Tony Keenan is the Irish correspondent for geegeez.co.uk. His thought-provoking articles challenge not just punters but also practitioners of the sport in Ireland, many of whom read Tony’s articles.

Tony Keenan meets Feidhlim Cunningham

Feidhlim Cunningham – From Trading Room to Training Yard

Racing and betting can be uncomfortable bedfellows, especially if you listen to some trainers about bookmakers, but the association does not seem to bother Champion Hurdle-winning handler Gavin Cromwell. Instead, Cromwell has been using the relationship to his advantage, employing former Paddy Power odds complier Feidhlim Cunningham as his race planner since 2018, writes Tony Keenan.

The pair first met in 2016 when Cunningham acquired Bottleofsmoke, a nine-race maiden, out of a Dundalk claimer in July that year. “He was rated 45 when we got him and we were thrilled to get him up to 68 and I got to know Gavin through that. We were plotting a course with him so I’d ring him and say there’s a race in four or five weeks that would suit and he always seemed appreciative of that. I hadn’t a clue about the training side but it worked well and he also managed to get a win out of a limited bumper horse at Stratford that I had with a few friends.”

Like many before him, Cunningham got into racing at college where he was a self-described ‘maths nerd’ but spent most of his time in University College Galway punting. After that, there were two years at a spread betting firm where the learning curve was steep. “You had to be so accurate there. At Powers, you could be 5’s about something that should be 10’s but you weren’t getting filled in by being too short on it whereas with the spreads, punters can lay the other side of it.”

There followed five years of odds compiling at Powers where he did “mainly Irish racing… learning plenty from the more experienced lads and as you watch racing everyday, your race reading improves.” He loved working there, “I was dying to go into work and did all the extra hours going”, but at the end of 2017 felt it was time for a change. That was where Cromwell came in and asked him if he wanted to place a few horses and two years later he’s still there.

A typical day for the racing manager starts on the gallops for first lot; this is a relatively new development as he tries to improve his knowledge of the pure training side. Cunningham is at pains to point out that his job is “racing manager rather than assistant trainer… my knowledge of the physical animal would be limited compared to lads working them their whole lives; I know that and Gavin knows that, I’m there to do the job of form.”

“From there, it’s back to the office for declarations at 10am, booking jockeys, declaring headgear, doing the entries for five or six days ahead before liaising with owners about their horses.”

Your first 30 days for just £1

Some parts of the job are not all that different from his previous occupation: “I’d be half pricing races up in my head and trying to rate them one to five in terms of quality to see what our best option is. I try to have a good idea what engagement we will take up from weights stage, the day after declarations while also keeping an eye on other horses’ entries.”

Other parts of the job are just “a lot of boring office stuff like vaccinations” but he often goes racing when the trainer needs representation; that can be a very nice part of the job when things work out, not so much when there is some explaining to do. Dealing with owners is something he enjoys, some of whom will take an active interest in placing their horses, while his background in the betting industry can be useful for those inclined towards a punt.

There is a plan for every horse in the yard, no matter their ability level, and those are done in conjunction with the trainer. “I give him a list of horses and he tells me when they’ll be ready. I can then make a plan, the odd time I’d try to twist his arm. Every horse has a target but those plans are flexible. If it is not working, we will just change it.”

Last year’s Bellewstown July meeting was a time when the plans of a number of horses came together, the yard managing seven winners across the four-day meeting. “We targeted Bellewstown as a festival last year and aimed to have as many runners primed for it as we could. We picked out a number of horses that would be suited to races there four to six weeks beforehand; it just meant that we would go there instead of an alternative race a week or two either side of it. It is Gavin's local track and thankfully things worked out, he got them there in great nick.”

Plans will typically start with the aim of winning a race in Ireland but if the horse is struggling, they are not afraid to travel. “The initial aim is to win at home but the likes of Dundalk can be very competitive in the winter and, as Gavin says, we want winners.” When placing horses in the UK, Cunningham says that the “fully transparent entries and declarations are a massive help to race planners as can see what is entered before the race closes. Not all trainers have time to look through every race and we’ve won several races in Britain because of that, the Perth Silver Cup with Callthebarman was one example.”

Cromwell’s yard has grown exponentially in recent years; from 18 winners in 2016, their winners have gone 28, 45, 88 in the three years since. They were one of six Irish National Hunt yards to have at least 100 individual runners last season along with Mullins, Elliott, de Bromhead, O’Brien and Meade. This spurt is by design: “when I came here, Gavin was saying he wanted to give it a real go, the aim is to keep growing, you either compete or you don’t. We have a great team in the yard. Jonathan Moore has come in as stable jockey and done really well for us; we have one of the leading conditionals in the country in Conor McNamara, who went from strength to strength last season, and we also have the valuable claim of Breen Kane. Everyone in the yard works extremely hard to achieve the best results that we can.”

Part of that scaling up might be getting the bigger owners on board: this is a yard that, outside of JP McManus, is made up of “the smaller man, the medium man, syndicates”. Cunningham points out that “22 of our winners last year cost ten grand or less, we don’t aim for that and would like a higher quality of horse but we work with what we have”. On the broader subject of attracting new owners he says, “you hope what you’re doing with your horses will be evident to lads, we purchased a couple of horses from big owners that we did well with and that might perk their interest. If you do it on the track, you hope these lads will come to you”.

Getting bigger is not without its difficulties and he warns that “you don’t want to lose the personal touch, and Gavin has time for everyone”. Cromwell is described as a “good delegator” and you get the impression he is not afraid to back his staff. He is “upfront with owners which people tend to appreciate”. He also says his boss is “a brilliant judge of when a horse is or isn’t right” though this is more “a feel thing” than rooted in data.

Cunningham says that Cromwell’s best trait as a trainer is that “he gets the best out of them. He is very level-headed, he doesn’t get too down on himself when things don’t go right and he doesn’t get carried away with success. You don’t see many leaving and doing better elsewhere. The job he did with Espoir D’Allen was different class. To win a Champion Hurdle in the fashion he did really put Gavin’s training abilities in the limelight. Every quality horse he has had has fulfilled their potential”. Darver Star was freakish in this regard – “you just can’t explain his rate of improvement” – but there are other highlights from his time in the yard.

Lever Du Soleil won four in a row in the UK last summer. “We had three picked out and knocked a fourth out of it too but it’s not every horse that can go over and back like that. Over there, the way penalties work, you’ve got more chance of running up a sequence. He went from 54 to 84 in 18 days and it’s funny, lads remember that even though it’s low grade, it captures the imagination”.

The late decision to run Jeremy’s Flame (finished second) in January’s Tolworth Hurdle was another proud moment. “She was a late entry for that race getting the allowance and from my time in Powers I am inclined to take on the talking horses that haven’t done it yet so she was entitled to take her chance. 6/1 for a Grade 1 and 6/1 for a handicap on her next start, that was a good bit of placing”.

Patience and looking ahead is important in his job. “Top Of The Charts won four times last season and from a race planning side there were only two hurdles in the whole calendar that were backing up where he could win at the grade and back up under the penalty within 6 days. That worked well when he won at both Down Royal and Clonmel in late August and early September.”

Finding the next one is a major part of his job and one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects. “With the horse-in-training sales, I’ll go through every single horse which is a fair task as there are 1,500 in some of them. I’ll make notes on everything, go to Gavin with a list of 40-50 that I think have upside, he’ll look at them physically and scratch three-quarters of them on physical aspects he doesn’t like, the other 15 we’ll bid on and hopefully come home with four or five.

“He is happy to back me on form and we have done well from these sales. Wolf Prince was a good one, he won twice and finished second in a Grade 1 juvenile hurdle last season while Running In Heels [despite being nine when she joined the yard] won four times in 2018 having been purchased for £2,500.” Cunningham says that one of his strengths is that he comes at it “from a betting & form approach, not taking lads’ word as gospel who might be down on the horse for one reason or another.”

Doing his own video form and analysis, he is inclined to ignore the noise and “go with the formbook or the angle we have that might see them improve”. There are times when he hears something negative afterwards from someone previously involved with the horse but “you have to back yourself and it has worked out so far.”

Tony Keenan was speaking with Feidhlim Cunningham, race planner for trainer Gavin Cromwell

The Logic of Sports Betting: Book Review

They speak a different language in America and that applies equally to betting with their money-lines, parlays and points spreads, writes Tony Keenan.  However, it doesn’t mean bettors over there have nothing to say to punters on this side of the Atlantic. Widespread, legalised sports betting is in its infancy in the US but the country has been quick to latch onto it, aided no doubt by having a well-developed gambling culture in Nevada since the 1930s; and a relatively new book ‘The Logic of Sports Betting’ provides an insight into how things are done stateside.

Written by poker player Ed Miller and sports betting modeler Matthew Davidow, the book has three parts. The opening section deals with how the US sportsbooks operate before the second part looks at betting markets in more detail with the final segment discussing strategies for finding good bets. This article will be less a straight review of the content than a look at the application of the ideas therein to UK and Irish racing, translating the suggestions to a different type of betting.

The early part of ‘The Logic of Sports Betting’ deals with the maths (sorry, math!) of the markets and the difference between the value of points and percentage edge. American odds are expressed differently, with plus and minus figures, but the argument is the same. The authors point out that percentage edge value is more important than points value. If you back a horse at 12/1 and it goes off 7/1 (let’s assume that 7/1 is a hard 8.2 on the exchanges and thus a true price rather than a drifting 11.5) you have beaten the market by five points and 4%, a 12/1 shot being 8% of the market, a 7/1 shot being 12%.

That’s a good bet clearly but not as good as the even-money shot that goes off 8/11, again assuming true prices; you have beaten the market by less than a third of a point but with 8% of an edge, the even-money shot being 50% and the 8/11 shot 58%. This is easy to see in the American markets that are typically two-way affairs, sides in a handicap mainly or a points total, but less so for racing punters typically facing ten or more options in a race.

Your first 30 days for just £1

But it could be a reminder of the value of shorter-priced horses, be it in the win or place markets. The front end of the market is sometimes scorned by racing punters – who wants to be that most banal of bettors, the favourite backer? – but there are plenty of good bets to be had there and they are typically easier to get on than those at bigger prices.

Much is made in the book of zero-hold markets which means a minimal overround and how bettors can achieve these by creating zero-hold synthetic markets, referring to searching out prices that reduce the overround on offer; on one level that is just basic advice to take the best price but it’s a little more complicated than that as they explain how to find bets across similar markets that are not properly correlated to each other.

This is difficult over here with so much uniformity of pricing, particularly on something like Irish racing, and the point is made that ‘if every sportsbook has the exact same price on a market, that’s bad for you as a bettor.’ I did think of another simple application of this, however, and that is finding a horse you hate in a race for whatever reason, be it ground, trip, attitude or whatever, and opposing it strongly as this in effect is taking out a chunk of the market. If not quite saying it cannot win, you are at least viewing it as under-priced and every now and then there are horses that are hard to back at any price. We don’t really have a culture of hating horses here, at least not in the media of which I am part, there being no luck for slagging someone’s prize possession; but, as punters, being negative can produce an edge and thus good bets.

On the subject of good bets, Miller and Davidow have a bit to say on how many of those a bettor should be having. We may all want to have brilliant bets all the time, where the price is wrong and the edge is huge, but for them such selectivity is overrated; we should also be having the good bets and the half-decent bets too with the smaller edges. They are also believers in the idea that the best bets have multiple components built into them; for instance, you may have a time-based case for a horse along with a niche trainer angle and a track bias argument baked in too.

‘Attack surface’ is a prominent concept in ‘The Logic of Sports Betting’ and refers to the wide array of betting opportunities that are available across the vast majority of sportsbooks these days; there are so many markets on offer that they are basically impossible to monitor correctly. The authors are believers in betting where the bookmakers are weakest and in America that means away from the main points spread, money-line and totals markets and instead playing in the derivative markets like player propositions.

Over here, that might mean ignoring the major races and main markets and instead going down the grades and into the side markets like place only or without the favourite/s. The reality is that many of the big players will not be as interested in these markets, mainly because they can’t bet in them to scale, which leaves opportunities for the smaller punter as the betting firms drive for more and more content which in turn creates more opportunity.

As to bad bets, the book argues against making anti-correlated bets where even if you win you will also lose in many scenarios. They give an example of having two bets on teasers (an American bet that allows bettors to manipulate the points spread in their favour in the multiple bet) where only a narrow window allows you to win both bets; for example when the bettor thinks one team will win but the other will keep it close; but the reality is that over time that outcome happens rarely and certainly not enough to justify two bets.

I find I often do this in racing by having too many bets in the same market in the same race: if you have four win bets, only one can actually win and it might be better to try and settle on one or two horses, allowing that multiple runners can be overpriced in a big field.

For Miller and Davidow, market resistance (i.e. when a horse is drifting) is something to be taken seriously and they do not believe in betting into it. For them, if you’ve had a bet at 7/1 and it moves to 7/2, you’re on a good bet with the only issue being that you could have had another play at 6/1 which would also be good. Striking that same bet at 7/1 on a horse that is now 16/1 is conversely a bad bet and we shouldn’t be going in again as it merely compounds the error. I go back-and-forth on this issue and drifters certainly do win in racing, the reason for the drift sometimes being significant, other times meaningless, but they do make a good point that if a bettor always tops up on a drifter they will finish up having their biggest plays on bets that are, by definition, bad.

- TK

Tony Keenan: Left-field Horses from Cheltenham

Race-reading was the theme here last time, and I’m going to return to it now having gotten the chance to go through the replays from the most recent Cheltenham Festival in full, writes Tony Keenan. A period without live racing has meant ample time to burrow into those races that are often deep, with even those running down the field quite conceivably posting career-bests.

Rather than focus on the obvious ones – not that there is anything wrong with that – I have tried to find horses that probably shaped better than the result while at the same time finished out of the frame (with one exception), mixing in their previous form to suggest reasons they may be interesting in the future. I apologise in advance to UK-centric punters as there is a distinct Irish lean with these eight horses. I have my own reasons for that!

Heaven Help Us – 7th Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Anything that could go wrong for Heaven Help Us in the Supreme, did. Having had a decent early position chasing the pace, she made slight errors at the first two hurdles and was soon back in midfield before getting squeezed out at the third as Shishkin made his error, forcing her into the rear of the field.

Switched wide after that, perhaps to get a clear sight of the her hurdles as she had not jumped well, she was going fine heading down the hill only to twice find herself as the last domino in the Asterion Forlonge demolition derby, hampered at both two and three out as that one jumped markedly right losing all chance.

Having been tenth at the second last, she ran on well to take seventh and likely would have posted a career-best but for everything that went against her, a fine effort for one of the rags of the field, sent off with a Betfair SP of 399.

Her Christmas form when second to Abacadabras, having looked false at the time, reads much better now and she made her effort earlier than ideal then too, so she must be interesting for minor graded hurdles for mares at least.

Mitchouka – 6th Novice Handicap Chase

The whatever-it’s-called-now novice handicap chase was run in a good time which usually means there are some good horses down the field aside from the winner and runner-up who pulled clear, and Mitchouka might be one of those.

Having settled in midfield early on, he made a mistake at the first down the back which forced him to the rear of the field after which his jumping was none too quick. Still at the back of the main pack three out, he ran on well to take sixth, passing a host of rivals in the straight.

This is a bit of a bet on the trainer who, despite running very few horses (basically a private handler for Chris Jones), has shown himself a capable operator this season. Mitchouka had lost his way with Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown with very few signs of life year before joining this yard.

