It remains one of the oldest and most challenging arguments in the entire racing world. I am speaking, of course, about the investor’s decision as to how he places his bets. You will read any number of experts who decry systems; these people will tell you that “there ain’t no Coup de Ville buried at the bottom of a crackerjack pack”.

Well, to those people I can only say you are missing a lot of the fascination of racing, and now and again you will miss something that really adds value and significance to your knowledge as a racing investor.

The fundamental question remains: do you make your bets on individual horses, or do you combine these horses in various ways with the idea in mind that this will lead to greater profits? After a lifetime in the business, and more than 30 years’ writing about it and discussing it with maybe thousands of racing folk, I admit to still having an open mind on the matter. The English expert Alan Potts has advanced a most telling argument to support his position, which is that the single win bet is the very best bet any punter can make under virtually all circumstances.

Alan poses the situation that is well known to anybody who has ever been in the vicinity of an English betting shop. It isn’t unfamiliar to Australian TAB investors, where you go in the door and you see the place festooned like a Christmas celebration retail store. Posters all over the walls, pretty tickets, photographs of happy, laughing punters, everybody having a grand old time winning bucketfuls of money.

They are doing this by combining their incredibly clever selections in all sorts of strange and mystical ways. For example, in England, you can take just about every combination imaginable for a very small stake, and if you are lucky (like, very lucky!) you can return in two or three hours with your armoured car, to collect the equivalent of your next 25 years’ salary.

The Alan Potts position on this is that there is only one ticket in the entire betting shop that will not be brightly coloured, will not display all the qualities of a thousand kilowatt neon light, and will not be prominently placed. This will be your plain old blank betting form, the ones on which you write such things as “50p to win Dangerous Manoeuvre, Race 3 Newmarket”. The Potts argument, and that of many professionals, is that this is the one paper slip that the bookmaker does not really want to accept.

In Australia, that can depend on a number of factors. For one thing, it doesn’t matter a damn to the TAB machine because it is going to collect its 20 per cent, give or take, regardless of what wins the race. However, it will certainly matter to the machine’s owners (read “shareholders”) because most of the mug money, and that means big bikkies these days, needs to be channelled into what we call the exotics.

The exotic bets are competing with Lotto and the lotteries, and with the casinos and the clubs and their poker machines and roulette wheels for your dollar. That is where I see a difference between the individual/single bet and the more complex exotic wager. It isn’t necessarily a different breed of punter (let’s face it, most of us indulge in both) but there is a different set of expectations at work in each case.

The single bet win investor, generally speaking, knows exactly where he stands. His horse either wins the race, or both he and his horse lose. Potts promotes the idea in his books that any punter serious about winning long-term must be faithful to this single principle and rarely deviate. It has a lot going for it.

Returning briefly to the Potts issue about the betting shops, there does seem to me to be a very good argument in favour of closely studying anything that the enemy is not drawing to your attention. While win and place betting is available in every TAB everywhere, it is nevertheless true that this is not what you will see plastered all over the advertisements. You have to therefore ask yourself why your attention is being drawn to the magic of what I have so often called “a lot for a little”.

If you are working with a system and you are applying your bank progressively in one form or another, then clearly you know what you are doing, and you have every chance of making a success of your outlays. But if you are trying to find the right numbers for a trifecta, or for the quadrella, and you have no systematic background support, then you are probably destined to make yet another donation to the enemy.

One advantage of the single win or place bet is that you have no difficulties in keeping track of precisely where your bank level stands and what your profit on turnover is at any stage. This can often be a subject of great mystery if you are indulging in the exotics, but with a single win or place investment (or for that matter each way) you have the distinct advantage of being able to effectively keep track of your money trail.

Some readers, who are aware of the long years of debate between readers of PPM about place betting, will have already spotted the fact that I have thrown “place” into this discussion more than once. That’s quite deliberate, because I intend to present to you a possible alternative way of making your racing investments – or at least of making some of them.

But first we are going to have to come to an agreement that we won’t squabble over some of the finer details. For example, the first thing we are going to have to eliminate is the idea that a place dividend must be 25 per cent of the win dividend.

Now that you have picked yourself up off the floor, here’s what I’m getting at. The place pool is entirely different from the win pool in every TAB in the country. You probably knew that, but just in case you didn’t, well, you do now. This means that, theoretically, a horse, dog or trotter/pacer might be paying $4 for the win and $5 for the place. Before you scoff at this, let me apply one of my favourite phrases: it happens. Not often, but it does happen.

Anyway, just for the sake of argument, let us agree that it can happen (which it can). The pools are independent of each other, even though we acknowledge that it is obvious that most place odds will be affected by the win odds.
I’d like to put forward the idea that there is a possibility of making successful single bets, but also making them as a combination, whilst sticking to low-priced horses for your selections.

Possibly this is a radical idea, but here it goes anyway: the bets would be for a place. In order for us to go any further with this concept, you now have to allow me a bit more rope. You have already agreed with me (or else you have stopped reading) that we have to forget about place odds being one quarter of win odds if we are talking about the TAB. Now I want you to agree with me that this doesn’t matter.

OK, pick yourself up off the floor again. What I’m really getting at here is that there is nothing you can do about this phenomenon, and that consequently you might as well ignore it. If a horse you believe will win is paying $3.60 for the win and $1.80 or $1.40 for the place, you now have to be prepared to acknowledge that the horse’s winning price carries no interest for you whatsoever. To assess the chances of a horse finishing in the first three is an entirely different issue from assessing its winning chances. For a start, there may only be three genuine chances in the entire race.

Probability theory will tell you that when everything else is equal, the chances of your horse finishing second or third are twice as great as the chances of your horse winning a race. Probability theory has its limits and this is one of them. In the first place, unless every horse in the race is equal in all respects, the betting boards will demonstrate very clearly that some are obviously more equal than others.

