Up until I came to Australia, you will have found me having a deep, unmovable aversion to betting certain kinds of horses – older horses, in fact.

When I was a bettor in the UK I would get the collywobbles just thinking about backing horses over the age of six in a Group-class flat race in Europe. I might have considered backing an older horse of seven or perhaps eight years of age in one of the bigger handicap races at Royal Ascot or Glorious Goodwood, but six years of age definitely seemed the cut-off point in the big races.

There was a fairly sound, logical reason for wanting to employ such a strategy. Statistically speaking, horses over seven and upwards have poor strike rates in European Group races, particularly at distances of 1600m and upwards (although races of 2800m plus are OK). So, betting on “old buggers” in top-class European races has always seemed like a bit of a no-no to me and, as a rule, I generally throw them to one side when I’m assessing a British, Irish or French Group race.

However, after living in Oz for these last seven years or so I began to change my tune regarding older horses as I started to notice them have a much greater presence in pattern events here, including Group 1 level. In fact, there were considerably more older winners here than would be the case in Europe and I was surprised at just how many there were.

As my Australian betting career began (for what it was), horses that I would have considered in my UK days as being eligible for nothing more than a pensioner’s bus pass, kept showing up at the winning post of many major Australian races. Horses like the seven-year-olds Rogan Josh (Melbourne Cup – 1999) and Tie the Knot (Chipping Norton – 2002) and the eight-year-old Toledo (Australia Stakes – 2002), made an impact with me but, unfortunately, my prejudice ran so deep that I never felt as if I’d ever reach the day when I’d be putting my cash down on an older horse.

But, after the nine-year-old Fields of Omagh won the 2006 Cox Plate and Makybe Diva won the Melboune Cup in 2005 at the age of seven (as well as Roman Arch winning the 2006 Australian Cup at the gob-smacking price of 50/1!), I thought it? time to have a rethink. I decided to see if there was some kind of strategy I could put in place that might help me to lose my aversion of these “oldies”.

So I set forth to gather up data stretching back over the last four seasons to see if older horses really were having the impact that I thought they were and to see where they might be at their strongest as potential bets.? I focussed on Group 1 races only as this is the area that intrigued me most and the data I’ve used stretches back to August 1, 2003, which I considered far enough to draw some kind of meaningful conclusion. Just to reiterate, my definition of an older horse is any horse aged seven or older.

To begin with I wondered whether older horses were at their best in Group 1 Weight-for-Age (WFA) events or in Group 1 Handicap races, but before I started my analysis I tried to second-guess the results of the data. I felt sure that I would find that most older horse success would be in the Group 1 Handicaps – after all, I thought, even though there were successes for Fields of Omagh and Makybe Diva in WFA company, surely they would be the exception rather than the norm. After all, wasn’t WFA the hardest company of all to win in? Straight from the outset I was wrong!

I drew up a simple table of data to show older horse performance in Group 1 Weight-for-Age & Handicap races and this information is reproduced in Table 1 (below).

NB: the Win and Place  per cent is deduced by simply adding the numbers for the Win column and the Place column together and then dividing the total by their number of Total Runs.

  WinPlaceTotal Runs Win %Win &
Place %
G1 WFA7 16997.1%23.2% -$12.00
G1 Handicap4151263.1% 15.1% -$93.00
Table 1: Older horse performance in Weight-for-Age & Handicaps

As you can see, there is quite a surprising difference between the number of wins in Group 1 WFA as compared to the Group 1 Handicaps. The win percentage for Group 1 WFA events was nearly double that of the Handicaps and the “Win & Place  per cent” column shows that nearly a quarter of all older horses declared in WFA Group 1s made the frame in some way. WFA was clearly the better arena for the older horse and not Handicap company as I’d imagined.

It would seem that older horses were most often entered for Group 1 WFA races on merit while those entered for the Handicaps had form that seemed to show a more desperate tendency. In fact, the chances for an older horse to succeed in Group 1 Handicap company rapidly diminished according to the data. What’s more, three out of the four handicap winners had won at the extreme distance of 3200m. As Group 1 3200m races are only contested as handicaps (with no WFA representation at all), then one can assume that a Group 1 3200m handicap race is the competitive pinnacle for that distance.

In which case, if you readjust the figures found in Table 1 then you will realise that only one older horse won from 123 total runs in Group 1 handicaps below 3200m (St Basil in the Stradbroke of 2006 at 8/1). This makes for a feeble 0.81 per cent win strike rate in total for older horses in Group 1 handicaps.