There have been others too, Cedarwood Road brought along nicely to win a listed novice last time and now looks set up for a good time novice chasing next season; while recent Ulster National winner Space Cadet might have been best of all. He had been without a win under rules since October 2016 before that.

Birchdale – 8th Coral Cup

Your first 30 days for just £1

Being in front – or even close to it – early on is typically the last place horses want to be in races like the Coral Cup where it usually pays to be delivered late; but this year’s race was unusual in that most of the main players were either up with the pace or not far off it as the gallop was surprisingly ordinary.

Cracking Smart did well to take fourth having raced in rear but his overall profile and often lazy run style mean he’s hardly one to follow while another of the hold-up horses, the sixth Bachasson, already managed to sneak a win in before lockdown commenced.

Most interesting of all might be the eighth, Birchdale, who did well to finish so close given where he started his run from. He had hardly had the ideal prep for this race either with this being his first start since running over fences the previous November.

A slowly-run two-and-a-half miles was hardly his optimum conditions either with connections viewing him as a three-miler last season (sent off 6/1 for the Albert Bartlett) and he retains lots of potential after just five career runs.

Gealach – 8th Fred Winter

It is hard to believe that it took until New Year’s Eve for Gordon Elliott to have a juvenile hurdle winner and he had been 0/30 with only two places to that point. Fast forward to the Fred Winter where he went one-three-four-eight-nine – it is almost as if there was a plan!

That initial winner was Gealach at Punchestown and he might be the one to take from the Fred Winter, allowing that there were reasons to be positive about the other Elliott runners too, not least Recent Revelations.

Coming into race off a 60-day break, he was awkward at the third and generally struggled with the pace throughout, inclined to be on and off the bridle. But he was moving into contention before a vital error three out put him in behind horses, sub-optimal for a horse that lacks gears.

From there he stayed on well to take eighth, beaten less than six lengths, and given his best flat form was over 12 furlongs-plus, there should be more to come from him up in trip.

Eskylane – 5th Champion Bumper

The standing start looked against Eskylane as Davy Russell wanted to be handy; but his mount was a bit slowly into stride and then got shuffled back early. The six-year-old fairly powered through the race thereafter (as is his wont) and looked a threat to all out wide early in the straight, hitting 2/1 in running.

The final effort wasn’t quite there but he travelled as well as anything before eventually finishing fifth (beaten a neck and a head for third) and it is possible his keen-going ways will be curbed a little when going hurdling; Felix Desjy and Abacadabras (both Grade 1 winners as novice hurdlers) raced freely in this race for the same yard in previous seasons.

This looked a strong running of the Champion Bumper and produced a good time while Eskylane’s previous form reads well too; he was only beaten by the now 141-rated hurdler Assemble on racecourse debut, with Appreciate It in third; while the fourth and fifth from the race have both won their maiden hurdles since.

Intriguingly, the race, run at Fairyhouse, was a memorial contest for Gordon Elliott’s uncle Willie Elliott, so it would have been one that the trainer was keen to win.

Tornado Flyer – 5th Marsh Novices’ Chase

It is rare that Willie Mullins runs his horses in the wrong races at Cheltenham but there is a suspicion he left a win or two on the table with his middle-distance and staying novice chasers this time around; in my eyes, Allaho and Easy Game should have been in the Marsh while Faugheen and Tornado Flyer would have been better off in the RSA.

The last of those doesn’t have the profile of some of the others but has only run two bad races in his life (bizarrely, at the same early-January meeting at Naas, a year apart) and has looked all about stamina since winning an attritionally-run Punchestown Champion Bumper in 2018.

He looked ill-suited by the moderate gallop of the Marsh, not helping himself by jumping badly, but even so did well to go from tenth turning in to a strong-finishing fifth at the line. Three miles looks his thing though we will have to wait until next season to find out if that is the case.

Embittered – 3rd County Hurdle

Strictly speaking, Moon Over Germany was the big eye-catcher in the County, Rachael Blackmore sending him to the front two out which looked a premature move; but he doesn’t entirely convince with his attitude (awkward head carriage here) and Embittered – who had been up there throughout and fought off that rival before the last – seems a more solid option.

Winning a Festival handicap hurdle from the front tends to be difficult but Embittered was good enough to hang on for third despite this. The performance also hinted at abundant stamina: there is a suspicion that despite spending his whole career to date at two miles, he is one that will be better over further.

I am no great judge of this but Timeform say he is a chasing type, which is likely where he is headed next year, while he also comes from the strongest novice hurdle form line of the season having finished fifth to Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond.

The Wolf – 7th Albert Bartlett

Though the complete rag of the Albert Bartlett field when sent off at a Betfair SP of 339, The Wolf didn’t shape that way at all and deserved to finish a bit closer.

Held up near last in a slowly-run race and trapped wide the entire way, he was starting to make a move two out where he made a mistake before rallying well in the straight and passing four rivals from the final flight.

This was his first run over three miles and it brought improvement, with a truer test at the trip likely to see him in a better light again. He’s gotten better for the move to Olly Murphy and there looks to be more to come.

- TK

[Geegeez Gold users may add these horses to your tracker here]

Tony Keenan: Some Further Thoughts on Race Reading

Back in September, I spoke to three punters about what they thought were the most important things when analysing a race, writes Tony Keenan. You can read the full article here but one thing that stood out was that each placed a lot of value on the detailed watching of replays, looking for the nuance of a horse’s performance, things that made it better or worse than the bare form.

Watching replays or race-reading is not the only thing in analysing a race – there is no point in a horse being an amazing eye-catcher if it was doing it against yaks the last day and is significantly up in grade now – but is a vital part of the overall picture of form, times, ground, pace and such.

Race-reading is both difficult and time-consuming, and sometimes monotonous as the replays can yield little; but for those that can stick with it, it should continue to offer an edge in the markets because it is subjective: what one race-reader will see as gold, another will see as dirt.

I want to stress that I am no expert in this area – as a punter I am probably a jack of all trades, master of damn all-type – but I do plenty of it as part of my analysis. Some real authorities on race-reading will understandably keep their thoughts on the subject to themselves but I would recommend reading both Hugh Taylor and Rhys Williams and their columns on attheraces for insight on the subject.

Hugh’s daily tipping article invariably takes some of its basis in race-reading while the whole gist of Rhys’ pieces are horses that shaped better than the result in the past week. There is much to be learned there.

As for my own race-reading, I prefer to do it at a few days’ remove from the races themselves when things like times and sectionals and trainer comments are available to get a fuller picture. Sometimes when you’ve had a bet, your judgement can be clouded and an apparently bad ride may be blown out of proportion; it may well have been a poor effort from the jockey but perhaps not as bad as you think. Pocket-think is a thing.

So – with all this in mind –  I’m going to have a look back at the four Grade 1 races on the Tuesday of Cheltenham just gone to offer some thoughts on race-reading and what – I think – was the key factor in each race. Readers will likely be very familiar with these races and if they have some time on their hands over the coming weeks (!), they might like to have a look back at some of the rest or even care to contradict my view!

 

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Key Factor: Pace
Your first 30 days for just £1

The Supreme was a strongly-run race, indeed overly-strongly-run, per the excellent Simon Rowlands (again on ATR); the time of the race was broadly similar to the Champion Hurdle but the novices went much harder in the middle part of the race and raced less efficiently as a whole.

My interpretation is that the race suited horses being held up as those racing prominently were always going a little harder than ideal. Missing the break is not ideal in the average race but it might have suited Abacadabras here as it meant he was in the right place pace-wise; you can argue he’s hit the front too soon (very possible as he has a history of quirks) but I would be over-playing his tardy start.

As to an eye-catcher, I would be inclined to look to those that raced close up, with Captain Guinness as good as any. He was the least exposed runner going into the field with just two starts, had taken the preliminaries well, and settled better than expected. After a wide trip, he had every chance when getting brought down two out (had been hampered at the previous hurdle, too) and, given his trainer, it would be no surprise if he proved better over fences.

 

Arkle Novices’ Chase

Key Factor: The Start

Notebook and his potential to boil over at the start had been one of the talking points ahead of the Arkle and while he didn’t seem to lose the plot completely when a standing start was needed, it may have had a more subtle effect as he didn’t run his race; the winner was a stablemate that didn’t seem particularly fancied and, moreover, Notebook had beaten the runner-up well at Christmas.

Another interesting thing about the start was what happened with Global Citizen. Ben Pauling’s eight-year-old had impressed when making the running in his previous spin over fences and was a regular front runner over hurdles; but, while his jockey wanted a prominent position again here, he didn’t break well which may have caused him to jump moderately.

There were other positives in his performance, too. The ground would have been on the soft side for him and he got badly hampered by a faller four out and, thereafter, had to make his move out wide in what was the hot part of the race. He looked likely to have been a good third only to fade after the last. He hadn’t run in the calendar year either so, while Aintree is not an option this year, there should be other days with him on speed-favouring tracks.

 

Champion Hurdle

Key Factor: Nothing

I’m saying nothing was important here to draw attention to the trap that I sometimes fall into when reading a race: there are occasions when a race is just clean, the form is what it is, and searching for an eye-catcher is forcing the issue. I think the Champion Hurdle might be one such race.

The pace was even, the winner was the favourite and clear pick of the home team, the next four home Irish-trained; it looked a case of the UK horse being a star amongst a moderate crop in her own country while the Irish two-mile hurdlers have depth but no standout and if they raced against each other the results would often be different.

One could make a case that Sharjah has come from a long way back which was less than ideal but that is how he is ridden; when they tried to track the pace and Honeysuckle at the Dublin Racing Festival, it backfired and he didn’t run to form. In any case, he was within a length jumping the last and got beaten three.

 

Mares’ Hurdle

Key Factor: Jockeys

Bizarrely, this race became the main talking point of Tuesday’s card, not only because the odds-on favourite got beaten but also because Willie Mullins came as close as he does to throwing a jockey under the bus straight afterwards when speaking about Robbie Power’s ride on Stormy Ireland:

There was a miscommunication turning for home, maybe, maybe Robbie thought one of our horses was behind him rather than Honeysuckle, it looked like he just gifted the winner a huge gap while Paul was going on the outside, there you are, these things happen…Stormy probably didn’t go fast enough, she should have been going much faster to take the sting out of the rest of them, there was no pace…a little frustrating.

I suspect he was correct that riding and the pace were the key factors in the race. Power seemed to be doing what was best for his mount, waiting in front on a mare that was not a total cast-iron stayer at the trip on heavy ground at a stiff track, and she had just put up her best effort over two miles at Naas on her previous start. That pace would not have suited Benie Des Dieux who has posted her best efforts over three miles but whether she should be setting a pace for a more fancied stablemate (but not in the same ownership) is a discussion for another day.

If there was a plan for Power to shift off the rail before home turn to allow the favourite through is neither here nor there, but he did move at that point which allowed Honeysuckle a clear run through whereas her main rival had to go the long way around. What Mullins did not mention, however, is that Rachael Blackmore had squeezed Paul Townend out of his position behind the leader after three out and that forced him back after which he seemed to panic a little and pulled wide, a move that could well have been costly, the winning margin half a length.

There’s a strong possibility the result would have been different on another day with different rides or a stronger pace and a rematch would be fascinating. It is also worth mentioning that the third, Elfile, deserves some marking-up too as she got hampered as Benie Des Dieux made her move before staying on which isn’t ideal as she’s more about stamina than speed.

*

As I've said, it is often difficult to review a race clinically in its immediate aftermath, the pocket's heart often ruling the form judge's head. But, with the dust now settled on the Festival and most people finding themselves with a few more hours to spare, the replays may reward time invested in the search for horses to mark or down.

- TK

Tony Keenan: Why I’m Worried About Gambling

I’m worried about gambling. Not my own gambling per se, though a couple more winners would always be appreciated, but where the whole pursuit is going, writes Tony Keenan.

The 2010's were the decade when gambling in Ireland and beyond became normalised. It was hardly an illicit, back-street hobby in the early 2000's but recent years have seen it become utterly mainstream through its ubiquity, from TV ads to football sponsorship, odds making their way into conversations like never before. Technology was the great enabler of this expansion: why go to a betting shop when you could have ten of them in your pocket?

Today, where there is sport, there is betting. It was ever thus for racing and indeed this has been its primary attraction for many (myself included) but it is something new for many sports. This normalisation of gambling may have been the greatest achievement of betting companies, opening up markets and customers that were hitherto unavailable to them, but it seems that a tipping point is about to be reached if we are not already there; have they been too successful in this process and about to be hoist by their own petard?

Sympathy for bookmakers has always been in short supply, the profession ranking close to politicians and solicitors in the public’s eyes, but the last few years have seen a sharp swing in sentiment against them. Our society now demands transparency when much betting market activity is cloudy but campaigners like Brian Chappell and Paul Fairhead, and newspapers like The Guardian, have done sterling work in bringing abject abuses into the light.

They are to be commended for this and have played their part in forcing welcome regulatory changes in the UK, from reduced stakes on FOBTs to banning the use of credit cards for online accounts, with limitations on VIP programmes perhaps to come. Self-regulation by betting companies doesn’t work, such attempts inevitably at odds with commercial concerns and there has been a certain acceptance of this from the firms themselves, publicly at least. They have had to take some pain and there will be more to come but while they needed a kick, a kicking even, do they deserve to be kicked to to the kerb?

Your first 30 days for just £1

Punters need bookmakers unless the whole model of betting in these islands is going to change drastically, and my worry now is that gambling will be used as political capital by those who don’t really understand the area. Gambling and betting companies (and, by extension, punters) are the easiest of targets for politicians looking to score points.

To the forefront of all this is the very real issue of problem gambling. It is a difficult topic to write about, not least because I have thankfully never been there and hope I never will be. The fear of losing everything is something that lurks in the background with most if not all serious gamblers. That fear is not necessarily a bad thing either; fear can be a great motivator first of all but also act as a regulator if tempted to stake too heavily when we may believe we have a huge edge; racing punters are still betting on animals running around a field.

Nor am I any expert in the statistics of problem gambling which seem to throw up mixed messages and, in any case, those numbers could be wrong: losing a lot of money, often in the most private of fashions, does not seem like something people would want to disclose. It is a concern for society as a whole, perhaps even a public health issue, but most figures seem to bear out the truth that it affects a minority of gamblers and how we deal with the whole gambling area should not be dictated totally by the few when the many it brings joy to many.

I love gambling, particularly gambling on racing, which remains the ultimate betting puzzle with all its variables. I won’t pretend that every aspect of it is good. It can be a self-inflicted emotional roller coaster with losses hard to take, while it comes at a significant time cost if doing it seriously; there are other more productive and beneficial things we could alternatively be at. But, for me at least, the positives outweigh the negatives: among other things, it teaches us how to lose (frequently) and can make us learn to be disciplined, while I have made some of best friends through gambling and racing.

There is also the issue of freedom. Irresponsibility is present in most aspects of life from eating to drinking to driving to internet use; there are many things that aren’t particularly good for you when done to excess and a life spent gambling is hardly contributing much to society. But it is fun and if the majority of people who partake are enjoying it without doing significant harm to others, they should be allowed to continue.

