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3yo’s – Should You Be Backing Them?

Let's ask for a review of the wfa scale...

I often see comments both on Sporting Post and other venues alleging that three-year-old horses are at a disadvantage to older horses despite the weight-for-age(WFA) allowances intended to level the playing fields.

With the July Handicap once again at our doorstep this becomes a topical issue this time of year as the better three-year-olds take on their older competitors, writes Jay August.

Are three-year-olds really at a disadvantage to their older foes even after allowing for the WFA advantage?

Below I’ve summarised almost 6 years of data, from August 2013 to May 2019, for open handicaps comparing all three-year-olds over all distances against older horses (4 and older).

I’ve chosen open handicaps because they offer the greatest number of data points, are the most competitive races, apply the WFA scale, are run often and over many distances.

The data consists of 97000 lines of form of which 24000 are for three-year-olds and the remainder older horses. There is an average of 8100 starters per month with a peak in December and January and a trough in June and July.

Below is a chart of the number of starters by age and by month over the sample period. You will observe that as the year progresses there are more three-year-olds starters, with a peak in three-year-old starters in May.

The chart below shows the strike rate and the average finishing position for three-year-olds versus older horses.

Strike rate I have named Impact Value as it is modified for field size. The entire data has an Impact Value of 1 (the average for all data). An Impact Value of 1.2 indicates that the observations from the data are 20% better than average, while an Impact Value of .80 indicates that the observations are 20% worse than average.

Average finishing position (AFP) is expressed as a percentage in order to modify for field size.

Therefore, a value of 50% indicates that a horse beat no more horses than beat it. A horse finishing first will have an AFP of 100% as it beat 100% of its opponents while a horse finishing last will have an AFP of zero. Impact Value (or field size adjusted Strike Rate) is indicated as bars at the bottom of the graph while Average Finishing Position (AFP) is shown at the top as lines.

What you’ll observe in this chart is that three-year-olds are at an advantage to older horses in every single month with the outperformance being more pronounced in the first half of the season.

Impact Value for three-year-old runners is above 1.2 in the first five months of the season and above 1 in all remaining months.

Over the entire racing year three-year-olds win 20% more races than average and 27.78% more races than older horses.

Three-year-olds also finish with more horses behind them than in front of them – 51.63% versus 49.52% over the 12 months. The grey line at the top of the chart shows that they always have more than 50% of the field behind them, while the opposite applies to older horses.

There is no truth to the observation that three-year-olds are at a disadvantage to older horses at any point in the racing year.

Individual horses may differ but as a group the data is unequivocal; that three-year-olds are at an advantage to older horses. The data above for handicaps can be shown to be true in every other type of race from Maiden through to Graded races, although with the latter the number of observations is very small. The data evidence also holds up for any distance from 1000m to 3200m. Net Merit Rating for the groups is remarkably similar with only a very small and insignificant difference in favour of the younger horses evident.

Rather than decrying the inability of three-year-olds to beat older horses we should be asking for a review of the WFA scale, to even the playing fields and give older horses a better chance of beating their younger competitor’s.

The British Horseracing Authority made a slight adjustment to their WFA scale in 2017 as a result of similar analysis conducted from 2010 to 2015.

South African horseracing needs to consider doing the same review and possible change.

Click here for a PDF of the charts for those who cannot see them clearly in this letter

Ed – on 25 June 2019, the writer Jay August provided this additional graphic for discussion:

See it here

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23 comments on “3yo’s – Should You Be Backing Them?

  1. gavin says:

    brillant work

  2. Adrian says:

    These are facts and figures and it great to see such analysis.

  3. Roderick Mattheyse says:

    Jay how do the generations compare in plate races.

    This would im my opinion, be a better measure of the WFA scale, as it is free from handicapper input.

    If you have the data how do 3yr olds do in maidens against older horses over the various months?

