Even if you are relatively new to horse racing betting, presumably you are aware of the mathematical gold nugget that holds the whole thing together: the bookies odds.
In short, these odds are the statistical likelihood of something happening, hence why the favourite in a race is the shortest price and the rank outsider is the highest. These odds are designed, ultimately, to give a reflection of the quality of the horses in a race, although as we know the favourite doesn’t always make it into the winner’s enclosure.
The bookmakers set the opening odds, but subsequent movements are dictated by the betting public. So, if a lot of money comes in for a particular horse then the odds will shorten, and vice versa for those who are not well supported by punters.
It’s the simple logic of supply and demand, for people familiar with the basic principles of business.
This discussion of odds movements takes us nicely on to a phenomenon that you can see day in, day out at horse racing meetings up and down the UK and Ireland: steamers and drifters.
What is a Steamer?
No, it’s not an old boat.
As the name suggests, a steamer is a horse whose odds ‘steam’ in, e.g. they fall dramatically in price.
By their nature, steamers are well backed by the market. So, if you back a steamer at the height of its odds movement, you are going to miss out on the best value. The trick is to get on a steamer just as the money starts rolling in.
A steamer can come about for three main reasons: a) it’s ‘smart’ money, where those in the know are investing in a probable winner, b) the horse was overpriced in the first place based on its quality and that of its competition, or c) Chinese whispers dictates that fool’s money follows one another.
Knowing the difference is the key!
What is a Drifter?
No, it’s not a homeless guy who wanders from town to town.
A drifter is the polar opposite of a steamer. There are reasons why the betting market simply doesn’t like a particular horse – some of which we will cover later in this article.
In short, a drifter is a horse that simply does not get backed, and so the bookies push out its price to account for odds shortening elsewhere.
Should you bet on a drifter? That’s a million dollar question, so make sure you do your research to find out exactly why a particular horse is so unsupported by the punting community.
Where Can You Find the Latest Steamers and Drifters?
Such is the demand amongst punters to find steamers to back and drifters to avoid, a number of speciality services have arisen that you can search out for yourselves.
But for the most precise look at odds movements, our recommendation is to sign up for a Betfair Exchange account.
Many professional punters and even bookmakers themselves frequent the exchanges to fund sharper prices and lay bets, and there is a tool on Betfair’s platform that is a great help to bettors.
Click the ‘graph’ icon next to a horse’s name, and you will see a chart pop up on screen that displays odds, volume, and time. If you can read said graphs, you can predict odds movements as they happen – and if you’re really smart, maybe even before!
What Causes Odds to Change?
There isn’t an exact science that explains why odds move, however there are usually a couple of likely triggers.
They say that price swings generally start to taper out as the ‘information’ hits the market, but you can still get a good price when you know what you’re looking for.
However, be warned: odds movements can come about as a result of genuine price fluctuations caused by a change in supply or demand, or as part of a hype/Chinese whispers campaign that feeds false information into the betting market. The days of ‘insider information’ are, by and large, long gone.
But what else causes odds to move?
A sharp change in the weather can seriously impact the betting market.
For example if there is a prolonged burst of heavy rain that softens the going then naturally that that will impact upon which horses thrive and which find the challenge too tough.
Similarly, soft ground that sees a good morning’s sunshine and wind to help dry it out will also alter the going, and subsequently there will be fluctuations in price that follow.
There are plenty in punting circles who believe that the form of a trainer or jockey will have a knock-on effect to that day’s racing as well.
That will normally be reflected in slower price changes throughout the morning, but you can be sure that if a trainer or jockey gets off to a fine start on a racecard, their subsequent rides will shorten in price as a result.
Look out for injuries to jockeys too. When a less experienced sort takes the saddle then that’s another ‘drift’ trigger.
The Parade Ring
As you are probably aware, the horses are paraded before a race so that punters and spectators can take a good look at them.
And you can still place your bets as they make their way to the start line, even as late as them being loaded into the stalls.
Sharp punters look for signs of problems to come at this point. It can be plainly obvious – a horse bucking or kicking out; or slightly more subtle – a horse sweating up prior to the start.
For some this is normal pre-race behaviour, however, and it doesn’t actually hinder them on the track. This is where keeping your little black book of notes on as many horses as possible helps, because you can get to know certain horses quite well and learn what sort of behaviour is normal for them.
Timing is Everything
Getting the timing of your run at odds movements is like surfing.
When you watch a professional surfer in action, you can see them monitoring the build-up of the wave pattern to see if they are going to get a wave that breaks like crazy, which is optimum surf territory.
Sometimes, they let waves go by unridden, but when the time is right they kick their board out early and prepare to hold on for dear life.
If you can back a steamer just as its price starts to move, you know you have succeeded in two things: a) picking out a good horse, and b) getting the best price that is going to be available for a while.
If you have backed a drifter, then you also know one of three things is likely: a) conditions have changed beyond your control, b) it’s had a bad time in the parade ring, or c) you’ve just picked a bit of a dud.
Generally, odds movements are shallower and less profound in the morning, before activity slowly builds through the afternoon. Peak times for price fluctuations are in the ‘live show’, which is typically 10-15 minutes before the start.
Value Bets at the Closing Line
There’s a truism in betting that if you are taking odds that end up being longer than the ‘closing line’, i.e. the price that the horse starts the race at, then you are something of a shrewd punter.
This is what might be known as a value bet, and punters who access value bets more often than not will almost guarantee themselves long-term success with their betting.
It’s worth monitoring this over a long period; if you are regularly beating the closing line, then you can carry on with your system of selecting horses as it is.
If your odds taken fall above the closing line on a large number of occasions, perhaps more research is required.
Back a Steamer, Avoid a Drifter?
When we think about the basic mechanics of a betting market, you might think that backing a steamer and avoiding a drifter is the smart way to go.
That’s true, to some extent, but think about what happens when you have backed a steamer at the end of its change – how many fewer points profit are you getting by buying in now?
Of course, avoiding drifters at all costs is wise: market sentiment is typically one of the most reliable markers of how a race will unfold.
Often, big bets come in for a reason, and the bookmakers can be slow to react to information that might not yet be available in the public domain.
And one final note to leave you with. A researcher at the University of Chicago named Tobias Moskowitz performed a study that looked at the betting odds for baseball, American football, ice hockey, and basketball. He found that betting on things where the odds have shortened ultimately led to increased losses for the punter – an observation that has since been confirmed by studies from Betfair and the Racing Post, who believe backing drifters can be a long-term strategy for profit.
It’s all a bit of a minefield, and the best advice that we can give you is to be aware of betting odds changes – i.e. steamers and drifters, but not be governed by them like a pair of betting handcuffs.