This freedom may well be curtailed in the near-future however, perhaps significantly so. Unlike the UK, Ireland has no Gambling Commission yet but it is coming in some form and how quickly it is expedited will be determined by the next government, which may be less than sympathetic to betting interests. The most popular party in the most recent elections on some measures, Sinn Fein, stated in their manifesto that they would "conduct a short review of the gambling sector and introduce reform to the sector", allowing that these manifestos are often not worth the paper they are printed on after the voting is done.

Any new laws would surely aim to protect the vulnerable which is both a worthy and necessary goal, but should also be cognisant of the fact that not all gambling is problem gambling. The concern would be that regulators could be people with an anti-gambling agenda or may have no grasp of the area and thus the rules could be badly thought out or too draconian.

What form these regulations may take is unclear. An increase in betting tax (perhaps passed on to the punter) would be an obvious one, especially as Horse Racing Ireland have been lobbying for it for a while now. But any new rules seem likely to be more wide-reaching than that - some sort of source-of-funds/affordability check perhaps on the cards. This could be applied on or soon after registration for an online account or appearance in a betting shop and would make it virtually impossible for people to bet beyond their means but at the same time prevent people betting at a scale they are comfortable with.

The amount a punter can bet may be linked to their salary. So a person earning €39,000 (the average industrial wage in Ireland at the end of 2019) may be allowed to lose 10% of that in a year; I am guessing completely here, the figure may be much lower or higher. There is obviously a big difference between turning over that €3,900 in a given period and actually losing it all, but would the regulators know that? A punter can make a tank of that size go a long way in terms of time and they might, heaven forbid, even increase it.

Staking is a very broad church and I would not describe myself as remotely high-staking but nor do I want to do this for fivers and tenners at a time; there has to be some tangible reward for success. I realise gambling regularly can inure you to the value of money and you probably need to be a little loose, not thinking about stakes in terms of cups of coffee, nights out, even holidays. Bookmakers telling you what you can and cannot stake is one thing as there will always be ways and means of getting around their restrictions but government regulation might be something different entirely.

One thing that seems certain is that winning punters of any sort, whether they be making a living or simply getting a few quid, won’t be considered in this. That group have a tendency of finding a way but this could present yet another stumbling block with any sort of increased customer due diligence likely to work against them.

Ultimately, these laws in some form seem inevitable. One would hope that they will be constructed by people who have a real sense of subject matter and that punters won’t get caught in the crossfire between politicians and betting companies where betting volume just gets driven underground, which brings a wealth of other potential problems. Perhaps gambling should never have been allowed to become so utterly normalised but I would not want to see it demonised either.

- TK

Tony Keenan: Focus for Optimal Betting Decisions

Over the summer, I read a book called ‘The Organized Mind’ by Daniel Levitin, a handbook of sorts on how to get by without being overwhelmed in an age of information overload, writes Tony Keenan. Levitin’s central idea is that we should offload information from the brain onto the physical world, be it in the form of compiling a to-do list if we struggle to recall all that has to be done or simply buying a key hook if you constantly lose your car keys.

Along with simple advice like that, there are detailed explanations on the importance of sleep and illusion of multi-tasking: Levitin is ‘death’ on the latter, saying that rather than increasing productivity, multi-tasking leads to less work and sloppier work. Multi-tasking is all about trying to do too much at once, asking the brain to make lots of decisions when there is a finite limit on the amount of information it can absorb.

This, I think, is where betting comes in as it is essentially a decision-making game. For Levitin, the best decision-making comes from using something called optimal complexity theory, the idea that too little information is no good but so is too much. This applies with any decision we make, like buying a house or car say. Having too many parameters to consider leads to confusion in decision-making, with humans apparently unable to process more than ten variables for any choice, the optimal number being closer to five.

Consumers (and punters) make better choices when they get to control the parameters they get but that isn’t always easy as research shows that people are unable to ignore information that isn’t relevant to them. This is one of the dilemmas facing the modern racing punter. Racing has always been a complicated sport and is getting more complicated, or at more more information rich; whatever your thoughts on sectionals, striding and horse weights, there is only going to be more data coming.

Sorting between what is important and what is noisier is the challenge, especially when most analysis of an individual race is time-bounded from declaration stage to post-time. With all this in mind, I spoke to three experienced punters about the handful of factors they believe are optimal for their analysis and some variables they believe are overrated.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Nick is a UK-based punter who has been betting for nearly 40 years and tends to focus on better handicaps, dismissing maidens, juvenile races, claimers and anything below Class 4 with the aim of being what he calls ‘a happy backer with uncluttered thinking.’ Watching replays of races is at the core of what he does, paying more attention to the first half of the race than second.

“First of all, I see the performance [on the day] and think what is the right kind of race or track for the animal in question. In the end you must live or die by your judgment even if it is sometimes wrong, there are certain horses you see and think that’s got County Hurdle or Ayr Gold Cup written all over it.”

He uses niche angles (my term, not his), “trying to look at things in a different way and the more you look or read, sometimes these things come to you.” He cites the example of the old Breeders’ Cup Marathon when one of the commentators jokingly mentioned that the US horses would ‘need oxygen’ over the staying trip which put him onto the non-US horses that won several of the later renewals of the race.

He is less keen on the usefulness of the draw. “With rail movements and selective watering, draw biases are changing so much unless it’s on a round course and even then there are places like Chester that can have their rail so far out that it wasn’t a disadvantage to be drawn high. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic about these things and keeping up with every course is difficult.”

Pre-race pace analysis is another variable Nick thinks is of questionable value. “Analysis of how the race might be run is probably read by all now, including connections, and I think this leads to races being run differently to how we might think. There seem to be fewer pace burn-ups than there used to be, and I can’t remember many big handicaps being won by hold-up horses; my tracker is full of them to my cost!”

Like Nick, Irish-based ‘Paul’ (not his real name) says “the number one is watching the replays of all the races and while it can be a grind nonetheless it has to be done.” He goes on, “I don’t tend to spend much effort on time or sectionals as there is little or no data available on Irish racing anyway so there’s no point in worrying too much about it.”

Handicaps are among his favourite races to play in though he rarely backs a horse first time in one as “a lot of horses coming from maidens have never really been asked to race hard. Most of them might never have been ridden out in a finish with four or five taps of the whip, and a first run in a handicap is usually much more competitive than anything they’ve been doing in maidens.” He does like “horses dropping in grade from a 0-75 handicap into a 0-65”, something that can be missed a little.

With such variety among the Irish tracks, ‘Paul’ often looks at “horses for courses with the quirky tracks like Tramore, Galway and Kilbeggan.” The weather also plays a part in his betting with the Met.ie website in constant use. “The ground can change very quickly at places like Roscommon which can be helpful when backing ones in the morning knowing the rain may be due and softer ground will hamper the market leaders.”

In common with the previous two punters, ‘Matthew’ (again, not his real name) believes in the value of replays, watching “pretty much every race, every day” while making as many notes as possible, but knowing that obviously unlucky horses aren’t going to be much use as he bets late and that information will already be in the market. Betting mainly on UK races, he places a lot of importance on “knowing the track quirks” and “any biases caused by pace, wind, kickback or uneven going can be rich source for finding bets.”

‘Matthew’ was a relatively early adopter of sectional times, on board since the early part of this decade, and says they “are very useful when looking at lightly-raced types because most maidens and novices are so sl0wly-run that speed figures don’t cut it.” With young horses, he looks out for “ones that are held up and/or slowly-way and the pace has a [finishing speed] of say 105% or more, but they make a move into the race and maybe flatten out with the overall time-figure not looking great.” He cites A’Ali on debut at Ripon as a good example of this where “Spartan Fighter dictated against a favoured rail while A’Ali made up a couple of lengths on the bridle in the hot part of the race which is typically the three-furlong pole to the one-furlong pole in most slowly-run races.”

‘Matthew’ uses a database and he says “it is great for throwing out bad theories you have as well as working out when angles are being adjusted to by the market.” He also uses it for sire and trainer stats as well as “pace stats by course and distance which can point in the direction of more biases.”

As with Nick, he finds “the draw is an overrated factor by pundits [and] normally the market has adjusted for it and if anything tend to over-adjust so wide draws can be a smidgen of value.” Another factor he thinks is overbet are “horses that look like they will improve going up in trip” and he much prefers “a horse that’s gone too fast recently dropping in trip.”

So that is what some of the judges think are optimal factors for making betting decisions, what about you?

- TK

Tony Keenan: Blinkered Thinking

When I first got into racing seriously way back when, I remember being absolutely death on horses with temperament, writes Tony Keenan. High head carriage, tail flashing, hanging, you name it, I wanted to be against it and lord help anything wearing blinkers as I subscribed to the old belief that they were the badge of a rogue. My attitude has softened somewhat since (though not totally) as I have realised that like most things in racing, the use of headgear is far more complicated than that though the universal truth that horses in headgear win less and are generally worse bets than those without still applies.

The table below covers all Irish flat racing from 2010 to 2018, turf and all-weather, a total of nearly 10,000 races and is broken down by different types of headgear. Unless otherwise stated, all figures in this article refer to that nine-year period.

Performance by headgear worn, Irish racing 2010-2019

Performance by headgear worn, Irish racing 2010-2019

 

Different headgear is used for different reasons: blinkers, cheekpieces and visors typically used to sharpen horses up, hoods often intended to have the opposite effect and settle a buzzy type. They are used on all sorts of horses too, among them lazy horses, out-of-form horses, temperamental horses and keen horses and can on occasion have a transformative effect.

For the purposes of this article, I decided to look at how the main Irish flat trainers (and by ‘main’ I mean the 30 trainers who have had most runners on the level this decade) tend to use headgear. I won’t bore you with the full 30 trainers but below are the top five and bottom five along with other relevant people in order of how frequently they use headgear.

 

The top five would all be regarded as mainly training handicappers and with such horses small margins matter; a little tinkering around the edges with headgear, trying something new here and there, could make the difference between getting a win out of a horse in a season or not. Dermot Weld stands out as the main user of headgear of the bigger yards with most of the other major trainers in the bottom half of the table, Kevin Prendergast someone who seems to avoid using equipment like this if possible.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Trainers often have strong preferences one way or the other about which headgear they use and during the rest of the article I’ll go through the main four headgear types (blinkers, cheekpieces, visors and hoods) and look at who does and doesn’t use them. Just because a trainer uses headgear a lot, it does not mean that they are successful with it; I wonder if, like doctors who tend to prescribe the same treatment when they see a certain set of symptoms, trainers too have their default or ‘go-to’ headgear.

 

Blinkers

Use of blinkers, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Use of blinkers, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Dermot Weld is a prolific user of blinkers considering the make-up of his stable, if not a particularly discerning one: his overall win strike rate and actual over expected are 16.9% and 0.85 respectively in the period covered but they drop to 11.6% and 0.68 with the blinkers. He basically never uses cheekpieces with just two winners and four places from 36 runners though Falcon Eight did improve on that record at Sandown last weekend.

On the other hand, Andy Slattery is someone who seems to manage both volume and efficiency, returning a high actual/expected despite running lots of horses in blinkers, though a lot of that is down to his stalwart Ucanchoose who has won seven times wearing that accessory. When his horses take to blinkers they really take to them though and Cityman is one that has improved for their application lately.

It is interesting to see both Johnny Murtagh and Michael Mulvany both have good actual/expected figures considering how sparingly they use blinkers while it also worth pointing out the negatives, the following yards having sub-0.6 actual/expected numbers in blinkers: John Murphy (0.6), Kevin Prendergast (0.58), Pat Martin (0.58), Pat Flynn (0.5),  Andy Oliver (0.34) and Tracey Collins (0.27).

 

Cheekpieces

Use of cheekpieces, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Use of cheekpieces, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

 

Kevin Prendergast clearly won’t even let cheekpieces into his yard, having not run a single horse in them since 2010, while it is interesting to note that both Slattery and Weld, who use blinkers regularly, rarely go for this piece of kit.

Michael Halford is just outside the top five in terms of cheekpiece usage rate at 19.5% (versus using blinkers only 4.0% of the time) and several of his better horses in years past - like Quinmaster, Russian Soul, Hujaylea and Invincible Ash - ran in them.

Adrian McGuinness uses blinkers an awful lot but his record with cheekpieces is much better; with blinkers he has a win strikerate of 6.4% and an actual over expected of 0.65 whereas with cheekpieces he is 11.6% and 1.11. Saltonstall – previously a high-class handicapper with Halford – seems to have come back into form for the cheekpieces on his last two starts.

As to the negatives, the following trainers all have sub-0.60 actual/expected figures with cheekpieces applied: Weld (0.52),  Joe Murphy (0.51), Pat Flynn (0.5), and Slattery (0.42), Tracey Collins (0.36) and John McConnell (0.28).

 

Visor

Use of visor, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Use of visor, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

The visor is much less extensively used than either blinkers or cheekpieces and I didn’t include the bottom five here in usage rate as some trainers don’t bother with them at all; the likes of Jim Bolger, Ger Lyons, John Murphy and Andy Slattery have never used them in the period covered.

It is worth mentioning that the visor is a positive with Aidan O’Brien-trained runners (15 winners from 61 runners with an actual/expected of 1.23) and Patrick Prendergast also does well with it (21 from 138 runners for an actual/expected of 1.16) so perhaps we will see more John Oxx-trained horses in it going forward.

 

Hood

Use of hood, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Use of hood, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Like the visor, hoods are still not all that widely-used but Edward Lynam is a name that interests me here as the hood is the piece of headgear that his horses run best in; his actual/expected rates with blinkers, cheekpieces and visors are 0.63, 0.74 and 0.45 respectively which jumps to 1.03 with the hood. That would fit with his reputation as a trainer of sprinters.

Garvan Donnelly is the name that doesn’t make the top 30 Irish trainers in the period covered but he does well with his hooded runners (10 winners from 85 runners with an A/E of 1.2) while last mention must go to the blinker king Andy Slattery whose horses have not responded well to the hood (1/41 with an A/E of 0.21).

- TK

Tony Keenan: Watching the Markets…

A horse race can be over and done with in little more than a minute but the betting market for said race takes much longer to unfold, over 24 hours in most cases, writes Tony Keenan. It may be heresy to true fans of the sport, but most punters spend more time watching markets than races, with knowing when and how to execute bets an important skill. During this article I’m going to try to look at the evolution of a standard market on an average Irish race from start to finish, considering some of the factors that influence it and suggest what punters might bear in mind when timing their bets.

 

Overnight Prices

The starting point for most Irish betting markets now is the first batch of overnight prices between 4pm and 6pm the evening before the race; in most cases, Paddy Power Betfair are first up, followed by Bet365, Sky Bet, BetFred and Ladbrokes Coral in that broad order with the smaller firms coming in afterwards. A striking feature here is the timing; these prices are going up roughly six hours after declarations came through at 10.30am which is a really narrow window and certainly a massive difference to the age when prices went up the morning of the race.

Compilers working to produce odds in this timeframe are under pressure, some having to price up on a hundred horses for the following day, with simple math revealing that is little more than three minutes per horse. How many replays can you realistically watch in this time? Many will be skilled practitioners who watch tons of racing but the modern odds compiling environment means they are doing more with less and it is not unreas0nable to ask how deeply they get to study each horse or race; unlike punters who can pick their battles, they have to put a number to every horse that they will lay to at least some degree.

That degree is a major issue for many but let’s get real here: no one, unless you have access to a whale account, can get at these prices to any scale. And it is hard to see why it would be any other way; the limits in almost every sport are low when odds are initially posted and when punters talk about restrictions at this time, it could be that they are referring to limits which have be reduced across the industry for overnight prices. Even the very act of looking to bet the night before could be enough to get your account factored.

