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How Things Fly

Why Barrier Trials Are A Good Idea

Starting stalls (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)Practice makes perfect (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

The sport of horse racing lends itself to all manner of romantic notions. However, it is at its heart, a science. More specifically, the science of rating horses is almost totally driven by physics and is based on Newton’s second law of motion, namely F=MA (where the force (F) acting on an object is equal to the mass (m) of an object times its acceleration (a)).

If reading that just made you swear under your breath and contemplate turning the page, don’t feel bad, so did I! I far prefer the notions of chance and luck, but I also like the idea of being able to understand how things work. Luckily the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I like horses and I like racing and the key to understanding the soul of the sport is handicapping and an understanding of the WFA scale. Or more correctly, an understanding and application of the correct WFA scale and correct handicapping. So although I’m not mad about having to do some basic arithmetic to understand what happens out on the track, the good news is that once I’ve done that, it does help me see and interpret things in a different way. A way that makes sense. And I have to confess to quite liking that too.

Let’s break it down

Whether a punter wins or loses is of vital consequence

While one hates to focus on the gamble, the fact of the matter is that without betting turnover, racing could not survive. At least, not in the form we know it today.

For the purposes of this discussion I’ll simply focus on Tote betting. So, when someone places a bet, the first thing that happens is that a percentage is subtracted as take-out. A tax is deducted from the pool and what remains is divided up among the winning tickets.

As the take-out is what our business is built on, it stands to reason that one wants to encourage as much betting as possible, to create volume (or churn) to increase the take-out. It is important to note that even if every single punter out there bets correctly, the Tote still gets its cut.

While the Tote is impervious to whether the punter wins or loses (the second a bet is placed, it has already secured its take-out portion – the size of the pay out to the successful punter depends on how many other people have also placed their money into the pool). However, whether the punter wins or loses is of vital consequence as it will inform his or her decision whether to bet again.

It is therefore in the interests of racing (and therefore the job of the Operators), to ensure that the punter is given every chance of being able to make a winning bet, so that the punter gets the satisfaction of winning as well as a reward for his efforts.

What You See vs What Really Happened

Racing SpectatorWhat you see isn’t always what really happened

In the case of Classic races, where horses of the same age, carrying the same weight or in the case of WFA races, where a set weight adjustment is made to try and bring the various ages into alignment, barring random acts of the racing gods, the best horse generally wins and what your eye sees is a true reflection of what happened.

We currently find ourselves in a situation where the majority of our racing diet is made up of handicaps. While there is nothing wrong with that, it does make our sport very difficult to analyse and fully understand.

In a handicap, which sees horses of different ages and at different stages of maturity are pitted against one another, and in which the handicap terms may not be consistent, it is harder to understand the true result as the horse that passes the post first may simply be the best handicapped, rather than the best horse in the race. An individual finishing further down the field, but not necessarily troubling the judges, may be the one that gave the best performance.

Furthermore, handicaps may be finessed, rather than consistently assigned, making it harder for customers to extrapolate form from one handicap race to another, let alone enabling aspirant punters to make accurate predictions with any confidence.

It becomes confusing for the observer who has to do a lot of maths and post-race analysis to work out the ‘real’ result of any given race and with 8 races on a card and 364 days’ worth of racing, frankly that’s a lot of work for something that’s supposed to be fun. It’s certainly the reason I prefer to shout home the pretty ones and keep my money safely in my wallet!

Where It Gets Tricky

Racing, or the racing operator, extends an invitation to the public to bet. Through ‘in-house’ official industry mouth-pieces such as the Racegoer, published in the daily broadsheets and the rudimentary free TAB sheets handed out in Totes, we tell the public what we officially rate each horse and what we think their ability to be. We refer to these as Merit Ratings – which, understandably, the public may interpret as ratings of each horse’s merit.

Imagine, therefore, the frustration when a horse with the highest merit rating in a race (as indicated by the very organisation inviting people to risk their money), gets beaten by a horse with a lower rating, which might not even have been considered as being in with a chance according to our ‘tip sheet’.

Infinite tail

Consider this. As either a once a year punter, or perhaps our minimum bet punter, which we are told makes up the majority of our business, we are essentially ‘selling’ the sport to an entry level type player, who will either not have access to sufficient information in order to do their own handicapping calculations or will rely on the entity inviting it to bet, and then offering information with which to make an informed decision, to give it sufficient, reliable information with which to make a judgement call. Now imagine that same person using the ratings – that we supply – and the tips and recommendations that we disseminate through our official racing mouthpieces such as Tellytrack, the Racegoer and the free Tab sheet, supplied at all our Tote outlets, and losing their money. After the first time, our little punter might be prepared to have a second go, but if he loses again, well, once bitten, twice shy and all that.

