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Horse Racing

Racing Through Generations

Oscar Foulkes February 5, 2020 Horse Racing No comments
This was my (unsuccessful) entry in the LQP Writers’ Contest.

I attended my first Queen’s Plate in 1984. Wolf Power was the winner, ridden by Jeff Lloyd. His sensational run of form over a magical 18-month period left the kind of impression that is unique to young people seeing their first champion. I can’t think of Wolf Power without imagining The Guv on his back, Lloyd’s extra-short stirrups thrusting his body into a pose matching that of an inverted isosceles triangle. His ‘look’ on the back of a horse was different to that of any other jockey.

Charles Faull’s iconic canter past picture of Wolf Power prior to the 1984 Queen’s Plate is a study in grey, black and white, with further grey provided by the smoke backdrop.

It seems appropriate, then, that a grass fire downwind of Kenilworth had sent thick clouds of smoke across the racetrack as we awaited the start of the 2020 L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate. My racing companion was my daughter, having her first LQP experience. My son had been with me the day before, also making his LQP debut.

There is a great deal of information for racing ‘newbies’ to absorb; far more than can be shared in one afternoon (not that my children are newbies in the same sense as the LQP party goers). I started by explaining the significance of this as the country’s most important 1600m race, because of the weight-for-age (WFA) conditions, as well as its long and proud history.

I then told them that their grandmother had bred the winner three times, twice with Winter Solstice, and then his close relative Mother Russia. My mother’s second cousin, Dan de Wet, bred Pocket Power, which meant that there was an unbroken seven-year sequence of LQP winners from the de Wet family.

You have to go back to 1951 to find another individual woman (i.e. not a de facto inclusion as part of a marital partnership) to have bred a winner, in the form of Peggy Kelly, the registered breeder of Black Cap. While those circumstances are unknown to me, the expectation is that Ms Kelly’s role wasn’t quite as hands-on – or riven with risk – as that of Veronica Foulkes.

My mother didn’t need to look far for female role models. Her own mother, Margaret de Wet was an inspiration.

When her husband, Oscar de Wet, died early in their marriage, my maternal grandmother took over the running of the family farm, Excelsior. Keeping with this essay’s theme of timely connection between past and present, the current issue of Farmer’s Weekly has an archive section in which they’ve reproduced an article about my grandmother that was first published in 1964. Woman farmers were scarcer than hen’s teeth in those days, and magazine articles about them fewer still. The discovery of this article brought my extended family to a reverent standstill.

When I was born (on my mother’s 21st birthday), my mother forever tied me to de Wet heritage by making it my second name. It’s become easier to make my initials “OD” or “ODW”, but the NHRA has stuck with the more correct “O de W”.

The de Wet family settled in Ashton in 1869, when my great great grandfather, Koos, purchased a large tract of land after eloping with his brother’s fiancée. In 1878, he bought the stallion Octavius Caesar from the stud of Queen Victoria (I haven’t been able to establish what impact his progeny had on the race that owes its genesis – and name – to this monarch).

The original farm was split between Koos’ three sons, into entities that still exist – Zandvliet, Prospect (divided once more) and Excelsior. All three were important studs at various periods in the 20th century.

Returning to the LQP Festival, my grandfather, Oscar de Wet, bred the winner of the second and third runnings of the Paddock Stakes, in the form of Country Cousin. At stud she produced the Sceptre Stakes winner, Tabor.

Looking back over the list of breeders with winners in the races that comprise the LQP Festival, primarily the Queen’s Plate, it’s striking how few have retained any kind of continuity. Most of them are no longer in operation. The line from Koos de Wet to Veronica Foulkes is admittedly not a direct one in a patriarchal sense, but it feels significant that it comes at the end of an unbroken 150-year heritage of breeding Thoroughbreds. Unless one of my children or nephews gets involved, I’m the last man standing.

It’s the final third of this history that obviously is most real to me, because these are filled with the broodmares and their descendants that I’ve been around since I was a little boy. Perhaps the most important of these – in a L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate context – was the mare Terpsichore, in that two of her daughters produced Queen’s Plate winners. To date, this is the only family to have produced multiple winners.