Not that I have any problem with someone looking to place a bet overnight: the reality in punting is that if you can get on, you will, and if you can’t, you have to sit and suffer. It would be punting utopia were everyone to wait until a set time the following day before striking a bet but this can be an inherently selfish game and there will always be someone looking to front-run your bet. A better question to ask might be how cheaply you are going to reveal your opinion, provided that opinion is of some value, and if you are playing overnight it is not unreasonable to think it might be, recreational punters rarely bothering at this stage of the market.

Taken as an entire group, the bets struck overnight are negative expected value for the firms; over time, they lose on overnights. The loss-leading aspect of this might be surprising for some but they are not in it for any real liabilities and the aim to get the prices right for the next morning when a great volume of bets and turnover comes in, particularly if said company has a retail estate. It is not unreasonable to think that every bet of size at this point, with size being relative, ticks the market one way or another.

A couple of points to finish up this section: overrounds are higher at this juncture so the question can be asked why laying bets overnight isn’t profitable? I suspect this is because they will only be laying the one, two or three horses that are wrong and the field book will be anything but balanced; the idea of a balanced book is more fantasy than reality in most cases but at this stage it can be particularly lop-sided.

Your first 30 days for just £1

There is also the issue of possible price manipulation which is something I’ll return to throughout this article. Most readers will know that bookmaking firms are heavily influenced by what happens on the exchanges but in most cases, the markets for the following day have next to no volume in them at this point. One could post up a bet that is under the available price that might cause a series of cuts but perhaps a better way to manipulate a price at this stage is to bet a horse in the race on a few marked accounts in the hope that your real selection may be pushed out so it can be backed at a more advantageous price. Plenty of firms will have an auto-cut approach to some accounts that are betting at this time.

 

The Next Morning

The theory for some of the firms with the overnights, as well as offering a service to their customers, is that any creases in their prices will be ironed out by morning. The point at which these prices become profitable to lay is open to question; it certainly won’t be very early on but the hope would be that by mid-morning they will have a set of prices that can be laid to some degree of confidence. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of how little volume of the total betting turnover is actually done up to this point with the final figure of what is bet on the show never ceasing to amaze. In terms of singles only, the figures are likely to be about 5% overnight, 10% morning up to midday, 20% rest of the day through to fifteen minutes before the off, and as much as 65% on the show. This will vary depending on the make-up of each company but the importance of having things right for the time of the race is clear.

Overrounds will go down a little at this stage – if you take an Oddschecker screen grab of the typical race at 7pm the previous night and 9am the next morning there will be more pink [i.e. horses drifting] in the latter. The overall pricing is less defensive now with the obvious ricks generally being quickly ironed out, and this is also the time when some liquidity comes into the exchanges with Matchbook being a notably bigger player in this regard over the last few months; how long this will last, one never knows, but it does offer some volume now at the front end of the market at least.

It is also now that the prominent tipsters start to influence the market and for Irish racing that means Andy Holding on Oddschecker and Gary O’Brien on AtTheRaces. Both are excellent judges though I’m sure most punters can emphasise with that sinking feeling when they have put up something you fancied and you are forced to take shorter than you wanted. Holding tends to use times and sectionals a lot and I have noticed that his column has been going up a little later over the past few months, around 9.30am rather than around 9.00am. That may seem like a relatively meaningless difference but if you can get into a shop in that half an hour period you may be able to bet your selection before he puts it up though finding an office that opens before 10am in Ireland remains a challenge with Saturday the only exception. As an aside, I sometimes think that Saturday might be the best day to bet on Irish racing and not only because of the earlier shop opening. Saturday is the main racing day of the week in the UK and the Irish racing may not be getting quite the attention that it should from odds compilers and traders with prices lasting longer than they typically might.

The shops will all be open at this time and again many of the bets struck here will be negative expected value; bigger operations will be looking to get runners out and about and market moves now by definition are probably more meaningful as they can simply get more money on as the limits are raised and there are more avenues to place a bet. Plenty of the money staked on Irish racing is actually bet in UK shops and this is simply a numbers game with the UK having vastly more shops and related opportunity to get on.

Gary O’Brien can be all over the grid in terms of when his tips are posted on the AtTheRaces website but more often than not it is after shop opening. He is an example to all punters that you don’t need the early earlies to win as he proves very profitable despite many of the prices having been picked over. The prices about his selections invariably shorten but it tends to take more time than those from Andy Holding, likely because they are put up later in the day when the markets are slightly more robust. O’Brien’s selections tend to be form-based and he simply has an excellent knowledge of the Irish formbook, price conscious but not obsessed with the odds. Often he will put up an 8/1 shot that was 12/1 at one point but goes off 9/2 and we all should probably try to avoid the psychological anchoring that prevents us from taking the shorter price because we have missed top price as it can still be value.

 

Minimum Bet Liability

The latest wrinkle to be thrown in the morning trading is the minimum bet liability (MBL); at this point Paddy Power/Betfair, BetVictor and Sky Bet are guaranteeing online customers bets that can win up to £500 from various times across mid-morning and applied to different race grades. BetVictor’s conditions are about the best as it is across all races and includes an each-way option, and it may be reasonable to expect other firms to come on board with similar MBLs sooner rather than later: this is a copycat industry where approaches like cash-out and extra places have become available generally across different companies. An interesting facet of the BetVictor guarantee is that it applies to Irish racing as well as UK racing with Paddy Power Betfair doing similar on some but not all Irish meetings. This is somewhat surprising as Irish racing is traditionally viewed as toxic within the betting industry, something that is probably more perception than reality. Nevertheless, the perception is sufficiently widespread that it needs to be acknowledged.

The reasons for bookmakers adopting MBL are unclear. Certainly it has created a degree of good PR at a time when the whole sector has been getting a kicking from regulators though it may also be an admission that they were over-zealous in their restrictions, shutting down people they shouldn’t have. The Horseracing Bettors Forum deserves credit for their role too and, for all their efforts in other areas, it is likely that their achievements in addressing restrictions by which they will be judged. As to the sum of £500 or euro equivalent, one can only hope it’s a start rather than an end-point. A liability of £500 when having £200 on a 5/2 shot seems fine but it’s only a pony on a 20/1 rag and in reality punters have no issue walking into an Irish shop and getting that bet laid in the morning unless you are a Barney Curley lookalike. Punters do have the advantage of using MBL across a range of companies and a total liability that gets into the thousands is more respectable.

There are however some potential consequences to this. The whole idea of a guarantee is that it is open to all and that includes all sorts of arbers, robotic and human. I used to believe the arber argument was a bookmaker smokescreen to deflect from restricting winning customers, but I have spoken to enough people at this stage to realise that it is a real problem. Arbers bring nothing to the table but take out plenty; some will be content to trade out of a small profit on the exchanges while others have now twigged that holding the bets they make at prices over the exchange lay side [so called ‘line trackers’] offer positive expected value and will prove profitable over time. Betting companies are constantly closing robotic arbers though they face their share of human ones too, online and in shops, which are more difficult to regulate. It is reasonable to ask yourself where you stand morally on this; I think they don’t put in any work and, while it is easy to always see the bookmakers as villains, arbers are hardly innocents and allowing them free access to MBL makes little sense. As ever, differentiating them from genuine, opinion-based customers is the challenge.

Another potential game-changing aspect to MBL is how the bigger punting operations will use (and perhaps abuse) it. These groups are looking to take out large sums for their bets and perhaps MBL will mean they will hold their money until mid-morning and then try to smash a price. The logistics of how they would do this are not public knowledge but it is not unreasonable to suggest they could get access to 50 accounts with a bookmaker which, times £500, quickly becomes at £25,000 liability. Can the bookmaker refuse the guarantee if all the bets are co-ordinated to land at the same time? Again, the issue of possible price manipulation comes into play; would pre-MBL bets on marked accounts be used to push the price of the real fancy when mid-morning comes or could the exchanges be used to achieve a similar end?

How the bookmakers deal with this is a fascinating aspect. Perhaps some will be brave enough to ‘create an arb’ and lay their MBL prices when they are over the odds on the machine. They would need to have some confidence in their traders and compilers to do so and it would be much more likely on good racing than bad racing; Irish racing, sadly, probably falls more into the latter category. That’s a much more traditional model than we’ve seen in recent years and there are plenty in the industry who would simply tell you that if you’re over something on the exchanges, you’re just wrong. All of this leads to worries about what this will mean for the ordinary decent punter, price sensitive and likely winning a few quid but who has been restricted. They are the target market of MBL or at least should be but will they merely have access to a set of prices they don’t want?

When asked about some of these issues, Matt Scarrott, Director of Sportsbook at BetVictor, said ‘BetVictor acknowledged that the perception amongst some punters was that bookmakers are too quick to reduce stakes to a tiny amount or refuse all horse racing bets from certain customers. We entered into dialogue with Matt Bisogno of the HBF earlier this year, to see if any common ground could be found on that subject. We were keen to offer a guaranteed bet across all UK and Irish Racing regardless of the grade of the race and we were also keen to give closed customers the right to participate in this Guaranteed Bet market. At the time of writing several hundred previously closed accounts have been ‘reopened’ so that they can bet on this market. We are reviewing the market’s on-going performance as you would expect. Whilst in the vast majority of races we offer identical prices in the main book and the Guaranteed Bet book, we reserve the right to price certain selections differently, dependent mainly on the shape of the race. We also reserve the right to close (or re-close) customers for trading reasons, although currently we have not rejected any requests to reopen and have not reclosed any accounts.’

 

On The Show

As we have seen, the show is still when the bulk of betting turnover comes, though prices here can again be manipulated for relatively small sums. Exchange trading – unless said exchange is seeding their markets – will be relatively light for all but the better racing until 15 minutes before the off so it is not particularly hard for someone that way inclined to knock a horse from say 11/8 to 2/1 in the run-up to the show with the idea that the horse can then be bet back with the firms when prices come through and limits are their highest. That 0.625 of a point makes a massive difference if you are having a large bet and this does reveal a weakness in the approach that tracks the exchanges too much; yes they can be a useful guide but they can also be used to leave a false trail.

Despite the markets having been open for over 24 hours, there are still big swings in prices near the off, not least because this is the only time some major players can get on. It is generally accepted that the exchange prices at the off are efficient and over time a true reflection of actual win probability. I would tend to that view in the main but remember that the initial show is not as accurate and there are opportunities in this window for an edge. Furthermore, an important point is that they are generally efficient over time; they will not be correct in every case.

There are still cases when they are not accurate and as many different reasons why: maybe the connections of one horses just don’t punt to the same degree as another, perhaps a major punter who has travelled in for the race is planning a big bet but the ground changes making his horse vulnerable but can’t help himself and plays anyway. Beating the Betfair SP is well-known as a good way to judge your punting beyond simply overall profit and loss but it is not the only way and it can pay to be open to horses that the market just doesn’t fancy. They can and do win.

- Tony Keenan

Racing into the Future: 5 Questions, 4 People

Racing is not known for embracing new things, the pace of change in the sport often perceived as glacial; but might that be a little harsh?, writes Tony Keenan

After all, who in 1998 could have imagined what would happen in the 20 years since? The creation of Betfair, the rise of super-trainers, the festivalisation of race meetings, the increased globalisation of flat racing, the development of not one but two sport-specific TV stations are just some of the headline events which have occurred in past two decades.

Imagining what racing will look like in 20 years’ from now is difficult, a fool’s errand even. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and having some sort of vision for the sport, no matter how differently things may turn out: it’s a bit of fun if nothing else. With this in mind, I posed five questions about where racing might be in 2038 to four people involved in the sport at present.

Brian O’Connor is racing correspondent for The Irish Times and has written three novels about the racing industry. Simon Rowlands is a time and sectionals expect who has worked in racing all his life, filling a variety of roles such as Timeform handicapper, newspaper editor and he was the first chair of Horseracing Bettors Forum. Ger Lyons is a Group 1-winning Irish racehorse trainer who has been based at Glenburnie Stable for over 20 years. James Knight is Racing Trading Director at GVC Group having previously been Head of Racing at Ladbrokes Coral.

 

Is horse racing still socially acceptable in 20 years’ time? Sports ebb and flow in their popularity and I think it is at least possible that something like American football becomes a bandit sport in the next few decades with all its problems with concussions and injuries. Racing is not at that point yet but is there any chance it gets there with a rise in animal welfare concerns? Where will we be at with the whip by that stage? 

B O’C: Judged on international trends, if racing here has future problems in terms of social acceptance it will be probably be with National Hunt racing. It shouldn't be on a major scale since the sad fact is humanity's relationship with the animal kingdom is vastly more fraught in so many other sectors. But jump racing sells itself as 'Thrills N Spills' entertainment and those spills inevitably produce some fatalities. Every effort must be seen to keep casualties to a minimum. So while it may not be particularly edifying the reality is that there are far worse animal welfare issues out there than specifically bred and pampered equine athletes being asked to jump.

As for the whip I would hope in 20 years’ time that racing has long acknowledged how there's no way to make hitting a dumb animal to make it go faster look good. And by then I would hope trials where whips are used only for correction purposes have proved that there's still a first, second and third with punters able to bet and calculate accordingly. It will be different. But different doesn't mean the same thing as wrong.

 

SR: One of the few things you can say with confidence, based on past form, is that some things in racing will not change as much as they need to. There is a deeply conservative element in the sport and many aspects of racing may well not be very different in 20 years’ time. That informs what follows, rather than its being a ‘vision’ with which I agree.

I expect flat racing still to be socially acceptable in 2038, but less so jumps. The latter will need to address concerns about equine fatalities and the sport’s legacy association with hunting. There is a reasonable chance that, by then, the whip will be allowed to be used for ‘safety’ reasons only.

 

GL: Racing was here before us all and will be here after we have gone despite our generation of ‘PC do-gooders’ that try to suck the joy out of everything we enjoy. Jump racing could suffer more from the welfare groups than the Flat will but ultimately racing will survive as it’s too big an industry not to. We as a group need to stand strong and say enough is enough and stop giving oxygen to people who thinks it’s fun to keep dragging us into disrepute.

 

JK: I think it still will be socially acceptable but the sport can’t afford to be complacent. I’d see the whip issue as being much less of an issue than equine fatalities in terms of presenting a structural risk to horse racing (and particularly National Hunt racing).  Whether those of us close to the sport like it or not, the Grand National remains a disproportionately large shop window for the sport, so every effort needs to be taken to make that race as safe as possible.

I think Aintree have done an excellent job over the past few years to that end, but I’m sure they will want to make it safer still. The other area in which progress needs to be made regards the wellbeing of jockeys. It is essential to have a sport where the human participants can lead a healthy lifestyle whilst competing and I think racing perhaps needs to look at minimum weights and how races are structured.

 

The race-day experience, at least in the UK and Ireland, has looked the same for a long time: six, seven or eight races, run at rough half-hour intervals, over the course of an afternoon or evening. Could this look different in the future? Will we have four-race cards because people haven’t the attention span for more or will we go the American route with epic ten-race cards? Will the races themselves be different? Floodlit jumping, three-furlong races, etc.? 

B O’C: Race-day 'experiences' will probably only count in terms of the big festival fixtures. The current everyday reality whereby race meetings are mostly just another betting opportunity is likely to have accelerated massively in 20 years’ time. So it'll be fast-food action shovelled out quickly – obesity, racing style!

