Racing: Punters on the information superhighway

Conventional wisdom insists there is no such thing as a winning system for the horses, but two men and their vast racing database disagree. Greg Wood reports on how computers can analyse the unpredictable.
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The Independent Online
A year or two ago, a racecourse bookmaker decided to enter the digital age. Instead of the traditional, colourful betting tickets which tell you who you are betting with but nothing else, he produced computerised tickets, rather like those from a pay-and-display machine, which told punters which horse they had backed, how much they had staked and at what odds. This, he predicted, was the future of on-course betting.

In fact, as the briefest study of the post-racing debris in Tattersalls will tell you, the old-fashioned tickets are still going strong, which is a fair reflection of the impact that computers have so far made on the day-to-day business of betting. Racing and punting, it seems, are wild, unpredictable and exciting. Computers are not. And yet anyone whose betting rises beyond the level of hopeful pin-sticking will spend time studying form, or in other words, performing dozens of very intricate and time-consuming calculations - which is something computers are very good at indeed.

The Internet is now, admittedly, a valuable source of racing information - there is a wealth of news and racecards provided by The Sporting Life and Press Association at Formbooks are available on CD-ROM, and a click of a mouse to scroll back through a horse's record is far more convenient than leafing through page after page of paper.

In terms of basic number-crunching, however, the capabilities of the average home PC are underused. Thanks to the diligence of the two men who run a company called Racedata Modelling, though, it is now possible to analyse the results of every single Flat race to have been run in Britain over the last 10 years, and assess the effect on the outcomes of almost 100 different variables. And to do so in seconds.

Tim Drakeford and Bill Wilkinson are the directors of Racedata Modelling, and their impressive product (priced accordingly at pounds 349) is called the Racing System Builder. What you get for that money is a racing database of extraordinary depth, which can be easily manipulated in any number of ways. To discover, for instance, how Henry Cecil's two-year-olds have fared when ridden by Willie Ryan at Newmarket in each of the last 10 years would take hours using a form book. For the RSB, it takes moments.

The ultimate aim of such investigation, of course, is to track down that mythical beast, a winning system. Now, there is a saying that the biggest fans of punters with systems are their bookmakers. In racing, though, there are punters who make betting pay and they are usually systematic in their approach.

"It is now possible to look at racing in an entirely rational way," Drakeford says. "It can be put to all sorts of uses. One of our customers is an on-course bookie, who uses it to identify dodgy favourites and then lay them heavily."

Drakeford and Wilkinson had both realised the possibilities that computer modelling techniques might hold for racing before meeting in the late 1970s, and have been compiling their data and tweaking the system since 1985. An early discovery was that backing colts and geldings, aged five or less, when carrying a penalty on the all-weather and starting at 16- 1 or less, would have produced a healthy profit to level stakes in every one of the eight years for which data is available.

An omission from the RSB database at present is the chance to analyse the draw, but this will be corrected within the next two months. Computer owners, meanwhile, will find a copy of the RSB starter pack, with data from the last two seasons, available free of charge with several PC magazines in October (it normally costs pounds 149), which will give anyone with a system the chance to find out if the analytical approach is for them. Of course, they may find that they prefer pin-sticking.

Racedata Modelling Ltd, 01432 860 864.