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Unravelling Sprint Handicaps

For many years I have plied my racing trade tackling those “impossible” looking sprint handicaps. As I’ve mentioned before, in order to make money at this game, I believe you need to specialize. I have, and will continue to try and specialize in sprint handicaps. However, I now appreciate that not every sprint handicap is easy to unravel, and hence I need to wait for the best opportunities – not just to try and find a bet in any old sprint handicap. In the past I would try and find a selection in most sprints, even if the race did not offer a clear “edge”. That of course, ‘ate’ into profits made – a salutary lesson, but it took me several years to realise what was actually happening. 


Of course this new approach this means many less bets a year and although percentage profits should increase by ‘specializing within my specialism’, overall profits need to be topped up. Hence, I have also broadened my personal punting horizons to trends research of big races and trainer stat based selections also. The coming years will determine how well these two strings to my bow perform – I am very hopeful on both counts, but you can never tell.


For this article though I am going to concentrate on the good old sprint handicap. Here are the key factors I will look at when determining whether to bet or not:


1. DRAW – the draw is not as important as it was 10 or even 5 years ago, but on certain courses it still can play a massive part. For example at Chester over 5f in 10 runner plus handicaps since 2000, the lowest six stalls have accounted for 40 of the 47 winners (85.1%). OK, everyone knows about the Chester bias and prices reflect this, but even so, 85.1% of the winners came from less than 50% of the runners. Similar biases exist at other courses and if you can eliminate some badly drawn horses from initial calculations, then it narrows the field down immediately to a more manageable level.


2. CLASS - this is very important in handicaps and I'm a believer that carrying weight makes little difference especially in short distance races. You cannot make a slow horse run quicker by reducing the weight on their back. That is pretty much fact in my humble opinion. Also I feel that too many people get on the "they are above their best winning handicap mark and need to come down a few pounds" bandwagon. I don’t believe this is true – in many cases. For me the important thing is the class of the opposition, not his/her handicap mark.


Let us look at a very recent example - Pivotal's Princess ran on Weds 18th April 2007 at Beverley. Graham Wheldon in his spotlight comments for the Racing Post said he felt the horse was too high in the handicap. Now I have written a couple of books with GW, and I think he is one of the best in the business, but this comment I could not agree with. However, when looking at the bare facts it seemed he had a valid point - Pivotal's Princess was racing off an OR (official rating) of 95; the highest OR she had won from was 85 back in 2005. Essentially she was 10 pounds higher than her highest winning handicap mark. BUT WAIT ………. let us look at her form more carefully - last season (2006) she was placed in 3 Listed events - one of which the average OR for the runners in the race was 100.6 (excluding herself). Hence this was a strong Listed race. She also ran Baltic King to a head late in the season at Beverley (the course she was running at in this race). Baltic King had won the class 2 Wokingham at Ascot earlier in the season - one of the hardest handicap sprints to win in the whole calendar. So all in all, she was a Listed class runner, running in a class 3 Beverley handicap. The average OR of the runners in this Beverley handicap was 86.5 (excluding herself). Thus, although she was racing off what looked like a high handicap mark, she was actually racing in a much weaker class contest compared with her form of last season. Essentially she was 14 pounds better off on average with all her opponents in this Beverley handicap. She was fairly well drawn in 13, had run well first time out in the past, and all in all looked a very solid each way bet with 4 places for each way players.


RESULT - Pivotal’s Princess WON at 15/2


Of course, races do not always work out this well (see below!!), but hopefully this gives you an indication of one of the ways I try to evaluate “class” in a handicap race.


3. GOING – I believe the going can be very important when goings are extremes, and more important the higher class you go. In a lower class I have come to learn that some going preferences are less important, especially if the horse in question is a better class animal than its opponents. For example - going back to 2002, I was against a horse called Full Spate in a 0-60 classified stakes at Hamilton. (Although it was not a handicap, it essentially was a field of handicappers). Reason why I felt Full Spate could not win was due to the ground being soft. His record on soft was pretty dreadful, while all his best form to date was on good to firm. Full Spate was a seasoned handicapper, with what I thought at the time were clear going preferences. His last 5 runs on good to soft or softer read: 9th, 9th, 12th, 10th and 12th. He was 3/1 favourite on the strength of winning LTO. However, I purely dismissed him almost immediately because of the ground - what I should have done is noted that his last run was a good WIN in a 0-80 handicap, and this current race was a 0-60 classified stakes. In the grand scheme of thing he was an in form sprinter whose last run was one of 70+ rated horse, running this time in a 0-60. Hence he was clearly the class horse in the race. To make matters worse he also had a good draw (in the days that Hamilton had a consistent high draw bias), and if I had gone back further in his form he had finished 3rd in a class 3 handicap 2 years previously on soft ground. Looking back on it now, I cannot believe I made this mistake. I layed Full Spate on the exchanges, confident the horse would be turned over and watched the race.  