But on the big days I hope the racing experience doesn't alter too much. One of the major selling points of racing in this part of the world is its tradition. You couldn't dream of a technically worse racecourse than Epsom but it's where history is played out every year. Racing down Pall Mall might sound trendy now but nothing dates faster than trendy.

Your first 30 days for just £1

 

SR: Big race days, particularly at weekends and on evenings, will more clearly be a ‘simulcasting’ experience in which racegoers alternate between the live action in front of them – still seven-race cards on average – and the action from elsewhere, both elements broadcast on large screens and hand-held devices, with runners easily identified on-screen by their saddlecloth numbers.

Betting itself will be more ‘tournament’-like, with individuals and groups competing against each other, on- and off-course, using apps. There will be kudos – and benefits – to be had in being part of a gang who finished in the top 10 in the Melrose Stand on Ebor Day, say, or in coming out top in your group of 15 at Newbury on a Stag or Hen Do.

Jumps races are started from stalls, placed on all-weather mats that are removed before the runners come round for the second circuit. A small number of valuable four-furlong handicaps will be permitted, such as at British Champions Day, but much too late for Caspian Prince to be crowned Champion Sprinter!

 

GL: Absolutely not! You simply can’t run the races any tighter, we tried it in Ireland and 30 mins is a push. The only people that don’t have the attention span to stay the distance are folk that don’t know the game and we should absolutely stop pandering to them. Stop dumbing down the game, if you want to follow our sport make an effort to get used to our language and ways, why should we always be explaining ourselves? For me it goes back to my basic argument which is to concentrate on the people in the sport rather than worrying about those that are outside, if they see us having fun then human nature dictates they will want a piece of the action, simple!

As it is in the UK at present they already have too much racing hence the disgracefully low prize money. So logic dictates that more races on the card will mean even lower prize money and how LOW can you go?

 

JK: Racing has become more commercially minded over the past few years and the current betting data is telling us that more money will be returned to the sport via levy if courses put on seven- or eight-race cards as opposed to six – so I definitely think the trend would be for longer cards as opposed to shorter. I’d be all for experimenting with new race formats like four-furlong bullet races – or even individual horse time trials.

Again, Racing can’t afford to be complacent and there may be some different formats which appeal to new audiences. The key with all these things is to give them a chance with a proper trial and then if they don’t work – just can them and try something else. By trialling and failing fast, we might just stumble across racing’s T20 – i.e. something that, perhaps surprisingly, appeals to a wider audience.

 

There was a time when the only way you could watch most races was by going to the track. The modern media landscape has changed that utterly where every race is now televised and available on our devices. Are we at the high-point of racing coverage now and how will it look 20 years from now? Will there still be terrestrial TV coverage and specific racing channels? Could individual courses be running their own feeds? 

B O’C: Will there be terrestrial telly? Will there even be telly? Racecourses could flog their own feeds but who's to say they won't be subsidising punters to bet in 20 years’ time. The big question though is what will the market be. If the buzz is the bet who cares about the medium: is Portman Park the gambling future?

 

SR: The consequences of Brexit on the economy and the continued mishandling of racing by those in power will have finally led to a degree of belt-tightening by the sport. Racecourses are down in number to about 40, half of which are really struggling, and the size of the fixture list has been trimmed commensurately.

Terrestrial TV coverage of racing is a distant memory – indeed, terrestrial TV itself may be – but one consequence is that those racing devotees left can see all the action on one dedicated racing channel, with any pretence at editorial independence from the bookmaking concerns that ‘sponsor’ them having been ditched. Subscription comes at a very affordable 100 Euros a month, Britain having back-tracked and re-joined the EU in 2023.

Despite the culling in numbers of races, there will be a shortage of jockeys due to the majority of them quitting after just a few winners to work in the racing media. Yes, individual racecourses could be running their own feeds, but under an umbrella organisation after initial efforts at going it alone in broadcasting pictures proved absurdly amateurish.

Far from being a golden era for data provision, the successor to the successor to the BHA has pawned the family silver by finally privatising all forms of data. You will have to pay to find out which horses are running, which jockeys are riding, which weights are being carried, let alone what a horse’s striding and sectionals were, while connections will be able to buy favourable circumstances (weights, draws, etc.) for their horses, but you will also have to pay to find this out, obviously.

 

GL: We are spoilt for choice now so much so that you don’t have to go racing anymore to see the action. As with all, the IT will keep developing and evolving and no doubt the future will give us more WOW moments as avid gadget users. I’ve no idea where it will all end but I do think that attendances will continue to struggle because of TV coverage.

 

JK: Who knows? It was quite hard to predict we’d all spend every waking hour glued to our phones 20 years ago, so I almost dread to think what technology will have done to us by 2038! We’ll probably be shouting orders at a screen and then, as if by magic, a virtual Matt Chapman will appear and shout back at us. I’d like to think there would still be a place for Racing specific TV channels, but my guess is that the whole concept of ‘Terrestrial TV’ will be done by 2038.

My children’s generation aren’t really tied to the idea of watching something specific at a specific time on ITV or Channel 4 and for them, it is assumed that TV is something that is consumed on demand. That trend will likely continue and you could easily see events just being streamed live via Twitter, Facebook or whatever new social media channels we are wasting our lives on in 2038.

 

Betting aside, technology probably hasn’t affected racing quite as much as it has other ways of life but it surely will over the next decades. Where do you see this impact happening, be it in training, breeding, viewing, riding and so on? 

B O’C: Those old April Fools’ gags about jockeys being wired to trainers and owners in the stand like F1 drivers will probably come true next year, never mind in 20. The potential of 'AI' is vast. But it's the prospect of another 'AI' in the breeding sector [artificial insemination] that could start to make a compelling technological and commercial case. That will be another example of how advancement doesn't mean the same thing as improvement.

 

SR: Analytics and sophisticated data will be used more and more in breeding and training, and will exist (e.g. horse weights, sectionals, striding, heart rates, etc.) on raceday but may not be available to the public at large (see above).

‘Jockey-Cam’ technology will extend to the option to view the race – e.g. from the back of the favourite in the Derby – as it happens and to being able to ‘ride’ the race after the event, complete with personalised commentary, captured for posterity.

 

GL: Horses will always need to be exercised and no technology will be invented that will take the human element out of that and if it does then the game is F****d! We need jockeys to keep being bred and we need to do whatever necessary to help us as employers to attract the younger folk to come and work in the industry. Governments have to become more educated to this as right now we are at staff crisis point, God only knows where we will be in twenty years’ time.

 

JK: It’s happening now isn’t it and I think to excel or get an edge in any aspect of the game –

whether it is training, breeding, betting, riding, whatever – people are going to have embrace technology and use it to supplement their existing skills. For example, the smart buyers at the sales are now using big data to inform their choices. That means using modelling techniques to rate pedigrees or machine learning to analyse areas previously considered ‘dark arts’ like a horse’s gait.

All elements can and eventually will be modelled and I could see there being something of an arms race in terms of who can get their hands on the best predictive models.  That’s not to say there won’t still be room for some human interpretation, but we have to let the computers do what we humans aren’t very good at, which is crunching through millions of bits of data. 

 

Silver bullet time. Money is no object and there is one thing you can do to future-proof the sport. What is it? 

B O’C: Virtual reality is divorcing more and more people from the living, breathing reality of horses as creatures rather than simply a set of form figures. Conversely that will make animal welfare an even greater issue and it's in racing’s own interests to be seen to invest in animal welfare. Whatever cost there is in being seen to do that is dwarfed by the threat of accusations of cruelty or negligence. Animal sports will become even more defined by their treatment of the animal itself.

 

SR: Embrace data and its analysis, and make it as freely and widely available as possible. Far from being ‘off putting’, things like sectionals and horse weights can shine a light on numerous sub-plots within a race and add hugely to the interest in the sport if framed in intelligible and interesting ways. Clearly, the media – such as it will still exist – will need to change its ways considerably to allow this to happen.

If I was allowed a second bullet then it would be that a forward-thinking, competent and ‘can-do’ regulatory authority would regain control of the fixture list in a well-funded sport.

 

GL: I would start again on betting and media rights. Use Hong Kong as the model and all income generated by the sport should be reinvested back into it and be self-sufficient. We can’t pat ourselves on the back as being the ‘great I am’ when we still need handouts from respective governments. There’s too much pointless bureaucracy involved in running the business side of racing now and with technology improvements things should be made easier and not harder.

Central stewarding is something we should aim for and make the current system of enquiries a thing of the past. No time should be lost on race day playing the ‘yes sir’ no sir’ game to these prehistoric men and women who are clinging onto anything to keep themselves relevant. Before the horse has pulled up and returned to the parade ring a decision by central stewards should be made and the winner called. Connections can always have the right to appeal later on but with the technology now available it’s a pointless exercise having jockeys going in and explaining themselves, it’s pathetic and outdated.

 

JK: Money is an object and that’s the problem! To future-proof the sport, we need it to be sustainable financially for all of the constituent parts. I think it ties in with other areas your questions have touched upon, but I think the sport just needs to get smarter all round. Racing needs to embrace technology and data so that when a decision is being made, it is backed by facts rather than the gut-feel that maybe was the best we could do before the data revolution. In this way, the sport can maybe start to get a bit ahead of the curve, rather than always being dragged along just behind it.

Four Racing/Betting Books You Should Read

I love both reading and betting so combining the two is time well spent, writes Tony Keenan. More than any other subject, I tend to reread books on racing/betting in the hope that 0n the second or third run-through I will get more out of them. Below are four of my favourite books on the subject and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section below or on Twitter @RacingTrends; I’m always on the lookout for the next good one.

 

‘A Fine Place to Daydream’ – Bill Barich

Racing people and writers often exist in a bubble where ways of thinking become ingrained; sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to draw interesting stuff from insiders because they look at things in a different way. Recent interviews on Newstalk with racing figures like Davy Russell and Willie Mullins support this view and Bill Barich is another example.

Barich is an American writer with an interest in the turf if not an obsession and his account of the 2003/4 National Hunt season in Ireland shows what a fresh set of eyes can do for a topic. After landing in the country with his new partner Imelda, the author is drawn into the jumping scene and moves through all the big meetings from October to March, starting at Down Royal for their November meeting onto the Open at Cheltenham and Leopardstown at Christmas, the Thyestes and back to Leopardstown before ultimately finishing up at the Festival.

The book is populated with great characters: Moscow Flyer and Jessica Harrington, Beef Or Salmon and Michael Hourigan, the nascent perennial Champion Trainer Willie Mullins, Tom Costello, Father Breen, Noel O’Brien. In truth, it is all pure nostalgia at this point; written in 2005, before the 12-month Cheltenham news cycle and the arrival of super-trainers, I love – if time permits – to reread it before the Festival if only for the sheer romance of it all.

 

Your first 30 days for just £1

‘Beyer on Speed’ – Andrew Beyer

You should read anything by Beyer and despite the fact that he hasn’t written a book since 1993, his four efforts – ‘Picking Winners’, ‘My $50,000 Year at the Races’, ‘The Winning Horseplayer’ and ‘Beyer on Speed’ – remain relevant. There is a confidence that borders on arrogance in Beyer’s writing style as he moves from one uncompromising account to another and none of jockeys, trainers or the integrity of the sport are spared. But that self-belief comes from being a long-term winning bettor and basically inventing the modern speed-figure so all is forgiven.

His approach to betting is a mix of objectivity and subjectivity and if you don’t learn something you are probably reading it wrong. Beyer gets across the aspirational side of gambling and the idea that the pursuit of profit is a worthwhile use of your time is never far from his pages. ‘Beyer on Speed’ is my favourite of his canon at present as I’m using times more and more in my betting, but they are all excellent.

 

‘The Undoing Project’ – Michael Lewis

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahnemann (with more than a nod to the deceased Amos Tversky) is apparently a bible of sorts to many modern professional punters; it might be a must-read but it can be a struggle. If you want to take an easier approach then Lewis’s biography of the two men is a more palatable version and covers many of the main ideas in their fields of behavioural economics and prospect theory.

The opening two chapters barely mention the two Israeli economists however as the focus is on Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets basketball franchise. This is familiar ground for Lewis, author of ‘Moneyball’, and he looks at what mistakes Morey tries to avoid making when evaluating talent which are very similar to the ones we should steer clear of when betting. For instance, Morey has banned comparisons of young prospects to players of the same race by scouts in his organisation which can be applied to racing; all too often we lazily compare horses to other horses that have run in same colours or are with the same trainer. There is also a hilarious description (and a warning against judging too much by appearance) when he tells of how some scouts vastly misjudged the talent level of All-Star Marc Gasol because he had ‘man boobs’ and just didn’t look like a basketball player!

We’re more aware of thinking biases than ever now with ‘recency bias this’ and ‘confirmation bias that’ thrown around everywhere but that doesn’t mean we are a whole lot better at avoiding them. Constant refresher courses on the subject are needed and Lewis’s book is an excellent one.

 

‘Tony10’ – Tony O’Reilly and Declan Lynch

Aside from its subject matter, ‘Tony10’ is a brilliantly written book from outset when Lynch describes O’Reilly’s upbringing in Carlow and how the town revels in its own nondescript nature. After that, it has a three-part structure: O’Reilly’s early life in the provincial town, a period of what could only be described as intense degenerate gambling and finally the time spent in jail and life afterwards. You simply cannot stop reading the middle section as it captures a life spiralling out of control with the ratcheting up of stakes, the betting on obscure sports, the nights spent punting on the computer as O’Reilly’s wife and new-born slept in the next room.

It is a masterpiece of ‘show, don’t tell’ as the reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions about what unfolds in the narrative and while most of this is utterly foreign to people who take gambling seriously and are trying to win, it is an important reminder to be wary of the compulsive streak within most of us. And even if we don’t have such a trait, perhaps we should watch out for it in others.

Lynch himself has been on an interesting journey with gambling, starting out with his 2009 book ‘Free Money: A Gambler’s Quest’, essentially a diary of his own punting, through ‘The Ponzi Man’, a 2016 novel about a pathological gambler whose pyramid scheme has come tumbling down, and now to this. He has become polemical in his anti-gambling stance and while that might be too much at times, there is an argument that Irish society with its outdated gambling laws needed to be given a shake.

Rereading books like these is great fun but it does point to something else: there haven’t been too many good racing/betting books penned in the recent past. I enjoyed Paul Jones’s ‘From Soba to Moldova’ though for more experienced punters it may be considered more refresher course than anything else, carried by the author’s inimitable style. Things have changed so much in the modern betting landscape (or that horrible word ‘space’) with statistical models, account restrictions, automated betting and rapidly moving prices among the issues that deserve a fuller treatment. There is interesting material being covered on YouTube and podcasts with Simon Nott’s interview series and the ‘Business of Betting’ with Jake Williams standing out but there is definitely space for a book or two as well; consider that that the challenge laid down!

- Tony Keenan

p.s. which one (or two) books would you add to this list? And, importantly, why? Leave a comment to help build the bibliography!

Tony Keenan: The Bookmakers’ Perspective

The bookmaker-punter divide is one where the boundaries are permeable with many people playing both sides, writes Tony Keenan. Ian Marmion is one such example: Ian has worked with a number of the big betting companies as well as punting professionally for a time; and, along with some friends, he has a few horses in training, not least Ch’Tibello with Dan Skelton.

Much of what I write for Geegeez tends to be punter-centric but it is worth remembering that there are multiple sides to any story. With that in mind, Ian was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the state of the betting industry at present as well as on how racing interacts with it.

