Rooting for the underdog in sport, especially in horse racing, is something of a time-honoured tradition in the UK. Staking a bet and hoping that what looks like an average runner and rider will beat the odds-on favourite is exciting and potentially lucrative – but is there more to it?
The ‘underdog effect’ is actually a concept that has been coined by top researchers. In the US, when more than 100 college students were asked what team they would root for in a best-of-seven playoff series, 81% claimed that they would opt to cheer for the underdog.
The David versus Goliath scenario is very compelling to people watching sport. This is because the struggle to succeed against insurmountable odds is always engaging and sometimes exhilarating, especially when a long-time winner is humbled by a new upstart that has just made their name.
This concept is never more true than in horse racing and is closely tied with the way that people bet on the sport. Punters are always looking for potential jockeys and horses that may have flown under the radar as they can potentially lay down a large sum at longer odds and win more money than they expected. The fact that the stakes are higher adds to the thrill; how much more exciting to be on a 33/1 outsider than a 6/4 favourite when it comes good.
Professor Nadav Goldschmied at the University of San Diego believes that the essence of backing an underdog in sport and horse racing is purer than in other aspects of life, such as politics.
He notes: “I think it’s because in sport it’s unveiling in front of us. We see the competition, we see the emotions… so it’s the most transparent, I guess, of all.” This is very true for racing, where viewers can watch every race during a meet from start to finish.
People are also drawn to underdogs as there is a greater story there if they win and less emotion if they don’t. The favourites are expected to come out on top, which is not really that interesting in terms of a grand narrative. This was amply demonstrated this past weekend, when Willie Mullins cleaned up at the Dublin Racing Festival. In reality, no-one expected any other result.
The same will inevitably be true at the upcoming Cheltenham Festival, which will kick off the UK Spring racing calendar in earnest in March. Punters can find out about free bets for the Cheltenham Festival from RacingTips.com, and many will be backing underdogs for the thrill and potential winnings.
There are times when opting for a smart bet on the favourite makes the most sense, but the pull of the underdog will never be far away. That’s because unexpected wins have happened in the past and will happen again.
Nobody who was at Cheltenham in 1990, when Norton’s Coin won the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 100/1, will forget that day. Hardly anyone was on the horse, but he was still welcomed back like a hero. His owner trainer, Syrrel Griffiths, had milked the cows beforre setting out from Wales that morning, in a classic fairytale victory. Horses including Cue Card, Hardy Eustace, Cool Dawn, Harry Hastings and Lord Windermere have also pulled off shock victories at Cheltenham over the years as underdogs going into their respective races.
Underdogs that win generally always go on to become heroes, their triumphs more memorable and their achievements remembered for years to come. The appeal of the outsider and the prospect of a shock victory is always there; that’s why people are always drawn to underdogs in horse racing.