Does Scratch always win? Analysing NSW handicap race results

NSW open handicap finish - the 2019 Keegan Downes Memorial Handicap

The country handicap is an Aussie institution. It’s a race born of wide geography and sparse population; a race of practicality. Not enough entrants to run separate grades? Throw everyone together into one handicap.

It’s also a race of equity: the slowest get a headstart, the strongest have to chase, and everyone has a chance of winning.

Or do they?

Some criticise handicap racing like they do neoliberal economics, saying it favours the strong despite the rhetoric of giving everyone a “fair go”. There’s a perception that the faster riders⁠—those in Scratch, the last bunch to start—are given too easy a task of mopping up the weaker riders and contesting the win.

To test this theory, I collated all the results I could find online from NSW state open handicaps. In total, I analysed 19 open races since June 2017. It’s not an enormous sample size, but it’s enough to start with.

As well as finding out which bunches produced race winners, I also looked for other trends. I noted statistics such as the winner’s average speed, the size of the group they finished with (i.e., was it a solo win or a bunch sprint?), and the bunch that produced the fastest time.

So, let’s analyse the data and answer the question: does Scratch always win?

Scratch wins often, not always

The following pie chart shows the number of NSW State Open handicap race victories according to the winner’s starting bunch.

Pie chart showing number of wins by bunch in NSW handicap races

(Note: “Limit” is the first bunch to start. “2nd-slowest” is the next bunch. “Block” is the second-to-last bunch to start, and “Scratch” is the last. “All other bunches” consists of every bunch between Block and 2nd-slowest)

Other than the John Woodman Handicap, which only allows four bunches, every other race featured between seven and ten bunches. The average number of bunches was eight. So if the handicapping was perfectly equal, the probability of any given bunch winning would be 12.5%.

As you can see, Scratch has won over 40% of NSW State Open handicap races over the past two years. To put it another way, Scratch wins three times its fair share of handicaps.

No, Scratch doesn’t always win—it actually wins less than half the time—but it definitely has the greatest likelihood of winning.

According to this (small) sample, starting in Block or the 2nd-slowest bunch gives you the next-best chance of winning, about what you’d expect if all bunches were equally-matched. However, if you happen to start in any of the other bunches, including Limit, you’ll probably need some generous time gaps to win.

Scratch is always fastest

Pie chart showing the distribution of fastest times across bunches in NSW open handicaps

Unsurprisingly, the strongest riders on paper always posted the fastest time of the race. This tells you two things.

First, Scratch always has something to race for, even if they’re far from catching the front of the race. Second, the handicapping in NSW is consistent enough to always put the fastest riders in Scratch. There are no major upsets at the back of the field.

Speed analysis: can you keep up?

Think you’ve got what it takes to hang on in Scratch? Here’s a chart showing the speed of the fastest time in each race. Where the race winner did not come from Scratch, I have added a column (in pink) showing the race winner’s speed.

Column graph showing the speed of fastest time and speed of the winner in NSW Open Handicap races

To finish at the pointy end of Scratch, you’ll need to be able to average 43km/h at a minimum; 45km/h on most days. The average race distance is 90 kilometres, so we’re talking about holding that pace for two hours, usually over lumpy terrain and harsh rural roads. Not easy for the average clubbie, even within the protection of the bunch.

Slower riders still have a chance, though. In 2017, a rider from the second-slowest group won the Ken Dinnerville Memorial Handicap with an average speed of 33km/h (albeit in reportedly brutal winds). There’s hope for everyone!

Solo wins do happen

By looking at the time gaps between riders, I could determine the size of the winning bunch.

For this purpose, I used the UCI’s three-second rule: if a rider finishes three seconds or less behind the rider in front of them, they are recognised as being in the same bunch. If there was a gap of four seconds or more between any two riders, I took that as the start of a new bunch. It’s an imperfect measurement, but it’s as good as any for this purpose.

Here’s a chart showing the size of the winning bunch across our NSW handicaps.

Pie chart showing sizes of winning bunches in NSW handicap races

On the face of it, a surprising amount of races (36.8%, or 7 out of 19) were won solo. It’s surprising because handicaps are designed to end in large bunch finishes where all the groups come together in the final kilometres. Theoretically, in a perfectly-handicapped race, no individual rider should be strong enough to solo away from their group. Of course, reality is imperfect.

If we look more closely, however, only three of those solo wins were long-range, dominant performances (and all three came from the Limit or 2nd-slowest groups). The other four winners had a gap of 7 seconds of less, meaning they were probably won with a late attack or a long sprint. Still, it looks like every now and then, a front-marker receives a friendly handicap and simply rides away from his companions.

Most races do end in some sort of bunch sprint. The largest winning group came from this year’s Tolland Open Handicap (Day 2), where 78 out of the 129 starters contested a frantic finish. Kudos to the handicappers that day.

Concluding remarks

So, what can you do to increase your chances of winning a NSW handicap? The answer is straightforward: train harder until you’re good enough to win from Scratch. Sorry, there are no shortcuts! Statistically, that’ll give you the greatest probability of victory.

But take heart! Even if you can’t make it in Scratch, you’ve got a chance to win from any group.

In the end, this analysis—like handicap racing itself—is just a bit of fun. Some races, you’ll receive a great handicap and fly along in an evenly-matched group. Other times, you’ll be mercilessly spat out the back. Just take it all in your stride, accept the bad days with the good, and enjoy your racing.

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