If that’s not bad enough, the sour taste left in their mouth will be significantly intensified when post-race interviews broadcast connections making public statements to the effect that they had access to information that the public did not (we changed his feed / changed his equipment / have got to the bottom of the injury that was plaguing him, etc) and often boasting that they had got one over on everyone else by having a crafty bet with their ‘inside’ knowledge.

First is as important as fourth

Remembering the fact that our trifecta bets include the first three horses past the post and our quartet bets include the first four horses past the post, in the case of first timers or horses coming back from a long layoff when the public is told things such as the horse will need the run, or is only partially fit and then sees it win or run close up are even more galling.

Is it any wonder outsiders consider the game ‘rigged’, blame jockeys for pulling up horses, or trainers for ‘not trying’ and don’t want to trust us with their money?

The programme is what it is. However, if we are going to offer a steady diet of handicaps, it would make sense for horses to be correctly rated so that an educated decision can be made in evaluating one horse against another. One would then expect this information to be of the very highest quality. Unfortunately, a post-race evaluation compared to the information disseminated by us to our customers, often tells a sorry tale.

Riddle Me This

The 2017 Cape Derby – a weak field?

Consider that Edict Of Nantes was rated 102 when he won the Cape Derby last season and there was plenty of grumbling about the supposed low quality of the field (leading to talk of the Cape Derby being downgraded). Yet, consider what Edict Of Nantes beat as a late 3yo and early 4yo and that MR102 starts to look a little suspect (nevermind the suggestion of downgrading the race!).

In the 2017 Selangor, the first four past the post in Rocket Countdown, White River, Do It Again and Undercover Agent were rated 96, 92, 92 and 91 respectively, making the average official rating of the first four past the Selangor post an MR92.

With all four likely contenders for this year’s Cape Guineas, and unlikely to have another start before this year’s Classic to adjust their ratings, if these horses repeat their Selangor performance and finished in the top four in Guineas, what does that say about the supposed quality of our Guineas field for this year (and by implication, the future Gr1 status of this race?)

These are worrying questions, unless we entertain the possibility that these ratings may, in fact, be way off kilter.

Biting The Hands That Feed Us

I will repeat that the Tote earns its cut whether a punter wins or loses. When we consider that it is that percentage that keeps us all in business, it makes sense to enable our customer as much as we can. Withholding information from our customer may have a (short sighted?) short-term benefit for connections with the ‘inside’ information getting a bigger return on their bets by what could, effectively be considered cheating the rest of the pool out of their money. Long-term, however, it shoots us in the foot as it serves to erode our customer base, eroding our take-out and leaving us all considerably worse off.

Racegoer, Richard McMillan, Barrier TrialsGoing out for a run – not a pipe dream after all!

In his Racegoer article ‘Going For A Run’ dated 2 March 2016, Richard McMillan suggested that the best way to protect punters risking their money on horses being green, ‘going for a run’, or possibly being prepped for another race further down the line, would be to “simply stage one race at the start of every meeting solely for horses that will need a run or are being prepped for other races down the line.” While Mr McMillan wrote his piece tongue-in-cheek, perhaps the real joke is that Charles Faull has been appealing for this very thing for over 3 decades.

Paul Lafferty and Gold Circle have at least attempted something approximating customer service in trying to level the playing field with their first timer comments and now going a step further by addressing greenness and race fitness with barrier trials. While it is true that the trials would be a lot more meaningful if held at correct WFA and having the replays and results published alongside all other racing results as routine, it is also true that Rome was not built in a day and hopefully the initiative will grow and improve as it progresses.

They ought to receive our full support.



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15 comments on “How Things Fly”

  1. Handicapping only has meaning when horses of similar class run against each other. When horses are a class above the field, no amount of weight will stop them from winning and a lot of horses race out of their class and a weight-scale of only 8 kgs will never bring them together. Unsoundness is also a very important factor and the use of drugs to try and overcome this is a further complicating factor. Drugs given to sound and unsound horses make a mockery of both the form-book and handicapping. While this situation obtains barrier trials will be meaningless and merely window-dressing for a seriously flawed sport and industry.

  2. At the risk of sounding like a broken gramophone player I will again point out that racing is not the easiest game in the world to master as a science. This is a given and will in all likelihood remain this way for as long as the game is offered.

    The game is and will always be an imperfect science and an enigma for most participants but that does not mean that it cannot be offered in a format that will appeal to more people and critically a bigger group of first time and novice players.

    No matter the imperfections of rating systems and results it is still easier to win at racing on a regular basis than any game of chance and this should be expanded on in marketing efforts.The difficulty of finding winners and placed runners consistently presents an opportunity for new game formats that are kinder to punters and that will make it easier for new participants to win.

