Russell Clarke was one of my favourite interviews from my book The Newmarket Wizards. I have reproduced it here in response to a Twitter enquiry about him
Russell Clarke may be known to some readers from his monthly column in the now defunct magazine Odds On. Russell ran a column on the statistical side of betting along with a very successful advisory service. A clue to how well he had done can be gleamed from the fact that some of this interview took place in a restaurant at the Marina in Marbella. Russell took me up to see the location of his new build villa overlooking the city. Russell’s profit on the exchanges alone is in excess of seven figures, a fact I can personally verify. This was clearly a guy worth listening to and another major influence on my own betting. Since this interview Russell is now back in the UK where his daughters are finishing their education.
Q How did you first get interested in horse racing and betting?
I was probably around ten years old when I first took an interest in horse-racing. Both my Grandad and my Uncle were keen punters and the house always had a copy of The Sporting Life as we all lived together at that time.
My Grandad read all of the views of the racing correspondents in the papers at the bookmakers and then came to a conclusion based on that pool of knowledge. My Uncle took a more analytical approach by compiling his own speed-figures and keeping the records on index-cards. As a youngster I often did the simple math’s involved and helped him maintain the cards.
I became fascinated by the concept that the winner of a race could actually be worked out by the use of numbers or ratings. From there it was a natural progression to have a small “round robin” (my bet of choice at that age!)
Q How successful or unsuccessful were you when you first started to bet regularly, did you serve the typical losing apprenticeship?
I didn´t keep records back then, so I would be guessing, but my stakes were very small and I fondly remember a number of very good wins, so I would guess that my pre-teen betting days were profitable. As I got older, I did bet more regularly, but it was the 70´s and I was lucky enough to be using the speed-figures from the old Sporting Chronicle Handicap Book. These figures were powerful and largely anonymous to the general betting public and so I was fortunate to have stumbled upon a source of profit.
I don´t suffer from a need to win on any given day and so have never chased losses or got into difficulties by being reckless or “on tilt”.
Q Could you cite any pivotal moments or influences in your early regular betting life that shaped your style and approach to successful betting?
Lots! The first, and most important, was my belief that an objective approach to betting was more likely to succeed than a subjective one. This was almost the first conclusion I ever drew about betting on horse-racing. It came from a cursory glance at the Sporting Life Naps Table, which always showed that perhaps only 20% of the racing correspondents showed a profit on their daily “naps”. And, the really telling condemnation of subjective analysis is that, it was always a different 20% of the racing correspondents that managed a profit each year!. Reading their columns, I concluded it was because they based their bets on their personal opinion. At that time, I didn´t really appreciate the importance of odds in betting, but nevertheless, I have never wavered from my belief in objective analysis from the conclusions drawn as a ten year old looking at the Sporting Life Naps Table.
Other influences were, the speed-figures in the Sporting Chronicle Handicap Book, the figures of Dick Whitford in the Sporting Life (which were my first introduction to the world of collateral form ratings), Phil Bull´s Timeform Computer Timefigures which I used for ante-post betting on the following year´s Guineas and Derby during the 1980´s in particular, and, any number of trends that I have found measurable such as the influence of the draw in Flat racing.
Q My understanding is that you are more statistically prompted bettor than an interpretative one (i.e.- evaluating form via personal observations). How would you summarize your style?
As I have alluded to already, the central thread of my betting is objectivity. To summarize this in a sentence…”if I can´t measure it, I struggle to evaluate it and so tend to ignore it”
Throughout my betting life I have remained flexible in terms of changing my methods. Over the years I have relied on speed-figures, collateral form figures, draw, pace, statistical systems, and various mathematical approaches that highlight that most elusive of all variables… value
Q What would be a typical betting day for you (e.g.- 10.00pm compile list of contenders, 8.00am compile odds line, 10.00am check Belfair prices etc etc etc
It may surprise you to know that I rarely spend more than half an hour on any meeting. This is because of my objective style of betting. As I rely on figures and statistics and systems, the work has largely been done beforehand. Really, all I require are the runners and an accurate going description. Additional subjective analysis merely results in convergence towards the accepted wisdom, which I constantly strive to avoid. Then I look at Betfair and highlight the potential value horses in each race. It is then a case of deciding the best way to back them.
Q Do you have any particular methods or approaches to handling a bad run of results. Could you give an example of a typical poor run e.g. time span, bets, points lost.
