Bookmakers working on the rails Pic Dan Abraham - Cheltenham 1.1.11

Jon Shenton: Some Thoughts on Action vs Angle Bets

I’ve been penning on these pages for well over a year now, writes Jon Shenton. As a novice who has never written anything for public consumption previously, it’s been very challenging. It’s also been highly enjoyable, and I’ve learnt plenty regarding racing, and basic grammar, along the way!

For regulars, you'll know the form: a bit of data, a chunk of blurb and perhaps a few nice angles (and some occasionally less nice ones) on the journey.

But this edition is a bit different, a little more reflective and general in nature, aiming to mull some of the challenges associated with a systematic betting approach. I very much hope that it’s not too self-indulgent [it's not. Ed.] and is of some interest to the data driven bettor.


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Angles and Demons

My name is Jon Shenton and I have 679 angles / betting systems saved in my portfolio. Many aren’t active but most are.

I’ve been building, maintaining and running angles since April 2016. Prior to that, an annual trip to Gold Cup day was my only exposure to racing and resulted in nine straight years without a hint of trouble for the bookies. However, three winners at Cheltenham on a Friday in March, using detailed but on reflection misguided study, changed everything. My success that day was without doubt 100% attributable to good fortune rather than skill, but in my mind I was up and running.

From that moment, I spent seemingly every spare second researching, analysing and listening in order to develop a deeper understanding of racing.   I began betting only pennies (paper trading is not for me!) initially, but over time those pennies have turned into a few pounds as confidence levels and results have improved.

It all sounds perfect, doesn't it? Making a small amount of pocket money on the nags is something that never seemed to be a realistic proposition; having a leisure activity, that hands out a bit of spendo is a wonderful pursuit.

However, in recent times my enjoyment levels from racing, and betting on it, have been waning a little. I haven’t given it a huge amount of thought until now. But when I was challenged to write this article it became a catalyst to think about the bigger picture and to step back from the day to day noise. It was then that I realised that I haven’t really been plugged into the sport in the same way over the past few months.

Ultimately, I think it’s because the process of systematically wagering on racing through angles is exceptionally transactional in nature. Zooming out and evaluating from a distance it can feel - and had started to feel - in large part like a glorified admin function. And, frankly, there aren’t many people in the world who relish a good bit of relaxing admin in their own spare time.

A typical weekday starts in the evening when all the following day's qualifying bets are written down from the relevant website(s) and tools. Then, at 5.15am on the day of racing, the alarm delivers its familiar but always rude awakening. A quick shower, and with a cup of tea all bets are placed for the day. Then it’s out of the door bright and early to the day job.

Working full-time as I do, it’s nigh on impossible to keep across racing during working hours (deliberately avoided for obvious reasons hopefully) and I check the results when I get home. Then it’s the treat of recording all of the results on a tracking spreadsheet and repeating the process. Every single day.

Some days are quieter than others: in 2019 thus far there have been north of 3,200 angle-generated bets that have been struck. Not sure how I feel about that in the cold light of day - perhaps I need to be more selective - but it certainly illustrates the associated admin challenge.

The graph below shows the result of these type of wagers from that start point in 2016.

Predominantly, these numbers have been delivered through win only level stake betting (more on staking later): it’s non-emotive, low engagement wagering; and there is very little in the way of subjectivity or personal thought in the process. That process is rigid: identify a qualifier, write it down, place a bet, check the result and record the outcome.

The results are strong undoubtedly, with margin ordinarily 10-15% over the course of a year. At this point it should be noted that a portion of this return is attributable to best odds guaranteed. Transacting at early prices with BOG presents an element of 'natural value' with the relatively high volume of bets that are placed. The retreat of this offer to later in the day is creating a hurdle that in time will need to be overcome to maintain my current margin. Placing bets any later than 6am is not going to be possible due to other commitments, so I’m going to need to find a way to evolve or accept a lower rate of return.

Putting these thoughts to print has helped me to recognise that it’s the research, number crunching and theory testing that keeps the fire burning. Sure, the results have a certain satisfaction associated with them, but there is no doubt that the overall process is a little cold, clinical and mechanical.  The highly structured, highly disciplined, admin heavy approach works financially but my level of engagement with the sport is lacking.


Action Man

The alternative to stuffy system/angle betting is the good old emotional roller coaster of traditional wagering: taking stock of all the usual elements and variables of a given race and pinning your colours to the mast around one animal.

I am partial to a “normal” bet too, the general parlance used on is “action” betting so we’ll stick with that terminology from here on in.

Angle/system betting is the rhythm section of the gambling universe, whereas action bets might be seen as the freewheeling, edgy lead guitarist.

