When I started putting this article together, I was tempted to write "Yet another article on place betting" as the heading. The question of place betting (i.e. whether to bet for the place or not) is as old as horse-racing itself. And yet there are still things to say, opinions to hold, and points to argue.

We had recent experience in NSW of the bookmakers doing a pretty fair imitation of  Shylock. They set up separate boards for place betting. To my practised eye, nobody fell for the balderdash (meaning the odds were absolutely ridiculous and even the most gullible punters soon woke up to the fact that things had suddenly got worse). I liken the "place odds" boards fiasco to the Spinner bet offered by the NSW TAB: the bottom of the barrel, so far as racing is concerned.

So what about the traditional offers that suddenly became so hard to get? We all know that bookmakers have always been fond of sticking little cards on their boards, or even having printed signs above their boards, that indicate they will bet "win only". Even though I have read so much, by so many of the world's finest writers, I pause for a moment when I find myself making the point about bookmakers who will only bet for the win. If they won't bet you eachway, you have to concede that their reasons are financial.

And by that I mean that it is not in the bookmakers’ interests to bet eachway in "normal" races. No, I'm not sure what constitutes a "normal" race, but let’s postulate that it means a race to be contested by between nine and fourteen runners. That's probably pretty close to the truth.

Mathematically, bookmakers are at some dis­advantage under certain circum­stances by betting eachway in races that are being contested by eight or nine horses. I say that they may be under some disadvantage, because that assumes that they are already offering the best price available in the ring. Otherwise, they are not offering value, because it doesn't matter what their price is, you can do better.

Just to clarify that point for a moment: value, as I have often said, must be in the eye or mind of the beholder. But it is a very simple mathematical statement, in fact it is 100 per cent correct when I tell you that if there is a better price being offered in the ring, then your bookmaker is not offering value. If he is offering $3.90 and the guy next to him is offering $4, it doesn't matter whether you believe the real price ought to be, say, $3.60 or even less.

This particular bookmaker is not offering value because there is a better price available. If somebody knocks off the four dollars then perhaps your bookmaker’s price will suddenly become value for you, but that's a different story.

So, if the $3.90 is not the best offer in the ring, your bookmaker is getting an edge when he offers you eachway. Regular racegoers are well aware that most bookmakers, particularly those outside the capital cities, are reluctant to offer top odds eachway.

Some bookmakers make a practice of advertising themselves as eachway bookmakers, and take cover under this sign by having prices slightly below the straight-out win prices offered by their colleagues. They mostly attract the small bettors.

You will rarely be able to bet eachway when the favourite is odds-on. You will hear all sorts of arguments about percentages, but the simple truth is a mathematical fact: the odds are not in favour of the bookmaker. This is especially true because many punters tend to seek horses to roll the favourite when the favourite is at very short odds, and a bookmaker can end up with a very unbalanced book. That's fair enough, I don't have an argument with that kind of restriction, but we must understand why it is being made. It is being made because the bookmaker does not want to bet eachway, his reasoning being that he is providing you with an unfair edge.

At this point let's consider a situation which just might work in an eachway punter’s favour. If the favourite is very close to odds-on, and the bookmaker will accept eachway bets, I wonder whether this might be one of the genuine opportunities for a punter to have "a bet to nothing". Say the favourite is at $2.10, and the second-favourite is at $5. This translates into old terms as 10/9 and 4/1. Or close enough to those odds. If it is your view that the second-favourite represents the only reasonable threat to the favourite, you may believe that you are being offered a bet to nothing eachway.

And I would agree with you.

If you bet $50 eachway, at $5 return (4/1), you will collect either $350 or $100, depending on whether your bet wins or places. So long as your horse finishes second or third (the place bet is your gilt-edged insurance) you will have had your bet to nothing. True, your horse could run out of a place, but look at the facts. You are backing the second-favourite to win with the guarantee of getting your money back if it runs second or third.

This goes against one of the oldest arguments in racing. The argument goes that you are more likely to be able to back two, if not three winners in every ten careful bets by sticking to second-favourites or by backing two horses in a race to win. And that you will be better off having double stakes to win (when betting on separate races) and forgetting about the place component.

This is an article in itself, and one we have examined over the years. Martin Dowling, for one, has had an interest in this very topic ever since I have known him. His view is along the lines that you are better off sticking to the win and doubling your outlay. Well, it's something I am getting uneasy about.

Over the years I have come to regard the issue of insurance for bets as a much more real factor. Along with all punters, I have experienced shocking runs of outs. There is nothing so reassuring when you are going through one of these runs as knowing that your money is largely intact, because, while you have been unbelievably unlucky, you have kept your head (and your bank) by refraining from being greedy.

In other words, you have taken insurance whenever possible. It might be by backing a second horse, it might be by taking a quinella or a trifecta, and it might be by backing your horse eachway when circumstances prove propitious. Whatever the reason, it is a very comforting feeling to know that although things are not going according to plan, your bank has not been decimated.

So if you can get eachway, and if the circumstances appear to be appropriate to an eachway bet, you are the only person who can make the final decision which will affect your financial outcome. Do not let anybody tell you that an eachway bet is a crazy bet, or that the professionals only bet eachway on very short-priced horses.

The facts of life are that very few professionals will attempt to be set for large amounts on short-priced favourites eachway: they are more likely to be seeking value on other horses in the race, or at least to be setting up their own Dutch book. Frankly, the last thing in the world the bookmakers are concerned with is a large eachway bet on a very short-priced favourite.

Regardless of what you have been told, and regardless of the mathematics of it, the long-term chances of success with the place component are very small. You only have to think about the return involved. Say a large-bet punter has $25,000 eachway at $2. This is even-money to win, and one-quarter the odds to place (i.e. he will have to achieve a place-strike rate of 80 per cent to cut even.

