Is Winning a Habit in Horse Racing?

Even a cursory glance through the form readings each day will result in the discovery of horses that have a bad case of seconditis, a grave condition whereby the horse always finds a way NOT to win and settles for second place. There are many horses capable of finishing in the places yet never quite find enough to win.

In 2014, General Tufto memorably finished second seven times in a row in the midst of a 20+ race losing streak. When he finally won again, he followed up with another victory and ended up winning three races in four attempts! Over in the United States, King Palm managed nine second places in a row between 2004 and 2006. Once he snapped a 16-race losing streak, he also won his next race.


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As a result, I decided to see if horses that finally get a win after finishing second are worth looking at for betting purposes. Losers find a way to lose; winners find a way to win, so is winning a habit? All data comes from the beginning of 2014 unless stated.

Overall Record of Last Time Out Winners

A high percentage of horses never win a race so finishing first past the post is a very special achievement, regardless of race Class. As a result, all previous winners must be respected and analysed to determine if they are worth looking at.

First of all, let’s take a look at the record of ALL last time out winners in UK races.

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (Betfair)
47,3459,02319.06%-7.53%

As you can see, it is an inauspicious start. However, the focus here is to determine how our seconditis horses perform. Here is the data from horses that won their last race and were runners-up in their second last race.

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
8,2301,64823.33%9.29%

The strike rate increases but your loss increases. Things improve noticeably if you focus on National Hunt races only.

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
3,03170723.33%-3.19%

What if we only look at favourites? Suddenly, we are into profitable territory:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
95740842.63%2.48%

It is a relatively high strike rate at over 42%, and we see a profit of over 2%. 2017 is the only year that would see a loss, and it is just 0.05%.

The final consideration is Class, and as it turns out, you should focus on Class 3 and 4 races because they make up the majority of entries, and increase your profit.

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
69030944.78%6.5%

A profit of 6.5% is not earth-shattering, but it does include a profit of over 5% each year in the last three years. It is worth focusing on this set of criteria in 2018 as the strike rate is over 49% with a profit of 16% to date from over 110 races. As the National Hunt season begins in earnest in November, we would expect a higher number of entries in the next few months.

To recap, here is the list of criteria:

  • National Hunt
  • Class 3 & 4
  • Favourites
  • Won last race
  • Finished runner-up in second last race.

What About Winners Recovering from Seconditis?

Let’s look at horses that finally won a race after finishing second twice in a row beforehand.

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
1,46727318.61%-23.13%

It transpires that these horses perform abysmally with a low strike rate and extremely heavy losses; probably because they are heavily backed. You could lay these horses and make a profit of 16%. What’s more, laying these horses would result in a profit in each of the last nine years! 2018 is actually the worst year since 2009 with a profit of around 2% to date. For the record, it is best to focus on Flat and National Hunt races if you intend on laying these entries.

How about horses with three consecutive second places before winning Last Time Out?

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
2875719.86%-14.87%

Seconditis had really kicked in at this point, but the performance of these horses is not quite as bad. You could still make a profit of around 8% from laying such horses, but as you can see, there aren’t that many opportunities.

Finally, I decided to see how horses still in the midst of seconditis performed. Here is the record of horses with four consecutive second places going into a UK race since the beginning of 2014:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
2647327.65%7.88%

I was surprised to discover that you would make money by backing these seemingly perennial losers. However, the data is skewed by a profit of 87% in 2017 and 34% in 2016.

Here is how horses with three consecutive second places fare:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
1,32429722.43%2.54%

You end up with a slight profit, but the win rate and ROI are both down. Next, we look at horses with two consecutive second places:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
7,4401,51320.34%-6.15%

The strike rate falls once more, and we have entered heavy loss territory at over 6%. Finally, let’s look at horses that finished second in their last race:

BetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
46,9718,45518%-8.63%

It is the worst performance of all! It seems that the more second places a horse strings together, the more likely it is to break their duck.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, there is no evidence that you are better off picking a previous winner or a horse that won its last race. An exception is LTO winners in National Hunt races in Class 3 and 4 races who are also favourites. Otherwise, horses with a chronic case of seconditis are just as likely to win and break their duck as former or recent winners. Perhaps this is due to a trainer finding winnable races. In any case, don’t dismiss horses on a lengthy second place streak, today could the day they win!