 

Let’s start with some biography Ian, what’s your background and how long have you been working in the betting industry?

I suppose I was always a keen punter and got into the industry with various jobs like a cashier and betting shop manager.  I then worked in the raceroom at Paddy Power before moving to Victor Chandler where I progressed through the company, coming back to start operations in Ireland in 2005 when we go some pitches and shops. I thought I was home for good but one day I was over in Gibraltar for a meeting and having been very critical of the firm’s trading policy (which I felt was antiquated) I was asked by Victor to sort it out!

In truth, I was a mug punter up to that point, though I was strong numerically and had a good eye for product. We had a lot of high-stakers and lead accounts, which is very different to how that firm operates now, and I was able to educate myself on how to win. We were aggressive punters in the market and I was following others’ opinions but learning plenty. Over a period of years it got to a point where I was making more money punting than working and having had a tempestuous relationship with Victor I thought I was good enough to give it a go full-time.

I reckoned my bets were coming from about 30% what I got in Chandler’s, 40% other contacts I had made along the way and 30% my own opinion though I probably got that pie wrong! It started badly as I had two consecutive losing months for the first time in a long while but it soon turned around and I was at it full-time for five years.

My skill was getting money on, that’s what I was good at. I was doing business for warm punters with about 10 lads in shops. They’d be ready to go at 10 in the morning, know what shops to do at 10.15, get the message what to bet at 10.30 and have everything done by 11. Getting on is as important a skill as picking winners.

 

You’ve since come back into the betting industry proper; what was your reasoning for stepping back from the punting and joining BetStars as trading director with their sportsbook?

There were a few different reasons. With the punting, I was getting a bit sick of it and some of the developments in the game weren’t helping. It was certainly harder to get on with overnight pricing killing a lot of what we did in the shops in the morning, and the machine [Betfair] was definitely getting more of a grip on Irish racing. Where once we were getting twelve monkeys [£500 at 12/1] at half-ten in the morning, now it was three hundred at 7s. With BetStars, PokerStars were launching a sportsbook and it was going to be based in Dublin; I thought if I turn this down I’m never going back to Ireland and I’m here three years in which time the punting has taken a back-seat.

 

The elephant in the room is account restrictions so we may as well deal with that. When I talk to punters, rightly or wrongly, it’s the only issue they want to discuss. Now maybe there’s some selection bias there as I talk a bit to people who have an idea what they’re doing but restrictions are happening. What are your thoughts on them, both from a work perspective and personally?

With BetStars, we are a new sportsbook so we’re trying to attract customers and inevitably you attract sharp business first. Our horse racing runs profit to 4% return after Best Odds Guaranteed, 7% before BOG which is reasonable and we’ve restricted about 6% of customers this year. Recreational customers have a typical profile. They bet in or around your average stake, they play a good mix of singles and multiples, they tend to do multiples early and singles off the show and they tend to play on higher grade racing. As a new entrant we get a lot of customers that fall outside this typical profile. We don’t have many punters who bet in or around our average stake of €xx [redacted] who we have to restrict. Typically there will be a blatant reason to restrict them and more often than not that blatant reason will be they are arbers.

I’ve been both sides of the fences and for many reasons – cost and technology for example – undoubtedly the quality of trader is not what it once was. There is a part of it where ‘arbers’ is just an excuse where a trader doesn’t want to make a difficult decision, playing lads that aren’t inside the model. That said, I don’t think this is a problem for the tenner and score punter in shops and even online but outside of that, there’s a nervousness and good punters do get caught up due to lack of skills in trading rooms. However, bookmakers have no obligation to feed money to pros or non-recreationals, arbers or bonus abusers.

When I’m looking at it, there are a couple of reasons I wanted to bet a punter. Firstly, when I had a fair chance of beating him and secondly if he told me something I didn’t know myself and that includes bets to a reasonable size.  I didn’t want followers or people just following the machine; you’re not going to beat them and they’re not offering you anything. You can have some winning accounts but you don’t need to pay everyone for the mark.

As for the punting side, a friend says to me that people who can’t get on don’t work hard enough. If you’re that serious and hard-working about it, you’ll get around it. There aren’t as many recreationals as we know it left and, while everybody always criticises bookmakers in saying that they won’t lay without looking at the machine, nobody ever says that the same is true for punters who won’t strike a bet if it is bigger on the machine. We’ve reached a point where nearly every single bet we strike is borderline with the machine price, which is basically borderline zero margin price.

Your first 30 days for just £1

 

Let’s go into a little bit more detail on some of these things. Line tracking seems to be the new term for arbing and people at it are copping plenty of flak. Is there much of this going on and can it be done with computer programs?

Punters can do this robotically with programs like OddsMonkey which flag up arbs and automatically places the bets for you. [I ask at this point doesn’t this business stand out a mile.] The biggest industry that has grown up around it is the show arbers, playing off show not earlies. There’s a significant time lag on show and machine prices, where you might have someone backing a horse at 5/2 that is 3.4 on the machine and that business can look square.

I actually think it’s impossible to lose betting show arbs on the front two or three in market with best odds guaranteed as the bookies are betting overbroke. And that’s a scourge for the ordinary punter that people don’t really think about. Recreational punters have to lose to enable some of that money to be distributed to the winners.

 

Some people have suggested that a minimum bet or lay-to-lose guarantee could be a way to go. How would the maths of that stack up?

We have to ask ourselves if can we sustain a minimum bet guarantee without altering the experience of the ordinary punter and I don’t think we can. If minimum bet guarantees came in then best odds guaranteed would have to go and margins would have to increase. Ordinary punters have never had it so good and the fact is that most punters never reach a limit. Increasing margins might well satisfy people who aren’t the typical punter but you would have to remove concessions too. Maybe those who are better than the market would be better off but the ordinary punter won’t be.

 

You’ve mentioned overnight prices earlier. What are your thoughts on them?

They’re the single biggest tool in the bookmakers’ armoury at present as they’re getting to 10am when they typically increase limits and open shops and have prices right for two-eighths of nothing. No one is getting on to any size bar a few VIPs who are big long-term losers and in effect they adjust after every bet and keep adjusting until they get it right. The firms don’t win on overnights and even pre-10am bets and are actually happy to lose as when the limits are upped they are more confident about their prices. Remember, the vast majority still play on the show with the breakdown being roughly 70% show, 30% earlies.

 

On the subject of punters beating you are there any cardinal sins that they can avoid or that make them stand out? And if you don’t like their business, do you think there would be any point in having a yellow card-type system where they are warned about how they are operating?

Customers who consistently beat the Betfair SP are impossible to beat long-term. They are buying something for a dollar and selling it for a dollar ten. Followers who are price sensitive and just follow warm money either because it drops under on the machine or because they work in a trading room offer no long term value. Customers who abuse antiquated systems like traditional each way terms or Rule 4 are no good to you either.  On the subject of bad each-way, a lot of that is a problem with the system and the rule 4 model is broken too, completely out of date. If I had my way, I’d get rid of each-way terms and have separate win and place books. There would be a correlation between the win book and the place book but there would also be changes depending on the make-up of the race. The each-way system is too entrenched though and another thing we’d be better with is decimal pricing as 6/4 to 13/8 is too big of jump, what about 2.55 or 2.6?

I don’t mind anyone having the conversation about how they are betting. We don’t do this well as an industry and this is where the skill deficit is coming into play. You should be good enough as a trader to look at an overall basket of goods to see he’s getting the better of me overnight but not overall. So I can’t let him win the lot overnight but you can have more on the show. The problem is when you get restricted with most of the firms, BetStars included, it doesn’t matter what you want to bet on, whether it is the Gold Cup or a seller at Lingfield, which makes no sense.

Technology has contributed to this in a big way. More and more firms don’t have a call centre and make hard and fast rules about limits to be applied online. A few have an over-ask tool that allows you to request bigger bets but it’s generally not afforded to non-recreationals.

 

In the past year or so, regulation has become a much bigger deal in the UK. How do you think the industry is responding to this?

Responsible gambling has become a massive part of our industry though I do think it’s important to say that being a high staker and being a problem gambler are different things. For some people, big stakes are normal. There are plenty of important developments going on in UK at the moment including staking limits on FOBTs, the Gambling Commission and firms being held accountable for responsible gaming.

As an industry we’ve been let get away with too much for too long. I had a boss who used to say ‘never feel sorry for them [punters]’ but in this day and age that’s not acceptable.  Gambling is 24/7, and punters have access to so many opportunities to feed an addiction. I know it sounds hypocritical of me to say I’m anti-FOBTs when I get my living from people losing money but I’m not a fan of them. They prey on a demographic that shouldn’t be preyed on. There’s a counter-argument that they can go online and do it just as easily but I’m not so sure they can as you need debit cards and access to funds in a bank account.

I remember reading an article about FOBTs where a manager in a William Hill shop said ‘I’ve never seen anyone play them happily’ and that about sums it up for me. Obviously they are an incredible money-making machine with over half of Ladbrokes’ profit from them and you saw the impact of reducing the stake limit had for the GVC bid for Ladbrokes Coral. Personally, I’d much prefer to see 1,000 punters lose a tenner than one lad lose €10,000 as it’s just more sustainable. Stuart Kenny [one of the founders of Paddy Power] was an absolute visionary in this regard as he wanted the punter to go away thinking he got value for his few quid, it was something he intrinsically believed and it was him who came up with money back specials and such like.

 

Racing remains a big part of your life, Ian, and you have a number of horses in training, not least Ch’Tibello with Dan Skelton. I always thought it was a little unusual that you opted to have your horses trained in the UK rather than at home in Ireland, allowing that Skelton is excellent. What are the reasons for that?

There are two reasons. When we got into them, we were abroad and it didn’t matter while latterly, it’s too hard to win a race over here. Dan has trained about 105 winners this season for 40 different owners but with the stranglehold the pair of boys [Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott] have over here, Ch’Tibello would struggle in graded races so there is a better chance of him winning one in the UK.

The punting opportunities are better too. It’s impossible to get on in the mornings in Ireland but you have half a chance of getting on in the UK. We landed a small touch with one last January and got to back him at midday when he was still 25/1 which would never happen in Ireland.

I was at Fairyhouse for Bar-One day earlier this month and there was a great crowd and atmosphere but it was like Jebel Ali with the same colours going around race after race. Maybe I’m being negative but I can’t see us winning graded races over here; though it must be said that what Elliott has achieved is incredible and we all should have stood up and noticed when he won the Grand National way back.

 

What do you think racing is doing right at the moment and where do you think it could improve?

For one, we’ve so much more wrong with the game than the declaration of wind ops. I think racing and betting are one and the same and we need to look at changing the demographic of who is going racing. In Ireland, we’re not too bad at it but in the UK you have silly stuff where they won’t let you into the owners and trainers without a tie. I would abolish enclosures and some of the entrance prices in the UK are ludicrous.

From a betting point-of-view, integrity is still an issue. With Douvan and the Tingle Creek, Altior and Nicky Henderson it is more transparency than integrity. Racing is competing for the betting euro with sports that have 24/7 transparency or at least the perception of such, football being the main example. If that is their expectation then it’s important that we try to emulate that. The ordinary guy in the street thinks racing is crooked to start with, which he doesn’t think that about a football game, and racing needs to work against that notion. The younger trainers are much better at this but we need to reach a level of transparency where when an owner tells a trainer to stop a horse, the trainer tells him to eff off.

The bad racing during the week has integrity issues. Battle-hardened punters know how to factor that into equations and to use it in the decision-making process but if we’re trying to attract an ordinary guy to spend his leisure pound on us, it’s never going to happen. Maybe racing just doesn’t have a product that it can sell to a punter Monday to Friday. Football is the one that is targeting the betting pound more than any other with the good stuff spread out over the week, group races most days in racing parlance, where we’ll have dross Monday to Friday.

I don’t know if this is practical but perhaps we should have a more concentrated programme, less racing but better racing. Some of the issue is horses rated 45 on the flat that are simply useless; what are they even running for, they shouldn’t be able to get into races. If they were not able to get into them, they’d as soon not be bred and the industry would be better off in the long-term after a period of pain.

 

I know you’re not a fan of the bookmaking firms using trainers and jockeys to provide content through blogs, and your horses with Dan Skelton don’t run under the Ladbrokes sponsorship that his yard has. What’s your thinking here?

I don’t think from a transparency point of view that bookies should be sponsoring trainers and jockeys. For the ordinary guy in the street who don’t forget thinks racing is bent anyway, this looks terrible; how many guys told you Ruby jumped off Annie Power? Optics is the big word at the minute. Nor do I buy the content argument that they are providing material that engages people in racing; if that were so, why aren’t they doing it for Geegeez or the Sporting Life or for free? It’s for money.

The firms are doing this for marketing first and foremost, you are associating your brand with something premium which is always a plus. Bwin did this well with Juventus and Real Madrid a while back and people believe in you instantly when you associate your brand with another premium brand. I don’t take any of them seriously as I don’t believe you’re ever being told anything significant.

 

Let’s wrap up with a final question: Where do you see the industry going in the future? I listened to a podcast recently with Marco Blume of Pinnacle where he said e-sports were their sixth biggest market which I couldn’t believe. Is this the case and what else is coming down the line?

I think the e-sports stuff is a lot of spin. I don’t believe in them as a fixed-odds betting product, it’s like badminton in terms of turnover. Pinnacle might be trying to popularise it, Marco Blume has a background in that area, and to be fair the age of your typical e-sports punter is lower than that of football, 27 and 40 in our case. It makes sense trying to make a go of it in that regard but I don’t buy it. Mind you I didn’t think cash-out would work so I’ve not exactly got a strong pedigree in this area!

There are massive changes coming in football around how markets are done and presented. The whole Request-A-Bet stuff will be automated and we need to remember that football betting looks the way it does because that’s how a football coupon looked in a shop 40 years ago. We still tell punters what they want to bet on but in 6 months’ time punters will tell you what they want to bet on. They will be able to drag in what they like to bet on. The maths isn’t the most difficult aspect of this, it’s the tech that is the hard part with issues of how you present it and do it quickly.

We are all trying to convert betting into gaming where the punter can circulate his money, bet on next corner, throw-in or goal. Nobody has got this right yet but it’s coming.  The thing is when a punter has a bet on the win-draw-win in football, he is dead for 2 hours. I’m not sure how this would work with racing, perhaps with punters who miss the off or are waiting for a bet to settle or have had a faller in a race and want plough back in again. This appeals to the young demographic who want things quickly. We are a world that doesn’t read anything anymore and is so used to 140 characters, and punters are naturally the same.

The views expressed above are the personal opinions of Ian Marmion and not necessarily representative of The Stars Group.

Tony Keenan (twitter: @racingtrends) was talking to Ian Marmion (twitter: @marmobet), sports book trading director for BetStars

10 Things I think about the Betting Industry

The betting industry has been getting about as much coverage as Brexit negotiations in the past month or so and at times it seems about as complex; so if you’re expecting a unified view on the subject you are in the wrong place, writes Tony Keenan. That said, I’ve tried to read most of the coverage and have thoughts on a number of areas within the subject that might be worth mentioning so I’m going to ramble on and see what comes back from readers.

 

One: The Issue

Aside from any views I have on the content of the betting industry coverage in recent weeks, it is a good thing that the area is being addressed at all. In this period, there has been discussion on the AtTheRaces Sunday Forum and with Bruce Millington on Racing UK’s Luck on Sunday along with articles on account restrictions, the work of the UK Gambling Commission, the David Evans/Ladbrokes case and so on.