Here is a graph illustrating the outcome of my guitar licks over the past 2-and-a-half years.

Not exactly Slash or Hendrix is it?

The graph follows a profile like a Next Big Thing that burns brightly for a time before hitting the skids and hurtling back into relative obscurity.

2019 has clearly been the year of excessive drink, substance abuse, creative differences and a spectacular fall from grace (metaphorically, of course) for my action bets. For context, there have been 645 of them in 2019 to date with 81 successes (counting an E/W collection as 0.2 of a win). Depressingly, I’m not entirely sure why this year has been so difficult, though I suspect there is an element of attempting to be too smart and punting beyond my means and capabilities. A little knowledge can be dangerous, especially when there is a natural attraction to against the crowd punting and (ostensibly) generous prices!

A result of the downturn has been an easing back on the volume of action bets. Roughly speaking, I’ve had less than half the action bets over the past three months that I would have had based on the previous two-year volume averages.

Easing off on the action seems a sensible approach. A brutal personal assessment (stats don’t lie?) is that my race reading ability is not in the same league as the cold data-driven angle approach; so why bother wasting time trying to pick winners when the angles do it better? There is certainly limited financial reason to play in action betting, based on the recent numbers, and locking money away in a cash ISA would make more sense commercially. But not even Derren Brown could convince me that a risk-free return in a tax-free saving account was more fun than poring through race cards, form, pace maps and whatever else.

Through trying to get under the skin of a race and piecing it together, it affords an opportunity to further learn and to develop a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in racing - and in betting on racing. It is sport after all, and an action bet can solidify the link to it. The spectacle and sense of occasion obviously stands on its own merit but evaluating a race closely (betting or not) creates a deeper and more vested interest in the outcome. Most importantly, it generates interest, excitement, and fun.

My life has revolved around sport since I was knee high to the proverbial green jumpy insect. However, my career has generally revolved around the use of data. Racing is perfectly positioned to straddle both. The rational side of me struggles with undue risk and losing money; the sporting and emotional side connects with the characters, animals and theatre of the event, and wants to be financially implicated.

But a recent conscious choice to withdraw from action betting had resulted in less time invested in the sport and, as a result, my previously voracious appetite to consume as much information and knowledge as possible has ebbed a little.

On introspection, then, I know that action betting must be here to stay: I just need to get better at it! It’s a wonderful sport, and to measure the enjoyment of it by financial return and transactions alone is the wrong way of looking at it. Being less uptight about action bets is key. And keeping them separate / treating them as fun, rather than angle-driven investments, is a clear and necessary way forward.


Action Learnings

The single biggest challenge with action betting is finding the capacity to do it properly. Finding time to study in any depth is difficult for me due to other commitments, like - you know - work and family! Undoubtedly, that’s where the toolkit on geegeez assists hugely in cutting through some of the noise.

What geegeez cannot do is support with the mental challenges associated with a ticking clock and wagering. It’s a personal thing but occasionally in the evening I’ll put on ATR or Racing TV and decide to have a quick check of the card just before the off. The intent is to evaluate the race at high level and see how that goes. Who’s going to lead? Who has course form? And so on...

However, it’s hard not to get attracted to a bet even in that very short window. Each to their own, but over the past couple of months I’ve refrained from these type of wagers as, for me, they invariably end in disappointment.

A similar limitation related to time, laziness or general apathy is that once pinpointing a “good thing” it can be devilishly difficult to walk away without a wagering commitment. It is the potential opportunity cost of reversing from a successful bet where the problem lies. A race comprises of many possible winners, certainly not just the one identified as having the course form, front-running potential, good draw or whatever edge seems to be apparent. Finding contenders isn’t the main challenge. No, my main challenge relates to understanding how the highlighted horse compares against the rest of the field and knowing when to step back rather than ploughing in regardless.

I’ve committed to at least evaluating the top four or five in the market before making an action bet now. It sounds basic and obvious, but part of the process of trying to improve is assessing why things aren’t working. My hope is that, by implementing this basic rule, there will be an upturn in action-based performance. We’ll see.


General angle betting thoughts

Getting back to angle betting, I have a few other observations to share.

Firstly, should all qualifiers get backed blindly or not? A lot of people use an angle as a starting point and then apply subjective judgement to that qualifier in determining whether to put the money down.

This does not work for me. I am an advocate of backing blind. Here's why: the angle works because it’s not subjective, and it can throw up contrarian winners to which the market is largely blind. By applying a judgement filter there is a danger of conforming to the market view and losing the angle's edge.

Below is a case study that burns, even today.

