Should You Back the Second Favourite in a Race Where the Favourite is Odds On?

There is a time and a place to back odds-on favourites in horse racing but its sheer unpredictability means there are rarely sure things; except Frankel of course! If your eyes light up when you see an odds-on favourite, you need to think twice and look for any red flags because short priced horses win less often than you might think.


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In fact, since the beginning of 2010, clear odds-on favourites (odds of between 1.02 and 1.99) win just 60.91% of their races for an overall loss of 2.92% on Betfair. This equates to a 424 unit loss, which would bring a tear to the eye of even the most hardened gambler.

I comprised a table outlining the performance of short-priced horses divided into groups of odds. While I normally use SP prices, I utilized Betfair prices for this particular section.

Odds (BF)BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
1.01 – 1.2056448886.52%-1.49%
1.21 – 1.401903146076.72%-0.91%
1.41 – 1.602972194365.38%-3.1%
1.61 – 1.804391250557.05%-4.63%
1.81 – 1.994784251952.65%-2.23%

To be fair, backing horses at 1.40 or less isn’t the worst tactic in the world as the losses are minimal. Unsurprisingly, horses at odds of 1.61 – 1.99 are the most vulnerable as they fail to win 45% of their races overall.

Therefore, is it worth looking at the second favourites in these races? After all, they have the most realistic chance of winning amongst the rest of the field and probably represent value. Since the beginning of 2010, clear second favourites in all races have a 20.73%-win rate and backing them all would result in a loss of 4.73%.

As the database I used doesn’t have the information I needed on Betfair second favourite odds, I have to revert back to SP now and for the rest of the article.

What happens when you back these horses in races where there is an odds-on favourite?

Odds (SP)BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
1.02 – 1.9115372318720.73%-14.17%-3.94%
1.02 – 1.626834119417.47%-17.98%-3.62%
1.67 – 1.918538199323.34%-11.12%-4.19%

One would have hoped that there would be a significant difference between the two sets of odds. While clear second favourites have an okay strike rate when the favourite has odds of 1.67 to 1.99, it doesn’t do anything for your bank balance.

Things get more interesting when you look at non-handicap races only. Suddenly, your Betfair loss is down to 1.23% as the win rate of second favourites increases to 24.67%. When you focus on All-Weather races only, you finally achieve a sliver of profit:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
114629525.74%-4.35%2.64%

No one will get rich on that kind of profit as it only represents 30.22 units in over eight years of racing. Oddly enough, when you remove Class 6 races and focus on Class 1 -5 only, this happens:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
70018927%2.85%10.03%

A 10% profit is nothing to be sneezed at and it has been profitable in all but two years since 2010.

If you focus on All-Weather races with 1-5 runners, the profit goes up significantly.

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
2839734.28%9.96%16.04%

The trouble is, you’re only looking at around 30 or so betting opportunities in a year. It is a good little system to have in your toolbox but most punters want much more. Also, while it offers profit in seven of the last nine years, 2018 is going rather badly to date.

If you remove Class 6 events from the equation, you have even fewer betting opportunities but a much better profit:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
1475638.1%22.41%29.08%

That’s a very impressive strike rate, even in a five-horse race. However, systems with this set of criteria would have fared poorly in 2017 and 2018 and there are also less than 20 betting opportunities in most years.

What About Flat Racing?

As far as Flat racing goes, clear second favourites fare best in Class 3 races that have an odds-on favourite:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
1043230.77%10.8%15.72%

Unfortunately, there are only 10 or so betting opportunities of this nature in a calendar year.

If you focus on second favourites in non-handicap events where the favourite has odds of 1.02 – 1.62, there is profit to be made in Class 2, 3 and 4 races only. Here is the data from the three classes combined since 2010:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
2906321.72%7.13%26.92%

Once more, there is a lack of betting opportunities but a very high strike rate when you consider the short price of the favourite. Also, you would have made a profit every year barring one since 2010.

Does National Hunt Offer Any Profit for Second Favourites?

There is marginal profit but as is the case with Flat and AW races, Class 6 non-handicap events are a graveyard. When you focus on Class 2, 4 and 5, you will make a small profit on Betfair when the favourite has odds of 1.67 – 1.91:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
169046927.75%-2.97%4%

As you might suspect, favourites are vulnerable over longer distances. Here are the statistics for races of 3 miles and over.

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (SP)ROI (BF)
1705733.53%13.9%21.52%

Good profit but this year has been poor so far.

Final Thoughts

While there are profitable criteria for second favourites in races with odds-on horses, there are relatively few chances every year and each of the options has the occasional bad year. In conclusion, there are definitely possibilities, especially in cases where the strike rate of the second favourite is over 30%.

Instead of blindly trusting the criteria, analyse each race and make your selections on merit. Is the second favourite overpriced or are there any red flags surrounding the odds-on horse in the field? If the second favourite has to find 10 lengths on form and rating, it is probably not a good selection at any price!