This is the final part of our series featuring the views of UK professional punter Alan Potts, one of the most highly-regarded pro’s in world racing. This article takes the form of a question and answer session.
Q: Alan, what’s your view about “value” as it’s talked about so much in betting?
AP: I’m sure no serious punter would argue with the simple definition that value is in the eye of the beholder. What seems a value bet to me will look like an appalling waste of money to another punter; to coin a cliché, it’s the difference of opinion that makes racing.
In other words, there is no such thing as a value bet; there is only MY value bet and YOUR value bet, because the recognition of value is a matter of personal opinion.
Q: How long do your losing runs last, on average?
AP: I’m not sure that an average is very useful when measuring a losing run. For example, what’s worse, a run of 20 losers, or two runs of 15 losers split by a single winner? Because I back at middle range prices, I can and do have long periods where profit is elusive, but I can call on 20 years of records and experience to reassure me that things will change.
But my worst losing run lasted through 37 bets and stretched over seven weeks. If I’d had a cat, I doubt he would have survived that period without numerous kickings!
Q: And are you ever tempted to lump on heavily in future bets to try and cover your losses?
AP: No. That would be the quickest way to get back to a nine to five job I can think of.
Q: And what first made you decide to bet for a living?
AP: I’d been planning to try my hand at this since about 1987 when the on-course tax (in UK) was removed and I’d had four consecutive winning years. But that plan was based on starting at about 50 years of age. I was made redundant at 44 and decided it was now or never. So I suppose the answer to your question is that I wanted to bet for a living, because I felt that I could and I didn’t want to die not having made the attempt.
Q: What type of races will you never bet on and why?
AP: Essentially I avoid low grade races. Low grade horses simply aren’t consistent and it’s much more difficult to establish patterns in their form, or to picture how these sort of races will be run.
Q: Is their any type of race that will always appeal to you as a betting medium?
AP: My preference is for top class handicaps, but not the ones that attract big fields.
Q: What is the longest period of time you have gone without a wager because nothing appealed as a betting proposition?
AP: I usually take a two to three week break twice each year when I switch from National Hunt (jumps) to Flat at the end of April and back at the end of October. I often don’t bet at all during those breaks and have in the past gone three to four weeks without a bet if nothing appeals.
Q: Some punters are very reliant on stats, along with form of course, when making their selections, but what is the main criteria you employ?
AP: Different approaches work for different types of race. For example, in sprints, I’m looking at speed figures, current form and the draw. But in a two mile (3200m) handicap, proven stamina and the pace of the race might be paramount.
I do use stats, especially those relating to the past winners of the same race and I’m always looking for horses at short prices that I want to oppose.
Q: How much difference has the rise of Internet betting made to your gambling system?
AP: A substantial difference. In the year 2000 I used the Internet sites a lot and increased my turnover, but I found that my profit margin declined as I became less selective.
I also found that most of the so called “big” bookmaking firms were very quick to restrict stakes on their websites. Perhaps the most ridiculous knock back came from the “great” Victor Chandler. Their site declined a bet of £250 on a 4/1 chance in a Group 1 race at Royal Ascot, even though I opted to take SP and the bet was being placed several hours before the race.
Now I have reverted to being more selective and I concentrate my Internet betting on the sites at Blue Square and Betabet. Up to now, both have been prepared to lay a decent bet and Blue Square have stood total losses in five figures without placing any restriction on my betting. If they can do this and survive, one wonders why more bookmakers can’t follow their example.
Q: Are you ever tempted to back anything ante-post for the big meetings?
AP: No, for the simple reason that far too many of the horses quoted will fail to make the race due to injury.
Q: Have you ever had a losing year?
AP: Yes. I lost almost £15,000 during the 2000 season. And I lost on the flat season in 1995. Anybody that says they never lose is either a liar or suffering from delusions.
Q: How many people do you think actually make a living wage from backing horses?
AP: That depends if you include the bookmakers! I know of about 15 people who are racecourse regulars in the South and Midlands. But I also know other people who bet off course and for whom the advent of Internet betting, spread betting and betting exchanges has meant an opportunity to become full-time players. So I suspect that across the UK as a whole, there might be 200 to 300 people that would classify themselves as full-time punters.
Q: How many bets would you have in a year?
AP: Around 300, although I have been down on that some years because of foot and mouth and the weather.
Q: What is your strike rate ?
AP: Around one winner every five bets. And I have found that if I make more bets, that suffers. So I try to strike a balance between selectivity and turning over enough money to make a living.
Q: What percentage profit on turnover do you make and is this typical for a professional punter?
AP: I aim at a minimum of 10 per cent, but have had several seasons over the last five years when I’ve exceeded that by quite a bit, with profits up to 30 per cent or 40 per cent of turnover. But that has to be balanced against the odd losing season. I’ve no idea what’s typical, as it’s not the sort of thing we ever talk about. When two or more pro punters meet, the subject is always the next race or the next meeting – money is hardly ever mentioned. We are, after all, British! My opinion of people who discuss racing is that this is an entirely sensible thing to do and that the Internet and email have provided a great opportunity for lovers of the sport and of gambling to communicate directly without needing the medium of TV or newspapers.