This race from 2017 is taken from my 'I know better' phase where I’d evaluate each qualifier and exclude some from a bet based on my opinion.

The qualifier in question is Guishan from a Mick Appleby sprint angle, number 3 on the card above.  This animal was discounted due to its sub-optimal draw in box 11 of 12.  Everyone knows a horse can’t win from that draw over a sprint trip at Chester, don’t they? Anyway, as I sat down to watch it with a nice cup of tea and a smug feeling of avoiding an inevitable loss, I was gripped by unfolding sense of horror. Guishan tacked over from a high draw, secured a reasonable position and swept by all-comers in the home straight to win with a degree of comfort. At 25/1. There are lots of other case studies with resemblance to this one but I'll spare you - and me! - the details.

Moving on, if there is a good reason to adapt an angle I will. For example, certain trainers may qualify at specific tracks or under certain conditions but they have a poor record with horses first or second time out. In such a situation, I would have no qualms adjusting or improving the angle by excluding these, because that decision would be evidence-based. But those subjective, opinion-based exclusions need to be consigned to the wheelie bin of history.


Staking Plan

Before closing, a line or two on staking. There are countless words available on this subject and no doubt the vast majority are better informed than what follows. However, I hope my relative inexperience can be of some reassurance to those of you who are still finding your way.

Quite frankly, in terms of staking, keeping it simple is the most important for me. I have researched and read a fair amount on optimising stakes but, in all honesty, I don’t understand a great deal of it! I certainly have no real idea how much value there is in each bet to adjust stakes accordingly, and I’d be guessing if applying something like the Kelly Criterion in the real world. I’ve tried measuring value by creating my own tissue prices but I’m a million miles away from making that work for me effectively.

Basically, the less I think about from a staking perspective the better. In general, level stakes keep it a thought free process for me. That said, there is some room for manoeuvre, depending on the category of bet and my track record with them. My current staking plan is as follows:

  • 2 points win – All-weather premium angle
  • 1.5-point win – All-weather standard angle
  • 1.5-point win – Flat turf premium angle
  • 1-point win – Flat turf standard angle
  • 1-point win – National Hunt angle
  • 1-point win / 0.5 points EW – Action bet

The only subjective part is what makes a premium or standard angle. That’s down to performance and chi score (one for another day) which is a statistical measure to indicate the likelihood of results being attributable to chance or not.

An example of a premium angle is the Derek Shaw, Chelmsford Class 4-7 at 11/1 or shorter contained within the below edition of punting angles. That is proven over a period in a live environment.

I think staking plans boil down to understanding ones strengths and weaknesses, and betting accordingly. If you do struggle or worry about staking, then in my experience a level stakes approach takes a lot of the noise and confusion away.

In fact, I think that’s what this article is predominantly about. Strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Writing it has certainly helped me to think about my betting - specifically, what I’m good at and what I have as development areas (corporate speak).

Even if the experiences I've shared in this article don’t help directly, taking a bit of time out to reflect on your betting approach, strategies and performance is a sensible and pragmatic thing to do occasionally. And no better moment than during this break.

I hope you enjoy the festivities, and here’s to an exciting, fun and profitable 2020 racing. It really is a special sport like no other.

- JS

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24 replies
  1. Dave McAuley
    Dave McAuley says:

    Those are impressive results for your angles Jon, congratulations and a lot resonates with me. I’d be curious if you had compared your angles results at BOG with BetfairSP returns? For me the latter actually beats the former, largely due to big-priced winners going off at inflated odds AND being able to get as much on as you want.

    I had followed a systematic + ‘fun’ bet approach for the best part of 20 years, but a few years ago I lost my love for the sport as the systematic side of betting had become a bit monotonous, despite being profitable. I had also realised my ‘fun’ side-bets were not performing as well as they used to, apart from the odd big return here and there.

    So, I decided to quit my ‘fun’ betting and purely focus on the systematic/angle approach. Since then, I’ve actually regained my love of the sport, made far more profits than before and I can simply watch a horse race for the pure enjoyment, without any financial involvement at all. That for me is a key to optimising profits, to treat the ‘angles’ like a financial portfolio and to protect it. Even if I have a strong opinion on one, with no cash down, I still enjoy it when the horse wins as I’ve exercised self-discipline and already won in beating the ‘monkey mind’. However, most of the time I get confirmation that not being financially involved is the right thing to do when the horse doesn’t win so it’s kind of a win-win.

