It was sometime in the early 70s that my late father introduced me to a friend of his named Alec Quinn. As a fledgling young punter, Alec became the focus of particular interest when I was informed he punted on a full time professional basis.

Alec would have been pushing 60 at the time of our introduction and, for most of his adult life I was to learn, had derived his income solely from horseracing. Alec was a regular track attendee and when not on course, wagered by phone with one of Melbourne’s largest SP bookmaking rings from a licensed recreation club in Geelong which was managed by my father.

He milked the SP operation of sizeable sums of money on a regular basis, which eventually led to restrictive limitations being imposed on the size of wagers that the ring would accept. These restrictions held little weight for Alec, who merely brought third party personnel into the equation to place bets on his behalf.

Alec Quinn was a man of impeccable character and razor wit, with a hulking frame and shock of silver hair. He had a certain presence about him whenever he entered a room. For myself and a small group of punting “wannabees” in Geelong, in those days Alec became the benchmark.

We all aspired to replicate both his lifestyle and success. Alec became known as “The Mighty Quinn”, an honour bestowed upon him by our small group as homage to the man’s punting prowess. Alec was a person who was more than happy to readily engage in racing conversation, but only in a broad sense. To Alec, the punt was personal, very personal, and any undertaking to elicit information on any specific race was met with perfunctory responses such as, “There’s a few with a chance” or “The race doesn’t really interest me”.

His success on the punt was pretty much in the public arena around town for those in racing circles, although knowing the man, he would have preferred to suppress such information. Constant feedback from local SP commission agents ensured that would not be the case.

I was to leave Geelong and relocate to Perth in the late 1970s, but I frequently returned home and occasionally would run into Alec at the track (the club had been closed), though I eventually lost touch with him. I was to learn almost a decade later that Alec died.

It wasn’t until some years later that something unique about the way Alec punted dawned upon me. In all the time I knew Alec I never saw him, not on one solitary occasion, with a formguide in his hand! I raised this point with my father, who I might add took more than a passing interest in the modus operandi of successful people, and he had indeed already posed the question to Alec some years earlier on this point. Alec’s curt response was, “I only need to watch em, not read about em.”

Alec Quinn had found himself a niche in rarefied company, those who made a prosperous career out of wagering on horses, but by far the most astonishing part of the picture was the fact that Alec successfully functioned his whole punting life on minimal data and information.

He had little need for the conglomeration of data and figures associated with form; his decision making process was almost entirely contingent on visual observation of races from his regular sojourns to the track. He once told me, “You only need a keen eye, they’ll let you know sure enough when they’re ready.”

The only readable commodities he ever carried was a racebook when on course and a small notebook when betting from the club; both from what we know about Alec were primarily for checking on race starting times.  The point of the story is this: Here we have a man that engaged in a highly successful punting career, forged on minimal information. If the nation’s punting fraternity could operate along similar lines, then the whole business of form analysis would be greatly facilitated.

So it begs the question: As punters, how much information is required in racing analysis to make an informed decision?  A point I have touched upon in previous articles is that today’s punter has an enormous information pool which can be accessed probably tenfold from the days when Alec was operating and on face value, the business of isolating winners should be considerably easier than yesteryear.

Or is it? Does this highway of data provide an expressway to winners or is the sheer volume of information causing traffic jams for punters? A recent addition to racing’s vernacular is “Analysis Paralysis”, where racing has thrown up so many form considerations and in many cases confusion not clarity, comes to the fore.

One of the more interesting articles I’ve read in recent times is a 1999 case study by the United States Central Intelligence Agency on the amount of information required to make informed judgments and the accuracy of those judgments. The field of horseracing was used in an interesting experiment and the results generated by that experiment were surprising to say the least.

The CIA had assembled eight experienced form analysts. Each analyst was given a list of 88 form factors consisting of standard racing data, weight, career averages, recent form, jockey/trainer records etc.

