I know nothing about the science of statistics. The first time I took a serious interest in them was when I fancied Captain Cee Bee to win the 2008 Supreme Novices and all the stats gurus told me to ‘discard 7-y-olds’ as they had a dire record in the race.
I didn’t want to discard the Captain because he looked to have a great chance and he was 10/1, so, like many of us, I tried to make my fancy fit the facts rather than the other way round. Stats were still king at that point.
I dug back through the previous 10 years of Supreme results and found that little more than a handful of 7-y-olds had run in the race. Even a non-statistician like me, who failed basic maths at school, could work out that the reason the age group had a poor record was that the sample size was tiny.
Happily, the stats guys helped push out the price of captain Cee Bee who beat 21 others home in the Supreme.
In the UK, the doyen of stats is Nick Mordin. His signature style is utter conviction. His systems are announced in Eureka fashion. A Mordin theory disproved is one where some outside agency must have spannered the works. I don’t read him much these days but his piece in the most recent Weekender suggests his discoveries are still revelatory, to Nick at least.
Still, if his word is the Bible, he has plenty of apostles.
His Betting for a Living book garners an average of 4 stars from 11 Amazon.co.uk reviewers. Just one 1- star review:
“I only bothered to read the first chapter in which he sets out the extremely complicated form study methods requiring access to numerous expensive form manuals. He also states that about 24 people per annum make a living out of gambling on horses. So it was a waste of money.”
Nick gets six 5-star reviews, the most recent (May 2009):
“With a fast moving betting scene and technology evolving to facilitate new strategies, books can become outdated relatively quickly. There are sections of this book that are now slightly outdated (keeping file cards, references to Sporting Life, no references to internet etc), but the majority is still pertinent for today’s serious gambler and therefore is still worth buying. Chapters structured into usual subjects, distance, class, going etc, with some interesting ideas and thought.
In summary a worthwhile addition to any serious horseracing book collection.”
My experience of Nick’s systems and theories has been confined to reading his Weekender column. I find much of his reasoning so convoluted it feels as though I’ve been led through a maze to a resounding ‘Voila!’ at the exit.
Here’s a sample from what I read in his column today which sums up Mr Mordin’s style beautifully – the words in italics are mine
“I’ve touched on this subject once or twice before in this column. It’s something I call ‘seasonality’. This is a broad term which covers a range of factors that appear to affect horses differently according to the time of year.
“One of these factors is fitness level which clearly changes through the course of a season.
“You can see this from the percentage of horses in British Flat races on turf who have earned the comment ‘looked well’ from Raceform’s paddock watchers over the last 15 years according to a test I ran on Raceform Interactive (at this point he refers to a table displayed on the page with percentages monthly from March to November inclusive as follows 6.4:6.9:8.5:8.8:9.1:10.1:10.4:8.4:7.0)
“As you can see, the results suggest that average fitness levels of horses in Britain start out at a relatively low percentage, rise with successive months to peak in September, then taper off as horses start to feel the effects of a long season. (looking well will be nothing to do with summer coats, grooming, nutrition and general wellbeing?)
“I looked at these stats just after I’d been studying a bunch of smart horses who have already run in France this year so it’s not surprising it struck me just how much the French Flat season is out of sync with those in Britain and Ireland.
“In France their top horses start running about six or eight weeks before those in Britain and Ireland.
“This is surely (a typical assertion) why most of them get rested for six to eight weeks over the summer as they need that break to be fresh enough for the big French autumn races like the Arc.
“Having got to this point I started thinking about which particular group of top French horses would hold the biggest fitness edge over their British and Irish counterparts this early in the season.
“I figured the sprinters weren’t the right answer because horses frequently win big sprints after long layoffs . Fillies weren’t the right answer because they’re much easier to get fit than colts according to my research. Two-year-olds were the wrong group because the good French two-year-olds don’t start running till much later in the year. And horses aged four and above looked wrong because they have the chance to run in big races before the start of the British Flat season, notably in Dubai
(I resisted peppering the previous paragraph with italics simply to preserve the wondrous rambling , hypnotic, Alice In Wonderland madness of it)
“By a process of elimination (!) I arrived at the answer that the British and Irish horses which have the biggest fitness disadvantage against French ones early in the season are three-year-old colts and geldings running beyond sprint distances.
“This being so, a system to exploit the situation almost wrote itself. Look for any British or Irish three-year-old colt or gelding who runs well on his seasonal debut in a French race over 1m or more before June, earning a racing post rating of at least 100.
“If you’d adopted my normal strategy of backing the qualifiers in their next three starts, you would have won 16 bets from 74 over the past 15 years and made a profit of £113.67 to a £1 level stake.
“At this stage there are no qualifiers on the system because the races in which they run . . . take place over the next four weeks. There are plenty of British and Irish horses entered for those races so I’d keep a close eye on the results because the profits this system has produced in the past have been remarkably high” (With system results bringing one winner a year, I think I’d rather pan for gold in the Scottish hills Nick)
Nick’s other theory this week, the one which initially caught my eye was that Denman was over the top in the Totesport Bowl – “I saw Punchestowns as a cert (It was Nick’s best bet of the season) because Denman looked likely to be over the top according to some other stats I uncovered (note the revelatory ‘uncovered’) before the race.
“Those stats were certainly powerful (Oh yes?). They stem from the fact that the Totesport Bowl comes at the end of the season (surely not!) when many of the top jumpers are in need of a break. This is especially true for the top 3m chasers as big 3m chases are very taxing. Most often the runners sustain a 2m pace for 3m (some animals!) and this takes a lot out of them. It makes sense therefore that the race has been a graveyard for horses who ran really well last time out.
“The one big run late in the season frequently puts them over the top and they run below form in the Totesport Bowl”.
Nick offers a table of evidence featuring Kauto Star, Denman, Imperial Commander, Desert Orchid etc adding “If Long Run hadn’t sidestepped this year’s race, I daresay the top five (highest rated) would have been beaten” (A natural Nick assumption despite Long Run’s three-race season – 7 runs and 8 runs respectively in his previous two seasons)
Nary a mention of the unsuitability of the Mildmay course for the likes of Denman and Imperial Commander. Not a whisper of Kauto Star’s demolition of the second-last fence in his nose defeat. Zero information on Denman’s comparatively quiet season for a horse claimed to be over-the-top.
The Weekender’s audience will, I suspect, (only suspect, mind, I have no stats) have its fair share of wide-eyed optimists who take Mr Mordin’s caveat-free style as the word of a man who not only knows his business but has been generous enough to share his professorial certainty with them. For a cover-price of £2.50
Mr Mordin’s pitch mirrors that of snake-oil salesmen in the old wild west. The difference being he really believes in his magic potions. And he never leaves town in the dead of night.