The Punting Confessional: When the Going gets Tough

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Last week, Tony Keenan gave us an incisive preview of how he would approach the entire 2012 Galway Festival. Today he brings us his thoughts after the event, as he looks back on how the Soft Going affected not only the Festival itself, but the more wide-ranging impact of variable going conditions.

Galway, July 31st

There was some good ground to open the Galway Festival, but by Tuesday the rain was back and so was the soft going and it was to stay that way for the remainder of the meeting. This has been the story of the summer and this prolonged period of slow ground really is unprecedented; I can’t remember a period like it at this time of the year. Back in June, I wrote about the ground being an overrated factor by the market but that was more a general point whereas now I’d like to address how this extended span has affected what is happening on the track and what, if anything, we can do in our punting to adapt to it.

Firstly, the soft ground has reduced the competitiveness of racing in Ireland; the fields are smaller as many, but not all, of the good ground horses are being kept off (equally, the reduced competitiveness of Irish racing could be put down to fewer horses in training in a time of recession though I contend that soft ground has played its part). It could be argued that in a smaller field it is easier to pick the winner but I disagree; I want big fields and competitive racing.

In such races, the pace is more likely to be strong which sorts the wheat from the chaff and fluke results are less common; also, in double-figure fields, the prices are bigger and I love nothing more than playing something at a price rather than taking short odds.

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Pace plays a big part of my analysis and I’d always be on the lookout for some pace angle into a race, whether they went too slow or too fast. The problem with soft ground (and by extension small fields) is that they go too slow more often than not; jockeys are aware that the ground is testing and their mounts may not last home so don’t want to go too hard early and this often ends up suiting front-runners.

In such circumstances, you’re looking for something that has come home well from off the pace in the hope that they will do better under a different pace scenario next time but the problem is that at the moment they are meeting a very similar pace situation on subsequent starts.

A knock-on effect of less competitive racing is that ungenuine horses are winning more than they should. I have a thing with kinky horses whether it is tail-swishing, head carriage or hanging, and I find it very hard to back them as on the whole they lose more often than they win. But in a weakened field, they can sometimes get away with such quirks as those around them simply don’t have the ability to go with them.

A few years back, when Irish racing was at its most competitive, dodgy types seemed to win rarely but nowadays the edge in opposing them relentlessly seems to have been negated somewhat.

With so much soft ground on the go, punters are being faced with the same cycle of horses, the soft ground types, again and again. Take the 1 mile handicap on Galway Hurdle day where we had the likes of Sadler’s Mark, Maundy Money and Snap Alam all running against each other for what seemed like the umpteenth time this year.

None of them are particularly well-treated and seem to be taking turns in beating one another and even when one finds a good ground type that may be on a handy mark against them you are unsure as to how they will handle an ease; will they like it, tolerate it or flop on it?

Change is a good thing for punters who want an edge. I have never bought into any of this stuff about the form standing up well on consistent ground. My ideal punting conditions is a period of the same ground for about 3 weeks and then a change for a week with the key period being the last week; in a market that overvalues the recent, mistakes are made by bookmakers and layers and you have a real chance of making a few quid.

Take the meeting at Wexford on the Friday before Galway when we had the first bit of fast ground in Ireland since early June and I managed to back a couple of ground-dependent types that needed it quick, their recent form having been underrated because it came on soft. Regular change in the going is what I want as a punter and really a sustained period of soft ground, as we have now, is as bad as a period of good ground, it’s just more unusual; what we could really do with now is a blast of good ground.

Sometimes one has to wonder about the consistency of ground from track to track and heavy ground at one venue may not equate to heavy ground at another. In Ireland, for instance, the ground would get particularly deep at the likes of the Curragh and Tipperary and horses can really be running on the slop there. A good recent example of this was Gothen Niece at Cork on August 5th. She’d shaped with great promise at that track in mid-June, coming from well off the pace to grab second on the round track that often favours front-runners, that effort coming on soft.

She then flopped on soft-heavy at Tipperary (beaten by 22l) before bouncing to win on ground officially described as the same back at Cork on Sunday just gone. I backed her at Tipperary but not Cork and was left scratching my head about the result, with perhaps the ground at Tipperary being the issue. It could have been that run was too bad to be true and she was worth another chance but she had been beaten so far that I found that hard to do; this was a timely reminder that on soft ground, losing distances can become exaggerated as jockeys give up on their mounts as they fall out of contention and it is something to bear in mind.

One final point about non-runners, of which there are many on this sort of ground. Obviously this is a pain and there are few things more irritating than seeing a favourite you couldn’t have because of the ground taken out with the ground as an excuse and leaving you with a shorter price about your selection.

This is one the perils of the game but one thing punters need to be aware of is the bookmakers cutting the prices of horses that they already know are non-runners, say through a trainer’s Twitter feed, but haven’t been officially pulled out yet. They have a nasty habit of shortening up horses that are about to be taken out and thus increasing the Rule 4 on the remaining runners and were at it again in Naas on Bank Holiday Monday so punters might be best advised to hold off with their bets in such markets until later.

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