The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, June 5th – The Non-Triers
Recent weeks have been black for racing with a high-profile corruption case and the Al Zarooni/Sungate steroid scandal; the latter is certainly the darker cloud at present and there remains a strong suspicion we’re nowhere near the bottom of it yet. This column aims however at the punting angle and I have to admit to being clueless as how to apply anything relating to drugs to playing the horses.
Non-triers are another thing entirely however and I have strong feelings on the issue and how it applies to the average punter; by average punter I mean a punter without access to any sort of inside info.
The verdicts released by the BHA in the aftermath of these corruption cases always make for fascinating reading and one was struck by the amateur nature of the whole Ahern/Clement conspiracy. Though not quite so lax as the methods applied by Andrew Heffernan/Michael Chopra earlier in the year, here was a pair that were in contact via their own mobile phones and were laying horses through their own (or their wife’s ) exchange accounts.
There are those that would say that Betfair and the other exchanges have a lot to answer for and that problems with non-triers increased when punters, and not solely licensed bookmakers, could lay horses to lose. I couldn’t disagree more. Firstly, why is it that just a coterie of high-fliers (bookmakers and their friends) could lay a horse in the past? I’m for equality in all its forms and the exchanges provide a service and saw a niche in the market that was previously unfilled.
One is reminded of the ending of the film Trainspotting where Renton steals the drug money and says that his ‘friend’ Sick-Boy would have done just the same if only he’d thought of it sooner, a sentiment that applies to all the big bookmaking firms in terms of the exchange model. Not only that but the likes of Betfair have provided the BHA with the sort of information into the activities of corrupt individuals that was previously inaccessible.
When going through the details of such cases, one cannot help but feel that there are much more sophisticated operations at work that the authorities are struggling to get to grips with. Surely the real villains at work at a higher level are applying more smoke to their machinations using a complex series of mirrors with mobile phones that leave those at the centre unconnected from the dirty work as well as a host of ghost exchange accounts that cannot be traced back to the main participants?
At the very least, laying all the bets through a single account, often to figures exponentially larger than the average stake on the account, seems amateurish. Though speaking hypothetically, one would like to think that anyone with any more than rudimentary knowledge of how betting markets and ‘getting on’ works would be able to make a better stab at laying non-triers than some of those convicted by the BHA.
Interesting, and frightening, as such speculation may be, the average punter needs to ask: do you want to be dealing with these sorts of crooks? Or would you prefer to back proper trainers and proper owners whose campaigning of horses is largely straight and whose formbook cases you can trust? The corrupt connections are people who would stop at nothing to make a profit and trying to second-guess them is risky in the extreme.
We often hear stories, possibly apocryphal though some ring true, of owners laying a horse out for a touch, missing the price because others punters got on ahead of them, and then stopping the animal because they didn’t get on despite it being initially well-intended.
One of the big problems with the whole spotting of non-triers is that it’s just so intangible; one only needs to look at the BHA’s use of expert witnesses and their study of races to see how difficult it can be to prove that one hasn’t been trying. Recalling the Heffernan/Chopra case from early 2013, it was interesting to note that the panel ‘was not able to say one way or the other’ whether the loss of ground at the start by one of the stopped horses, Wanchai Whisper, was caused by the jockey.
Even in this most open-and-shut of cases, it was hard to call and it is easy to see how difficult it would be to spot, much less prove, that a more sophisticated operation was cheating. Comparing the ride given to a horse on different days, perhaps with a mind to market moves either positive or negative, is one way to go – the panel applied this method with reference to Wanchai Whisper – but it is hardly bombproof.
Picking out one that isn’t ‘off’ is not a task for the beginning punter as there are so many complications. Is a horse being given an easy time because it’s ungenuine and finds little off the bridle? Is it being stopped or simply getting a bad ride? It is worth remembering that many jockeys, even the best, give incompetent rides. And there are so many ways to stiff a horse: go off too hard in front like Ahern; drop one out off a slow pace; use up energy by making a mid-race move; no effort from the saddle; intentionally missing the break; riding into traffic; even changing a horse’s habitual tactics, say by dropping a front-runner out in rear could be enough.
And that’s not even to mention all the stuff that could be happening on the gallops pre-racing as well as the basic things like running a horse over the wrong trip or on the wrong ground.
Gamblers need to ask themselves what sort of punter they are and for the average punter the answer has to be a form-based player who makes up their own mind by whatever means possible. The inside information the normal punter unconnected with a horse can get will invariably be second-, third- or fourth-hand and by this stage it will be largely useless as they’ll have missed the price.
Instead of taking the whole inside information route and buying into every conspiracy theory going, the typical gambler would be better served to dispatch with the paranoia and assume that the game is straight, applying logic to his selections, an issue I’ll explore in more detail below.
The Punting Confessional , Wednesday, June 12th
Last week I looked at some ideas around non-triers and inside information and before exploring the issue further it’s worth mentioning a couple of tweets I received on the subject since. Declan Meagher (@declanmeagher76), an Irish professional gambler, mentioned that it is only the ‘dunces’ who get caught and I can’t think of a better way of describing them.
