Are you a backer of favourites? Or do you avoid them like the plague? It's always an interesting topic where punters gather to discuss racing and its many and varied factors.

What can we really make of favourites when we know they will win, at best, one in every three races? Some years ago, a most interesting article was produced by Equestrian Publishing and it certainly bears looking at again.

It contains much food for thought. Basically, it said that the fact that non-favs win two-thirds of all races does not mean that non-favs have twice as good a chance of winning as the favourite.

Until we determine the TRUE value odds of the whole field and see which horse is probably the best of the lot (whether it be the actual fav or not), we know nothing about the non-favourite except that it is one of a number of non-favs in the race.

Let's presume a field of nine. What do we know about the favourite? We know that it wins approximately one race in three. This means that the 'natural' odds against a random non-favourite in a nine-horse field are 11/1. This figure is obtained by the statistical process of dividing the number of races that non-favs win (two out of three) by the number of no favourites (8).

We have now established the obvious conclusion that it is foolish to reject a horse simply because it is the  favourite, or to stab at another horse simply because it isn't a favourite.

The punter has to determine the true favourites and eliminate the false favourites in order to show a consistent profit from his betting.

Many experts believe that certain kinds of races are more formful than others. They believe that the favs win a substantially higher percentage of one kind of race than another, producing smaller dollar losses. Statistical surveys have appeared to demonstrate the 'truth' of such theories, but all seem to have been based on short term studies.

More extensive samplings show that the percentage of winning favs remains essentially the same in all types of races, with possibly the exception of early 2yo races, and that the profit or loss in each odds range does not vary significantly according to the quality of the race.

To show how influential the percentages of the game really are, there has been reference to a study of 10,035 races conducted by American Burton P. Fabricand, in which flat stake wagering on the favourite produced a loss of 8.4 cents in the dollar. A similar study of 7301 races some years earlier, by Robert V. Rowe, came up with a closely similar figure. In more recent years, in Australia, these figures have been more or less confirmed, with the general estimate being a 9 cents in the dollar loss by betting favourites.

Many selection systems try to convert this 9 per cent loss into a profit by applying form handicapping principles to the past performances of the favs. Because the starting point of such methods are only a hop, skip and a jump from the punter's promised land of profit, they are among the best possible procedures for persons unacquainted with the game.

Fabricand's study included 93,011 horses. Classifying them according to tote prices at which they ran he found the following percentages of winners:

TOTE PRICE \$
STARTS WON %
Up to 1.55 71.3
1.60-1.75 55.3
1.80-1.95 51.3
2.00-2.15 47.0
2.20-2.35 40.3
2.40-2.55 37.9
2.60-2.75 35.5
2.80-2.95 30.9
3.00-3.45 28.9
3.50-3.95 23.0
4.00-4.45 20.9
4.50-4.95 18.6
5.00-5.45 16.1
5.50-5.95 15.5
6.00-6.95 12.3
The absolute conclusion is that the lower the odds, the greater the likelihood that the horse will win. Fabricand also demonstrates that it is impossible to turn a profit by betting on ALL the horses in a given odds range.

The shortest-priced horses on the Fabricand list earned an insignificant profit when bet that way. But all the other odds ranges showed a loss.

1. The largest single group of horses on the list were the 25,044 that went off at odds of 20/1 or more (tote prices of \$21 and upwards). A bet on each would have meant a loss of 54 cents on every dollar bet, even though there were 340 winning tickets cashed.
2. The odds range below 5/2 (tote price \$3.50) yielded a loss of around 6 per cent of the wagered dollar.
3. On horses at 5/1 (\$6) and higher, the percentage losses exceeded 17 cents in the dollar.
4. The results were based upon uncritical betting without recourse to form evaluation and the sole basis for the bet was the odds at which the horse left the starting gate.

It is now possible to challenge that oft-spoken claim that one way to stay in the circle of consistent winners is to bet against the public play. A punter really would not only do better to play all favourites indiscriminately, but would still fare better if he picked himself an odds range below 2/1 and wagered on all horses in that price range.

He would find himself betting on about half of all races and would lose only 7 per cent of his money in the long run!  However, and here's the important part, if he took the trouble to learn about form and weight, he could then move in two directions.

He could become seriously selective about horses in his pet odds range, or he could become selective about horses in general, betting on apparent promising runners, regardless of their odds.

The test of his approach would now be whether or not his bets yielded a loss smaller than 7 per cent. His delight at cashing an occasional long-priced ticket would remain provisional until he had balanced his books for an entire season.

To hit the dreamed-about 100/1 winner or two and end with a loss of 21 cents in the dollar, as most punters do, is to carry the enjoyment past the point of diminishing return!

The sensible way would be to look at the shorter-priced runners and back them on-course, always trying desperately to get the best prices, either from the bookies or the tote. At least when you are on the track you have a chance to compare both.

The off-course tote bettor does not have that opportunity. He has to accept what the machine dishes up to him! On-course a punter might be able to turn the 7 per cent deficit into a profit by getting 7/4 about a 6/4 chance, or 5/2 about a 2/1 chance, and so on.

One thing remains certain in racing: Everyone will make mistakes, no matter how disciplined their approach. What a punter has to do is learn from his mistakes.

The late professional punter Walter Mitchell said: "Tell them to remember what they were taught in kindergarten, to learn from their errors. If they have the capacity to do this they will eventually have a chance to win.

"If they refuse to be guided by their mistakes they should give up betting. One thing I learned and never forgot was that most winners came from the horses at 5/2 and under, and those are the ones I bet. I tried not to bother with the others, though I often did, often to my detriment.

"But I always learned a lesson: it was the favourites that got me my bread, butter and jam, even though it was sometimes thinly spread. My recommendation to any punter is to be selective but to select good horses from good stables at 5/2 or under. Simple as that. The case for the favourites is compelling."

By Philip Roy

PRACTICAL PUNTING - MARCH 1997