racecourse, regardless of their calibre. There are some superb trainer interviews that take place on the television every day of the week, but the bottom line is that they tell you little of value if you are a keen form student. Of course top trainers will tip winners. Top trainers really know their horses and abilities very well. But much of the trouble lies with the interviewers who come to the interviews with their own fixed ideas and shoot loaded questions. Along the lines of “Peachy Pie was very unlucky last start, Geronimo, and must be expected to improve. Has he been going okay this week?  Can he win?” After that little bombardment you will probably get a jockey saying, “Yeah, no, yeah, well, whatever he does here he’ll improve on.” Now there’s a real insight!

On the other hand, a trainer will often respond with something along the lines of “Yeah, no, he’s pleased me, he looks good, yeah he’ll be there when the whips are cracking.”

JH. Cynical?

TO. No Jon, it’s what happens. Anyway, that’s the worst guide.

JH. And to conclude, the very best guide? The most important part of form scrutiny?

TO. For the average punter, for the keen, serious hard-working profit seeker? PPM, of course. Every time.