I also asked Kristian Strangeway (@KoosRacingClub), syndicate manager for Koo’s Racing Club, where he stands on assessing non-triers in his punting and he responded ‘depends on the race type really, but I don’t overly worry about it. If you spot an obvious one they get overbet anyway.’ Short and sweet, but also accurate and I couldn’t agree more.
One of the errors made by punters is to believe that only the insiders can win, that there is some sort of golden circle that have access to the information that will lead to punting nirvana. I’m reminded of a day at the Curragh in August 2011 when I backed a Bill Farrell mare called Sharisse in a six furlong handicap.
The case for the horse was simple: the trainer (at the time underrated by the market but not so much now) loved a winner at the track, the mare won a good handicap over the same course the previous June and was just 7lbs higher, she had shaped well in a listed race last time on her first run of the season. She won and directly after the race I spoke to a punter beside me who had also been cheering her home.
He went on to tell me that he’d backed the horse because Gary O’Brien of attheraces had put it up and O’Brien had access to all the right information because he spent time the sauna of some Kildare hotel with all the jockeys beforehand. Leaving aside any homo-erotic thoughts for a moment, and without wishing to cast any aspersions on O’Brien’s tipping as he’s an excellent judge, this is just the sort of faulty thinking that has punters beaten before they start. While O’Brien may well have access to much more information than the average punter (and there is no way we can ever get that information lest we rise the ranks of the racing media), his presentations on TV and the attheraces website reveal a diligent form student who puts in the work like any other sensible gambler.
Without wishing this to turn into one long anecdotal piece, I’m reminded of a recent Racing UK interview with Alex Ferguson. Apart from all the obvious fawning, the former manager made a great point about what he admired most in trainers of racehorses, their capacity for hard work, pointing out that it is a talent it and of itself that is all too often undervalued in the modern world, something punters would do well to remember.
All this privileging of inside information works off the belief that trainers and connections are all-powerful whereas in reality they’re just as fallible as the rest of us; one only need to look at Aidan O’Brien, widely regarded as the best trainer in these islands, and how he believes that Camelot is the best horse he has ever trained despite all the evidence to the contrary. That’s an extreme example, and one to be taken with a pinch of salt given the bloodstock concerns with the horse, but it shows how even the best can get it badly wrong.
Just because a horse is working well does not mean it will translate to the track and quite often punters are best backing horses that reserve their best for race-day. Even if the horse does produce its best on the day, a better-treated rival from another yard may do the same or any number of other things may go wrong.
One also needs to think about how the market reacts to plot horses and inside information. We have to accept that we don’t know connections’ staking patterns; some may back in the morning, some may wait until the off, some may want €500 on, others €50,000, some may not even want to punt it. A punter can get some sense of how a yard may play the market over time but it is very much a skill for the experienced gambler and even the best market reader is bound to get it wrong plenty of the time.
There is also a herd mentality at play with punters piling into a horse that may not even be fancied (which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be backed by the way) but experience can at least go some way to revealing the difference between meaningful and meaningless market moves.
A lot has been written in the last year or so about how accurate the market has become and that sometimes one would be better having more on a horse when the money comes for it than if not. I can’t help but feel there’s an element of confirmation bias at play, a tendency to favour information that supports their belief, i.e. remembering the gambles that won and ignoring those that lost.
Over time, I can’t see how this approach can pay as you’re backing horses at shorter prices than you think they should be and any sort of sensible value betting approach means one should be having more on a drifter.
In the main, I want to be against gambling yards, stroke horses and dodgy owners. It’s much better to be with proper trainers that a playing with a straight bat and while acknowledging that all yards are to one extent or other gambling yards, there are certainly those that pull strokes more often than others. Such stables often have their charges overbet, whether strongly fancied or not, and I like to be against them as a rule as they often leave the other runners underbet and get beaten often enough to make it pay. These trainers prefer to make the crooked pound over the straight pound but there are many more that opt for the latter approach.
This brings me on to one of my great pet hates in racing, the idea that Irish racing is bent. It’s probably fair to say that this is the perception abroad amongst the betting shop masses and also I might add among bookmakers, who much to my chagrin are reluctant to lay a semi-civilised bet to a form-based Irish punter as they seem to believe it’s all hooky. As someone who watches a lot of Irish racing, nothing could be further from the truth and I feel I have to stand up for it.
Irish racing has excellent prize-money (in contrast to Britain for instance) which maintains a fair level of integrity and while the authorities have been slipshod in their policing of the sport with a number of recent integrity budget cuts, the natural competition between those involved means that it’s pretty straight. Those that point to gambles and touches being landed would do well to remember that it is possible to get an edge on Irish racing because it is not as well-analysed as its English equivalent; there is a smaller pool of horses and fewer punters playing so it is much easier to move a market with little money.
I’ll close with a question that every punter needs to ask themselves: where do you stand morally on non-triers? I find it a difficult one to answer and can’t give a full answer. They’re a fact of life for any racing follower and expecting it to change is foolish. They happen a lot less than people think but it doesn’t make them right. And never forget some perspective, there are a lot worse things going on.