Betting in the 21st Century

Horse racing maybe one of the oldest of all sports, and in its essentials it would appear to have undergone virtually no change over the centuries – it is still about thoroughbreds racing across a large field – but in so many other ways it is constantly evolving and the pace of change has accelerated considerably in the 21st century. The changes over the last twenty years have been profound and have radically altered the betting environment for the punter. These changes though have largely gone unnoticed or have been passively accepted by the betting public. However those that have noticed and adapted to the changes – mainly the technically savvy – have been able to reap the rewards at the expense of the rest. 

The reactionaries might argue that while the advent of exchanges such as Betfair in June 2000 has produced a significant shift in the betting industry the actual sport of horse racing itself is still basically the same. Punters that accept the same view will still think that they can evaluate races in the same way that they always have, and that the winner finding methods of yesterday year will still work today. The reality is that the volume of digital information available, the sophistication of others to generate meaningful statistics and generate new insights from the data means that the traditionalists are simply food for those that have embraced the twenty-first century. 

The idea that horse racing is fixed in aspic defies the facts. The racehorse itself is improving thanks to better breeding and because of advances in  veterinary science and training methods. Jockey’s riding styles have also improved and these factors in combination now mean that today’s thoroughbreds are fitter and faster than their predecessors of only a few years ago.  The modern punter needs to be alive to these developments.

A good example is sire analysis. Few punters bother to look at the breeding of a horse because they consider it irrelevant but in some kinds of races, such as sprint races, the sire of the horse is now exerting more of an influence on the result of a race because these races are getting quicker and require horses with more speed. Research shows that since the 1850s turf flat races over six furlongs or less have been getting steadily quicker, but particularly in the last twenty years. To most punters this fact may not mean much but it actually means that some types of races, particularly sprints, are placing more emphasis on speed and so horses bred from sires that are more likely to pass on speed genes to their offspring have a bigger advantage in those kinds of races than they once did.    

Today’s trainers are also able to get their horses fitter than their predecessors because they have adapted new techniques and many have all-weather gallops. Any dinosaurs among the training ranks are soon made extinct because it is now far harder to win a race at any level unless it is super fit. The early pioneers of these training methods reaped rich rewards, as did the punters that latched onto them early-on. The big edge of following runners from Martin Pipe’s stable went pretty quickly but if you keep yourself up-to-date good trainer analysis still pays off and it still helps to identify good up-and-coming trainers, and trainers that are better than the rest at getting a horse race fit after a lay-off.

One of the biggest changes effecting the punter is one that is largely ignore because at first it seems irrelevant to picking winners. It is the move over the centuries from horse racing being a sporting pursuit run by amateur enthusiasts to being a major industry run by business people for commercial advantage. A related development has been changes in the way the government has funded horse racing, moving from a betting tax or levy on all punters bets to tax free betting, but with racing being funded by a levy on bookmakers profits. These fairly recent developments have completely transformed the racing programme and what punters can bet on, and this requires punters to change their betting strategies.

The consequence of these changes for the punter is that they now have thousands more races to bet on than they did in the past because more racing means more turnover for bookmakers, more potential profits, and more income for the racing industry. It also means that the race programme is now dominated more than ever by handicaps because handicap races, particularly ones with large field sizes, generate more profits for bookmakers because most punters basically find it harder to pick a winner in these sorts of races than in stakes races. The modern backer though can turn this to his or her advantage because handicaps require more skill and can give a bit of an edge to those that    have a better than average form analysis behind them. However, I still hear people tell that old adage about ‘never bet in a handicap’. If you follow that advice you would struggle these days to find much to bet on, and certainly not enough opportunities to consistently make your racing pay. 

Handicaps also give the unwary punter the illusion of value because the odds on a favourite in a large field handicap are almost always going to be higher than for a favourite in a stakes race. This doesn’t mean that the favourite in a handicap is better value than the short priced favourite in a stakes race. It all depends on the true odds of the horse winning and the odds of reward. This is a lesson that too many in the game have still failed to learn, but this is to the advantage of the modern, 21st  century punter.  Those that understand the concept of value are the ones that will turn in a long-term profit.

There have certainly been a lot of changes to horse racing and horse race betting since the turn of the century. The most obvious is the widespread use of the internet and the amount of information that is now available to the punter in the digital age. This is a double edged sword for the modern backer. The availability of information, such as statistics, video form, expert advice, and research databases make it much easier to do more sophisticated form analysis than ever before. However, the downside is that the availability of information makes it easy for anyone to access the same information.

In theory this should make it much harder to make a profit from backing horses because all the available information will be incorporated into the horses odds. Therefore if there is more information freely available then it follows that there is less chance of a punter finding an angle that will give them an edge because everyone else has access to the same information. There is some element of truth to this because I remember the days when you could gain a huge advantage as a punter if you went racing regularly because so few races were screened on television, and you could spot something in a race than no one else had noticed. Those days are gone with free video form readily available. However, the 21st century punter realises that the sheer volume of information now available can also make people blind. Simply having vast amounts of information available to you will not in itself give you better insight.

The ability to process all the information available now is  beyond human capabilities. Every bit of information is also not of equal value. Much of it will be garbage. This is what data scientists call a signal and noise problem because the data is making a lot of noise but it is hard to find the signal within it to help us make better (and profitable) decisions.  The successful modern backer knows that he or she is better off investing in tools or expert research that help to weed though all the data to find the really important information, and to weight it appropriately. This might mean acquiring new analysis or IT skills, and/or investing in services that can do this for them.   


Horse racing has changed a great deal since the turn of the century. The sport and the betting industry around it will continue to evolve. Wider developments such as the digital revolution have also completely changed the landscape of information that is available to the punter and have given them the ability to bet online in many different ways. The successful backer will be the one who adapts best to these changes. –

Established in 2010, aims to provide it’s members with analysis, systems and strategies to help them make their racing pay. The service is dedicated to a systematic approach to betting, with the aim of giving it’s members an edge over other punters.

Established in 2010, aims to provide its members with analysis, systems and strategies to help them make their racing pay. The service is dedicated to a systematic approach to betting, with the aim of giving its members an edge over other punters.

One Comment

  1. Rubbish! The principles of racing (and more fundamentally winner finding) have not changed, and nor will they…only the amount of dross that has to be endured (and ignored) has changed, for the worse.
    The principles laid down by the great Colonel Van der Wheil are as pertinent today as they ever were
    1. Stick to quality racing only
    2. Never expect a horse to do anything that it has not already PROVEN it can do
    3. Avoid handicaps like the plague, unless you really do know how to spot a good ‘un
    4. Ignore the advice of fools who try to convince you they have the “magic formula”…they don’t and if they did, they wouldn’t give it you, would they?
    Pretty simple really

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