Breeding operations generally close down when a stud has had a run of bad stallions. This was especially true of Karoo studs, where it was not practical to send mares to outside stallions. The second reason internal to the stud is the degree of interest from the owner and future generations. Finally, there is the critically important external factor: commercial viability.

Racing faces tough times, partly due to the dire state of the South African economy, but mostly thanks to racing’s inability to hold onto its existing customer base, let alone grow it.

The LQP Festival plays a vital leadership role in the process of reversing decades of complacency if not outright incompetence. For those of us who are invested in the future of this great sport, blue and white are the colours of hope.

Every aspect of the event is managed with minute attention to detail and deep levels of care. It has been grown conservatively, getting just a little bit bigger every year, set against the best racing it is possible to assemble, on the country’s fairest racecourse (in both senses of the word). Of course there is glamour, fashion, celebrity and an after party, because racing is in a unique position to deliver those things. The core product – the horse/racing – delivers an immediate rush from up close, but is admittedly a longer, more complex journey, as it engages both mind and feeling.

At the moment, the direst of predictions might not see racing surviving another ten years, let alone have its future mirror the long history of many of the sport’s professionals.

It is up to my children to choose their fields of study, and ultimately the kind of work they’ll do, presumably in vibrant industries. I’m not going to push them into any direction. However, I owe it to them to share the things that are important to me, especially the ones I feel in the pit of my stomach. Thoroughbred racing and breeding is one of those.

I could wax lyrical about horses’ beauty, the power of them at gallop, the liberation of being on horseback, the wonderful experience of being surrounded by a group of inquisitive yearlings in a paddock, the hopes and dreams that plot the route back from disappointments, or the many hours of planning that precede bloodstock decisions. The fact is that all of the above is simply something I feel. And it’s good.

Over 1600m, the drag effect of weight is two pounds per length. It’s a handy entry point for making handicapping calculations over all other distances, by making a pro rata adjustment. Furthermore, handicapping is incomplete without an understanding of WFA. Could the WFA 1600m L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate also be an entry point for a broader reinvigoration of our sport? I do hope so.

The race’s record also happens to be a hook on which one can hang just about any story about the greatest of our jockeys, trainers, racehorses, stallions, broodmares and breeders, not to mention the owners that paid the bills. Eventually, all those stories intersect with the Queen’s Plate.

Smoke and fire have an obvious connection. I am willing a blue and white feathered phoenix to rise from those ashes.

Broodmare covering records in my great great grandmother’s notebook

My grandmother in 1964, with her trophy-winning yearling, Agricola.

A Job For Life

Oscar Foulkes July 25, 2017 Horse Racing No comments
Speaking additional languages isn’t just about making oneself understood. One also needs to be aware of the polite word for things – and I don’t mean words that are impolitely used to refer to faecal matter. Take the Afrikaans word bek, for instance, as used in the expression “hou jou bek”, which translates as “hold your mouth”. It’s the “shut your trap” equivalent of “hold your tongue”, because the polite word for mouth is mond.

Admittedly, I never thought about it with any great latitude, but I couldn’t understand how bek could be mond, until I was on a trip to Montreal and saw the French word bec, indicating the spout of a milk carton. Bec, of course, is also the word for beak, so now it all makes sense.

When Afrikaners say, “Hy is nie op sy bek geval nie”, which is directly translated as “he hasn’t fallen on his mouth”, they are referring to someone who isn’t slow to open his mouth to say something. In a dry and slightly obtuse way, it’s more likely to refer to someone who is witty, sharp, opinionated or arrogant than a run-of-the-mill chatterbox.

I’ll get back to bek in a minute.

There is a perennial shortage of commentators in horse racing. These are the guys (yes, because women hardly ever volunteer) who ‘call’ the races. In the days before video coverage, their job was even more important, but it remains necessary for someone to tell fans where each horse is in the race. Good commentators will flesh it out with comment about horses that are squandering their chances by running wide on the bend. Great ones will spot the supposed no-hoper at the back of the field, with tons in reserve, about to mow down the leaders.

