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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Where's the gamble - unknowns up in class or proven talent down in class?

It's the age old argument - established class or the handicap - and it will be front and centre in a sensational renewal of the G3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup on New Year's Day.

Swipe left above for the quality at the top of the weights, where Helene Paragon (pictured), Beauty Only, Contentment and Peniaphobia all have G1 wins to their credit and pay for it in the weights they have to carry coming down in class. Or swipe right and you have Fifty Fifty (pictured), Beat The Clock and Southern Legend, who are all up in class and have it all to prove, and that's why they get into the race with small handicaps.

Which argument carries more weight (pardon the pun)?

Early this season, we looked at something similar through the prism of the weights carried but this time we're just using Monday's G3 as a staging point to look at the idea of rising or dropping in class.

Naturally, the horse dropping in class jumps up in the weights, the horse up in class drops in the handicap.

Theoretically, that should even things up case, even though the popular wisdom is to respect a horse down in class but be suspicious about the horse going up to a grade where they are unproven. Trainers in particular love to talk about this but, in the Hong Kong system, we have generally found that popular wisdom to be upside down compared to reality.

Here's a table assembled from winners in the past 5 full seasons and the races run this season. That's a sample of 4,225 winners and 3,505 (a whopping 83%) of those winners were neither up nor down in class. If that seems a statistic that might turn a profit, consider this - there were 44,976 runners neither up nor down in class, so there is a big session of data mining ahead!

On the left diagonal, you see the horses rising in grade, the second diagonal is horses dropping in class and the number is the percentage of them that won. Now this, and the rest of this blog, has a practical flaw insofar as it is using horses changing class today - so a horse which drops or rises a class, for example, then wins two races later in that new grade does not show up This is looking at the first occasion of a class rise or drop only.

So that doesn't cover the horse that changes class the first time and is unlucky and then atones next time. There is far too much complexity to that - there's no end to it really - but we hope that by using a good sample that we can still read something from the approach we have taken.

What we read from the first table is that horses rising in class are winning at around about twice the percentage of horses dropping in class.

Now, let's have a closer look at how that plays out on a flat bet on all those horses changing class. There were 720 winners who were either up or down in class and we've split them into the two groups and had a $10 win bet on them all to see what we got back and then we've broken them down into odds groups.

There are losses all across the board at the level stake bet - not altogether unexpected with a 17.5 % house advantage on the tote.

But, as you see, betting Down In Class horses is a higher outlay, a lesser percentage of collects and, all in all, much more damaging to your pocket.

Betting horses Up In Class is also showing a loss but it goes close to profit, especially in those the market likes as legitimate winning chances in the race - those priced at 11.0 or less. (Interesting to see a deviation from the pattern comes with horses up in class and odds-on, perhaps due to the boom, overrated types we sometimes see.

If we look closer at just the chances (below), there is nowhere to hide for the Down In Class punter, it's a nightmare regardless of which class they are moving from or to.

We see an anomaly in the Up In Class breakdown that moving up to C3 is a significant negative but the other news looks pretty good.

And we explode one of the popular myths of Hong Kong racing - the idea that C5 horses are useless and condemned to be cellar dwellers forever. Horses rising from C5 to C4 are the most profitable group, with the highest win strike rate of any bunch of horses moving up or down in class.

That's probably enough for now - these things are rabbit holes you can disappear down for days! But we can offer some reasons why these apparently counter-intuitive results might happen.

The urban myth of Hong Kong's handicap system is that it rewards larceny by allowing connections to drop horses to easier races so they can have a bet and (somehow) be assured of a win. If only things were that easy!

That might happen in some individual cases but, as our study shows, the overall reality of class changes is something else.

And that will not only be due to the weights carried.In the case of horses dropping in class, for instance, another more important factor might be deteriorating quality due to age or unsoundness and that's why they are falling down the handicap.

Even if dropping a horse is intentional - and we see that often, with horses running in unsuitable races so they fail and get points off - the horse isn't getting any younger while that is happening and is also subject to incremental wear and tear. So, if it takes 10 starts to get a horse down to a suitable rating, that is at least half a season in terms of time, with 10 races and maybe as many as three or four times that many trackwork exertions to get there. Something we have built into our predictive model is incremental downgrade of a horse's ability figure over time, after a certain peak point.

By contrast, horses rising in grade tend to be younger, still getting stronger and, by their very nature, horses which are fit and in-form - otherwise they wouldn't be going up the handicap.

And finally, one reason we would posit for the C5 to C4 profits, where you will find old horses rising in class, would be changes of trainer or rehabilitation. Many old horses get to the bottom grade due to problems but a last-ditch change of stable or a vet procedure might bring a short term fix that enables even 7yos or 8yos to produce some watered down version of their old ability and win in C5 and then C4 before it gets hard again. We are seeing plenty of that this season with new trainer Frankie Lor working miracles on C5 horses like Yourthewonforme (left).

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