We can then argue, by sheer logic, that their chances of running a place (i.e. 1, 2, 3) are significantly better, opinion wise, than other less fancied horses in the race. The nitty-gritty of this is that in some cases, a horse which you fancy to win is going to have to fall over to miss a place. Its chances of running first, second or third are enormously greater than its chances of winning.

You think it will win, and that is the point. That is the horse we are seeking. Chicago O’Brien is reputed to have said, although I have only ever seen him quoted on this, “I pick ‘em to win and I back ‘em to place”.

If your temperament will allow such a selection process, you could do a lot worse. We all know that in the USA, the place bet is for first or second, and what we call a place they call a show. However, O’Brien’s concept might well hold good for Australia too. You see, it isn’t really about terminology, it’s about a mathematical rearrangement of chances of winning.

If you believe the horse will win – not might win, but will win – then you must reckon that short of a miracle it will run first, second or third. So if I offer you 10 per cent on your money about your horse finishing in the first three, it really isn’t such a bad offer. Now let’s postulate that the horse is paying $1.40 for the place. In betting terms, that is the odds of 2 to 5, or 5/2 on. You get $1.40 back for your dollar.

Another way of looking at it is that you are being offered 40 per cent on your money. Now it doesn’t look so bad, does it? Would you go along with me if I suggested that two or three times in an afternoon, maybe four times, you could identify a horse that you thought was practically over the line as a winner?

How would you feel then, if I said to you that you can make a regular profit, a regular good profit, by focusing on the place component? Remember what O’Brien said? He picks them to win and plays them to place. Well, actually, he’s dead now, but racing legend has it that he did well.

It makes an enormous amount of sense to identify a very small number of horses on an afternoon; horses which you are genuinely sure (I know that’s a dangerous word in racing) will win their respective races. But you are not asking them to win! You are just saying, get yourselves into the first three. You expect them to win, you really think they will. No ifs, no buts, as close to certainties as you can go on the day. Now here is my third question for you. Are you able to accept that something might go wrong and horses might get beaten? If so, we can continue. If not, you probably don’t want to read any more about the place contingency.

How about you spend your time identifying three or four “certainties” (absolute maximum – any more and you are kidding yourself) from a Saturday afternoon program? Don’t worry about the pre-post winning price (it probably won’t be right anyway). Find last Saturday’s paper and see if you can honestly identify three or four horses that you thought were certainties. I do not mean horses you backed, necessarily, but horses that you really believed would bring home the bacon. I repeat, ignore pre-post prices, and predictions by selectors. After you have identified those horses, remind yourself where they actually finished. My guess is that all of them, or all except one, placed.

With no disrespect to you, I also suspect that only one or two of them won. Maybe none of them did!
Apologies if that offends anybody, but I’m writing from knowledge and the position of experience, and this can happen. As a win bettor, I still acknowledge that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and the more research I do into the area of place multiples, the more logic I seem to find. Let us postulate that we can find three horses that fit our category.

They must look the winner, they must have a good rider, they must have a good trainer, they must have a good barrier, and they must have absolutely no obvious negatives. Strangely, you will find it much easier to eliminate them in this form of betting, because you are not risking losing a 100/1 winner. All you are doing is eliminating a horse that will probably pay about $1.40 for the place, and we can live with that.

You must be comfortable with your thinking and your selections. Having got this far, let’s say you can find three horses that should run a place at maybe $1.50 each. This is your expectation average figure. I need one to show you how this might work. The idea is that you have three single bets on your selections during the afternoon – all for the place.

Statistically, if you can average 75 per cent over a year, which is three from four in the placings, you can anticipate 12 per cent profit on turnover (POT) from supporting them as single place bets. If you are able to improve your figures to 85 per cent places, your return will jump to 28 per cent on turnover. If, for argument’s sake, you were to invest $200 on each selection, you would outlay $30,000 for the year and would receive back about $38,600. I know this is big stuff, but it makes the point: $8,600 is about 28 per cent, and that is pretty good!

Even at 75 per cent places, you would receive a profit of $3,600 (12 per cent). OK, $200 is probably way above your comfort zone, but I’m using it because I know that a lot of punters distribute their money over 15 or 20 different areas in an afternoon, whereas they could restrict themselves to three place bets and maybe just about wrap up profits of 28 per cent per year.

Here is the last step. Let’s say now, instead of singles bets, we go for multiples. For three horses we will need three doubles and a treble. Let’s drop the stake to $100 for these four bets. Here is the interesting point: if we can get three horses up at $1.50 for the place, at $100 for the doubles and the treble, we will receive a profit in excess of $600. That’s a profit of 150 per cent on the day.

It’s a pity that every day won’t be like that, but every day that is successful is able to provide a free day of three singles at $200 each. So let’s combine the two:

3 single place bets at $200 each.
3 double place bets at $100 each.
1 treble place bet at $100.
Outlay $1,000.

Of course these bets could be $20, $10 and $10, so your totals could end up at $60 and $40 ($100 total). Betting 50 weeks of the year, our big punter above would outlay $50,000. If he can get his figures right and end up with 85 per cent placings, he will be making 28 per cent POT on places (at our estimate of $1.50 per average place dividend). Because we cannot know where the 85 per cent places will fall, we cannot accurately calculate the doubles and trebles returns.

But we can speculate that if he can get 85 per cent up, then he can expect to make his $600 profit for absolute certain on more than 50 per cent of occasions. That would provide him with a whopping profit, as there are going to be other days where he will have single doubles coming home. That is all speculative because, as I stress, it depends where the placings fall. However, a profit, and a significant one, is assured.
Pick ‘em to win and play ‘em to place: I suspect that it’s got something going for it.

By The Optimist