Each analyst was then asked to identify, first, what they considered to be  the most important items of information they would each use to make a selection if they were limited to only five items out of the initial list. Once a selection was arrived at, each analyst was then asked to repeat the procedure, but this time using 10 items of data from the original list, then, again based on data examination, arrive at a selection. This process was repeated twice more, this time using 20 and 40 items of data to help the analysts arrive at a final selection.

At this point, analysts were given true past race data but presented in such a manner that the actual horses and races could not be identified for 40 races. The analysts were then asked to rank the top five horses in each race in order of expected finish.

Again, each analyst was given data to make the ranking assessments in increments of 5, 10, 20 and 40 factors and each analyst would decide themselves the data they thought was most helpful at each increment level. Thus, each participant predicted the outcome of each race four times; each time the selection process was based on different levels of data used to select the outcome.

Once all the selections had been finalised, each analyst was then asked to assign a numerical value from 0 to 100 per cent to indicate the degree of confidence in the accuracy of the predictions.

When each analyst’s predictions were then compared with the actual race outcomes of the 40 races, it was clear that the average accuracy of the predictions remained the same regardless of how much information was processed. Three of the analysts actually showed less accuracy as the volume of available data increased, two improved their accuracy and three were unchanged.

All, however, expressed steadily increasing confidence in their judgments when working with increased data. It was established that there was a relationship between confidence and volume of data. With only five items of data the analyst’s confidence was well calibrated, but all became over confident with additional data to work with. The above experiment was also replicated in other fields with similar results.

The CIA research into this area produced the following key findings:

  • Once an experienced analyst has the minimum information necessary to make an informed judgment, obtaining additional information generally does not improve the accuracy of his or her estimates. Additional information does, however, lead the analyst to become more confident in the judgment, to the point of over confidence.
  • Experienced analysts have an imperfect understanding of what information they actually use in making judgments. They are unaware of the extent to which their judgments are determined by a few dominant factors, rather than the integration of all available information. Analysts actually use much less information than they think they do.
  • There are situations where additional data does contribute to more accurate analysis, however, there are also circumstances in which additional information – particularly contradictory information – decreases rather than increases an analyst’s confidence.

Needless to say, there are numerous more findings from this study, but I have listed the above three points because of their relevance in the racing arena. It is a fascinating study which I have read several times and believe the findings generated are very much on the mark.

In retrospect, most of my winning best bets are the ones that “jump out” at you when you first look at the fields; they are normally not the product of hours of study of race data. I’m sure many punters will agree with this fact.

This certainly adds credence to the second point of the key findings. In other words, there is probably a rapid subconscious appraisal of those few key points and if the boxes are ticked, it stands out. Further detailed examination of the race, will, as the study suggests, affect the degree of confidence one way or the other.

If we think about it, there really are only four boxes that need to be ticked for any horse to be rated a genuine winning chance:

  1. Ability – Does the horse have the class to rival or beat its opponents.
  2. Distance – Is the horse proven over the distance.
  3. Conditions – Is the horse adept on the surface condition it is to race on.
  4. Fitness – Is the animal fit enough to perform at its optimum level.

If these four boxes are ticked, then it has got to be a genuine winning chance. All other factors will merely contribute to the make up of the market. If in a 10 horse race, seven runners have all the boxes ticked, then in all probability it will be an open affair if only one fits the criteria, then there is every chance it will run favourite. Other factors such as barriers, jockey’s trainers and career percentages etc., will all have some sort of tweaking effect on the market.

It would appear, based on the research, that perhaps our decision making process in racing is completed on many occasions without our realisation and the bulk of the thought processing time is really consumed feeding the confidence machine with superfluous data.

So, perhaps I should cancel my database subscription, dispense of my racing spreadsheets and excel programs and adopt the old KISS principle of keep it simple. Probably not though; after all, what would I do with all that extra time on my hands . . . although there are those pensive times when I reflect back to those youthful days at the club and I can see that shock of silver hair as if it were yesterday accompanied by those words that have echoed in my mind for over twenty years . . .”I only need to watch em not read about ‘em.”

By Ken Blake