In the late 80s, Sandy Bickett had long since retired as Cape Town commentator. So desperate was the need for commentators that they kept him on even though he regularly made mistakes. Current head commentator Jehan Malherbe started under Bickett. He’s had a succession of understudies, and has been trying to switch off his mic for decades, but management won’t let him leave. It’s for good reason, I should add, because Jehan is a great commentator, in the sense of truly being able to ‘read’ a race. That is a skill that comes from watching tens of thousands of races.

The point of this story is that racing’s operators are perpetually on a drive to recruit aspirant commentators. For someone with the ‘gift of the gab’ – partially similar to nie op sy bek geval nie – an employment opportunity awaits. This may be the only lifetime employment currently being offered anywhere, although I’m sure Jehan wishes it wasn’t.

Given my laryngeal issues, these days I tend to speak only when I have something important to say, and even then – especially in noisy surroundings – I’ll often hold back. However, when my youth was at its brashest, my bek was in full swing. There were many times my future self should have put a hand on my shoulder and told me to shut the fuck up. At the time, I was doing some television presenting for horse racing. I was always keen for some extra money, so I thought I’d give it a go.

There is no school or handbook for learning to be a commentator. You may sit in your bedroom with a tape recorder and call a fictitious race. That’s relatively easy. Harder is to sit in the stands mouthing a commentary on a real race.

Nothing beats the chill that engulfs your entire body when you’re sitting in front of a live mic, looking through binoculars, and realising that there are jockey silks that you can’t match to a horse. Or vice versa, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The plan was that I would make general racecourse announcements and call horses to post for a few weeks. When I did my first actual call, Jehan would be standing by my side, ready to prompt me if I stumbled over the horses. The problem was that I got impatient. Instead, when I did my first call, Jehan was standing next to a crackly speaker on Greyville racecourse wanting to listen to the Cape commentary. When he heard my voice, I suspect he felt the same kind of chill I described above. Or perhaps it was just anger. Had there been cell phones he could have taken immediate action, but there weren’t.

It all started fine, but somewhere along the line a horse’s name escaped me, or maybe a few. The speaker at Greyville – and thousands in off-course Totes and bookmakers’ rooms around the country, went silent. The crackle was no indication of technical problems. This was commentator malfunction, or put it another way, this was crackle without the cackle.

Soon after the horses turned for home I was able to pick it up again, and managed to finish the race. There must have been a stand-in commentator, although I can’t recall whether it was Neill Duffy, Mike Wanklin or Shaheen Shaw. It could even have been James Bester, so long was the list of Jehan’s successive understudies, until Rouvaan Smit came along.

This was not my finest moment, to put it politely. I knew that I’d screwed up big time, I felt terrible about it, and I was determined to fix it next time. Things weren’t improved by the article that Annabel Andrews wrote for the Cape Times in the week thereafter, with a headline that clearly didn’t tax the sub-editor: “No Oscar for this commentator”, or something to that effect.

The following race meeting, with Jehan back in Cape Town, we did it the way it was supposed to happen first time around. As I was calling the horses into the stalls, the phone rang. It was Mike Louw, the course manager (although I can’t be sure that I’ve recalled his job title correctly): “Get Oscar out of the commentary box!”

“I can’t”, said Jehan, “I haven’t learnt the colours.” And then he took the phone off the hook.

The call wouldn’t have won any prizes, but it was fine. I got through it. That should – or could – have been the first step to redemption, but racecourse management had other ideas. The following week I received a letter from Mike Louw banning me from the commentary box for life.

Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, this was possibly the one with the greatest cringe factor, demonstrated by the fact that it’s taken me nearly 30 years to tell the story. Until a clean-out last year, I had both the newspaper clipping and Mike Louw’s letter in a dusty file. Instead of keeping glowing school reports, I kept a vicious newspaper article and a letter of rejection. I couldn’t tell you why I kept them, but now that I’m finally telling the story, I’m sorry I threw them out. It would have been fun to post them here.

