Luck In Horse

LuckThe Role of Luck
  in Horse Racing

We’ve all heard punters talking about missing out on big dividends – the ‘ones that got away’ so to speak. Haven’t we all got such stories to tell? These stories quite often involve long shots or bet types like the trifecta, quadrella or BIG6 – and they always involve the element of ‘luck’. Luck and horse racing go hand in hand. Of course the horseshoe is a universal symbol for luck.

I once wrote a story for Racetrack magazine about just missing out on a $135,000 Quaddie dividend. The tale won the magazine’s ‘Hard Luck Story of the Month’ prize. Just what is ‘luck’ and how much of a role does it play in our winning or losing at the races? According to Wikipedia ‘luck’ is a belief in good or bad fortune in life caused by accident or chance which is beyond a person's control.  Some of us believe in luck more than others. The Star Wars character Obi-Wan Kenobi once said “In my experience, there's no such thing as luck”. However, many of us of the human persuasion accept that luck does play a role in our lives - and it is one of the most common and persistent of beliefs.

When I think of luck I am reminded of the Graham Greene story of a man who was once walking along a street in
Naples and who was killed by a pig which fell from a balcony five floors above him. Apparently the poor of Naples
used to keep pigs on their balconies and this one got so fat that the balcony collapsed. It’s hard to argue that bad luck was involved – for both the man and the pig. However, we are not interested in luck as it relates to pigs, but rather to race horses - and how it affects their winning prospects.

Aussieraces.comhas conducted a study into the role that luck plays in horse racing. To our knowledge this is one of the first studies of its kind. By using empirical evidence we have been able to quantify the degree of influence that luck has in determining race outcomes. The results may surprise you – they certainly did us. Luck in horse racing is not as random as many people may believe. Indeed, as punters we have the power to influence the degree to which ‘luck’, both good and bad plays in our betting exploits.

derbyhorseFor the purposes of our study we defined ‘good luck’ as a horse having a trouble free run and ‘bad luck’ as a horse suffering some kind of mishap during the run. To gain empirical evidence for our research, we studied stewards reports. Stewards are much maligned, but credit where credit is due - these days stewards reports are much more comprehensive and accurate than they have been in the past. In fact, nothing much gets past those guys in the pork pie hats. If a horse met with trouble in the run, most of the time it will be highlighted in the stewards report. We have therefore used stewards reports as the basis for our research. We studied the runs of a 1,000 horses which raced at metropolitan tracks in Melbourne and Sydney. We tallied up every time a horse was bumped, tightened, slow out and so on.

Over the years we’ve read endless stewards reports and we’ve found that there are also endless ways that a horse can get beaten. There have been cases of horses careering through running rails, into seagulls, stepping into potholes, shying at advertising hoardings and even being distracted by streakers. Besides having a lot of ability, horses obviously need a lot of luck to be first past the post.

We analyzed the stewards reports from all the races involving the 1000 horses and divided the kinds of mishaps that the horses had during the running of the races into six different categories –

1. Horses which were Forced To Race Wide.
2. Horses whichDid Not Race Truly.
3. Horses which wereBumped or Unbalanced
4. Horses which wereSlow to Jump
5. Horses which wereHampered or Held Up
6. Horses which hadMiscellaneous Mishaps.

                       Table One Mishaps Suffered By Runners

 Stewards Comment


How Many Won

  Odds of Winning

Forced to Raced Wide


       5   (11%)


Did Not Race Truly


       5    (8%)


Bumped or Unbalanced


       3    (6%)


Slow to Jump


       3    (4%)


Hampered or Held Up


       5    (3%)


Miscellaneous Mishaps*


      Nil   (0%)


Total Number of Instances that Horses had Mishaps




Total Number of Horses that had Mishaps


       21  (6%)


(* These tended to be serious mishaps that basically put a horse out of contention. For example a horse pulling up shin sore, heat distressed, jarring up, bleeding, pulling up lame, hitting the running rail, falling, suffering from atrial fibrillation etc).

So how do we attempt to make some sense of 'Lady Luck’s' role in horse racing? The table above shows that of the 1000 horses studied there were 444 instances of horses suffering some kind of mishap in the run. Taking into account that some runners suffered mishaps twice or more in the same race, the actual number of horses experiencing mishaps in their races was 350 of the 1000 or 35%.

The most striking feature of the figures above is that they show how important a trouble free run is to a horse’s chances of winning. 35% or more than one in every three runners experienced some kind of mishap during the running of their races. However, only 6% of horses which suffered mishaps during their races won.

The above table gives us an overview of the types of interference or troubles that horses can strike in the run. The ‘Odds of Winning’ column on the right shows the impact that these kinds of mishaps have on horses' winning prospects. For example, of the 162 horses found to be 'Hampered' or 'Held Up' during their races, only five won - or 3% of them. In other words, if a horse that you back suffers these kinds of interference in the run - its chances of winning on average are 33 to 1.

My dad used to give me some advice when I was a youth heading out for a night on the town - “try to stay out of trouble” he would say. Can we as punters actually select horses that are likely to stay out of trouble? The answer is a resounding 'yes'.

For example, want to minimize the likelihood that the horses you invest on will be forced wide in the run? Simply
study speed maps and avoid backing on pace runners which are drawn in wide barriers, especially in larger fields. What about horses which do not race truly? Gallopers which race waywardly (e.g. race greenly, hang, over race, pull hard, get their head up etc) seem to repeat these behaviours. Their bad manners are easily identified in form guides like the Sportsman which shows comments from stewards reports in the form. As horses which race waywardly don’t win many races, it is a good idea to limit our exposure to them.

Big horses are more likely to become unbalanced in the run than small horses as they have a higher centre of gravity. Even a slight bump in the run can bring them undone. These large beasts are especially vulnerable on tight turning tracks. It’s a much better idea to bet on this kind of horse on a roomy racecourse such as Flemington or Randwick than tight circuits like MooneeValley or Canterbury.

Horses which begin slowly are often repeat offenders. They can also be identified in form guides like the Sportsman which shows comments from stewards reports in the form. Just scroll down a horse’s form in the Sportsman and you will often see the comments ‘Slow Away’ or ‘Jumped Awkwardly’ after runs. A horse which misses the jump once can be forgiven. Horses which miss the start regularly should be avoided. The evidence is clear - the above figures show that of the 1,000 horses that we studied - just three of them won their races after being slow to leave the barriers.

Betting on leaders and on pacers will also limit your exposure to many kinds of mishaps as horses which race in these positions statistically suffer a lot less interference than other runners. At the other end of the scale horses which race back in the pack are the most likely to be 'hampered' or 'held up' and this is one of the main reasons why back markers have such poor strike rates.

When doing the form and making selections its a smart strategy to take into account the kinds of considerations outlined above. Do so and ‘Lady Luck’ will surely smile upon the horses that you back more often.