As I focussed on the Group 1 WFA winners and the Group 1 3200m winners individually, I noticed that all the winners shared a number of common denominators. Each horse had shown at least one piece of high level form in its last six career starts. All six of these starts were made within the last 12 months and their single piece of high level form was made within Australia only (it seemed that any imported horse, whether temporary or permanent, will have needed to have proven itself at the highest levels within the “sunburnt country” first before actually going on to win here). High level form is defined as coming 1st or 2nd in ANY kind of Group race, be it handicap or WFA.

Also of high importance with each older winner was that each horse had had its last career start competing in any sort of Group race company, NOT “Open” handicap/Restricted company or worse, thus signifying that it was still a very recent player in this kind of company.

A final common denomitator between each winner was the way in which they began their careers. Most had not raced as 2yos, starting at 3yo or maybe 4yo, but those that had raced as 2yos did not hit the track until well after the Sydney autumn carnival was completed (when the most competitive 2yo racing takes place).
In other words, their form marked them out as late-maturing types.

I’d also noticed that some of the older winners had long gaps in their careers where they had taken time spelling so that they could recover from injury. Such breaks can be of great benefit to the longevity of a horse’s career; especially if they’re out for a year or more.

The next stage of analysis was to find out if any particular distances best suited the older horse so I drew up a second table to find out what distances the older horses seemed to be succeeding in.

Dist.WinPlaceTotal Runs Win %Win &
Place %
win only
1000m0 2 40% 50.0% -$4.00
1100m 0 2 10 0%20.0% -$10.00
1200m26219.5%38.1% -$11.75
2000m11195.3%10.5% +$32.00
2040m22728.5%57.1% +$17.00
2200m0130%33.3% -$3.00
2400m01 18 0%5.6% -$18.00
3200m33 368.3%16.6% -$7.50
Table 2: Older horses over distances
There seem to be a number of peaks and troughs here but I think it’s fair to say that older horses can succeed as either sprinters or stayers, yet they don’t seem to be a force in the 1600m –1800m distance band. It’s interesting to see that older sprinters were still being effective as this is often a category of horse that is associated with the verve of youth.

You can see by the results in the 1000m–1400m “Place” column too that a good number of older horses went close to winning, thus underlining the fact that the winners were no flukes. Likewise the strike rates for the long-distance races at 2040m–3200m were good and the older horses here turned out to be the more profitable as well.

However, as I’ve pointed out, the biggest dip in success was in the 1600m–1800m range. There was only one win out of? 74 runs in this distance range (FOO in the 2006 “Futurity”) for a strike rate of 1.35 per cent. I think there is a sound reason for such a weak strike rate though and I reckon that it’s largely down to the kind of horse that is most frequently bred on Australia’s stud farms.

The Australian breeding world basically tries to breed quality “milers” for stallion purposes, as producing such beasts are where the big money is. So, Rule No.1 of the Aussie breeding game is to breed early maturing horses that can race in quality 2yo sprints but which are still capable of training on and maturing as 3yos to compete in the classy 1600m Guineas events. Win these kind of events with a colt or filly and you’ve hit the jackpot when it comes to producing a potentially top-of-the-range sire or classy brood-mare.

As a consequence, many of these kinds of young horses flood the racetracks each season ensuring that the older “miler” is always battling a constant tide of younger horses competing for major 1600m–1800m honours (think of poor old Lad of the Manor, a quality horse but he struggles to get a look in at 1600m–1800m).

One final comment should be reserved for the lack of winners at the 2400m distance. Only the BMW and the Caulfield Cup cover this distance at Group 1 level and both their respective honour rolls show no older winner for the last 20 years or more. Breeding again probably plays its part with many “Derby” horses being produced each season as a by-product of Rule No.2? of the Aussie breeding game, which is to breed “Derby” horses.

Rule No.2’s breeding program creates a steady flow of potentially top-class 2400m horses and ensures that wins for the older 2400m horse in Group 1 races are constantly difficult to attain. Especially when 4yos, fresh from the AJC, Victoria, Queensland and SA Derbies earlier in the year, stroll into the Caulfield Cup with “easy” weights to deal with.

