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.
‘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!