Simon Rowlands: Will you be 'Ascotted' this weekend?

Simon Rowlands RSS / / 22 September 2010 / 3 Comments

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Harbinger wins the King George at Ascot

Harbinger wins the King George at Ascot

"It is one of Ascot’s biggest meetings of the year this weekend. I fancy Makfi to win the featured Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Saturday, for which he is currently [3.15]. "

With an exciting card at Ascot this Saturday, Simon Rowlands explains how punters can profit from the Berkshire track's Tales of the Unexpected. Meanwhile, why Racing United have got it wrong...

"Ascotted" - that's what they call the phenomenon whereby performances are made to look much better or much worse than they really are at Ascot, one of Britain's premier courses.

Ascot form should be taken with a pinch of salt, or so some lead us to believe. Like many received wisdoms in racing - such as that which states that Ascot suits horses with polytrack form - this assertion deserves to be questioned. So I did just that.

I looked at how performances shaped up at the course under standardised conditions - Flat handicaps of nine to 15 runners which took place on good going or firmer - and found evidence that both supports and undermines the theory.

If you compare the expected and the actual ratings of horses - the Timeform master rating going into the race and the performance rating in the race itself - it points to Ascot being an unremarkable track, taken overall.

16.7% of horses at Ascot ran 30 lb or more below expectations, which places the track twenty-second of 33 courses surveyed in terms of unpredictability. For interest, the most "erratic" courses were Newcastle (31%), Epsom (26%) and Nottingham (23%).

The average number of pounds below expectation for Ascot was 15.1, which placed it twenty-first. Epsom leapfrogged Newcastle to the top by this criterion, as it did by standard deviation, a measure of variance by which Ascot moved up to a far-from-heady twelfth.

Things look different, however, if you split Ascot's races into those that started on the straight course and those that started on the round course (but for which the last three furlongs are still on the straight course), though there is a danger of small samples as a result.

26.8% of horses ran "poorly" on Ascot's straight track, and the average shortfall from expectation, as well as standard deviation, would have had it in the top three in terms of unpredictability compared to other courses overall.

It would appear to be wrong to question form achieved in round-course races - such as Harbinger's Betfair King George - simply because it occurred at Ascot but it would be considerably more justified if the race had taken place entirely on the straight course. The official going at Ascot sometimes differs markedly between the two.

While Ascot's straight course specialises in Tales of The Unexpected, backers and layers alike should see greater unpredictability - where it can be anticipated! - as an opportunity, not just an obstacle.

It is one of Ascot's biggest meetings of the year this weekend. I fancy Makfi to win the featured Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Saturday, for which he is currently [3.15].

The horse flopped the only time he ran here (also on the round course) previously, but there was a valid excuse for that which had nothing to do with the track. I will not be claiming to have been "Ascotted" if he fails again.


Last week saw the launch of an astonishing "charter" by a body calling itself "Racing United". Astonishing, not just because the group demands that British racing should get roughly double the subsidy it gets at present, or that it should be entitled to a cut of money wagered on events which it neither provides nor pays for. Or even that it believes that betting exchanges are not providing a fair return (flatly contradicting past reviews into the matter). But because the individuals involved have in effect admitted that, for them, "racing" is synonymous with just a small faction within the sport.

How else is it possible to interpret the barefaced claim that "racing unites to secure a fair return from betting" and that "racing has launched a campaign" to this end?

On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that "racing" means a caucus of The BHA, the Racecourse Association and the group that calls itself The Horsemen. The rest of us - which I am guessing means the vast majority of you, as well as me - are expected to like it or lump it, no matter how closely involved with the sport we are or have been.

There is again no consideration of the wishes of the customers, which include millions of punters and racegoers. They are just expected to keep coughing up the money with no questions asked. That is not the way to encourage a sense of belonging and loyalty among the sport's followers.

Although probably well-intentioned, "Racing United" is likely to fail by its own terms of reference. A levy settlement significantly less than that being asked for, or non-delivery on other key points, will show that the authors of this charter - and those naive enough to sign up to it - were being unrealistic.

In the meantime, "Racing United" can pretend to speak on behalf of racing as much as they want, but they do not have that authority. They speak for themselves, not in my name.

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Comments (3)

  1. Michael Turner | 24 September 2010


    Whats the answer?

    Betfair coughed-up several millions for a wing at Oaksey house for injured jockeys, brilliant. Have account holders contributed to those facilities by ways of commission or was it paid for from profits?

    We exchange punters all like better odds than industry even with low commission, at Beverley last Tuesday in a weak sprint race the total matched was over £1million, this is where 'Racing for Change' are trying to hit in regards to returning punters cash into racing. The rules on turnover profit & commission need changing, good idea or not?


  2. Simon Rowlands | 24 September 2010


    How long have you got?!

    If I had all the answers to the funding problem within horseracing then I would be in the wrong job. There is no evidence whatsoever that those at the top wish to engage the likes of me, or you, to solve the matter.

    Instead, they continue to make unrealistic proposals and wild claims, both of which seek to discriminate against the likes of me, or you, as the punters who provide much of the funding in the first place. That is commercial suicide.

    I have already pointed out on these pages that the distribution of the Levy can be called into question and that some of the costs of operating horseracing are, in my view, unjustified.

    Further, it seems clear that the Levy should either be replaced with a similar system which does not have to be revisited on an annual basis, or, ideally, by something else altogether.

    It was David Ashforth, I think, who pointed out that ECJ remarks about charging for media rights were not as set in stone as we have been led to believe and that they should be challenged.

    Quite why the BHA/BHB, which has been in existence for 17 years now, has made no headway on this matter is beyond me.

    Besides anything else, I believe a healthier future for horseracing would involve a greatly reinvigorated Tote, aggressively promoting a lower-margin/higher-turnover product. The Tote really needs to get its act together, for the good of racing, besides anything else.

    I bet a great deal more now than I ever did, mostly due to Betfair's own low-margin/high-turnover product. I actually think I might give up betting on UK racing altogether if I had to go back to the bad old days whereby there was no alternative to betting at exorbitant percentages with High St bookies.

    The opposite of a low-margin/high-turnover product is a high-margin/low-turnover product. And the extreme example of the latter could be a turnover which is a big fat zero.

    A Levy on turnover, rather than on profits, would be catastrophic for punters and would hand the game back to bookmakers to preside over the death throes of the sport.

    What Betfair charges in commission is its own commercial choice and not something that can be imposed upon it by an outside body. As with racing itself, Betfair should be mindful - I am sure it is - of the dangers of charging its customers too much or of taking those customers for granted.

    While a Levy based entirely on turnover is a no-no, I wonder whether there is merit in a windfall tax on all single-bet winnings of over, say, £1000.

    Whatever is decided, it is absolutely clear that it cannot discriminate against a certain betting platform just because it runs its affairs more efficiently and more transparently than its competitors. It has to be applied fairly and across the board.

    Fortunately, no matter how much some at the BHA would wish otherwise, that is what all previous rulings have found as well.

    And a healthy future for horseracing should see it recognising the claims and requirements of punters, and not just special-pleading groups from within the sport.

    But I will stop banging that particular drum for now, as I seem to have about as much chance of succeeding in this as Paul Roy has of securing £150m for racing in the next Levy settlement.


  3. Simon Rowlands | 05 October 2010

    Someone got in touch to point out that "the Levy is "A mechanism for transferring funds from the business of betting on horseraces to ‘horseracing’ in a broad sense" in the words of Government. In other words, it's a payment for the right to take bets. In other words, it's not subsidy."

    A mistake (or more accurately a piece of cheekiness) on my behalf that I am happy to correct now.

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