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How one Nottingham maiden changed my punting forever

Telecaster (left) outlasts Too Darn Hot in last week's Dante
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Melrose on Betting is our new weekly column from Racing Post betting editor Keith Melrose. Read his thoughts on punting every Friday in the newspaper, or on racingpost.com from 6pm on Thursday with a Members' Club Ultimate subscription


It is well known that maidens at Nottingham produce more than their share of smart performers and those who saw the 3.00 there on October 29, 2014 would have noticed another promising debut success.

The winner had gone in by just a head, so perhaps he was no superstar, but he had come from the back in what appeared a moderately run race and the runner-up was seven lengths clear of the rest.

The chances were both would be good three-year-olds; maybe the winner would be one to note in handicaps off a mark in the 90s before ending up in the Tercentenary Stakes or the King Edward VII at Royal Ascot if connections were lucky.

The following morning, something interesting happened. Ears were pricked as the whispers disseminated through the office: 'Did you see that winner at Nottingham yesterday? The sectionals says he's really good.'

In the 367 days that followed, we watched Golden Horn's career as he won the Derby, Eclipse, Irish Champion Stakes and Arc. His primary victim at Nottingham, by the way, was Storm The Stars who was placed in two Derbys and the Grand Prix de Paris.

Golden Horn's talent was immediately clear to followers of sectional timing

We will all have a few Damascene moments in our punting lifetime and this was among mine. Sectionals were something for people who lacked the requisite qualitative judgement, I thought, until Golden Horn came along. Now it is obvious, embarrassingly so, to note the reality is much more nuanced.

There are still people who oppose the introduction of data to assist bettors in their search for winners. Some do it out of reasons which boil down to disguised spite or inverse snobbery, and can be safely ignored. What is more surprising is the ambivalence of some with a tangible incentive to see the sport grow, from racing professionals to some excellent judges and pro punters, which was seen most recently in last year's debate over declaring wind operations.

From the point of view of, say, trainers, we would do well to remember their contact with bettors is skewed by those whose primary focus is on a Twitter handle or 'Contact us' page.

Their take is therefore understandable, but misguided. Trainers would not wish to be judged by the worst behaved in their profession and as fans of the sport we ask only for the same.

The apathy from certain others who make reading the sport pay is more interesting, as it strikes at the reality of data provision in racing.

Not everyone will use, say, horse weights to inform their betting, and some can tell an unfit horse when they see it in the paddock or by how it shapes on the track. A skilled paddock watcher or race reader may manage that 70 per cent of the time, a pro punter maybe 90 per cent of the time and the assistance needed among the latter group is accordingly small.

In short, sometimes everyone needs help from the figures to reach an accurate conclusion, whether they know it or not. The difference between an ordinary, sound and top-notch judge is just a measure of how often or rarely that need exists. The 'visuals boys' don't get lucky, they are just highly proficient.

The fact we do not all paint with the same colours is one of the best things about betting on horses. There are people who use Signposts religiously, whereas they grace my screen only for an occasional glance at trainers' course records. Others would no doubt scoff at the amount of time I spend looking into the pedigrees of prospective chasers.

The Racing Post provides an unrivalled breadth of angles already to reflect diversity among bettors. Why would we resist bringing in more, if it were readily available? It is already easy to disregard what you view as unimportant and that would not change.

The appetite for more accessible and in-depth data is evident in the wider sporting world. We have recently watched expected goals (xG) go from the fringes of social media to Match Of The Day in the space of a few years. Racing, with its similarities to human athletics, lends itself even better than football to performance metrics. Our xG should come, but from where?

Masar's monstrous stride length pointed towards a 16-1 Derby success

There have been a couple of high-profile instances in the last 12 months that show striding data winning out over the usual guessing games we play.

Striding data takes both the length and frequency of a horse's stride and draws conclusions based on those. An easy-to-see human equivalent would be Usain Bolt's loping stride compared with his 100m rivals, but most examples are not so obvious.

Last year, Masar turned up in the Derby as a beaten favourite in the 2,000 Guineas and was sent off at 16-1. A few voices, driven mostly by a stride length that had been measured as 'off the scale', urged faith to be kept up in trip (in general, longer strides are associated with suitability for longer distances). We know the rest.

Another example arose just last week. Those pointing to stride frequency, or cadence, had long been casting doubt over Too Darn Hot's stamina for further than a mile, flying in the face of the trips he ran over as a juvenile and those his relatives stayed later in their careers. On the evidence of the Dante, they would be broadly correct. 

Of course, very good horses can stick out from raw data and it would still be no bigger than evens that Too Darn Hot will stay a mile and a quarter at some point this year, but the early warning system might have saved burned fingers at short odds at York, or a hopeless ante-post position for the Derby.

It can feel like letting daylight in on magic at first and, understandably, many racing fans do not want that. Punting by feel, giving the impression winners are found by force of one's wits alone, is an essential part of the experience for a large number of recreational punters.

The idea of using complex data to pin down what is currently regarded as 'je ne sais quoi' came to mind in one particular case over the winter. Followers of Paul Kealy would have been well aware of how down he was on Champion Hurdle hope Laurina, quite logically pointing to her level of form being way off the required standard.

While it was impossible to disagree on those lines, gut instinct often resisted. "But Paul, she's just good. Can't you tell?" "No, I don't quite know why. She just is."

Maybe we should all just listen to Paul. There would certainly be worse strategies and it would have saved me a saver at Cheltenham. Far better would be that if one day instinct comes with a bit more evidence.

Incidentally, some stride pattern analysis has been conducted on Laurina. It suggests that she is indeed top class, but will probably need two and a half miles. Come next winter, I'll be watching.

Laurina has always had the W-factor, but could we pin it down some time?


Other measures that could help punters

Horse weights
Publishing the weights of all runners, primarily as a guide to fitness. Anecdotally, these are already used privately by some trainers

Sectionals
Not only can they pick out hidden Golden Horns, sectionals are generally a solid guide to the pace at which races are run (for example if they go too quick, they'll finish slowly)

Times-based going
Viewed by bettors as the most accurate measure of ground conditions. Helps with retrospective form study


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We will all have a few Damascene moments in our punting lifetime and this was among mine
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