The problem is that most chatrooms get infected by two unwanted species. Firstly there are those that take everything personally and descend to abuse. Secondly there are those who see the chatroom as a cheap way to advertise their business.
Q: What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a pro gambler and make a living from racing?
AP: Apart from don’t? Firstly, spend five years testing whether you can make a profit. Secondly, build up a substantial capital base, sufficient to support you and your betting for at least two years.
It will almost certainly take you that long to make the adjustment from hobby to job. Thirdly, measure your degree of obsession. If you have ever said, or even thought, I’ll take the family to Alton Towers today instead of going racing, then stick to the day job. All the successful punters I know share three characteristics: (1) unshakeable self confidence, to the point of arrogance, (2) a lifelong obsession with racing as a sport, not just as a betting medium, (3) a background in work of an analytical or mathematical nature, such as computers, accountancy, finance, etc.
Q: Do you find that some punters disbelieve you make money betting or are jealous of your success?
AP: I’ve never encountered any jealousy, at least not from anybody that has talked to me on the racecourse, or via email groups. As to whether people believe my accounts of betting, I really don’t know. Again there are plenty of people on the racecourse who have seen me at work and know for themselves how I bet. I suppose in the end, people will believe what they want to believe; it makes no difference to my bank balance either way.
Q: What do you think of each way betting?
AP: If you bet each way, ask yourself who thought up the concept? My guess is that it was a bookmaker, not a punter who invented each way betting. The bookmaker forces the punter to have a win bet on a horse in order to have a place bet. That means he fields win money for outsiders that help him to balance his book.
Betting each way against odds-on favourites is potentially profitable, but if you make it pay, expect to find the bookmaker restricting your account.
Q: How many “active” betting accounts do you have ?
AP: Two…Blue Square and Betabet on the Net. I have a few others that will take a small bet at SP, but I’ve effectively been closed down by Ladbrokes, Hills, Chandlers, Corals, Bernstein, Bet Direct etc, etc.
Q: What percentage of your bets are struck at early morning prices?
AP: Probably about 30 to 40 per cent, but I often split my stake and place part of it on in the morning and the rest later. In my case, taking an early price is sometimes just about getting part of my required total stake on, knowing that I can top up with the same firm later on. If I wait until the afternoon, I might have problems getting, for example, £600 to £800 on in the limited period prior to the race. If I’m going to be on the racecourse in the afternoon, I’d rarely take a morning price; I’d need to be 100 per cent certain it was a standout price.
Q: Are there certain jockeys you won’t back, or will severely restrict stakes on?
AP:Yes, there are a few that are total no-bet jockeys for me. I wouldn’t restrict stakes because of the jockey. I work with a high minimum stake and wouldn’t modify that for the jockey. If I have a doubt about any factor, including the rider, then I pass up the bet entirely.
Q: How do you get to be so selective in your approach and what is the most important criteria?
AP: My selectivity is based on restricting the types of race I’ll consider, the tracks at which I bet etc. And if I have doubts about a horse, I’ll pass a race rather than bet, likewise if I can’t get the price I want. Not having a bet is our biggest weapon against the bookies, who can’t pick and choose as we can.
Q: Do you think a punter can make it pay backing short priced horses over a period of time with a reasonable strike rate, using a bank or rolling doubles?
AP: I’m sure that any approach can be made to work if it suits the individual punter. The key to your question is strike rate. To make money backing horses at under 2/1, you need a very high strike rate.
Q: Do you rely on inside information?
AP: No. I have shares in five horses myself and I know only too well that what I’d learn from within the stables involved would be worthless. I watched three of my horses work on Tuesday morning this week. The best of the three finished last! If horses always did the same on the racecourse as they do at home, being an owner and a punter would be much easier.
Q: Do you always bet the same stake or do you have a points system?
AP: My stakes currently range from £400 to £1,000, but the majority of my bets would fall into a tight grouping between £500 and £700. I vary the stake according to my assessment of the degree of value contained in the bet.
Q: If you work with a points system (for example one, two and three points) how big is your bank to cover losing runs.
AP: I don’t use a bank these days. I’m fortunate in that I have sufficient capital to sustain a long losing run without having to panic, so the concept of a betting bank doesn’t really seem relevant.
I would add that if you do use a points approach, I recommend making five points equal to your average bet, so that the variations away from the average are less extreme. If you start from one point, your next step means doubling your stake.
Q: Do you play odds-on chances?
AP: No, not because I think it’s impossible to win backing them, but because it just doesn’t suit my temperament. I prefer looking for the occasional big hit on a longshot.
Alan Potts’ books The Inside Track and Against The Crowd are available from Internet bookshops.
Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
By Alan Potts
PRACTICAL PUNTING - FEBRUARY 2005