  4. V says:

    Wonderful work. Can we perhaps look at a 3 year old for the running of the 2019 july especially since many pundits have said its a very strong crop ????….. Or should we keep our eyes wide open 🙂

  5. Mike Wanklin says:

    Finally. I’ve been saying this for years. Excellent work.

  6. Jay August says:

    Roderick, I’ll get the exact data on here soon. However from a practical standpoint Assessment Plates and Maiden races present two problems.

    Maiden races are problematical because they compare the better three-year-old’s against what remains of the four-year-old’s who have yet to crack their Maiden. Later in the season you are comparing really poor class four-year-old’s against the classic crop. That mismatch should in theory show up quite starkly in favour of three-year-old’s and you’ll see it does when I present the data.

    Assessment Plates have a similar issue apart from having a limited amount of races. As you’ll see when I show the data they show a similar trend. I would never use APs on their own to make any case for WFA changes because of the low sample size and the inherent bias towards better three-year-old’s, as in the Maiden races.

    Also, as both classes of races do not apply the WFA scale, the very issue you are trying to analyse is missing from the data. That is not necessarily an issue but if you used these two classes of races to analyse WFA, you would then need to include an extra step of analysis into the mix; quantifying the apparent out-performance in lengths and then applying that to a weight scale. I would only ever use these races to validate my handicap assumptions not the other way round.

    It can be argued that the restrictions (guidelines) on the handicappers ability to penalise progressive horses (mostly three-year-old’s) to quickly is part of the result and that the WFA scale is not the only issue. But that opens up a new issue which is that the guidelines are too lenient on three-year-old’s and therefore need to be eliminated entirely.

    Wait for me to send a new PDF with charts and an explanation of the Maiden and Plate races. We can continue the discussion then.

  7. Rian says:

    Great work Jay!!!!
    Here a few stats on last 40 July Handicaps
    3 x 3 years
    20 x 4 years
    14 x 5 years
    3 x 6 years
    1 x 7 years
    1 x 8 years
    There was a dead heat so thats why I got 41

  8. Rod Mattheyse says:

    Rian are you sure…. you have omitted 3 year olds

  9. Jay August says:

    Riaan, thanks. Are you sure of those numbers? By my count I get 17x3yo, 18x4yo, 6x5yo, 1x6yo.

    There is a big change in the race pre and post the MR system as well. Whereas pre MR the July favoured 3yo’s, since the MR system it has been even with the 4yos.

  10. Adesh rambally says:

    this game is not always about horses. not always about jockeys. not always about trainers. it’s always won by a new owner. de kock saddles 2 horses for the same owner. Watch him closely.

  11. Rian says:

    Got mine from Wikipedia from 1978 , maybe got ages wrong but thats the stats they have

  12. Rian says:

    Sorry guys, age catching up now, just wrote down without thinking

  13. Jay August says:

    Roderick, I’ve asked the Ed to upload a new PDF with all the data you requested. Please peruse and pose any questions here

    Rian, my numbers above are for 41 years (1978 – 2018) not 40. Not sure which 8yo winner you have in your numbers?

    1. Editor says:

      Jay, added the new pdf at base of ed

  14. Sarvan says:

    In 2003 Dynasty carried 53kgs off a Net Merit Rating(NMR) of 106 against the top weight of 58kgs at the time, Free My Heart with a merit rating of 116. In 2004 Greys Inn carried 50kgs with a NMR of 98 against the top weight of 58kgs, Yard Arm with a merit rating of 119. As we know both Dynasty and Greys Inn won, this year Hawaam carries 56kgs of a NMR of 117 against a top weight of 60kgs in Do it Again with a MR of 125. Only a 4kg spread from the top rated to the highest rated 3YO! What you need to then ask, is the WFA scale loaded in favour of the 3YOs or are we a bit heavy handed in our ratings of 3YO’s?. In my view the WFA scale is not amiss, it is rather our rating of our 3YO’s that are amiss. Hawaam will now most likely win the July 😉 but at the weights it’s a mammoth task. If he does win, the scary thing, is that he may have been underrated but I’d much rather have my money on his stable mate in Barahin at 53Kgs!!!