The importance of psychology cannot be stressed enough. It is the factor that governs longevity in betting, or indeed any type of investment. When I lived in England I ran a Subscription Service. I can´t recall the year, but during one Flat Season I made a paper profit of just 4 points to level stakes. In reality, the clients would have lost money because the profits were quoted at prices recommended and these became progressively more difficult to obtain with bookmakers. The meager profits that year, were also due to a 50-1 winner at Royal Ascot and I think the losing sequence prior to that winner was something around 40 points or maybe a little more. That year I lost over half my client base. I recently spoke to a hedge fund manager who operates a very similar investment criteria to myself, and, he confirmed that he also lost many clients after a poor spell of returns, regardless of past performance. As humans we all share the same psychological response to losses. We time-weight recent results, so that they have much more influence on our behaviour than past results. Unfortunately, these responses do nothing to help with profitable betting/investment.
Such runs can sap confidence. Nowadays I hardly watch a race, except for the big events. This helps me personally. Watching loser after loser can be soul destroying, you blame bad luck, bad jockeys, bad “anything”. If you watch 8 losers and then a 10-1 winner, it hardly feels like a profitable day! So, I watch very little racing and sometimes don´t even check the results for a few days (I think my record is catching up on 4 days worth of results). I actually got that tip from a client. He reasoned that what happened day to day wasn´t really of any consequence if you have long-term faith. I think he has a valid point.
Q When someone asks me if I have had a good day, I usually answer ‘I don’t care but I am having a good year’. I make this reply not because I wish to be flippant or because it’s easy to think this way but because that’s were I want to be psychologically. You seem to be there already. Has this always been the case and more importantly do you think it’s innate or can it be developed.
My literal answer to the question is always honest but vague…so something along the lines of “a bit behind”, “a bit ahead”, “no, not today” or “yes thanks”. I´m only vague because I feel it is a little vulgar to mention numbers, akin to mentioning your profit if someone asks about your business. I suppose it also depends on who asks the question.
Therefore I don´t think the answer to such a question reflects the broader point you are trying to convey regarding separating the short-term peaks and troughs from the long-term trend in your own mind. I´m lucky on this score because I´m putting faith in rigorous statistics and not my own ability to find winners, the former is established, the latter is subject to variations in confidence.
Q The betting arena has changed enormously over the last 10 years. What impact has this had on your betting?
A huge impact, at one stage I relied almost exclusively on early morning prices and had accounts with bookmakers all over the country. I visited towns to open accounts with any independent who offered early prices or who might lay me say, the Big 3 or 4. In the 80´s I had a spell on-course to avoid betting tax, but found this soul-destroying. I have just read Dave Nevison´s book (very entertaining) in which he states that he prefers being on-course, so there is no right or wrong, but it just wasn´t for me. Driving home after losing a four-figure sum made me feel like getting a proper job!
I then discovered the spreads, but restrictions were soon applied and the majority of my bets I placed “abroad” and this was well before Victor moved to Gibraltar! There was quite an underground betting scene and the main reason was to escape the betting tax.
Along came Flutter….my first dalliance with exchanges. They were swallowed up by Betfair and the exchanges changed the betting map of the UK.
Q Some people complain that the exchanges have ruined early morning value whilst others feel things have never been so good. How do you stand, is it easier to make a profit now than pre exchanges. (note profit encompasses all aspects including getting on)
I believe bookmakers have become more astute at identifying winning punters, and, at an earlier stage. This makes it difficult to get on and as even accounts in friends and family names, that previously had served you well for a long period of time, are now heavily restricted very early on.
The exchanges are certainly lacking in liquidity in the morning markets. I think this highlights a flaw in the betting exchange business model, which is that eventually you can run out of “layers”.
With that caveat, I believe the exchanges have been a positive for punters overall.
Q I know you bet on horse racing, do you bet on other events. How about laying and trading, do they play any significant part in your activities?
I don´t trade unless the odds dictate that I should. For example, if I rate something a 14-1 shot and I can back it at 25-1 then I do so. If the price subsequently shortens to 8-1, then I will become a layer and effectively trade that position. But overall, I don´t trade.
My main activity nowadays is football betting. The liquidity is much stronger than for horse racing and I find it a new and fascinating challenge. For football, I have joined forces with a really talented partner. The software we use generates prices for all markets (including in-play) and we simply back and lay around those prices. Just as for the racing, it is totally objective, and we aim to become the biggest players in the UK.
Q I am no expert on the football markets, but my guess would be that the bigger profits and turnover is within the chaos of in play betting?. I have always thought the pre match odds were pretty tight?.
There are anomalies in the pre-match markets, but you are probably correct that the greater potential for profits occur during a game, when the market is constantly changing and reacting to events. However, the differences are not as marked as I believed they would be. As with horse-racing, certain factors are overlooked or even misunderstood by the market and this can happen almost as much pre-match as in-play.
Q What do you see as the key characteristics needed in a successful professional gambler?