AgeWinPlaceTotal Runs Win %Win &
Place %
win only
8yo35673.0%10.4% +$1.50
9yo1 1 18 5.6% 10.5% +$3.00
10yo 00 2 0 % 0%-$2.00
Table 3: Performance breakdown in each age group
Table 3 simply shows how the numbers of older runners (and winners) reduce with age, but this information will not probably come as a surprise to most readers. However, it’’s worth seeing that winners still managed to arrive in all age groups except the 10yo category, which underlines yet again that it can still pay to scrutinise the old-timers. Perhaps Fields of Omagh’s Cox Plate win as a 9yo was a rarity but with so few runners of that age competing at Group 1 WFA I still don’t think it would be wise to dismiss them out of hand.

One other thing I did notice from scrutising all older horses from the last four seasons was the lack of impact that older horses had in WA’s only Group 1 WFA event. In fact, older horses have a terrible record in WA’s only all age Group 1 WFA event – the Fruit and Veg stakes over 1800m. No older horse has won the Fruit and Veg stakes in the last 22 years and quite a few have tried. It’s possible that the December heat and the reasons mentioned above, work against the older horse so I think it would pay to ignore the older horses in WA’s Group 1 WFA event in the future.

If we gather together the points made so far we can come up with a reasonable system to use on older horses in future Group 1 events. So here it is:

Bet any older horse in Group 1 Weight-for-Age company OR Group 1 3200m Handicap company, if it:

  • Has come 1st or 2nd? in a Group race of any class (handicap or WFA) in it’s last six starts in Australia. If any of the last six starts your assessing fall outside of the last 12 months then these starts cannot be included for assessment. Form from outside of Australia should not be included either.
  • Raced in a Group race of any class (handicap or WFA) on its last start.
  • Started its career as a 3yo.? A contender can be considered if it began it’s 2yo career after the Sydney autumn carnival i.e. in the May, June or July prior to it becoming a 3yo (Barrier trials do not count).
  • Is not racing in a Group 1 race in Western Australia.

If you had bet older horses in Group 1 WFA races over the last four seasons with the above provisos in mind, then you would have won 10 bets from 46 struck (a 21.7 per cent strike rate) and made a profit of +$78.75.

If we exclude older horses that raced in the 1600m–1800m range and also at 2400m, then this refines the strike rate still further to a 25.7 per cent with nine bets won from 35 struck for a profit of +$82.25.

No doubt some of the sharper readers amongts you will say that a large chunk of this profit is caused by the 50/1 win of Roman Arch and I would say you were right. However, even with Roman Arch removed the system still shows a credible srike rate and profit.

Which current horses in training have the potential to win again at Group 1 level ? A tricky question but I think it’s worth considering just who could be a threat in the upcoming season. The trouble here is that it’s a little difficult to know whether an older horse is still to be kept in training but I hope the following list might offer some potential candidates for the coming season.

Takeover Target? – Of course Takeover Target! What a smashing, fairytale horse he is. Takeover Target must still rate a threat in any Group 1 sprint he contests. Keep following this fine old fella.
Mitanni – If the big guns stay away from the 2008 Brisbane carnival then this 8yo must have a good chance in the top WFA sprints.

Gallic – Looked like the real deal when winning the Adelaide and Sydney Cups. Not sure if he can lift the Melbourne Cup but would still rate as a good chance in the great race. Seems to be a real force at 3200m anyhow.

Collier Hill – Seeing as Australia has educated me in this new found knowledge, I thought I’d take a look over some current UK horses to identify another potential older candidate for Group 1 races. Collier Hill fits the bill nicely as the sort of older horse that people want to ignore. If he races well enough over September to November then expect him to cause more trouble for his opponents in the Hong Kong Vase in December.

I think that the above “system” serves to underline that some older horses could be really good bets in Group 1 WFA races, as most punters (like I was), are probably a little averse to betting them. Punters probably feel that older horses are generally past their prime but that may not be the case if the horse in question has been spared the excesses of a two-year-old campaign and are trying a particular distance. Because of this, some horses could be reaching a career peak just when most punters are a little too keen to dismiss them, and if these horses have some recent high-class form too then their market price may end up being too generous.

In the end I was surprised at how this data turned out and this little investigation served as quite an enlightening experience. It was good to discover the underlying reasons why certain older horses triumph is spite of being “so old”.

Naturally, it’s important to determine the wheat from the chaff before you bet them though so, hopefully, this article will have pointed you in the right direction. If you can go against general public thinking regarding such horses, then a decent profit could be made by following them.

By Julian Mould