My first exposure to horse betting could have been a disaster or a blessing depend on where you end up 40 years down the line. I met a friend at College back in 1975 and as an ex pro footballer he had already caught the bug via long afternoons after training with nothing to do. My first bet was 3 x dollar doubles and a dollar treble. I think it was shillings actually but we called then dollar doubles for some unknown reason., Yes you guessed it, they all won. I went into that 1976/77 winter hoping The Minstrel would win everything and his stable companion Cloonlara would do likewise in the filly classics. Cloonlara never trained on but the Minstrel won the Derby.
I remember being fascinated by the wonderful names of those 2yos, Tachypous still sticks in my mind and also the wonderful secret code of race reading appealed to my psyche. What did nearest finish mean or hld up.
I am a great believer in the idea that your the people you hang out with will greatly influence your betting and although me and my mate had some great success along with failures I had begun my betting career with a strong bias against handicaps which I now realise was a mistake. My belief that there was no point arguing with the handicapper who’s full time job was to make all the horse’s theoretically dead heat was incorrect but it took me a few years to realise this.
Years passed with mainly losing years although my pre disposition to be non addictive and the thought I put into bets even from an unsound perspective generally meant I lost small. The media had already polluted my thinking, straight jacketing my outlook into finding winners instead of finding value. I remember a line from Van De Wheil who some of you may remember writing in the Raceform Handicap book readers letters page. “There is a winner in every race but is there a bet” or words to that effect. I think VDW should have spelt that out a little more clearly instead of expecting everyone to understand what he meant.
I have always had an interest in crowd betting or the wisdom of crowds perhaps due to my first really great betting year. My buddy from college and I teamed up in 1984 and for a flat season bet together with a no bet unless we agree rule. It probably helped that he was in Brecon Wales and a new wet behind the ears bookmaker had opened who thought it was a safe idea to bet in the morning to Sporting Life forecast SP’s…..DOH!. By the end of the season he offered to pay us by giving us his car which we refused in favour of installments. Late in the season we met up in Rotherham where by then I was lecturing at a college in Computer Science and split up the money over the table in an Italian restaurant. I still think this approach has potential for a small group of punters perhaps with bet suggestions put forward and then annonymous voting on bet or no bet.
By the late 80’s I was lecturing in Computer Science at De Montfort University, in fact before that in 1987 I had spent many months travelling to London to spend hours in the Colingdale newspaper library researching past copies of the Sporting Life for a wonderfully naive system I had put together. I recall at the time thinking that if this data could only be in machine readable form my computing skills would allow me to unpick it. I did not realise that a couple of guys would implement this in the mid 90’s and revolutionize the way we look at betting. The system had a poor year when I took it into the field and if it was not for Mystiko winning the Guineas that year (a non system bet) I would have been out of the housing market for a good while.
I was modest on the betting front during the 90’s as I was still lecturing at the University and I had opened a restaurant with my partner but in the late 90’s I discovered the first of probably two life changing decisions. The first was RSB a computer package that allowed one to interrogate dozens of horse racing variables and build systems based around them. For me and others betting had been akin to landing in a foreign town and then trying to find the railway station whilst having your nose constantly 2 inches from the ground. RSB was like being handed Google Maps. For sure there was a lot of backfitting suicide conducted by many of its users. Never have so many jockeys on certain course’s on soft ground on a Tuesday afternoon only in races with less than 10 runners been backed by hopeful naive punters but when taken with education from other sources RSB allowed a birds eye view of what really had value in Race betting. That education I mentioned came from my second smart move.
Reading a Russell Clarke article one day I discovered a place for serious minded bettors to exchange ideas and get help. It was a monthly magazine called SmartSig and an accompanying email forum for discussion. There were plenty of smart punters on there and it was through SmartSig that I began to learn rudimentary language and rules that pro bettors work to and not the misplaced find a winner mentality of the mass media. I contributed a few articles to SmartSig and attended some of the get together’s such as the lecture we all attended on Bayes theorem given by Professor Speigelhalter in Oxford.
During the noughties I gradually moved away from Lecturing and took up full time betting. This had its own complications to overcome. I also had taken over running SmartSig after the retirement of the owner Stef and an aborted relaunch by a purchaser. Renamed as SmarterSig it is still running in a diluted form to this day. During this period I also organised and ran two sports betting conferences which as far as I know were the first of its kind in the UK, certainly outside academic circles.
It is not clear when you start betting with bookmakers that if you win they will refuse your bets but I quickly discovered this to be the case. To navigate around the problem I moved from online to betting shops in the High street, taking up camp in a Costa coffe shop from 9am to 12 noon, popping out occasionaly to take a price on a horse. I was having around 3,500 bets per year and averaging around 14% on turnover profit. I soon discovered however that shops ban you quicker than online and I was soon struggling to get bets on. At this point I hired a team od students from the University, paying them £5 per hour to do the running. I calculated that I was still well ahead despite the employee overhead. Two problems arose with this tactic. The students got banned and Costa became suspicious that guys rapidly leaving and returning with wads of cash while I sat orchestrating over cups of coffee looked suspiciously like a drug operation and Costa Coffee came in line with Ladbrokes et al and banned me. To this day if you go in a UK Costa Coffee shop and try to access a betting site through there wifi you will be declined. Like to think I have contributed something to the comfort of Costa Coffee drinkers
Things had to change and I decided after a chat with a guy I knew from SmartSig who ran a tipping service that the best course would be to run a service myself and let the client manage the headache of getting on. I proofed all bets to a reputable proofing service and for 3 out of 4 years actually won their accolade of top overall tipster which included all sports not just horse racing. Part of what helped me win those awards was my approach was somewhat different to other tipsters who had no doubt been brought up on the false notion that selectivity, a few bet per month was the sign of a sound tipster. I was a volume bettor by their standards and the evaluation formula used on the proofing service favoured volume. This idea of volume was to be pivotal in my next step.
After a health scare in 2013 I decided to shelve the tipping line. Maybe I had underestimated how stressful having clients can be although at the time it did not seem to bother me. My replacement however was already in the pipeline, Starbucks, no only joking. I decided that Betfair betting was the only way to go but liquidity in the morning where I had been earning my 14 or so percent was thin so I needed to replace 3,500 bets and 14% with many many more bets and perhaps 2% ROI. This would mean bet selection and placement automation. You cannot physically place the number of bets/lays I was anticipating with a manual approach or at least not without a serious Vitamin D deficiency. I did my own coding in a mixture of Perl and Python and for the last 5 years or so have been betting solely on Betfair to my own horse ratings.
If you have read any of my other blogs entries you will know that even losing punters should be migrating to Betfair where they will lose less. What does the future hold/, well I have a keen interest in Machine Learning and its application to betting but I guess ultimately everything depends on where this sport is heading. At the moment people are not being replaced in the area of horse betting and we are losing market share. I think many of the current promotion horses being ridden by people are well intentioned and certainly welcomed by me eg sectional times. The real issue however is overall profile of horse betting. Every element of Racing is covered with grace and respect but you will have noticed that when it comes to betting a fool is rolled out to talk about it. Usually the fool in the ring is the biggest culprit, the fools on bookmaker adverts are to be expected. We need betting to be viewed in a more favourable light, one which mirrors stock marketing investing. This first of all requires allowing people to bet and certainly not protecting and covering up those that don’t allow punters to pace bets within reasonable risk managed quantities. Ultimately though we need to push the exchanges as the only place in town for all punters who have ambitions of winning or at the very least losing more slowly.