Boring stuff really…..being sensible, realistic and brave. But your greatest ally is Belief
Q There will always be a nucleus of people contemplating becoming a full time pro’ in the betting world. What are the positives and negatives of such a working life style?
It is no different to running any business of your own. My advice would be to forget it is about betting…just treat it as a business. Do all the things you would do to make any business successful.
Q How do you balance the demands of pro’ gambling with home life. Have you had to make adjustments over the years and have you at any time in the past felt like you were simply working too hard at the betting?
Some summers have been hard in the past because of the plethora of racing once the evening meetings kick-in. But I have never felt like I am working too hard.
Q If I presented in front of you a willing wannabe professional punter (horse racing), who is the type of punter who doesn’t lose a lot over the year but cannot quite break into the regular profit zone. What advice would you offer such a person? Are there any simple tips that might improve the bottom line by the required amount?
I couldn´t really offer advice unless I knew this punter´s modus operandi. If we assume he utilizes best prices, exchanges, spreads etc, but is till not winning, then he needs to change his selection methods. But a generic piece of advice that we should all have transplanted into our heads is;
It´s ALL about the odds, NOTHING else matters. It is engrained in punters to try and find the winner of any race. This is reinforced by the “experts” on TV making a case for/against a horse, with little, or cursory reference to the odds available. It is a nonsense of course, but, the reality is that a well researched argument or opinion is far more interesting than a bland statistic. The opinion makes interesting television, the statistic doesn’t.
Q What are your basic figures, i.e. number of bets, strike rate, profit rate (per year). Also, how long have you been able to sustain these figures?
The number of bets depends on the profit margins that I set. For example, if I set a requirement of a margin of 20% between assessed price and odds available, I will have less bets than if I set the margin at 10%.
Strike-rate also varies with the levels of margin set, but a broad average would be between 15 and 18%.
This has been relatively consistent over the years, though I am always a little surprised by the amount of variation season to season.
Football betting is a different animal. There are less unknown variables and so I can price up all markets and have a back and lay price for ALL selections. Therefore the number of bets on an individual game can run into 3 figures.
Q What do you consider to be the tools of your betting profession
All that is required, given that “it´s all about price…nothing else matters” is a means to accurately assess an accurate true price.
For Horse Racing I use a systematic approach utilizing statistics, alongside collateral form.
For Football I use a 100% mathematical approach to produce goal expectations and from these, all other prices can be calculated.
I use software, written for me, to actually place the bets.
Q What is the worse bet you ever made (gory details included please)
The year Seagram won the Grand National, I had my biggest ever bet on Garrison Savannah. At that time, I was heavily into ante-post betting and I had backed Garrison at all prices, I think from 25-1 to 10-1. I would have won enough to buy a terraced house, so the equivalent of 100,000 pounds today. The scale of the bet was due to a theory I have about the Grand National, which has brought me numerous winners of the race. On the day, I didn´t even watch the race….I was at Sincil Bank watching Lincoln City. People in the crowd had radios on and I asked a chap behind me, quite nonchalantly, who had won the National? “They´re just coming to the last…” he said….. “Garrison Savannah has gone 10 lengths clear”. I kept really cool and started dreaming of my winnings. A minute later the chap patted me on the shoulder and said “Seagram won it”. Deflated wasn´t the word!
When I got home I watched the race on video. If any of you can recall the race, Garrison jumps past Seagram at the last and quickly powers 10 lengths clear…..at this stage, had Betfair been around, he would have been 1.01! As I watched the video, I couldn´t believe that somehow this horse would get beat. But, at the elbow, he simply died, like Crisp had done years before.
Certainly my worst betting experience.
Q Is most of your daily selection process automated, even down to the selection of value or do you have to resort to some manual analysis?
In horse racing, 95% is automated. But, some things I just find easier to assess manually than trying to assign a numerical value to.
In football, 95% is automated. Even the team news prior to kick off generates an automatic numerical indication of the effect it will have on goal expectations. However, to do that player ratings are required and they are a mixture of Opta stats and watching every Premiership game each week….so that is the 5% manual analysis.
Q You live abroad now, how has this affected you on a personal quality of life level and on a betting level?.
We have lived in Spain for 4 years and now 4 years in Dubai. Moving to a new country brings frustrations, but overall we have enjoyed the experiences. It has exposed my family and myself to different cultures and other ways of life.
On the betting front, it has taken me even further away from consensus opinion as I no longer have the Racing Post or other mainstream publications drip-feeding me opinions. Whether this has been positive or negative in terms of profitability is difficult to tell, but it has certainly made decisions more clear cut.
The technology of today means that geographical distance isn´t really an issue.