Partly because of what’s happened to my voice, I listen with pleasure and admiration to people who employ their voices by singing or speaking in public. Beautiful voices are like birdsong. Perhaps the reference to beak is a good one, after all.

Here are some fun commentaries:

Mind Games in Horse Racing

Oscar Foulkes October 25, 2015 Horse Racing No comments
Arezzo-wins-Listed-Settlers-TrophyHorse racing is pitched as “the intelligent bet” because there are so many dimensions that can be critically examined. I’m going to illustrate this by means of a race that was run yesterday at Kenilworth.

This does come with an advance apology. Much of what follows may be somewhat technical (or, ‘higher grade’, as some may say), but I’ll try to keep it as accessible as possible. It’s not for nothing that I’ve used “mind games” in the title of this post!

On Monday last week, the field was published for the Woolavington Handicap, to be run over 2400m at Kenilworth:

Zante 4yo filly 61kg
Deputy Ryder 4yo filly 58kg
Desert Swirl 5yo colt 58kg
Friendly Tibbs 5yo gelding 57.5kg
Ovidio 5yo gelding 55kg
Arezzo 4yo colt 52.5kg
Parachute Man 4yo gelding 52kg
Forte de Ouro 4yo colt 52kg
A Time To Kill 5yo gelding 52kg
Private Doowaley 6yo colt 52kg

A handicap is a race in which the horses carry weights – assigned by the handicapper – that will theoretically result in a dead heat. In other words, the weight is used to equalise the relative merit of the runners. However, the South African merit rating system, as used by the handicappers, is something of a blunt instrument, in that horses often end up with ratings so high that they are rendered uncompetitive at the weights they then have to carry.

On this basis, I immediately wrote off Zante and Deputy Ryder, both of which are good fillies, but nowhere near good enough to carry 61kg and 58kg against a decent field of colts.

With the exception of Ovidio, many of these horses met a month earlier, in the Settlers Trophy. I’ll go into the rationale shortly, but immediately upon seeing the Woolavington field, I sent Jono Snaith this message: “I think Ovidio is a big runner if he gets the extra 400m (assuming his 4.5 length beating of A Time to Kill is a fair reflection).” Like Arezzo, Ovidio is trained by Justin Snaith. My interest in all this comes about as a result of my tiny shareholding in Arezzo.

Jono was confident that he would get the distance. My doubts lay in the first two generations of Ovidio’s pedigree, which is loaded with horses who were best up to about a mile. However, his grandam was by Kenmare, a solid 2400m influence. Further stamina can be found in his third generation, but it needed to leapfrog the more immediate ancestors.

As you can see, all of this analysis is multi-dimensional, bringing together not just handicapping, but also genealogy.

Before we get to the actual races that make up this analysis, a bit of background on handicapping. Weight has a drag effect, which is measurable – Newton’s Second Law in action. The conversion of weight to lengths beaten over different distances is not widely publicised. The work of Phil Bull, the founder of Timeform, is key to this, but given that he did his work without the benefit of computers, the conversion rates are in user-friendly round numbers, rather than pesky decimals.

Establishing the data for ‘lengths beaten’ is a minefield of its own, because of the different ways of calculating it. For the sake of this explanation, let’s just accept the data as recorded officially.

Timeform do not publish their pounds-per-length conversion. This is what the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) uses:
5 furlongs: 3lbs per length
6 furlongs: 2.5lbs per length
7f-8f: 2lbs per length
9-10f: 1.75lbs per length
11-13f: 1.5lbs per length
14f: 1.25lbs per length
15f+: 1lb per length
(one furlong is approximately 200m)

Locally, Charles Faull uses these conversions:
1000-1400m: 3lbs per length
1500-1900m: 2lbs per length
2000-2300m: 1.5lbs per length
2400m+: 1lb per length

If we use 2lbs per length at 1600m as the mid-point, then a mathematical suggestion is:
1000m: 3,20lbs
1200m: 2,67lbs
1400m: 2,29lbs
1600m: 2,00lbs
1800m: 1,78lbs
2000m: 1,60lbs
2200m: 1,45lbs
2400m: 1,33lbs

For an apparently scientific view on the same stuff (yielding a conversion of 2.26 pounds per length for a mile run at a pace that results in a time of 98 seconds), click here.