This cannot be a bad thing as there are lots of punters, winning and losing, who have issues with how the industry is being run. It is difficult to make any progress without discussion and hopefully this media engagement with the industry will continue.

 

Two: Who cares about restrictions?

There is a belief out there, perhaps propagated by bookmakers, that few people have any interest in the workings of the betting industry, particularly with regard to restrictions; we are often told that the vast majority of punters get their bets out without issue and it is only a few vocal customers who have been restricted who care about the issue. I could not disagree more with this.

Maybe it’s naïve of me to think so but I’ve always believed that bookmakers, to some degree at least, are in the business of selling hope, whether it is the hope of having one’s opinion validated or the hope of winning money. Even the most unprofitable punter hopes that one day he will win and the thought that this may be impossible due to restrictions is not an appealing one.

Furthermore, stories of trading practices that may be less than ethical or at the very least skirt into grey areas are interesting for the wider, non-betting public to read about. Bookmakers and their various hues of blue, red and green are ubiquitous on our high streets with betting becoming big business and now more socially acceptable than ever; the demographic of your local betting shop has likely become more diverse in the last few years. When I speak to non-betting people about the idea of restrictions, they are invariably fascinated and surprised by the practice and to say that this is a non-story is a gross misrepresentation of the reality.

 

Three: Insiders

I have never worked inside the betting industry with the closest I came to getting a job in one of the companies when I got sacked from a cashier’s job with Sean Graham before I even started; there was confusion over the date of first day rather than anything more sinister! Thus everything I write here lacks insider knowledge and is inevitably biased towards the punter. The one thing I find irritating however is when punters suggest a change in the industry only to be told by those working inside it that their ideas could never work.

Perhaps they are correct but many of these industry insiders are less willing to put forward ideas that might help improve their product and can become quite uppity when challenged on this; it’s almost the ‘how many races have you traded’ argument! On a related point, one of the most interesting things to emerge from Bruce Millington’s appearance on Luck On Sunday was his comment – and I paraphrase – that the betting industry is not set up to write monthly cheques to former employees of the bookmaking firms. I sometimes think that these sorts of punters might be about the most dangerous for the bookies in the modern betting landscape; they know the systems and models used but more importantly they know their weaknesses and are really playing anything but a fair game with the layers.

Your first 30 days for just £1

 

Four: Winning recreational punters

Another thing that piqued my attention in the Millington interview was his comment about the ‘clued-in, recreational, price-sensitive punter’ who should be permitted to win somewhere between two and five grand in a year. I realise Millington was on the spot and likely pulling figures out of thin air but perhaps he has thought deeply about it and believes these are valid numbers and I certainly wouldn’t disagree.

They are far from outlandish in terms of profit and I strongly suspect that such a punter would give plenty back to racing in terms of things like subscriptions to TV channels and digital media, purchasing a Racing Post a few days a week or simply going racing. In short, they are exactly the sort of enthusiastic customers racing wants. I would however by very doubtful that such punters are avoiding restrictions and, speaking to other gamblers, it does seem to be the case anecdotally.

 

Five: Self-Regulation

Ireland and the UK are two different betting jurisdictions and have different levels of regulation, with the level of control in the latter becoming much stronger through the Gambling Commission who have made some major rulings on things like terms and conditions and treatment of customers who self-excluded. There is no such body in Ireland though HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh has recently called for something similar here.

The one thing I cannot understand, in the UK but especially in Ireland, is that the major firms have not gone down the road of some form of self-regulation and are essentially leaving themselves open to the whims of government. The current political setup may be inclined towards the industry but there are more left-leaning parties who are much less in favour of racing and by extension gambling and might indeed take great pleasure in installing draconian measures on the industry. At the moment there seems to be a free-for-all but that period without regulation could come to an end at any point and bookmakers may regret not installing some of their own measures of control when that time comes.

 

Six: Irish Racing Integrity

In a recent interview with Johnny Ward in The Times, Brian Kavanagh commented that ‘it would be fairer to all’ if bookmakers would not restrict bets on Irish racing. Personally, I would love that but it is a very strange comment and one that seems to take no cognisance of the integrity issues, real or perceived, that dog Irish racing.

There has to be some give-and-take with the HRI and the bookmakers and I suspect that our horse racing rulers have much more of a take-and-take approach to the big firms, constantly appealing for betting tax increases but offering little in return. The share of betting turnover in Ireland that is actually on Irish racing is relatively small and I would question what HRI have done to grow this market.

They have promised sectional times at all tracks in January 2017 and they remain undelivered, seemingly failing to understand that richer data gives betting markets more solidity. The new running and riding regulations (applied by the Turf Club) are often challenged and overturned, and rules around drug testing remain unsatisfactory. With Irish racing, the issue is perception and, while I think our racing is much straighter than many believe, what the wider betting public believe is important and you have to try to do something to redress the balance.

 

Seven: FOBTs

We are constantly warned not to conflate the argument about FOBTs and restrictions on horse racing which is fair enough but I do find it hard to get past a visceral, deep-seated loathing of these machines; as a horse racing punter who wants to play a gambling game of skill, I find these games of chance pointless as you simply cannot win over a period of time.

FOBTs are not in Ireland and there seems to be little appetite for them here though it is worth pointing out that society in general is becoming more automated; Paddy Power shops all over the country have recently been fitted out with more betting terminals though in this case they are used for sport only which is obviously fine.

There are those who argue that there is no reason why Irish shops should not have FOBTs, taking a libertarian view that people should be allowed to spend their money in whatever way they wish provided no one is harmed. Sometimes however people need to be protected from themselves and that is what a proper society should do, paternalistic though that may seem.

 

Eight: Too many markets

As of last Thursday at 5:16pm, there were 63,524 markets available to bet on with 888Sport across 37 sports, though admittedly almost 51,000 of those were on football; the reason I choose this company was ease of calculation as they tell you how many markets are up in each category but the number of betting opportunities is hardly unusual for the big firms.

It is not unreasonable to wonder what is the point of all these markets and who do they serve? Many of them are derivative and take little effort in terms of creation; a team total in a US sport is derived from a combination of the spread and overall total while a without the favourite market in horse racing simply comes from removing the market leader from the betting. Yet even so, one has to suspect that some of the bookmakers are on a hiding to nothing with these and they could be ripe for exploitation allowing that many will have low limits and hefty overrounds; from the point of view of sheer numbers, they have to be difficult if not impossible to monitor.

One of the best podcasts I listened to recently was an interview with Marco Blume, Director of Trading at Pinnacle Sports, on the Business of Betting where he basically said he had little or no interest in endless sub-markets, pointing out that the vast majority of their business came in the big three markets of outright, handicap and total.

The Pinnacle model has proved hard to replicate and likely is impossible in horse racing where wild price moves are common but his views on the huge number of markets seem valid. No bookmaker can reasonably trade thousands of markets and it seems they are only trying to price them up because everyone else has. Herd mentality in bookmaker business seems deep-rooted.

 

Nine: Line-tracking

Line-tracking seems to be the new buzz concern for bookies; for those that are unclear on what line-tracking is, it means taking a priced with a fixed-odds firm when the selection is trading below those odds on the exchanges. Simon Clare on the Sunday Forum implied that there is an army of these methodical line trackers out there, ‘a sea of punters’, some real and some robotic, seeking to take advantage of this approach.

That may be the case but it is easy to see how an ordinary punter could be misclassified as such; in effect, we are all line-trackers as it essentially means being price-sensitive which can hardly be seen as a sin. For instance, let’s say I fancy a horse that is running later in the afternoon and I decide to wait until later to back it, holding off until liquidity enters the exchange markets or I can get to a betting shop. That plan goes out the window when a major tipster puts up the selection, someone like Andy Holding or Gary O’Brien with a big following, and I need to make a move now to back it or else I will miss the price entirely.

The selection was my own but if I think the odds are wrong then it is more likely others will too and I am being lumped into the bracket of a line-tracker which isn’t accurate, at least in the sense that these line-trackers are systematic in their approach.

 

Ten: Patterns of Play

The whole idea of betting fair is a fascinating one and it seems the Gambling Commission are interested in this area, looking to set down some rules about what is acceptable in terms of patterns of play. We all know things that are likely to be frowned upon by bookmakers from exploiting bad each way to trying to grab stale prices. But what might be seen as ok seems more difficult to define.

Simon Clare commented on AtTheRaces that punters need to be original in terms of their selections if they want to avoid restrictions, but I have already pointed out in the line-tracking section that there are problems with this sort of view. Punters may do their best to be original – that is certainly how I tend to construct most of my bets – but the issue is that the bookmakers may simply have made a mistake in terms of pricing the race and most punters are spotting the same error and wanting to back the same horse. Rather than the bookmaker being punished for poor odds-making, too often it is the punter who bears the brunt of their error, made to pay in terms of restrictions.

- Tony Keenan

Four Traits of Effective Punters

Literary events in the gambling world are infrequent to say the least, writes Tony Keenan. Unless twice-yearly horses to follow annuals are your thing there’s little to get excited about in books on the subject but the launch of Harry Findlay’s autobiography ‘Gambling for Life’ earlier this month was an exception. Few who like a bet will have failed to pick up a copy and I’ve been reading with a strange mix of fascination and fear at the tales of Findlay’s life.

Some of the events described might draw out the swash-buckling punter in us all but in truth most of it is far removed from the world of the typical gambler. It’s much more about Findlay’s extraordinary character than a how-to manual (thank god for that!) but as is the case when I read any such material it sets me reflecting about gambling in general. What are the things that make gamblers tick? Are there traits that are common across those who succeed in the punting world? Here is my best guess about the four aspects of character that might be most important though excuse me if the paragraph titles sound like they come from an ill thought-out self-help book.

 

  1. Consistency

‘Trust the process’ is a phrase beloved in American sport and has been most recently used by the Philadelphia 76ers executive as their basketball team was mired in bad results for seasons as they accumulated draft picks to rebuild the side. The process became such a tagline that one of their stars Joel Embiid took it on as a nickname but it is ultimately an approach that worked as the 76ers are now on an upward curve for the first time in years.

Punters would do well to nurture a similar attitude and concentrate on process rather than results. This is easier said than done, especially when on a losing run, but as someone who writes a weekly tipping column on a busy website it is one of the only ways to get back on an upward curve. If you have a method that works over time, you need to apply it consistently regardless of short-term outcomes. Ironically, betting profits tend not to come in dribs and drabs but in large globules and their spaced-out nature can be challenging to deal with.

But sticking to consistent methods of form study, staking, time taken studying a race meeting and such like is important with ‘rinse and repeat’ the phrase to remember. Real life can obviously impinge on this if there are bins to be put out or a crying baby to be soothed or simply real work to be done [God forbid! – Ed.] but the punter that can keep things pretty level tends to prove more effective than those that cannot.

Your first 30 days for just £1

 

  1. Creativity

Imagination would hardly be high on the list of things one might think as important for a punter but I defer to the great Andy Beyer in his book ‘Beyer on Speed’ about the topic of creativity: ‘handicapping is an art, a test of man’s creative intelligence, not merely a puzzle to be solved by applying the right formula.’ In recent years I have come to believe that betting is at least as much art as science and that feel and intuition are vital tools to getting an edge; the unfortunate thing for novice punters is that these things only come with time.

We live in the big data age where seemingly every aspect of life can be boiled down into a number or a chart and betting is no different. High-end punters are using figures to get ahead as we have seen in articles about Tony Bloom and his quants crunching data at Starlizard. One cannot but admire their rigour and many good bets will come from such a grind but against that a more subjective approach will always provide an edge for the very fact that it is personal to each punter.

Maybe you have seen something in a replay that has been missed by everyone else, a hood that was removed half a beat too late or a subtle bit of shuffling back that has not been commented on anywhere. Perhaps you’ve read an insightful trainer comment on a low-key website that has provided a new angle into a horse. Sometimes a horse or a bet has all the figures and the model may say it will win but there is something more intangible that plays against it winning; when you have the imagination to spot this, you are on to something.

 

  1. Openness to Change

It is a truth universally acknowledged in betting that edges dissipate and eventually disappear whether it is through growing bookmaker awareness or sheer weight of market support. Punters need to be on the look out for the next edge and likely guard it closely to prolong its longevity. I cannot understand why some are dismissive about newer approaches to racing like sectional times when as a gambler this is exactly the type of angle you want to be developing; perhaps it will all turn out to be a nonsense (though I doubt it) and clearly no method of tackling a race is going to work in every case but doesn’t it at least make sense to explore the possibilities?

This brings us on to the question of what might be the next big edge in racing analysis and in truth it is likely being practiced quietly by a few sharp operators at this very time. I wonder if it might be something to do ground loss and gains around turns and the impact that it has on races. The use of Trakus for racing in Dubai has revealed the importance of how far a horse travelled in a race and the effect it had in the finish but we in Ireland and Britain find this type of thing harder to grasp as it is so difficult to quantify.

Another thing at play might be that the lost ground angle works against our natural thinking biases. I suspect the eye is drawn to the horse tanking along the rail that is struggling to get a run rather than the one that has been trapped out wide conceding ground all the way; at the very least we have been conditioned to view the former in a more positive light than the latter by the racing media. But that horse has not only drawn all the attention and thus will be a shorter price than it might merit next time but it has also had the benefit of going the shortest way and having the all-important cover that can be key to getting a horse to settle.

 

  1. Ruthlessness

I’ll begin this final section with a disclaimer; I am probably nowhere near ruthless enough myself as a gambler though that is probably a good thing in life in general! But a ruthless streak can be important for gambling success as we have seen in a number of high-profile cases where punters have exploited bookmaker weakness through spotting loopholes in their risk management systems and hammering them for all they were worth.

This necessitates burning bridges with bookmakers – you might catch them out once but not a second time – but the truly ruthless punter doesn’t care about this; he has other ways of getting on. The whole getting on process is another area where we can see this ruthlessness at play. The ruthless punter may use the accounts of others for a period of time – these things always have a shelf-life – but these people are kicked to the curb when their usefulness is exhausted. Some would argue this is simply the gambling food chain, and there is probably merit in that view, but while cutting ties with bookmakers is one thing, doing the same to friends whose accounts you might have burned is quite another, especially if they are fond of a bet themselves.

Your stance on this issue might say something about your whole attitude to gambling and indeed your broader personality. Some see gambling as being all about going for the one big touch, ‘the face-spitter’ as Steve Palmer might call it, but the problem with reaching for that single epic punting moment is that it cannot be achieved without first putting in the grind to build up your skills. I’ve always been more about the grind, not least because I enjoy it; let’s face it, studying a good race meeting is more stimulating than sitting down to a night in front of ‘The X-Factor’!

Perhaps this brand of ruthlessness is born of the fact that gambling at its heart is a selfish endeavour; it is your money that you are wagering and ultimately the responsibility stops with you. My own experience tells me otherwise however. I find gambling is much more satisfying when done in concert with a few close betting partners where you can share successes; perhaps you don’t maximise profits completely but there are more important things in life. I might be alone in this but I would rather win less and enjoy the experience more.

