3 months ago - 12 minute read

The inside story on betting on horse racing handicaps

Steve O’Donovan grew up in the horse racing and gambling world. His father ran a bookmakers and he took up riding at a young age learning his trade in Ireland before spending some time on the National Hunt circuit in England. Sadly a number of injuries and weight problems curtailed a very promising career, but racing’s loss was the gambling world’s gain.

A man who has been there, seen it and lived it first hand, O’Donovan now works for Matchbook in the horse racing operations team and in part of an irregular series on Matchbook he gives us the inside line on betting on horse racing. In this article he focuses on handicaps, how to make the most money from them and the pitfalls to avoid.

“I want everyone to truly understand horse racing”

My dad owned a bookies and it used to frustrate me to hear people outside the counter shouting abuse at the screen, just talking out of their pocket when they had no idea what it was like on the other side. No idea of the sacrifices, the pain, the effort put in by those jockeys. At the end of the day, jockeys are human, and we all make mistakes. Understanding and appreciating that helps you enjoy horse racing more and actually helps you make more profitable bets.

I’ve seen races where a jockey gives a horse a patient ride before attacking from a furlong out and lose. Next time out he will give the horse the ride the public wanted, riding the horse more prominent near the front, and lose by more. In both cases he’s a villain.

Some of these jockeys are only getting something like £150 a ride and when you think of what they put their bodies through and the expenses they have then you realise they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t put their heart and soul into it.

“You need to know what to watch for”

Jamie Spencer is one of the best jockeys of the modern era and who is one of the few with his own “style” tending to hold-up horses before coming with a late run. Well in a 20-runner handicap with horses limited room and a lot of pushing and shoving he might not get there every time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor ride. People just look at the results and not at the race as a whole. Most of the time when I’m watching a race I’m not looking at the winner I’m looking at who is in the middle of the field and didn’t get the gaps when needed and would have finished a lot closer had the breaks come at the right time  .

“Understand what handicaps mean for the quality of the race”

Handicap marks are your best guide to the quality of the race. A race with horses up to a mark of 95 are the lowest quality of racing and up to 115 is around average. Horses with a mark of 130 or more are going to be of a good standard. You’re going to see these gambles landed in the bottom of the barrel races where you have horses rated in the low hundreds who could realistically be running in the 120-130 range.

“Why handicap marks are so crucial for betting”

The bigger owners can afford to spend hundreds of thousands on high rated horses and thousands and thousands more on training fees, but for the game to keep going you need your small owners who can’t compete at that level. None of these guys are going to have many horses with a handicap rating above 115 so they need to be careful how they run them when getting their first handicap mark. It’s not cheating, it’s just sensible. You don’t want your horse to peak in the race when he gets his mark. To get your mark you need to run three times in a Novice race so you’d have to be a bit crazy to have them fully ready for that first run.

Stephen rode a number of winners and was associated with some big names like Alan King and Emma Lavelle.

“Horses from small stables may not run true until they’ve got their mark”

Let’s say you get the horse 100% right for his first race and he ends up finishing second to one of Willie Mullins runners who is evidentially doesn’t have a horse rated below 120. The fact that you finish 10th in the next two races won’t make a difference, that will be the race that attracts the attention. The handicapper is likely to look at that and see that your horse finished seven lengths behind Willie’s horse and give him a mark of 112. He’s going to really struggle to win off that mark as if he had finished 10th in all 3 runs you are more likely to get a mark in the nineties and then you have something to work with and you can work your way up through the grades. Instead of starting at the wrong side of the handicap and paying training fees for your horse that can’t compete at the level off your mark which neither the owner or the trainer can afford to do.

“How the stables get the marks they want”

The smaller yard may only get horses 70% fit for their first couple of races or their breeding may suggest they are a staying horse so they may run them in shorter distances where it goes unnoticed and picks up a handicap mark of 80-90. Then you can run them in their own grade at the optimum trip and you’ve got a chance of having a touch. This way if he scrapes home in a big race you can cope with the penalty until he gets a second look from the handicapper. They can go up through the grades this way.

It’s the way it has to be because you need the small yards and the small owners for the game to survive. It would be so boring if it was the same trainers and the same horses winning week in week out.

“Keep your eyes on the smaller trainers”

There are certain trainers to watch for and it’s those outside of the very top tier. You’re not going to get Willie Mullins landing many gambles as his horses will generally run to their mark and he’s got 15 others who can take their place back in the yard. It’s more trainers who don’t charge high fees and get results and are always trying to beat the handicapper. There are plenty who manage it year in and year out and a lot of these plans will start 18 months before a race.

“It’s low-key but it’s not as bad as people think”

It has to be kept a bit hush hush, as you don’t want to miss the value, but you can try and give yourself a chance of catching it too. When I watch novice races I’m looking at the horses finishing a bit back as the chances are they are on their second run and I can learn a lot more from that rather than a horse running in his twentieth race to finish a game second.

It’s not as bad as people make it out to be and you have to remember that the jockeys aren’t riding for the punter or the bookmakers, they are riding for the owners and they are paid to do a job.

Sometimes that means riding to a plan, and making sure a horse gains valuable racing experience. Why beat a horse up to finish third when he will get another day and a better chance in another race?

“Steer clear of odds-on novices and pay attention to the tracks!”

I wouldn’t back anything odds-on in a novice race and if I had to it would be in a small runner field on a nice straightforward track.

Exeter is a good option as is Newbury or Ffos Las, but somewhere like Warwick where you get six or seven fences in a row on the back straight can really spook a horse as they come at you so quickly.

Tramore in Ireland and Fakenham in England are two others to look out for. And if a horse has a bad experience at a track he will remember it. On the other hand, if he copes well he will learn a lot, so it pays to look at how horses have performed at those sort of courses. Cheltenham is another unique course where it’s the worst place in the world to find yourself on a horse that  won’t travel. Coming down that hill and having nothing left in the tank is one of the worst feelings in racing.

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