Let me explain. He has 100 bets at $2 and 75 per cent of them place. That’s three in four. He receives $1.25 x 75 for the place component of his 100 bets. This works out at $93.75 and he is still losing. He has to get 80 of the 100 even-money horses into a place to crack even on his place component. If I were the professional, I would rapidly lose interest in any such venture.

Arguably, of course, a very selective professional might well bide his time and seek out favourites at significantly better odds, in the range of $2.75 to $4. In this range, if the professional can sustain a 33 per cent win-strike rate, and maybe up around 60 per cent the place, I should imagine he would become interested.

And so we have meandered around the point a little, by focusing on the place element of eachway betting.  Essentially I felt that this was well worth examining, because of the paucity of place opportunities. The special bookmakers’ prices I referred to above were an absolute joke and were usually much worse than the one-quarter odds offered for eachway betting. Clearly, one must assume there were two reasons involved:

  1. Let's clean up on any dopey money in the ring.
  2. Let's try to steer punters off eachway betting, where we run some risks, and onto silly place bets where they can't possibly win long-term.

I suppose that maybe one or two very naive punters amongst my readers are now jumping up and down and shouting out that place-only betting with bookmakers is a great way to travel. The rationale will be that the bookmakers must know (because of their wonderful computers) what the proper odds for a place should be. These naive punters will now be ahead of me. They will be trumpeting the line that place betting is different from eachway betting and that if you want to bet place only, you have to realise that the world is a different place (sorry, the pun is unintended but it does work here).

The only argument that carries any water here is for the punter who can be at the track and make the appropriate comparisons between the tote and the book­makers – assuming bookmakers are still betting in this fashion. I know that the majority of my readers prefer the advantages of modern clubs, computers and the Internet, other attractive TAB outlets, and pay television in the home. One day we must take a poll to find out how many of our readers actually attend the races on a regular basis.

My guess is that practically everybody reading this either bets on the TAB, or by phone with their bookmaker, on most racedays. For the purposes of place betting, then, our focus has to be on the TAB. So for the rest of this article, let's just narrow things right down to one simple question: does it make sense to bet place on the TAB?
I think there is an area in which a place punter should concentrate if he is going to bet on the TAB. I also think that the place punter must carry with him a small number of very basic and fundamental rules:

  1. Ignore all horses outside the first four in the win pool.
  2. Ignore any place pool which has less than $20,000 in it.
  3. Try to place your bet as late as possible.

My reasoning here is plain commonsense so far as the second and third fundamental rules are concerned and they need no explanation to an experienced punter. However, the first rule is based on a respect for public opinion as to the main chances in the race. If you limit yourself to the four main chances (so far as the public is concerned), statistically you are giving yourself a massive chance of getting your horses into the placings. You can't buck the statistics if you are looking for a very high rate of success, and frankly, that is the only way to approach place betting.

If I was going to become a place bettor on the TAB, I would definitely need a head start, and the only serious guide that anybody, including myself, is going to get, is the public opinion poll: the order of favouritism. This is going to restrict your betting and quite often you are going to regard all four of the contenders as offering no value whatsoever. However, if you are serious about making a steady income from place betting, here is a proposition.

On Saturday afternoon, an average of 32 races will be run on metropolitan tracks in eastern Australia. Those who know their Perth and Tassie horses can throw in those races, but I wouldn't be familiar enough with them to put them in my calculations. So, from the 32 races there are about 135 contenders to consider. I have made allowances for joint fourth-favourites. Remember I am talking the win pool for the first four favourites.

About ten minutes before the race, I need access to the place figures. I am not going to get them from Sky Racing, by the way, because they don't provide them, and I am not going to get the figures for TAB Ltd or UniTab from Austext, because they stopped providing that service. I'm going to have to be somewhere where I can see the place dividends on offer. In my case that will mean a club or a TAB. I can forget about the comfort of Sky in my own house, unless I want to use my SuperTab account (they still provide Austext).

There is another way, and it is open to Broadband users on the Internet. They can have their computers permanently linked to the figures in any or all three TABs. All they need to do is open the appropriate races and flick between them. So, having established the difficulties we face, what do we do next?

I am of the view that the ten-minute cut-off mark is about right for place betting. It is unlikely that anything much is going to happen after that point, as none of the win odds on the first four is likely to be particularly long. So the place odds will be where we are seeking anomalies. Let's make an assumption at this point. Let's assume that we can average one placegetter in two races (that is 50 per cent) by careful selection.

I suggest we make our low cut off point $2.25 for the place. If you deal in 10 cents, we’ll make it $2.30. We’ll need to get 45 per cent placed, to cut even. This makes an allowance for any last-minute shift downwards in the place dividend (unlikely, but possible), although it will probably be balanced anyway by last-minute shifts upwards. My experience over the years says that a 10 cent shift is about as much as you would expect. How do we identify the horses we want to back? Let's put a few requirements in place:

  1. A contender must be amongst the first four in the win pool.
  2. A contender must be at $2.25 or better with ten minutes to go.
  3. A contender must have drawn from barriers 1 to 9, inclusive.
  4. A contender must have placed in at least 45 per cent of all its races.
  5. If more than one contender remains, the race is deleted.

If you don't like that last rule, well, it's your party. I just hope it is not your funeral. It seems to me that if the contender has a strike rate below four to five places in every ten runs, then I don't want to be on it at 5/4, or thereabouts, to manage a place today.

I also don't want to have to weigh up the chances of two or more contenders; I am simply looking at Probability. If two contenders are offering me 5/4 or a mite better for the place, and they both have drawn well, and they both have acceptable place records, and chances are they are not the favourite anyway, stop! I am not interested. What I want is a well-performed animal which the public regards as a main chance and which has factors in MY favour.

By The Optimist