1 year ago - 6 minute read

Horse Racing: Betting on Favourites

Picture the scene: You’ve gone for a day out at the races with your mates and after poring over the form, the going, and draw biases, you’ve pinpointed a handful of horses at decent prices throughout the card. However, one of your mates blindly backs the favourite in every single race without so much as a glance at the form.

It turns out to be a profitable strategy as the first three favourites oblige, and by the time the fourth favourite wins, he’s become insufferable. And really it’s not that surprising. Broadly speaking, favourites win around a third of the time in the UK and a winning streak is easy to come across.

Different academic and recreational research from gamblers has found that backing favourites generally allows you to lose more slowly. Of course, this is a one-way ticket to the poor house as a long-term betting strategy, but as a starting point it at least shows that betting the favourite is rarely a terrible decision.

While you’ll encounter plenty of dubiously priced favourites, which is why some exchange users specialise in laying what’s dubbed “false favourites”, horses at the top of the market are usually much closer to their “true odds” than outsiders.

Go Figure

A famous study in 1949 first introduced the concept of the favourite longshot bias, whereby shorter priced horses are closer to true odds than longshots. And a recent study by a pair of American academics who scrutinised the results of over six million horse races in America discovered that backing favourites lost at a rate of 5.5% while backing at odds 3/1 to 15/1 lost at a rate of 18% on average.

In the UK, odds-on favourites win around 59% of the time on the flat according to www.flatstats.co.uk. However, this figure deviates depending on what type of race it is, dropping to 53% with handicap races and increasing slightly to 61% for maidens. Odds-on favourites priced at 1/4 or shorter apparently win 86% of their races. Take retired flat phenomenon Frankel as an example regarding that last statistic.

The Sir Henry Cecil-trained thoroughbred won 14 out of 14 races during his illustrious and unbeaten career, with 13 of those wins recorded as the odds-on favourite. Before retiring to stud in 2012 with £3m in prize money to his name, the starting prices for his last four victories were 2/11, 1/10, 1/20, and 1/10 (implied probabilities of 84.62%, 90.91%, 95.24%, and 90.91% respectively).

Level stakes bets of £1,000 on each occasion would have netted a profit of £431.82. OK, so you’re not going to get rich backing horses at those extremely short odds, but backers with deep pockets probably considered this a far superior tax-free investment to the paltry interest rates offered by most bank savings accounts.

But this game is about backing the right favourites at odds higher than their true odds. If blindly backing favourites was a “fool-proof” system then everyone would be doing it full-time and every office and factory would close. Frankel was a horse of a lifetime and a bit of an equine freak, and just one shock defeat in any of these races would have decimated backers’ betting bankrolls.

Frankel was unbeaten in his fourteen-race career and was the highest-rated racehorse in the world from May 2011

A Sure Thing

Backing favourites successfully, boils down to being selective and finding discrepancies between your informed opinion and projected odds and the price offered by the market. But an important takeaway is to not to automatically dismiss a favourite because it’s been priced up at odds-on.

Some racing bettors stubbornly refuse to back a horse if it isn’t odds against, but there can still be plenty of tasty value to be had if you’re willing to stake more than the potential return. If a well-heeled punter sticks £1,000 on a 1/2-shot with the aim of picking up £500 profit, you can understand the logic. Yet a £10 bet to win a measly £5 or £20 to collect £10 hardly seems worth the risk.

Betting is a long game and you should be aiming to simply bet on value selections that win you money over the long-term. A selection chalked up at 1/2 could still represent value if its true odds are more like 1/3. Opportunities like this are fairly rare and when they appear they should be jumped on.

This could be where you want to place a max bet, but only if you know what a max bet should be. Hint – it’s not all the money you own. And one vital aspect of favourite backing is using a smart bankroll and staking strategy to ensure you capture the most value out of every bet.

Not all bets are created equally and you want to maximise your rewards while minimising your risk. Check out our articles on bankroll management and staking to find out more. If you can combine this with a refined favourite backing system you are well on you way to becoming a profitable bettor.