Like millions of other Australians I’ve been glued to the box over the last two weeks watching many of the greatest athletes in the world compete at the Olympics. Hopefully you’ve been enjoying it as well and I also hope if you’ve been backing the Aussies that you are an each-way punter.
While watching the world’s biggest sporting event it’s hard not to switch back to a betting perspective and look at both the similarities and differences compared to the sport of kings.
Here are a few of my thoughts:
Champions rise to the occasion on the big day
Following a defeat in the Jamaican national trials, Usain Bolt had his doubters before the race and actually started at pretty enticing odds. But he had timed his preparation to perfection and scored a dominant win in the race he really wanted.
Some horses are set for one race only and everything in their lead-up is about having them at their absolute peak on that day. Clearly Bart Cummings has been a master at this over many years.
It’s all about performing the best on the day, not who is (potentially or historically) the best in the race. Many current world champions like James Magnussen were hot favourites based on the best form coming into a race, but the only thing that really matters is who performs best on the day.
They don’t pay on margins
Speaking of the missile, many events have been decided by 1/100 of a second but when we’re looking back the margin doesn’t really matter. The winner gets the same gold medal as a totally dominant victor.
The same applies to racing – Might And Power, Viewed or Dunaden winning Melbourne Cups by the barest possible margin doesn’t detract from their wins whatsoever.
Trainers should train smarter
The Olympics has become a sports science and information technology arms race with countries like Great Britain and China leading the way and getting results that validate their efforts.
Horse racing is very different though and I can’t help but think that many trainers still operate much like they did 10 or 20 years ago. I’m aware of small incremental improvements but there is a real opportunity for great advances in the use of technology, sports science, nutrition, race planning and more.
Jockeys need to train their mind as much as their body
There are many sports psychologists employed by the various Olympic teams because they understand the importance of mental preparation and the effect of the mind on raceday performance.
Jockeys have to make split-second decisions often under immense pressure but I’m not aware of many who get proper training in this area. All elite level sporting teams such as those in the AFL and NRL have sports psychologists either on staff or on contract, but most jockeys don’t seem as open-minded to improving their performance above the shoulders.
Go the mighty mare
Michael Phelps will go down as the greatest ever Olympian despite losing a few races along the way. It just reaffirms my strong desire for the connections of Black Caviar to continue her racing career. I don’t buy into the ‘she has to stay unbeaten’ story because she’s already proven her greatness and nothing can detract from what she’s already achieved. She’s a racehorse so (injuries permitting) let her race.
Athletes have a ‘sweet spot’ for their preferred distance just like horses. You wouldn’t think there’d be a huge difference between someone running for 10 seconds or 20 seconds, but these events often have quite different fields and winners. That will change this year with Usain Bolt, but he’s a genuine exception.
Horses have their pet distances too. Punters tend to under-estimate the difference between a 1000m race and a 1200m for example, or a 1400m and a 1600m, and this can lead to some value winners.
Champions need longevity
Sustained excellence is the hallmark of champion. It takes a special athlete to win a gold medal, but those that repeat their success at two or more Olympiads really separate themselves from the rest.
Occasionally a horse gets hailed a champion thanks to one really good year, but that status should be reserved for those that can back up over two or more racing seasons.
Fastest horse wins
Doing the form for most of the Olympic events required a very close analysis of the recent and career best times recorded by the athletes.
But the average Australian racing punter seriously under-estimates the importance of times. Yes there are many vagaries in Australian racing tracks so you need to do some work in establishing par times and assessing sectional times, but the indisputable fact is that the fastest horse on the day wins so you should really spend a lot of time trying to find out who that is likely to be.
Leading all the way is very difficult. Whether it was the running events or cycling there was a real understanding that whoever was leading was working much harder than those behind due to aerodynamics. Lesser athletes can slipstream just behind the leader and expend a lot less energy.
Sometimes a horse can get the perfect run with cover, win well and start very short next time out. But without the same easy run next start they can struggle.
Many casual observers would struggle to understand why Anna Meares didn’t want to just take off and try to get away from her great rival Victoria Pendleton in the sprint. Instead she slowed the race basically to a standstill and Pendleton was the first to crack by taking off early. Meares came over the top of her with a short, sharp sprint to win gold.
Just like athletes, horses only have short sprints so when a jockey ‘goes for home’ a long way out it isn’t surprising that the horse really gets the staggers late. This horse may look a bit weak at first glance, but watch the replay to see whether its sprint came to an end early.
10,000 hour rule applies
We have spoken before about author Malcolm Gladwell’s belief that it takes 10,000 hours of work to master any discipline. He argues that hard work rather than pure talent is the secret to success and this was borne out at the Olympics too. Talent gets you there, but to win you must have put in thousands of hours of work perfecting your skills.
I can’t think of any champion trainers, jockeys or horses that are lazy and don’t put in the work. It doesn’t really matter what field of endeavour we’re talking about, success comes to those who dedicate themselves and put in the required effort.
The same applies to betting. In order to succeed as a serious punter you need to put in many hours to develop your approach and fine-tune your winning edge.