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The Boat Race 2017: Back heavier crew Cambridge to make a splash and upset the odds

The stats say that Oxford, the lighter crew, are at a disadvantage.
The stats say that Oxford, the lighter crew, are at a disadvantage.

Too much can probably be made of Boat Race statistics, writes Jack Houghton, but nonetheless the heavier Cambridge crew might be value...


"The biggest factor this year may be the defection of William Warr from Cambridge to Oxford. This has allegedly caused a greater-than-usual level of enmity and might make Cambridge a steal at around [4.20] to follow-up on their win last year. Hatred is a strong motivator..."

Where can I watch it?


This year's University Boat Race is on Sunday 2 April. The Women's race starts at 16:35, the Men's at 17:35. Coverage begins on BBC1 at 16:00. Otherwise, you can join the hordes at some point on the course. It's in London, between Putney and Mortlake, so don't rock up in either Oxford or Cambridge expecting to see anything.


Is the head-to-head score relevant?


Probably not. Cambridge lead Oxford by 82 wins to 79 and you'll likely hear television commentators continuously repeat this as they try to fill time in the run-up to the main event.

There will be lots of supposition around the head-to-head score, too. Some will argue that wanting to close the gap will further motivate Oxford. Some will argue that Oxford will also be encouraged by a desire to avenge last year's defeat. Others will argue that the presence of returning rowers, and a consistency in coaching staff and approaches, will mean that Cambridge are favourites to repeat the win.

For what it's worth, the previous year's loser goes on to win the next year around 61% of the time.


Why am I watching television coverage of a coin toss?


The coin toss - which bestows on one of the crews the chance to choose the side of the river they prefer to race on, Middlesex or Surrey - is a major event and will generate even more pointless comment than the head-to-head statistics.

Most interestingly, it will move the betting market.

The winner of the coin toss, though, has only gone on to race victory 54% of the time. This is likely because, despite a perceived advantage of rowing on the Northern side of the river (Middlesex, which means rowing on the inside of the first bend), the two stations have provided a roughly equal number of winners.

A little more interesting, perhaps, is that captains who have won the toss and chosen the Surrey station have gone on to win around 61% of Boat Races, a statistic upheld by the winning Cambridge crew last year.

Savvy punters can often profit by opposing betting moves that over-react to the coin toss.


Why are they going on about the weight of the crews?


Weight is seen to be a likely indicator of rowing success, with heavier crews being at an advantage. It's a complex area, though. Heavier crews are generally more powerful, but they create more drag. Overall, the heavier crew has gone on to win the Boat Race 58% of the time, with that figure rising to 63% in more recent years.

The Cambridge crew are 25kg heavier this year. In boat race terms, this is not a massive weight difference: in 2015, the light blues out-bulked their rivals by 42kgs. However, Cambridge may have things about right. Plotting winning distances against crew weight advantages on a scatter diagram seems to show that, broadly speaking, the bigger the weight difference, the better the chance of victory, but also the better the chance of not winning by a great distance. The same diagram demonstrates that a 20kg weight advantage seems optimum to secure victory.


Is there any value to betting in-play?


Yes. 87% of boats to reach Hammersmith Bridge first have gone on to win.


Aren't these statistics all stuff-and-nonsense?


Quite possibly. After all, the race sees very different teams race once a year in varying weather and water conditions. The likes of James Cracknell certainly encourage us to look beyond the telly-filling statistics of weight and the coin toss, and instead look at the relative talent the crews offer.

The biggest factor this year may be the defection of William Warr from Cambridge to Oxford, which will make him only the third man to row for both crews. This has allegedly caused a greater-than-usual level of enmity and might make Cambridge a steal at around [4.20] to follow-up on their win last year. Hatred is a strong motivator.


Recommended Bet

Back Cambridge at [4.20]


Jack Houghton,

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