Wagering Considerations for Small Fields

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By Dean Arnold

With small fields becoming common fare at most major racetracks, horseplayers need to adjust not only their measures of what constitutes positive statistics for horses, jockeys, and trainers alike, but also their notion of fair odds on a legitimate contender.

Win statistics for horses, jockeys, and trainers are not equal – don’t be fooled! Analyze statistics one step further by looking at field size, considering both the circuit and the types of races that make up the statistic. A random outcome in a five-horse field yields a 20% win percentage for all challengers. Horses that frequent small fields of allowance, stakes and handicap runners are more likely today than ever to face only three, four or five opponents. Even if they don’t stand out over their competition, such runners have every right to win several times over the course of a season of racing. Likewise, trainers that specialize in conditioning classy horses in New York and Southern California are likely to run their horses in fields with a limited number of entries. In these circumstances, a 20% winner – once considered a ‘Hall of Fame’ level of trainer performance – is nothing out of the ordinary.

On the other hand, horses that race in events that attract large fields such as maiden races, claiming races, and turf events often find themselves staring down 10 to 13 opponents. If such a runner wins a large portion of its races, this is far more notable than a horse that faces small fields over and over again. At a meet such as Saratoga, where nearly every turf race includes 10 to 14 runners, a jockey or trainer that wins 20% of turf races is sensational. Such a 20% win rate is much more notable than the same 20% win percentage in a category like graded stakes on the dirt, where the average field size may be seven runners or less.

So what does field size change with respect to wagering value? If a player consistently bets five-horse fields, there is a random one-in-five chance of winning, meaning the player should be able to blindly maintain at least a 20% winning average. In 14-horse fields, however, the same random play will only yield one win in 14 plays, for a mere 7% success rate. It should be obvious that a gambler that limits play to races where full fields of 14 horses fill the starting gate will not maintain the same win percentage with their selections as a player who only plays races with five-horse fields.

Suppose both players managed to maintain their respective 20% and 7% hit rates by only playing horses at odds of 5/1. The five-horse field player would collect $12 for every $10 bet and net a profit. The 14-horse field player would collect $12 for every $28 bet, for a severe loss. Before viewing this as evidence that betting small fields is the way to go, look at it another way. Is it realistic to think that a bettor can find a steady stream of live contenders at 5/1 in a 14-horse field? Certainly. What about finding solid 5/1 shots in five-horse fields? Not a chance.  

The 14-horse field is likely to offer juicy odds. But there’s far more competition (and the traffic that comes with it), reducing your chances of having a winner. In the small field, the contenders may face little in the way of competition, yet the betting public has few options and the contenders are sure to be bet heavily. 5/2 odds in a five-horse field may be a great overlay on a contender. 5/2 in a full field of 14 is a short-priced favorite.

Requirements to Play Small Fields:

– Be aware that certain categories of races like allowances, handicaps and stakes will typically have small fields. Other categories like maiden, claiming and turf races will have a much fuller starting gate.

– Have a different frame of reference for defining excellence when studying trainer and jockey statistics. Not all 20% winners are the same.  

– Expect much lower odds on legitimate contenders and longshots alike in a small field. 4/1 in a five-horse field is a longshot, while 4/1 in a 14-horse field may be the favorite!

Be sure to check out Dean Arnold's handicapping book, A Bettor Way, on sale now through Amazon.

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