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen a few therapeutic clients with gambling addictions who started out with fun bets and it spiralled out of control leading to addiction, anxiety, job loss, relationship issues and depression in some cases. A bet for ‘fun’ for the majority of them was actually seen as an escape for deeper emotional problems. It really helped them to find their ‘action’ in other, healthier pursuits like going to the gym, running, yoga etc. I think a lot of this lies with how betting is portrayed in the media and unfortunately, with problem gamblers, they need to bet more and more to experience the ‘rush’, so it can spiral out of control for individuals who perhaps have less self-control and resilience.

    The majority of punters that bet for fun and just doing it for an interest, entertainment and the ‘rush’ which is fine if it’s not hurting themselves or anyone else financially. For me, I think for any punter who is losing with their action bets, they need to consider how that money could be better invested, either in a systematic approach with regards to increased staking, to spend it on something to look forward to ie. a holiday fund, or to simply just get action elsewhere that doesn’t cost them anything financially.

    Keep up the good work, enjoyed reading this very much.

    • Jonny11
      Jonny11 says:

      Thanks for sharing Dave, your comment is worth an article in it’s own right!

      All of my angles wash their own face to SP but I’ve never evaluated their performance to Betfair SP. But I do occasionally use it for the big priced runners for the reasons you outline. I’m toying more and more with the idea of moving to using the machine as BOG retreats, so it’s very encouraging that you experienced improved performance. I’ll look into it in more detail.

      Also interesting that you found more enjoyment from stopping action bets, that might be a route I go down in due course. I’m happy to lose a bit of loose change through them for now but I think the key for me is to keep the bank separate and treat that action part as a hobby. Part of this article has actually helped changed my outlook and expectation of action betting, and stopped me having some of the more fanciful wagers over the past month or so (an uptick in performance so far!).

      The comments on addiction are very interesting. I’m not qualified to offer a full insight into others, but I often have conversations with my partner about this topic as she has seen me progress from having a very occasional bet to betting in the volumes stated in the article! She has the patience of a saint to be fair!

      You’re right though, self control and resilience are they key. That’s where level stakes comes in, only betting on UK racing and I don’t look at any other sport or event. Part of the process of writing the results down on a spreadsheet every day is face into reality and adapt accordingly too.

      I’m glad you found your way to fully reconnect with the sport. I’m on the same journey and perhaps I’ll end up with a very similar outlook and approach. Really enjoyed reading your insights. Thank you.

  2. FinJod08
    FinJod08 says:

    Incredible article. Your best yet. So much of the above I relate to. I often struggle with qt qualifiers vs personal opinion.

    Merry Christmas and a happy new year,


  3. chrisiwyg2
    chrisiwyg2 says:

    I love everything about a systematic approach, the research, the placing of the bets and of course the winning but I’m retired and have all the time in the world to do it properly.

    I too have overridden a winning qualifier, more often than I can count, it seems I will never learn, but I also have one at Chester over 5f this year burned on my brain. May 9th, Merhoob (22/1) qualified in one of my systems. But everyone knows hold-up horses don’t win over this 5f, right?

    • Jonny11
      Jonny11 says:

      I wonder if the overrides are profitable or not in isolation? I always remember the bad choices and lost winners, but there are plenty that were correct too!

      Hold up horses at Chester? Never win 🙂

  4. therams1962
    therams1962 says:

    Hello Jon very I interesting and thought provoking article and I Thank you .I have followed a very similar coarse to yours since around 2014 .On average I stake now around 4k a month on various angles .I am now finding it very difficult to get on bog or to the stake unit I need it indeed both .I do worry about moving over to bsp because you are quite right about getting on early .I worry that I will lose that margin of built in value at bsp .I suppose in general most of the selections go off shorter than the evening price anyway so I can go on a little longer .There will though come a point where I cannot get my stake in at the right price .Do you or is there away of actually knowing when bsp on average is better than early prices maybe someone has kept records ?My own thoughts and I have nothing to back this up is anything over the 8/1 Mark the night before maybe just or better on bsp .It is a difficult hurdle to overcome and I would be very interested in your or anybody’s view who has overcome this problem .Hope this made sense .

  5. RFC85
    RFC85 says:

    Nice article. Particularly struck home with trying to be selective on angles and out think the data. I’ve learnt to avoid at all costs, as I’ve watched, in horror, some long odds canter home after i had excluded based on a clear factor like trainer form or pace.

    • Jonny11
      Jonny11 says:

      Horror is definitely the right word! I forgot to back Northern Beau a couple of weeks ago as had an SP cut off (only back at 20/1 or less and it was 25/1 early on). Forgot to check and knew what was going to happen a mile out! You win some, you lose some I guess. Had plenty where I’ve backed, drifted to be a non-qualifier and then wins. Don’t remember those quite as much but that sums up the mental challenge around focusing on negatives.