    From marketing experience I cannot stress enough the importance of providing a more affordable and entertaining format for specifically creating new interest. Having fun is the most effective tool for extended and regular involvement which is the only way to cultivate a level of skill that will ultimately translate into more regular windfalls and thus happier customers.

    If operators would look past the bottom line for just a moment they would rediscover a very profitable opportunity to make racing both more entertaining and more relevant to a very large group of unexposed thrill seekers.

    Capacity building of purely customer numbers is way more important than any cost cutting or spending maximisation drive even though the resounding economic benefit will only be realised once a specific level of skill is facilitated.

    Investing in bespoke platforms targeting skills development and acceleration of this development will deliver very strong and more effective results than anything tried to date.

  3. Important step towards a trust following of the customer – public and existing punter. Confidence in a product and it’s structure of delivery.

  4. Well done Sporting post and the writer , nice article and I am sure plenty of agreements and dis agreements . I have been for some time been wondering if or should for some reason , Horse Racing in SA would be banned – Who would be the loosers in this current inviroment. The Punter could still carry on , with betting online on Sports bets , Casino’s and overseas racing . Phumelela would carry on with their current set up , by making their money on the Rand Dollar . Phumelela would to not have to “Put on the Show ” , to which would be in theri favour and take away the day to day stress. On the Negatives Jobs would be lost +-/ 7000 , nothing serious , as mines close on a daily basis with these amounts of employees being let go. Ok SARS will not be to happy with the loss of Taxes , however we all know Goverment has never ever taken our industry seriously so they can go make up the money else where.

    Owners would have to look for another hobby especially the big owners that as we always hear ” Put” alot of money into the game, the majority of these Big owners collect the majpority of the Stakes avalible and many purchase horses , from their shares and dividends of Phumelela , that is not difficult to work out.

    Breeders oh well they will have to look for other markets and change their business models ,

    The rest of the industry , will then have to find other sources of Income . The bottom line is that there are people in the industry only keeping this game going for self enrichment due to the structures set up when Phumalela was created. The truth hurts , but food for thought……

  5. Not sure who wrote this piece , but enjoyed the read.

    If Turnover is the Key then why cant Western Cape Racing hold a full field of runners. Punters spend less if there are less horses thus less combinations. Just looking at the final fields for Saturday ,

    The Main Race the WORLD SPORTS BETTING FILLIES GUINEAS (Grade 1) a wonderful race with a great history of some of the best Fillies ever to have graced the Turf Tracks of Cape Town.

    The Curtain raiser if you can call it that is WORLD SPORTS BETTING GREEN POINT STAKES (Grade 2) – Another race that has stoood the test of time and produced many Queens Plate and Met winners.

    Another fantastic race – WORLD SPORTS BETTING CAPE MERCHANTS (Grade 2) – Quality field.

    Out of a Total of 88 Runners Accepted
    39 Horses in Graded Races
    49 Horses in the Balance of the other 6 Races Carded
    Average 8 Runners per Race

    That is pathetic – Not sure what the problem is , however from this card I would not be jumping if I was a director of World Sports Betting as they have definatly not received value for money in their sponsorship .

    It is no wonder Sponsors are not jumping up and down to continue sponsoring races . There should be a Nine race programme with a average Minimun of 14 runners in each race to build Turnover . Western Cape Racing and Phumelela can only be to blame for not doing their job correctly.

    As a recent article asked – Where is the Advertising in the prime of the Cape Season.

    1. Twenty-odd years ago at a time when we were having fields of twenty rinners, the Newmarket Turf Club did research to see what the optimum field size was. It was found to be 14/16 runners. Fields that size were good for both the club and the punter by giving better betting turnovers and tote dividends.

  6. The barrier trials need to show punters the ability of the horses and in order to do this they have to be run like a proper race is run where every horse is ridden to finish in the best possible position and not to be allowed 70 seconds to finish 1000m as this doesnt tell the punters anything…Secondly the unraced horses have to work with horses who have a net merit rating of 75 or above as this will show the punters if it is worthwhile including this horse in bets when it makes its debut…The barrier trials are a huge help if they are done in the purest form and the way they are been done now will be counterproductive ,,since the beginning of time ability has been either measured by the clock or by working with horses who are either 4 or 5 time winners for those who dont understand merit ratings or horses with a rating of 75 or above ..Unfortunately the operator gold circle have failed dismally with sectional timing being abandoned by them which would have been a massive help to all in the industry not just punters and now this half hearted attempt at barrier trials..Either do things properly or dont do them at all

  7. I have always wondered about what percentage of the tote turnover comes from the “Science dependant” Punters of racing who understand the “imperfections of racing science” and what percentage the tote turnover comes from the “emotional and info reactive” type Punter who does not study form or the results of Barrier Trials or even care about Sectional Timing. Here I am referring to those Punters who simply follow a stable or a jock or a Trainer/Jock combo or who watch the betting only or who come racing to “hear what is fancied “.

