"Steamers" and "drifters" - a myth worth busting

General RSS / / 12 July 2008 / 3 Comments

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Jack Houghton tries to get to the bottom of the myth regarding whether drifters always lose and steamers always win. Let the stats do the talking, he says.

Betting shops have changed, haven't they? It used to be you could guarantee a complex social microcosm; identical in every shop. The group of pensioners: split three-quarters male, one-quarter female; the former studiously assessing each race (two minutes before the off), the latter saving all effort and backing Frankie.

The group of Chinese restaurant workers, playing a virtual roulette game whilst shuttle-sprinting back-and-forth to claim an interest in each upcoming dog race; all the time shouting at each other, and the television screens, in tongues.

The builder, the suit and the random man with no shoes, all milling around, seeking shelter from a life outside they can't bear to return to just yet. And sometimes, in the corner, a curled-up scruffy pooch, occasionally sighing, Yoda-like, at his cohabitants' predicament.

In any bookies I ever went to, there they all were, in the surrounds of linoleum covered tables; trampling fag-ends and scrunched-up betting-slips into linoleum covered floors. But not anymore.

I popped in one the other day and there was an on-site coffee shop. Admittedly, the clientele looked the same, and none of them were drinking double-shot mochas, but the surroundings were certainly different. No-one was smoking, which felt strange: although the constant nicotine waft carried inside by a continually moving torch relay pricked memories of what betting shops should smell like. And there was a carpet, which was clean. As were the toilets. All very different.

Then it happened. Tannoy man alerted all present to a "steamer" in the next race: a horse backed down from 7-1 to 11-2. Quietly, one-by-one, as if answering a call to prayer, each person there present diligently filled out a slip and proceeded to the counter to give their daily bread. This wasn't so different after all. The staging might look changed; but the cast had never been so same.

It's easy to ridicule the behaviour of betting shop punters, labelling them "mugs", but this hive mentality is to be expected when so many in the racing media use the words "steamer" and "drifter" as short-hand for "certain winner" or "certain loser". It's become instinctive to view a shortening price as evidence of a well-planned betting coup-in-waiting, and to view a lengthening price as evidence of a horse that won't be winning today.

And yet few pause to consider why, if this is the case, Willbrokes are so keen to announce these steamers and drifters over their in-shop tannoys. Surely, were the perception grounded in fact, they would do all they could to disguise such betting moves?

The popularity of steamer and drifter announcements, whether in shops or on television, is ludicrous on many fronts. First, what constitutes a steamer? Commentators will get excited by a horse backed from 100-1 to 20-1, and yet barely mention a move from 4-1 to 3-1, even though the latter represents a bigger move in terms of the overall book percentage.

Second, why is it relevant? The possible causes of a horse drifting from 8-1 to 14-1 are numerous, the most plausible being that the market, as a whole, felt its correct price to be longer than the original offering. Does that make it a value lay at its new price? Possibly, but unlikely.

The nearest I've come to following a betting system (of the kind outlined by Wayne Bailey) was after studying the performance of "steamers" and "drifters" in a sample of over 65,000 horses who ran in 2006. Noting the price of all horses two hours before the off and their starting price, I categorised all "steamers" as those whose odds had shortened by five per cent of the book or more, and all "drifters" as those whose odds had lengthened the same.

The categorisation was arbitrary, but showed compelling evidence as to the folly of blindly following market moves. To a £10 stake, you would have lost nearly £3,500 backing steamers, and won nearly £2,310 backing drifters. Perhaps this is why Willbrokes are so keen to propagate the steamer myth?

Unfortunately, the analysis cannot easily be turned into a profitable betting system. The analysis is retrospective, making it impossible to accurately implement in future races. In other words, it's impossible to know whether a horse is a drifter or what price you are supposed to back it at until after the betting market has closed.

But it does demonstrate the need to be price sensitive when betting. Whether it's a drifter or steamer - whatever they may be - is irrelevant: no bet should be placed unless you are certain it represents value. And that's something you need to decide for yourself.

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Comments (3)

  1. Jack Houghton | 19 July 2008

    I have no idea what time on Saturday this article was posted on site. I had written it on Thursday, before heading off on a stag do (I seem to spend my life on stag dos at the moment), and so missed Saturday's racing.

    On my return, I found the following press release from Betfair in my inbox, another in a long line of examples of high-profile drifters going on to win. I hope some of you were able to profit...

    "ARCHIPENKO became the latest horse to defy a massive drift to win a high-profile Saturday race today, when winning the Group 2 Plymouth Gin Summer Mile at Ascot .

    Mike De Kock's 4yo drifted from 5-1 to 16-1 at one point on Betfair, before returning at a Betfair SP of 14-1 (Industry SP 11-1).

    Betfair spokesman Tony Calvin commented: "There are plenty of people out there who still cling to the belief that drifters never win.

    "However, Arc Bleu trebled in price before winning the Northumberland Plate recently. And after Archipenko's victory today, I think that attitude will be on the wane somewhat.

    "When you think about it logically, how or why should a bigger price about your fancy somehow be a negative?""

  2. Sandracer | 21 August 2010

    I can't say I back drifters as a rule, or system. I do get very happy when my ones drift, whereas some punters start to worry when there's drift.

    The betting public have made the thing drift.

    They don't know who's going to win the races any more than my cat does.


  3. Jeff Waters | 24 January 2012

    Hi Jack

    Have you conducted any further studies since 2006, to see if what you found still applies?



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