For the rest of the exercise, I’m going to use 1.4lbs per length for 2400m, and 1.75lbs per length for 1800m, which is a kind-of consensus between BHA and an Excel assisted extrapolation from 2lbs per length over 1600m.

Still with me? OK, let’s get into some form study, by looking at the last meeting beween Ovidio and A Time To Kill:

Kenilworth 1800m on 29 August 2015
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Ovidio 56.5kg 0 113
4th A Time to Kill 54kg 4.5 lengths 100

To calculate relative merit, multiply the distance beaten by the pounds-per-length conversion, and then add/subtract the difference in weights (expressed in lbs). Relative merit can be equated to ‘merit rating’, but I haven’t used that terminology here because I’m working with a small group of horses, not the entire racing population.

The form of this race suggests that Ovidio is 13lbs better than A Time To Kill. My message to Jono Snaith was prompted by the difference in weights in the Woolavington, in which Ovidio carried just 3kg (6.6lbs) more than A Time To Kill, making him the better handicapped of the two.

At the time, I thought that A Time To Kill had improved over the additional distance of the Settlers Trophy (he goes into this carrying the notional 100 rating from the race against Ovidio):

Durbanville 2400m on 26 September
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Arezzo 52kg 0 102
2nd A Time To Kill 52kg 1.25 100
3rd Friendly Tibbs 58kg 1.75 113
4th Forte de Ouro 52kg 2.15 99
5th Parachute Man 52.5kg 3.65 98
6th Paddy O’Reilly 64.5kg 4.4 123
7th Desert Swirl 58.5kg 6.4 109

To keep things simpler, I have rounded the decimals when calculating relative merit.

Right, so what did they do when they all raced against each other yesterday (I’ve carried Friendly Tibbs’ relative merit through, using him as the link horse here):

Kenilworth 2400m on 24 October
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Ovidio 55kg 0 110
2nd Desert Swirl 58kg 1.25 115
3rd Friendly Tibbs 57.5kg 2 113
4th Arezzo 52.5kg 2.2 101
5th Parachute Man 52kg 4.45 97
6th A Time To Kill 52kg 5.7 95
7th Zante 61kg 6.95 113

The suggestion is that A Time To Kill ran a bit below best yesterday, as well as Ovidio (marginally), but the result more-or-less stacks up with what the horses had done against each other previously, adjusted for weight differences. Perhaps Ovidio isn’t quite as good over 2400m as he is over 1800m. Time will tell.

Arezzo’s jockey thought that he was disadvantaged by a slowish pace down the back straight, as well as losing a shoe, but he finished more-or-less where expected, relative to Friendly Tibbs.

Anyone looking at the result of this race without taking the weights into account would deduce that Zante did not do anything significant. She was, after all, unplaced, finishing nearly seven lengths behind the winner. Under handicap conditions she’s likely to struggle until her official merit rating is reduced. However, the J&B Reserve Stayers, on J&B Met day, is a conditions race in which she’ll carry 55.5kg. Under that weight she’ll be much more competitive.

I find that stayers’ races (e.g. 2400m+) are fairly reliable from a handicapping perspective, because the horses are generally mature, and are therefore not prone to the rapid improvement one sees in young horses.

The analysis I’ve laid out above may look complex, but the point is that analysis/logic is possible. And, even if you aren’t gambling, it adds an entirely different dimension to a day at the races.

I’ve left weight-for-age out of the above analysis, which takes into account the improvement a horse makes as it matures, expressed as a difference in weights carried between horses of different ages. This varies according to distance run and time of year. I’ll do a separate post about this soon.

The Idiot’s Guide to J&B Met Day

Oscar Foulkes January 29, 2014 Horse Racing No comments
On the assumption that not everyone’s going to be ogling eye candy all day (or, that even the most ardent oglers will have a bet at some point during the day) here’s my quick and dirty guide to the day’s racing.