    Before we applaud ourselves on the enlightening and “transparent” aspects of Barrier Trials, maybe we should rather research the above. Maybe then we will know if a handful of academics are making these decisions for the minority or the majority of Punters.

    Ultimately, as important as the Academics, computer literate and scientifically driven people are for Racing, methinks that perhaps the vast majority, the numbers of Punters in racing who make up the bulk of the tote pools appear to be completely the opposite. And therefore, we should also address their needs, even if it is for the first time in our history.

    The majority of Punters at races, whether they have a newspaper page in their hands, or a S.Post, a Winning Form or are even walking around with a tablet still come over and ask us about our chances, should we be included or not etc.

    That honest interaction with Punters is vital and should be developed. First timers are difficult. The rest of the raced horses running are a lot easier to comment on.

  8. Have to agree with you Louis and say that form studying and data interpretation can take you up to a point but ultimately there is a lot to be said for intuition and this is the skill that needs to be cultivated. Most punters that have been exposed to racing for a few years develop a decent feel for whether a race will deliver an upset or a more fancied result and this is a very useful element in racing.
    Getting people interested and keeping them in the game requires a more enjoyable experience which is why I have a strong opinion on entertainment value and affordability.
    Intuitive feel comes with time and exposure to the game and we will only be able to build a new player base if we give people a compelling reason to commit their time to a racing involvement. As you have alluded to there are many different types of punters and not all of them make an academic study of placing a bet but everyone wants a win now and then and it can only benefit racing if their stake provides fun as part of the deal.

  9. When i started reading this, my first thought yay no tree-hugging today. For me its Human, horse and then tree. The funding model is a little more involved than tote takeout and churn. i’ll hazard a wager that should the p6 pay R1000 to 1000 punters regularly for 6 weeks – the pool will dwindle and have a negative effect especially to the target market of R20 punters – but i should not say that as i have done about as much research on what R20 punters want as was done when researching this article. R4 pa payouts will kill the PA, or maybe Scoreline can publish their research.

    We need the pied-piper and his magic flute to lead the people to the tote window – and i rush in my hope that Don is first in that hopefully unending line of followers. Perhaps the magic flute could take the form not wasting money on previously tried and failed excercises. Perhaps try and use these allocated funds and become price competitive with those darned bookmakers, reduce takeout make your price competitve

  10. Rodrick I tend to agree with you to some extent. I was always brought up to be a winner , Sharing a million rand pick six does not help me personally . Maybe that is a selfish way to look at things but I don’t see people in a casino for hours paying the machines hoping to share . They want the Jackpot the whole lock stock and barrel. They are not going to start sharing their winnings with the rest of the casino.

    Gambling will always bring new people and it will always loose people it survived the Great Depression with the attempt to abolish alcahol through prohibition, which made things worse by the rich just getting richer.

    Let winners be winners and the rest will follow its just human nature.

    1. Looking at the good points you make it reveals quite a bit about what drives involvement in a game Carlo and makes for an interesting discussion. The example that you and Roderick used would leave me cold towards the bet as well. Since pool betting is all about sharing but always hoping to get the biggest slice of the cake it really comes down to how can pools be made a lot bigger and to what extent could the format deliver both big winners regularly, as well as a lot more winners. This sounds like an impossible outcome within a pool environment but the reality is that it is not, it is just not seen to best effect with current exotic methodology’s used.

  11. You know Rod, if the industry had your passion for the dramatic it would be in a fine state. I admire you for having a dig as your heart is at least in the right place. The Kodak and Nokia syndrome is very destructive as they had the very best and then they were nowhere. Not unlike racing who was the darling of the social scene and the only game in town and then we weren’t any more.
    Scoffing at new ideas and closing the creative and marketing expense tap might save a few necessary rand in a cash strapped industry but what will it cost racing in the long run.
    Whilst not everyone is enthusiastic about the game and the current direction of the sport, very profitable opportunities still exist. Without an understanding of what will drive new interest in a much more competitive and ever changing market and working around the limitations of the game by using the one or two unexploited advantages still available to pool betting, nothing will ever change.
    Totally confident that you and everyone else and many new players will have a regular bet on Scoreline if it was to be launched as it strikes a wonderful balance between more winners and bigger winners and an afternoons entertainment.
    The demise of racing as a mainstream activity need not happen and it would be appalling if it is allowed to continue it’s slide without looking for solutions.

    1. Leon, this was one time i was not having a dig – i am very interested on the science behind the sharing model. I will be sarcastic and say sharing is caring dies when the sound of the Barney song begins to irritate.

      I am happy to be wrong – but i cant see it

  12. Maybe Paul should have said we can have barrier trials after we have generators …. going to be difficult to upload the trial results on you tube with a slow link and no power

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