  6. Jonny11
    Jonny11 says:

    No problem. glad you enjoyed it. BOG can be a bit of a gift for a volume punter and I’m not surprised it seems to have a limited shelf life. I haven’t done the maths at SP, but would quite like to. I suspect some big wins where the betfair prices are on a different planet to the traditional ones will make up the shortfall from BOG though. I’m not sure if data is available for early prices in relation to BSP for a detailed comparison. Hopefully someone has evaluated previously.

    • Legsy
      Legsy says:

      Suggest you evaluate a simple but perhaps more effective staking plan.
      There’s a maxim that you should have more on longer priced animals because, I think, you have found an unpopular angle.
      Just as a bookmaker tries to lay every horse to “take out” a theoretical 100, back your horses to win,say, a theoretical 1000 eg 170 on 5/1, 400 on 6/4.
      If you manage a random sample, it would be interesting to hear results. All the best, Legsy.

      • Jonny11
        Jonny11 says:

        thanks Legsy, interesting thoughts. I’ve looked at a few things over time including the 100/1000 stated. Never hugely been comfortable about varying stakes but on the back of this article/comments I’m going to do some reading / testing over the xmas break. Although in honesty, quite happy with level(ish) for now but if I understand the mathematical reasons for changing and it’s simple then evolution may happen!

  7. George
    George says:

    Thanks for this great article, i can totally relate to it, im totally now a angle freak, thanks in the main to the query tool and Dave,s brilliant blog posts, action betting ive learnt is a no no for me, apart from a few fun bets occasionally, im lucky in that i dont have the day job to worry about so keeping track is no problem. Thanks again for the the thought provoking article. Also anyone who hasnt seen the formbet blog by Dave there are somd excellant posts on there on how to use the query tool.

    • Jonny11
      Jonny11 says:

      My pleasure! Very pleased you enjoyed it and it’s great to hear when people find approaches which work for them. I guess I’m an angle freak too!

  8. northern
    northern says:

    Hi Jon, what an excellent article. I can certainly relate to the points you make. I think a key point to make is the importance of tracking your betting. It takes very little time but gives essential feedback to adjust betting patterns and more importantly for some, stop them getting into financial difficulties with their betting. Cheers Pete

  9. RAY
    RAY says:

    Brilliant article,Jon.I am sure anyone who keeps detailed records of their little systems will relate to the stories therein.

  10. hillsy945
    hillsy945 says:

    Jon (et al…)

    With the angles-based approach, how do you manage the situation when there are multiple selections in one race?

    • Jonny11
      Jonny11 says:

      Hi, so I have qualms about backing multiple horses in the same race as long as there is some value in doing so. For example, if I had 4 qualifiers in a race all priced say 8/1 or larger I’d still back them. 2 qualifiers in a race priced 6/4 and 9/4 I’d leave alone. 2 qualifiers priced 2/1 and 12/1 I’d back both. No hard and fast rules but that’s the kind of framework I use.

  11. Bubbles180
    Bubbles180 says:

    Like many here I also am a systematic angle based backer now using Report Angles and QT (when I can get it to work on my IPAD, any help their appreciated)
    I very much was a like that one he will do backer or everyone is on that i will back that, I do however still have the time during the day and have some bets when i know i shouldn’t because I have the racing on, it is my biggest downfull and c9sts me profit, but as stated early in postinit is a problem and i need to remove it from my betting and stick to my systematical betting.
    Thanks for the post JS inspiring to know it works for many people so News Year Resoloution is to bet correctly and SYSTEMATICALLY

    • Jonny11
      Jonny11 says:

      Thanks Bubbles, it’s a personal thing, whatever works for the individual. Just being systematic is too dry for me, but treating action bets for what they are is important for the way I bet personally now.

  12. Chris Worrall
    Chris Worrall says:

    I suppose one of the things about a systematic approach to betting is that it removes much of the emotion away from placing a wager and I’m certainly of the bet with your head, not your heart way of thinking.

    I’ve made a profit every year for at least 15 years now by adopting a systematic/formulaic/statistical way of betting and if I’ve multiple qualifiers in the same race, I back them all if the fit the rules of the system they’ve come from.

    • Jonny11
      Jonny11 says:

      It definitely does remove the emotion, which is both a good and a bad thing for me. Since thinking about this article I’ve done an action bet reset and am basically using non-system data (i.e. using reports data from this site) to pick some action bets. Data that generally isn’t strong enough to build an angle around but still indicates above average performance. I can then apply a bit of subjective filter and get the best of both. It’s working thus far! Early days though.

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