Before I get to that, I need to point out a few house rules:

  1. We aren’t doing anything more than making reasoned ‘predictions’. No-one really knows what is going to happen.
  2. Practice money management. Pick an amount you’re willing to spend on entertainment for the afternoon, and split it between the races you’re interested in. I wouldn’t advise an all-out bet on the first horse that crosses your path. Whatever you do, don’t chase your losses by drawing more cash at the ATMs.
  3. You can do exotics as fractional bets. So, if you’ve worked out a super-duper Pick 6 that costs R1000, but you don’t want to spend R1000, simply take it for R200 (20%).
  4. Place bets are a great way of gently having fun all afternoon, because there are three opportunities for payout in every race.
  5. While on that subject, I’m a big fan of the good, old-fashioned ‘each-way’, which is a win and place on the same horse. If the horse is 5-1 or better, the place bet will cover the losing win portion of the bet. If it wins, you collect both parts of the bet.

I’m involved in the development of mobile-optimised racecard that you can access at It has all the runners, with ‘expert’ comments, as well as a predictor based upon a best-handicapped calculation for the Graded races (I think it’s great, but I’m probably more than a little biased!). The idea is that you can use it on your phone without having to schlepp piles of paper around the racecourse with you.

Race 1
Quite an open race, but as always, the Snaith stable holds a strong hand. Most of the field will go off at 5-1 or better, so place payouts will generally be at least R2 (R1 of that is your initial stake). If you make it to the course by 11.30 you could get your toes wet with a little warm-up bet. Keep your powder dry.

Race 2
Top of the boards here are two unbeaten three-year-olds, DARING DAVE and TEE JAY AR. The latter wouldn’t have made the trip from Joburg if he wasn’t something special, and the former wouldn’t have followed up his Maiden win with a six-length romp if he himself wasn’t well above average. It will be interesting to see how they shape.

What the presence of these two do to the odds on other runners is to increase them. The proven form amongst these is pretty solid. AZINCOURT won very impressively last time. SAIL SOUTH is a decent sort, and if you are willing to look at him, there are several others that come into the picture. The lurker could be SOVEREIGN SOUND, who is currently quoted at 40-1 (theoretical 8-1 for a place) and carries just 52kg. CAPEL TOP is lightly raced, but shows promise.

Race 3
First leg of the PA (you have to pick placed horses in seven consecutive races, and the bet is a permutation).

This is a decent field. Heading the betting is HAPPY FOREVER, fresh from his fourth-place finish in stronger company last week. I’ve been following him for a few starts, so shouldn’t really be deserting him. However, the likes of TIGER TIGER, CAPTAIN’S RESERVE could give him something to think about (both are currently quoted at an each-way-friendly 5-1). Joey Ramsden provides another long-odds lurker, in SHADES OF INDIGO, who is quoted at 20-1. The poor chap carried 64kg last time out (must have been a relief for heavy weight jockey Bernard Fayd’herbe to not be under weight pressure!), conceding 9.5 kg (more than 7 lengths) to the winner.

For the PA, one may get away with bankering Happy Forever, but I’d probably include Tiger Tiger as well.

Race 4
These are young, inexperienced horses, prone to running ‘green’ or showing dramatic improvement. Have a bet if you must, but keep it small in relation to the rest of the day.

ARRIA is a justified favourite, but doesn’t look like value at 16-10. My biased interest is AZARENKA, who was bred by my mother and is part-owned by my brother. In my opinion 15-2 offers value (especially for the each-way punter).

An upset is possible, so I’d probably pick at least two or three for the PA.

Race 5
There’s another hot favourite here, in the form of FUTURA, a winner on debut and then touched off at his second start. He’s by boom stallion Dynasty, he represents the Crawford/Hatt combination, and he carries just 53kg. It’s not a great field, so these credentials may be all it takes to get him home.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of TELL ME MORE pop up, and I’d certainly include TOLD YOU SO in the trifecta if I were taking one.