RESULT - Full Spate WON easily at 3/1.

Essentially, although Full Spate was not as good on soft ground, he acted on it well enough to beat a bunch of horses that were basically much weaker opposition. Couple a good draw into the equation and it was simply a poor decision that cost me money. The important point however, was that I learnt from the experience. That is not to say I won’t make the same misjudgement again, but it means that hopefully it will happen less often!

4. FORM – of all the factors this is perhaps the hardest to equate especially in sprint handicaps. A horse can finish 9th of 20 and still run well in a sprint handicap. A finishing position of 9th does not normally make you sit up and take notice, but there can be mitigating circumstances and valid reasons. The horse might have been running on the slowest ground; he/she might have not have acted on the ground or the track; the horse may have been hampered at a crucial stage, etc, etc. Unravelling sprint handicap form can be a slow and difficult process, but some good bets can be made if you put enough hard work in.


5. PACE / RUNNING STYLES – in earlier weekly and monthly articles I have used my own pace figures which equate to a horse’s running style. In order to research this I use the “comments in running” found in the form book. I assign points from 1 to 5 with 5 points being awarded for horses that gain comments such as “made all”, “made most”, “led for 4f”, etc, while 1 point is awarded for comments like “behind”, “raced in last”, etc. Therefore, the higher the pace figure, the more likely the horse would race up with the pace; the lower the pace figure, the more likely the horse would race mid pack or at the back.


This method I have found useful when looking at the “shape of a race” – how a race is likely to unfold in terms of who will lead, who is likely to be up behind the pace, who is likely to be “held up”, how much pace is there is the race, etc, etc. In order to explain this idea in more detail let me give you a fictitious example. Imagine a 12 runner 5f handicap with the following pace figures:



Slow Sammy 1.4

Always Leads 5.0

Tracking Tony 3.8

Late Challenger 2.2

Midpack Molly 2.7

Texas Hold Up 2.3

The Dweller 1.0

Up with the Pace 4.2

Bob Behind 1.2

Midfield Maestro 2.3

The Tracker 3.6

Born to Chase 3.2


The prediction for how the race would take shape was as follows:



Always Leads 5.0

Up with the Pace 4.2                Tracking Tony 3.8                   The Tracker 3.6

   Born to Chase 3.2                  Midpack Molly 2.7

Midfield Maestro 2.3               Texas Hold Up 2.3               Late Challenger 2.2

Slow Sammy 1.4                      Bob Behind 1.2                   The Dweller 1.0


You might say what relevance has this got? Well over 5f especially, horses with higher pace figures clearly outperform horses with lower pace figures. In general, it is a definite advantage for horses that have pace figures of over 3.0, while horses that have a pace figure of 1.8 or lower are at a severe disadvantage. For example, here is the record for horses with a pace figure of 1.8 or lower in all 5f handicaps in the 2005 season:


Qualifiers 234

Wins 10

Strike Rate 4.3%

Loss at SP –£147.50 (at £1 win level stakes)

% Loss –63.0%


Just 10 wins from 234 runners and a loss of over 60%. Now tell me that early pace is not important in sprints!


6. WHO IS THE TRAINER? My recent research into trainer patterns has made this the sixth key area to look at. I am much more interested in long term trainer trends than whether the yard is perceived to be in good form or not. That is not to say I don’t take account of the current form of the trainer, but I feel long term trends and stats are much more important. I will look at trainer stats connected with class, course, distance, weight, jockey, time of year, etc, etc. All these stats will help me crystallize and finalize my thoughts on the race.


So there you have it – six key factors DRAW, CLASS, GOING, FORM, PACE/RUNNING STYLES, and WHO IS THE TRAINER? These are the 6 that I feel are the most important – there are other factors to take into account but those six I have found to be “key”.


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