Year to Date trends in North American Thoroughbred Racing

This is a follow-up to our narrowly praised post at the end of Q1.

Q2 is usually less funky than Q1; weather is more reliable, there’s an uptick in the volume of racing (if not field-sizes). Still, our take remains idiosyncratic, arguable, what have you. As usual, this covers North American Thoroughbred racing only. While we’re largely going to focus on quarterly and annual trends, we should mention our unofficial handle numbers for June show it to be reasonably strong, within context. A lot of that may be solely attributable to a gargantuan Belmont Stakes Day, but we’ll go ahead and say that even after the inclusion of a few outlier tracks that don’t make it easy to track handle, the June North American betting totals should be decent, and in general handle is outperforming other metrics. While skipping any silly dead vs alive analogies, there is the whiff of pent-up demand…imagine if the rest of the metrics that follow fueled that.

Here goes (raw data at bottom):

Races Run

12,554 races were run in Q2 of this year, down from 13,252 in the same quarter last year. This is a 5.2% year-over-year decline in races run.  For the first half of the year, the decline sits at 4.1%, so yes, while there were still too many races run in Q2 (in our humble opinion), at least the decline picked up a bit.

Starters/Field Size

In a dream world, a decline in number of races run would lead to bigger field sizes, and in fact it is possible that the decline in races run is at least keeping field size from declining even further.

Total starters in Q2 (meaning, 1 horse could start multiple times in a quarter): 93,167. An 8% decline in number of starters (101,371 for Q2 last year), ouch. Year to date, the decline in starters is at 7.6%, so it actually accelerated in Q2.

Average field size in Q2: 7.42, down from 7.64 over the same quarter last year. Year to date? The average field size is 7.51, down from 7.8 for the first 1/2 of last year. While the number is quite bad, and at least partially correlated to the reduction in foal crop size, we have to say that on some level we feel that 6 is the new 7. As horseplayers we used to expect 8 and complain about 7, and we now find ourselves expecting 7. Sure, it still lessens our betting, but we’re otherwise getting used to the number 7. Bummer.

Regarding the horse population: 41,044 distinct horses ran in the first half of the year, compared to 43,969 for the first half of 2013. It’s a 6.7% decline in “unique” runners.

A chart on field size in Q2 and why it matters

The chart below considers the role of the betting favorite as field size increases. Example: There have been 5 match races run in North America this year. Favorites won 3 of those races, or 60%. The ROI was of course painfully low on a flat bet on favorites in all of these races–92 cents for each $2 bet. Racing becomes a more playable game either when favorites don’t dominate. As you can see, a bit of magic starts when field sizes increase from 9 to 10 (albeit, with a smaller sample size). The ROI on favorites drops 14 cents; the percentage of winning favorites drops to 31%, a 4 pt plummet from 9-horse fields. It’s a pretty sport to watch with even the smallest of fields. But to bet? On average it becomes much more beautiful when the field sizes are in the double digits.

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