  15. Jay August says:

    Rian, checked the Wikipedia page and it has errors. Do It Again is listed as a 4yo as is Royal Chalice and Bush Telegraph.

    I’ll fix the Wikipedia page at some point.

    If the wikiuser “Waynejayes” is looking at this thread please note that your data has been input incorrectly in Wikipedia for age of winner – needs fixing!

  16. The Dark Duke says:

    It is pointless comparing the pre MR data with the current system because the weight scales have changed.

  17. Jay August says:

    Sarvan, you cannot use the limited data in the July as a test for the validity of the WFA scale. Your observations are so small and have no statistical significance at all. My letter is not about the July Handicap but about every handicap race run in SA over the last 6 years – over 8000 races and 97000 lines of form! Using the July Handicap as a proxy is folly. Have you actually read what I wrote?

    How can the handicapper be a bit heavy handed with rating 3yos and yet these 3yos still win more races than older horses and by a very significant ratio? Your statement is completely contradictory but as you make limited observations on one race and have a handicapper bias it is not surprising.

    If you want to make a point about “sufferance” and the handicap range in the July that is an entirely different matter but why confuse that issue here? Do you actually know how sufferance impacts the numbers and strike rates or are you guessing? Can you quantify it?

    The weight range in the July is a function of the conditions of the race and is at the operator’s discretion. There are also requirements which Grade 1 races must meet and which impact on these conditions. Why do you regard that as a handicapper issue? Do you actually understand why the conditions have changed and may continue to change and why they are not a handicapper issue?

    What you need ask yourself is how you can make definitive statements about the handcapper when your evidence for making them is so shoddy, and you are not looking at the entire spectrum of variables?

  18. Rax Rotham says:

    Excellent data and views on 3 yr olds. A 3 yr old in July or gold cup ( Aug) is only a few months from being a 4 yr old, only a suggestion. With Master Marcus who has ridden Rainbow bridge, Do it Again , Barahin and Hawwaam. I’m sticking with Mr Anton Marcus.

  19. Rod Mattheyse says:

    Thanks Jay, I was not anti your data, and had a hunch that when you presented your data it would re-enforce the data.

    The 3 yr olds are supposedly under sufference in open maidens in the first months of the season as they don’t get the full allowance . Your data says something different.

  20. Jay August says:

    Rod, no problem did not think you were. Those questions are valid and need answering.

    A 4yo Maiden horse in August-October is on the wrong side of the curve for his/her crop. A 3yo maiden at the same time is the opposite and is one of the earlier developers. The sufferance is not material as the 3yo is that much more advanced at that time of year than the 4yo competitor who is still without a win.

    One is comparing 4yo’s which are most likely to the left of the median against 3yo’s who are most likely to the right of the median. Even if both are within 1 standard deviation from the median, that difference can be as high as 30 MR points or 15 kilos as the typical standard deviation is 15-16 points. Therefore even without WFA the 3yo is superior and that is what you are seeing.

    Irrespective of age you are not comparing like for like in Maidens. This is why handicaps make for a better sample as the level is consistent throughout the year even though the mix of 3 and 4yo’s changes during the year.

    Over the season the better handicappers move up to the higher levels and the poor handicappers are taken out of training. What survives is a solid and consistent core which makes for a good sample to analyse.

  21. Asterix says:

    Hawwaam was foaled on 6 September 2015, come July Day this 3 year old will be 3 years and 10 months. Had he been racing in other parts of the world he may be considered as a 4 year old already. Not sure if that’s important but I felt the need to point it out anyway.

  22. Michael Jacobs says:

    I follow a number of racing forums and racing face book groups (including ABC) and I have to say without a doubt that the most intelligent and knowledgeable commenters are on the Sporting Post site. A pity there are so few commenters as SP posts so many interesting articles that is open for debate and discussion!

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