Race 6
CAPTAIN AMERICA is a champion in the making, the real deal. I’ll be bankering him in my PA. POWER KING wasn’t far behind him in the Guineas, and is bred for every inch of the Kenilworth 2000m.

The Snaith runners all have strong place chances (some of them try their right distance for the first time), and they are all at attractive odds.

Race 7
BEACH BEAUTY shouldn’t be anything other than favourite for this race. She is a champion. But, she races from the widest draw against a strong field. What I’m getting at is that 8-10 doesn’t look like value. If she fails, there are probably half a dozen who are in contention.

The bad draw shouldn’t stop her being a PA banker, but it wouldn’t hurt taking a small ‘cover perm’ that includes a couple of others (there will be a big PA payout if she runs unplaced).

Race 8
In big handicaps, like the Durban July or Summer Cup, top weights rarely win. However, in the J&B Met, horses carry weight that is based upon weight-for-age, with penalties added for Grade One races won. The penalty is limited to 2kg, so unlike handicaps, there is a limit to the spread of weights between top and bottom weights. This means that top weights have a very good strike rate. JACKSON is the kind of top weight that can win the Met. Ignore his run in the Queen’s Plate, 1600m is not his game.

However, a top-class four-year-old that has managed to avoid penalties has a 2kg (about 3 lengths) advantage. This explains MASTER OF MY FATE’S position as short-priced favourite.

The ‘older horse without penalty factor’ creates interest in a bunch of other horses, especially at long odds. In no particular order: KING OF PAIN, ROYAL ZULU WARRIOR, WHITELINE FEVER, HOT TICKET, ICE MACHINE, LAKE ARTHUR, JET EXPLORER, or perhaps even HILL FIFTY FOUR.

It’s obligatory to have a filly in the race; this year it’s DO YOU REMEMBER. She was a close second in the July, but bear in mind that Olympic Duel was the last filly to win the Met, when carrying just 2.5kg less than the top weight (Igugu was getting 3kg from Bravura when she won). It won’t be easy for her.

Race 9
As the betting suggests, this is a wide-open race, so probably one to avoid from an outright bet perspective. If you’re taking a PA you’re obliged to make a selection. I’d be inclined to play wide (i.e. include three or four) on the assumption that the favoured runners have all been placed in the Grade Ones, and I’d be looking for some upsets to improve the payout.

Race 10
This is the final leg of the PA. If your perm is still alive, well done. I’m inclined to banker ROMAN MANNER. He ran a cracker in the Guineas. At his next start he appeared not to stay 1800m, but still managed to finish 1½ lengths behind the winner. He carries just 52kg here, which gives him a big shout. Odds of 3-1 look like good value.

If you’re taking a trifecta, be sure to include BIG CAT. He ran very wide on the bend last time.

Race 11
By now you should be re-hydrating. If not, the three-year-old pairing of ZACHARIAS and PRINCESS OF THE SKY are the obvious choices. They would have outside place chances in the Grade One Majorca Stakes, but run against less exalted fillies here. I have a soft spot for SHOWDOWN, since I had an each-way nibble on her at 20-1 when she was third at her last start.

Race 12
(Phew, this is exhausting!)
Like the Met, the weight terms of this race are weight-for-age plus penalties. Over 2800m, every length equates to 1 lb, so the top weight JEPPE’S REEF is really up against it. I like the look of ILHA BELHA under 54.5kg, but the race has an open look to it. PADDY O’REILLY, RIVER CROSSING and GIFTED FOR GLORY are all well treated at the weights.

Remember, these are simply the musings of one person. Try to make your money last the entire afternoon, and have fun (you’re not trying to win enough money to pay for an overseas holiday). There are some very interesting contests during the course of the afternoon, so even if you’re not betting there’s plenty of racing action to keep you amused.

And, if all else fails, there is always the eye candy.



Assessing Risk at the Horse Races

Oscar Foulkes January 12, 2014 Horse Racing, Risk No comments
The writing of the likes of Nate Silver, Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman (read my post on this here) encourages us to have a better awareness and understanding of the risks we need to weigh up in making choices (choice could be a proxy for forecast/prediction). We also need to be aware of the bias that our own psychology brings to the decision-making process.