- TK

The Ten Worst Group 1 Winners in Recent Memory*

(*since 2003)

You could come up with a metric to figure out the worst Group 1 winners of recent times, writes Tony Keenan. Performance ratings on the day would be a good starting point while subsequent achievements matter too, as would those of the horses around and behind them. You could look at the nature of the race, knowing full well that certain Group 1s – those confined to fillies or over staying trips, say – are less competitive than others. But none of this is as much fun as trawling through the records of the 638 Group 1 winners since 2003 in Britain and Ireland and figuring out who the hell was that horse that won the Middle Park in 2009 (Awzaan, in case you didn’t know) and looking at what became of them.

2003 is taken as the starting point because that is as far back as the excellent HorseRaceBase database goes and it neatly coincides with the time I started following racing properly. This is an utterly subjective list and the idea behind it is not to offend; it needs pointing out that every bad Group 1 winner is s triumph for someone, be it trainer, jockey or breeder, the by-product of a certain set of circumstances on the day. And that’s basically what I’m doing: looking for horses that were patently inferior to the usual level required to win a Group 1 but who for whatever reason were able to maximise their ability in a narrow window of the mere minutes it takes to run a race.

Honourable Mentions: Rajeem – 2006 Falmouth (a Clive Brittain 50/1 special, need I say more!); Vintage Tipple – 2003 Irish Oaks (one for the sentimentalists but worth remembering that she and the filly she beat in the Oaks finished the season racing in a backend Curragh Listed contest); Camelot – 2013 Racing Post Trophy, 2014 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Irish Derby (surely one of the worst four-time Group 1 winners ever, beat Zip Top, French Fifteen, Main Sequence and Born To Sea in his Group 1 wins yet nearly went down as a great), Encke – 2014 St Leger (the one that stopped Camelot’s Triple Crown bid but later banned for positive drug test), Parish Hall – 2011 Dewhurst (immortalised for trying to give his nearest rival a love-bite on his penultimate start in 2015).

 

  1. Jwala – 2013 Nunthorpe

Starting price isn’t the best guide to finding bad Group 1 winners with the biggest-priced winner in this period proving the point; that horse was 2010 Nunthorpe winner Sole Power at 100/1 who went on to triumph in five more top-level contests. He was third to the 40/1 shot Jwala this day with Shea Shea in second, the softened ground suiting neither, while the Robert Cowell-trained winner also benefited from an excellent ride with Steve Drowne making more or less all. Her previous best was a win in a Listed race, also at York, but this was a shock in a race that has produced a few over the years, the short distance and big field often bringing in some randomness. To Jwala’s credit she did back up her win with a good fourth in the Abbaye next time but that was one of the lesser runnings of the French race.

 

  1. My Dream Boat – 2016 Prince of Wales’s Stakes

It is truth universally acknowledged in European racing that bad horses don’t win Group 1s over ten furlongs; races over this trip have long been the most competitive in the calendar. There are some lesser Group 1 over the distance, notably the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh and some of the early season French races, but by and large you need to be good to win one. My Dream Boat isn’t very good looking at his overall form and managed to find a particularly bad renewal of the Prince of Wales’s Stakes last year, a race that tends to be among the best of Royal Ascot. Soft ground meant a field of just six took part with A Shin Hikari looking nothing like the beast that had blown the Prix D’Ispahan apart by 10 lengths on his previous start. Found was in her phase of finishing second every time she ran while the rest of the field was made up of the doggish Western Hymn, a regressive The Grey Gatsby and all-weather horse Tryster. My Dream Boat loved the ground, Found didn’t love the battle and the rest is history.

Your first 30 days for just £1

 

  1. La Collina – 2011 Phoenix Stakes/2013 Matron Stakes

Including a dual Group 1 winner is probably a bit churlish – can something be a fluke if it happens twice – but La Collina was just three from sixteen overall in her career and is one of those horses that seemed blessed with luck. Kevin Prendergast has won Group 1s with some strange horses, Termagant in the same colours for instance, many of whom never produce the same level of form again. La Collina was never better than when beating subsequent National Stakes and Irish 2,000 Guineas winner, Power, in the Phoenix Stakes, allowing that one was a sitting duck with how the race unfolded. Her Matron Stakes win got within a few pounds of that form but she was rated only 106 going into the race, very much at the low end of the spectrum of official ratings for older horse Group 1s, and the filly she beat was rated just 105.

 

  1. Reel Buddy – 2003 Sussex Stakes

Connections of Reel Buddy didn’t think much of him in 2003, running him twice within three days over the Lincoln meeting at Doncaster where he was beaten a combined 46 lengths, and his best win prior to the Sussex was a Group 3. This was a race that set up well for him even before post time, Dubai Destination redirected for France while Kalaman and Where Or When came out that morning. The race itself was a mess pace-wise but Pat Eddery gave his quirky mount a fine ride and never used the stick. Goodwood is a track that gets a bad name in terms of luck-in-running but bad winners of the Sussex are rare with the Nassau at the same meeting more likely to produce a shock.

 

  1. Frozen Fire – 2008 Irish Derby

Seamie Heffernan has made a career out of winning races he shouldn’t have and Frozen Fire was one of the early ones, landing an ordinary renewal of the Irish Derby where he came wide and avoided traffic that led to some of the placings being reversed. There were some decent horses in the field: Casual Conquest won a Group 1 afterwards while Tartan Bearer was second in a King George, but this was very much the high point of Frozen Fire’s career arc. The only other race he won was a Gowran Park maiden while he went on to show little with Mike De Kock. Returned 16/1 on the day, these big-priced O’Brien Group 1 winners rarely go on, with Homecoming Queen, Was and Qualify also failing to win again afterwards.

 

  1. G Force – 2014 Haydock Sprint Cup

The Sprint Cup is the weakest of the UK’s Group 1 sprints and by some distance; in fact, the prospective Champion Sprinter will often miss the race for a later target. That has left the way clear for recent winners like Goodricke, Regal Parade and Markab to come from handicaps and while that’s clearly not a bad thing in itself, you probably don’t want to be heading back for handicaps afterwards. That’s exactly what has happened to G Force, excellent for peak David O’Meara in 2014, rumours circulating of his taking over the mantle at Ballydoyle in fact. G Force was found to be sub-fertile when sent to stud and is 13 starts without a win since the Sprint Cup. He was last seen at the Curragh on Saturday where he finished last in the Scurry Stakes, a handicap.

 

  1. Madame Chiang – 2014 Fillies and Mares Stakes

British Champions Day is a brilliant idea and there have been some brilliant winners at the meeting, notably King Frankel and all his princes like Cirrus Des Aigles, Excelebration and Farhh. With any flat meeting run in October there is always the chance of really deep ground and freak results and so it proved in the second running of the Fillies and Mares as a Group 1 in 2014. The leaders went off far too hard and there was a pace collapse – the finishing speed for the winner was a crazy 94.4% - with the most talented filly in the field, Chiquita, going bananas [geddit?!] in the finish and earning the immortal in-running comment ‘threw it away’. The mud-loving Madame Chiang was there to pick up the pieces having been dropped out completely.

 

  1. Pether’s Moon – 2015 Coronation Cup

Trainers and owners might be willing to chance their best three-year-olds at Epsom, the prestige of the Oaks and Derby outweighing the obvious risk of the track, but with the notable exception of Aidan O’Brien and some French handlers many seem less keen on running their older horses in races like the Coronation Cup. Such wariness reached its peak in the 2014 Coronation Cup where just four went to post and the market was dominated by Dolniya and Flintshire; this was the pre-US Flintshire however. It was more a race Dolniya lost than anything else, emptying in the finish having traded at 1/50 in running, and Pether’s Moon came through to win, his previous best effort having come in the Bosphorus Cup at Veliefendi. Incidentally, he was the Hannons’ first Group 1 winner over further than a mile since Assessor in the 1992 Prix Royal-Oak.

 

  1. Palace Episode – 2005 Racing Post Trophy

Doncaster stages two of the weakest Group 1s of the season in the St. Leger and the Racing Post Trophy and it would challenge even the best racing historian to list off the last 20 winners of each race. The ground was heavy in October 20o5 which helped Palace Episode’s case and hindered that of Dylan Thomas who was to prove much the best horse in the field but who didn’t operate on soft. Palace Episode was quirky, flashing his tail in the finish, and won just once in the rest of his career, in a Saratoga claimer. His career at stud proved little better.

 

  1. Pedro The Great – 2012 Phoenix

There have been some eminently forgettable winners of the Phoenix Stakes like Sudirman, Alfred Nobel and Dick Whittington, but none more than so the unfortunately named Pedro The Great. His immediate victims on the day were the ungenuine pair Leitir Mor and Lottie Dod, the former 2/32 in his career though he did at least act as a pacemaker for Dawn Approach, the latter 1/14 lifetime and rated 89 when last seen. Pedro The Great’s task was eased when his stablemate Cristoforo Colombo slipped up while the other fancied runner Probably found little. Soft ground and Irish Group 1s can throw up some weird results.

 

As I've said, this is a subjective list and no offence is intended. If you disagree, or feel another has a legitimate claim to top ten 'bragging' rights, leave a comment below.

- Tony Keenan

The Punting Confessional: The Galway Festival

The Galway Festival

The Galway Festival

The Punting Confessional – Monday, July 29th

Many have tried and failed to explain the appeal of the Galway Races to outsiders and many more will try in the next few days. The Irish love a party and quite like racing which just about explains the popularity of the Christmas meeting at Leopardstown, the Punchestown Festival, even the buzz on Irish Derby Day.

But turning out in numbers for quality racehorses is not something we necessarily do as we saw in the relatively poor attendance for Sea The Stars’ sole run as a three-year-old on home soil at Leopardstown and he was one of our own.

Yet at Galway this week we’ll be breaking down the gates to get in to look at horses that struggle to crack a rating of 100 on the flat. So what explains it? Well, firstly there’s the tradition and timing, harking back to the first week in August being the set time for holidays, farmers getting a break between the two cuts of silage and even Gaelic games taking pause.

That’s hardly the way now however as the GAA has one of its biggest weekends of the year over the August Bank Holiday and many of our farmers are now doing pilates and yoga or laying the favourite on Betfair.

Galway of course is the great party city of Ireland – try it if you don’t believe me – and that plays its part and of course so does the drinking; just look at the number of races over the week that are sponsored by drinks companies and hostelries while Galway is just about the only track in the country where you can always get a drink in seconds, no matter the crowd.

Some of the figures quoted by the pubs around the city as to the number of bottles quaffed over the seven days beggar belief; pounds of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon it isn’t.

Your first 30 days for just £1

All this however is wandering off the point, as what we’re really interested in is the meeting from a punting perspective; how is it possible to make the week-long puntathon pay?

First, however, we’ll get the drinking and pacing yourself out of the way. Let’s be clear, only the most hardened teetotaller can go to Galway and not have a drink; it’s akin to going to hairdresser and not getting a haircut. I’m not going to preach about the perils and pleasures of drinking as plenty of other websites do a much better job but we all know that drinking and gambling don’t mix as it can make punters more reckless.

With the idea that you’re going to do at least a bit of socialising over the week, it makes sense to go through the big races in the days before the start of the meeting as the entries are already out. One should also get a sense of the entries in the other races too and know where your horses to follow are down to run. If you’re picking out the right sort of horse anyway – i.e. ones that are underrated by the market and will offer value – you may be able to get away with a bit less study than usual.

Oh and as for anyone who’s planning on doing seven days racing and seven night drinking; nice idea, but it’s next to impossible.

The ground at this year’s meeting – officially on the soft side at the start of the meeting – could make things very interesting. We’ve had lots of fast ground this summer and the form has been holding up well but with the going already on the slow side and plenty more rain forecast, it’s likely to be different terrain at Ballybrit.

This however should be viewed as an opportunity as much as a change as it offers the chance to back some decent priced winners back on their favoured ground. I don’t think going back to last summer’s form is quite necessary however as there was so much soft ground that most of the mud larks got their wins and those races were invariably run at such as slow pace to make the form redundant.

With the big national hunt handicaps, the Plate and the Hurdle, as a rule it is best to give preference to winter form as it is simply contested by a better class of jumper; this is something that is not so important when dealing with lower grade jumps handicaps where the recent is king. With the Plate and Hurdle being so valuable now it makes sense to keep a good national hunt horse back for it and most trainers opt against running their horses in summer jumps races, preferring instead to prep them on the flat (often in staying maidens) if at all.

As such, Galway trials, particularly those for the Plate run at Down Royal, Limerick and Tipperary, are pretty meaningless with many of the horses contesting them not high enough in the weights to get into the main race. All this said, the market is getting pretty wise to this and perhaps the real contrarian approach is the back the summer form at bigger prices.

In-running action at Galway is always interesting and there was a fine piece in the Racing Post last week in which Pat Smullen and Barry Geraghty discussed how best to ride the track. Both talked about the perils of going too soon around Ballybrit which is oft-underrated error as punters seem more drawn to horses being given too much to do whereas in many of those cases hold-up horses are simply hostages to pace and it’s never easy to change a horse’s run-style anyway for those who say they should have made their own pace.

A more cardinal sin is committing too early and you’ll see plenty of that over the week with jockeys making their move coming down the hill about four furlongs from home which when you think about it is really mental; it’s like going on across the top at the Curragh or when leaving the back straight at Leopardstown.

Galway presents a good jumping test between the Easy-Fix obstacles on the hurdles track and the two fences in the dip on the chase course; the chase course would be slightly more galloping than the tighter hurdles and flat tracks. In the main, on good ground I’d like my horses to be close to the pace though that obviously depends on how fast they’re going and a low draw is certainly a help in that regard.

Over the week, you’ll like see plenty of horses double-jobbing and running more than once; Shadow Eile won two of her three starts at the track last year while Pintura built on a second in the Galway Mile to win the big 7f handicap at the weekend. It’s no negative to see a horse running twice in the week, certainly not on the flat or over the shorter jumps trips anyway, and the ones that reappear tend to be those that have already run well and proven they handle the track.

Remember that these are lower class horses we’re dealing with and they can take racing well as they’re not running at Group race speed and owners and trainers are much too fond of cotton wool anyway; punters may be out on their feet by the end of the week but reappearing horses often aren’t.

I’m sick of making a prognosis about Dermot Weld at the meeting as he constantly proves me wrong and every year we have to listen to him talking down his chances at this time and saying that his team isn’t as good as previous years. There might be some truth in it this year however, particularly as his national hunt numbers are well down, but as ever he’ll be strong in maidens as unlike other trainers he tends to keep good horses back for the meeting.

I wouldn’t be in a rush to oppose him in such races but it’s a different story in handicaps which are my bread-and-butter.

In handicaps, I can rarely bring myself to back his horses as you’re often taking 3s about a horse that should be 8s on form and I can’t change my whole value-based punting modus operandi. It could be argued that they are value at the price as they keep winning but I find it hard to change for seven days of the year and will be hoping for a lean time for the Weld handicappers.

With Goodwood overlapping with Galway, it’s hard to keep on top of the racing there too but it could be worthwhile, especially with the Irish horses doing so well in Britain again this year. It’s certainly worth watching out for the raiders at the Sussex track and not just the obvious ones like Dawn Approach.

After the meeting, the first thing to do is rest but don’t forget to set the Sky Box to record the racing as there’ll be plenty of eye-catchers. Racing at Galway always has loads of trouble from traffic to horses getting trapped wide as well as jockeys going for their race too soon.

If we have soft ground, it might be worth noting those that haven’t handled it and similar thoughts apply to the track; it’s a unique venue and not all horses take to it so a bad run may not be as bad as it seems.