Marten’s Perspective: Ways of landing a touch

September 7th, 2012 | Marten's Perspective

It is generally assumed, especially among betting shop punters who are for the most part a cynical bunch, that if connections land a touch with a horse then there has, at some point, been some skulduggery along the way.

This would apply especially to a horse which has a few ‘duck eggs’ next to its name or finished down the field on its previous outing.

However, in my view there are very few occasions through a year when I see a result which defies a rational explanation. Yes, I have seen horses improve many pounds on their previous form but invariably this will be due to conditions coming right for them – ground, trip or their mark.

When I look back at the results at the end of a season I very seldom see a result which defies logical explanation. You may think otherwise, and if that is the case then by all means contact me and I will come back to you with my thoughts.

That is not to say connections have not backed their horse and, to the eyes of the less informed, landed a touch. But there are many occasions, especially at this time of year, when money can be made simply by backing horses for whom conditions have come right.

For example, and this summer would not be a good example, it is not uncommon for horses to be in winning form on the soft ground in the spring, and then lose their form on the quicker ground in the summer. Their mark will then drop, possibly to something approaching the rating they won off a few months earlier, in time for the return to softer ground in the autumn.

The majority of horses will, eventually, attain an optimum mark. There are those who make exceptional improvement, For example Hunt Ball, over jumps last season, won his first handicap chase from a mark of 69 and by the end of the season was rated on 157 – a truly staggering improvement of 88lb. That is extremely unusual, and I cannot think of a horse on the Flat improving by anything like that amount.

The other exception is the high-class performer, for whom handicaps are an irrelevance. They may win their maiden and will then be spending the remainder of their days in Pattern-class company.

However, the rest of them will have to find their level. I remember Tony Clark, a former jockey with Guy Harwood and now an assistant trainer, telling me years ago that one of his boss’s greatest assets was the ability to assess a horse’s class from an early stage. That meant that if they knew it had Group-class potential, then it could win its maiden by as far as it wants as handicaps were not going to be an issue. Alternatively, if it was destined for handicaps, then they would have to be a little more circumspect about its first outing.

Obviously there are occasions when a trainer will find himself with a talented two-year-old. If the owner likes a bet, and not all owners do, then it may be the case that they will try and go for a touch on its debut. However I can think of many occasions when a horse fails to reproduce the ability it shows at home on its debut.

For example this season Mick Channon, for whom I work as his private handicapper, has a two-year-old named Jillnextdoor who ranks up with the best, if not the best, of his strong team of two-year-olds yet she is still a maiden, after five races.

Ian Balding once had a horse which worked well with Mill Reef and it failed to justify his support on its debut. I believe that was the last bet he ever had.

Then there will be occasions when the horse runs up to its form but unfortunately comes up against another one which proves even better. I am reminded here of the occasion when Green Desert, on his debut, came up against Sure Blade.

Of more interest, on a day-to-day basis, are the touches which are landed with older more exposed horses.

Most trainers will have horses which need to be on their mark to win. There are some which run like clockwork – we have one at Mick Channon’s yard named Highlife Dancer. Just look at his form over the last two years. You will see that he tends to win in the summer months once he falls to mark in the mid 50s. Most yards will have horses of a similar type.

Connections are not necessarily ‘cheating’ with them. They may run them knowing they are not at the peak, or racing on their most suitable ground or over the right trip and, in most cases, if they win then all well and good. But there is an element of planning which goes into their campaigns, with connections working back from appropriate target races.

Then there are horses, mostly three-year-olds, who have been placed to obtain what is deemed to be a favourable handicap mark.

Sir Mark Prescott, for example, is renowned for winning handicaps with well-bred horses which have been campaigned over trips well short of their pedigree requirements at two. Many a time you will see his middle-distance bred two-year-olds at the back-end of the season, or on the all-weather, receive three quick outings over six or seven furlongs and then be put away to run as three-year-olds on marks which have been based on the data available to the handicapper.

Matthew Tester, who rates the two-year-olds, is frequently faced with the prospect of have to allocate a mark to a well-bred middle-distance two-year-old which has been beaten in three runs by sometimes an aggregate of over 100 lengths. He can, though, decline to give a horse a mark if he deems he has insufficient data from which to work.

The bookmakers and punters are now alerted to the situation and there is seldom much of a price to be had when they appear. I am not sure whether Sir Mark bets, but he certainly targets big handicaps with horses and will structure their campaign around a target race.

So the three categories of mediums for touches I have covered are two-year-old debutants, proven older horses which have dropped to a mark and finally progressive three-year-olds, whose marks are based on qualifying runs as two-year-olds.

I will be writing more about this next week, highlighting a few examples from the recent past including lower-profile yards, and noting the occasions when I have witnessed a result which defies all logical explanation.

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