Under many conditions, I am not risk-averse. I’m not sure that this therefore makes me a risk-taker, but I’m certainly willing to have a bet.

I went to the races for the first time at the age of 15. I must have got very lucky, because I won a Place Accumulator that paid out about R1500, which was a lot of money 30 years ago. By the time I got to my final year at university I could win – or lose – a similar amount in an afternoon. Overall, I was a winner, but I didn’t feel comfortable in this space. Over the course of the next few years, I had the occasional punt (generally very successfully), but when I got into wine I stopped completely. It would frustrate Andrea, on the odd occasion when we went racing, that I resolutely refused to do anything other than watch.

Since the middle of 2012, I’ve been doing a lot of work within the racing industry, which has drawn me back into the fold. In parallel, I’ve been peripherally involved in my mother’s breeding operation. And then, since November, Dish Food & Social has been operating the hospitality area at Kenilworth racecourse for the Racing Association. It being part of the family business, I have been very involved, which has given me yet another reason to go racing.

Since then, I’ve taken about eight PAs. Three have been outright losses, another lost money because the payout was less than my stake, and the rest have been profitable. The nett position is a nice surplus in relation to my initial stake (but not of a scale that suggests I should consider giving up my day job!).

So, with the work of Silver, Kahneman and Taleb in mind, what have I observed about the field generally, and myself specifically?

In keeping with a contest that incorporates not just known unknowns, but also unknown unknowns, forecasting is tricky. Anyone who tells you they can tip more than a couple of winners on a card is delusional. The best anyone can do is to hope that the wins outweigh the losses.

I know of several people for whom betting on horses is their sole income, but for the rest of us it’s entertainment. The sport offers the opportunity of exercising skill and strategy, which makes it a different proposition to casino games. Maybe I’m just a nerd, but I enjoy the intellectual process. And, even when that runs out, occasionally there are great athletes engaging in titanic contests.

The first rule of trading, whether it’s stocks, futures, options or forex, is to practice money management. What this means is that you need to preserve capital (i.e. don’t run out of money), by limiting the amount that can be lost on any one position.

Accept that no-one knows what is going to happen. We can guess – and some people may make better assessments more often – but we don’t know. Even the insiders don’t know for certain. Top jockeys who freelance can pretty much pick their rides, and even they are unplaced about half the time.

If you’re losing, don’t chase it. You started the day wanting to have fun while staking a small amount of money; just stick with the programme. Making desperate bets to recover losses just leads to bigger – less manageable – losses.

My choice of bet remains the PA, which requires bettors to select placed runners in seven designated races (also known as legs). It’s a permutation, which means that you don’t have to be 100% right in every leg. A good approximation is often all that’s necessary. It also works as a permutation on the payout side, so if you pick more than one placed horse in several legs the payout multiplies. The outsize returns are necessary to cover the times that you don’t win.

Of course, if the favourites are placed all the way through the day, the payout will be small, which is what happened the time that I won the PA, but still ended up losing money.

I like to put my PA on before I even leave for the races. At that point I have a maximum known loss (R100-ish is plenty, or one can put it on at less than 100%), which leaves me free to enjoy the day. If it’s all going according to plan I have seven races worth of entertainment, with some drinks money at the end of it.

After winning (or is that a case of getting lucky?) I need to try to get back to a state of humility. It doesn’t take the genius of Nate Silver, or research of Daniel Kahneman, to tell you that cockiness is not a great state of mind for making good forecasts.

Everyone knows of a gambler who has lost everything. I have hesitated to use the word here, because it implies someone who bets without considering all the risks. Even if we are not betting, or professionally engaged as forecasters, we make probability (i.e. risk) assessments every day.

I think my betting hobby has made me realise that I have at times been guilty of making over-confident predictions, not just on the racecourse.

[Deep breath as I realise what a big admission this is … and wife with predisposition to irrational anxiety chortling somewhere in background]