Running the numbers

The data revolution has transformed a whole host of sports, with every kick, putt and volley analysed to death – but many racing punters have to get by without this help. It’s time to change.

In a recent radio 4 programme looking at the numbers of women working in cyber security, Charlotte Webb, the Bletchley Park veteran, was interviewed and said something that you rarely hear these days. Webb worked in the famous Second World War code cracker hub, where the ratio between men and women was surprisingly around 50:50. When pressed about her views on the differences in abilities between men and women in terms of application to the task in hand, she firmly sided with women, but added: “I don’t think I was asked to form an opinion at that time.”

How distant that idea seems now. We are constantly reminded, more than ever, and often by the high street bookmakers’ PRs, that everybody has an opinion. “WHAT’S YOURS WORTH?” screeched one advertisement that was investigated by the authorities in 2007. Opinions are freely expressed on social media, spewed out at a rate of 500 million tweets a day, with 500,000 new people signing up to Facebook every 24 hours to have their say and 3.5 billion “likes” sloshing through Instagram during the same period.

Opinion is big business. Yet, with Royal Ascot now fast approaching, it is questionable whether average punters have access to the facts required to form their own informed opinions on who might end up in the winners’ enclosure.

The world is looking on at possibly the best five days of flat racing in the world. Although the international challenge is disappointing this year, the fact remains that the five-day meeting will be broadcast in America on NBC. Hong Kong, through the newly launched World Pool, will be betting on the Berkshire action. Film crews have been dispatched from Japan, which will collectively hold its breath as Deirdre bids to become the first horse from the Land of the Rising Sun to strike in front of the Queen.

Australia will also be staying up through the night to catch a glimpse of Godolphin’s Melbourne Cup winner Cross Counter take on the mighty Stradivarius in the Gold Cup on the Thursday. The list goes on.

And when those people from around the world decide to bet on the action, how will they form their opinions on each of the 30 races? Over the past few years there has been a minor ripple in how people use form and data to formulate their conviction that one thoroughbred will beat those alongside them in the starting gate. It is probably time for a revolution. If you were starting from scratch, “the form”, as we know it as racing fans, would look very different, wouldn’t it?

Starting from the bottom, the national papers rarely run articles that get stuck into racing data as they would for football or rugby. Open any national daily and you’re swamped by detailed analysis of the “bigger” sports. It’s not the same with racing, and although every national newspaper editor will tell you that if they drop race cards they get legions of angry phone calls from readers, recent surveys do not back up those claims. There is a new world order.
Last year the Horseracing Bettors Forum’s annual survey illustrated that 93 per cent of serious punters shun the national press and use bespoke websites.

The Racing Post has transformed its form guides for the better in recent times but, essentially, the key aspects to their form are still largely functional information. Names, draw, weight and age dominate, but punters can do a deeper dive into race histories, pedigrees and, more recently, video form from the two main broadcasters, Racing TV and Sky Sports Racing, which will show Royal Ascot alongside ITV.

If you’re more of an aficionado, then Timeform and the At The Races website have stepped up remarkably well. Both have done a lot of work with regards to race positioning, sectional timings, the stride lengths of horses, and how quickly those four legs rotate, which is called cadence. There were many who poo-pooed these daring and welcome innovations when they were ushered in some years ago, but those critics remain in the dark ages.

And then there is the real stuff, which, frustratingly, the mainstream media feel has no market or purpose. The capability of Proform, Raceform Interactive and websites such as are like manna from heaven for those who take data seriously, and who love data-rich sports such as football, cricket and baseball.

When you consider that the iPhone has a health app that tells all users how many steps they have taken, it is clear that data is mainstream like it never has been before. I did 23,025 steps, or 17km, when working on Dubai World Cup night at Meydan in March, for instance. That information may seem totally irrelevant but in China, insurance companies now offer cheaper premiums for those with a demonstrably more active lifestyle. When you have data, new possibilities open up, even if some are chilling and possibly dystopian.

Go to the gym and almost any machine there will tell you how much fluid you lose during exercise. Fitness apps such as Nike+, Strava and Endomondo have generated millions of downloads by keeping their users up to date with their own personal average speeds, maximum speeds, split times per mile and calories burned. Legions of people on diets know how many Kcals they have eaten on a daily basis. Data is all around us like never before – just not quite in British racing. Yet.

“The problem sometimes is that you don’t know what you don’t know,” Matt Bisogno, chairman of the Horseracing Bettors Forum, told Fitzdares. “It wasn’t until I went to the Breeders’ Cup many years ago that my eyes were opened to the idea of pace being material in races. Until then,
I just thought collateral form was all of it. After that, I was looking for all kinds of meaningful information: things like how a trainer performs with horses going up in trip, or with sprinters, of first/second time in a handicap, and so on.

“The future of pretty much all sport is how it engages its audience through data to inform and explain the drama unfolding on the field of play. Racing is a sport which is so beautifully data-rich, regardless of whether you want to bet or not. I don’t see very much innovation in the data visualisation space in Britain. For the future, this sport must change.”

You can only form a strong opinion, and be willing to back that opinion, with the right tools, and British racing is finally waking up to the possibilities. Total Performance Data has worked very hard to install sectional timing at racecourses that are aligned with Sky Sports Racing. Racecourse Media Group, which owns Racing TV, has spent a small fortune on getting sectional timing data up and running on its courses. And during the Royal meeting, Ascot sponsor Longines will be providing the breakdowns of furlong-by-furlong times with new equipment that was trialled towards the end of 2018.

There is a danger that this bright new dawn may be a false one. British racing is not well known for collaboration, and if this data is not made available in similar formats, the ability for official, and licensed, media organisations to successfully collate this information will be compromised. What’s more, there is a phalanx of millennial and Generation Z coders and programmers out there who would love nothing more than to access this information through open source and run it through their bespoke algorithms. Currently, their attentions are directed towards other sports that have made this possible.

So when you are trying to unearth a winner at Ascot, just remember there is a wealth of information out there. Maybe not as much as in Hong Kong, where a horse can barely fart without race fans knowing about it, but an edge is possible if you look hard enough. Royal Ascot is all about the world stage and attracting international competition. Wouldn’t it be great if we learned a thing or two from our visitors? That’s my opinion, anyway.

Geoffrey Riddle is director of World Horse Racing, the new international media company that covers elite thoroughbred racing around the globe.

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