Where does the truth lie?

Where indeed does the truth lie? What represents good value for a horse?

Is it reasonable to argue that “any price about a winner is a good price?”  I’ve always thought that this was amongst the more stupid clichés that are pumped out by the media, when they can’t think of anything else to say about what looks to be a certainty. Certainties are only obvious after the race.

I have seen certainties go down every day of the week on every kind of racetrack imaginable. I have seen certainties in dog meetings where you would have bet your right arm on the dog. Well, you wouldn’t actually because you are not that stupid, but you know what I mean. And I’ve used “stupid” twice already, and we are only in the first few paragraphs.

Is this an article by the “cynical” old Optimist, sitting there thinking his way through a bottle of Chivas Regal, telling everybody else how to run their betting lives? You could take it that way, because right through this article I am going to argue that there are very few, if any, reasons for odds-on investment.

I said “very few” and that is because I was, in my own mind, making one significant reservation about the whole thing: if you use Betfair and you lay an odds-on horse, the whole game changes. Then your bet is not odds-on.

Just think for a minute about the very basic mathematics of it all. You are accepting a bet where you will win more than you will lose if the horse goes down. That’s the first good thing about it. It also means that you will be in front if you can average better than 50 per cent successes.

Not easy, but better than we will come to further down. Judicial identification of horses you can lay at odds-on, when they probably should be at odds against, may well be one of the more lucrative investments, long term.

Let’s have a little think about that before we leave it. I’m not suggesting that the odds-on horse should not be favourite, but it is the odds that the bookmakers are offering that I find unacceptable. If I am able, as I am through Betfair, to offer those same cramped odds to whichever sucker is prepared to accept them, well, yeah, I might be interested.

Just recently, I’ve watched a couple of good things go down. They should have been probably the best part of a whole point longer than they started. It’s very easy to be smart after the event, something I have preached since day one of my writing.

That aside, there are a few things that you can do to help yourself when you are faced with a short priced favourite which you think will win. The first one we have just been looking at it and that is (if you have a Betfair account) to find out how short you can lay it. It is astonishing sometimes to discover that you can be the best layer at odds of perhaps $1.85, when your own opinion of the horse is that you wouldn’t back it under $2.85 or even longer.

Remember, we are not talking about false favourites. That is an entirely different topic which involves itself with the public being wrong. We are talking about agreeing with the public in its choice of favourite, but we don’t think that the favourite is as good a thing as it is being sold to us.

Just so everybody is still with me here, the first point is that we all agree: we’ve got the right favourite. And we also agree that this horse has a strong chance. But the bottom line is that very few – if any – strong chances should persuade us to lay the bookmaker odds.

If you didn’t read that last sentence very carefully, I suggest you go back and have another look, because a lot of what we are going to say from now on will depend on understanding that sentence very thoroughly. If we bet with the bookmaker, it is a general expectation that he will offer us odds about the horse winning.

In fact, what he is doing from his own point of view is offering odds about the horse not winning! This is what Betfair is all about. It’s why most bookmakers hate it, because it pulls the carpet from under their feet too often for their liking.

The professionals use Betfair to haul in the suckers exactly the same way as the bookmakers do: they offer shorter prices than they believe the horse should be and they are happy to play the role of the layer rather than the bettor.

A bookmaker loves us to lay him odds. This means that instead of our getting odds of, say, 2/1 ($3.00), which means that the bookmaker will pay us $2 for every $1 we outlay, he has the horse at such a short quotation that we are offering him the odds in order to get a bet on.

Just to explain this even more, say the bookmaker offers the horse at $1.70. He is “offering” in the sense that he is saying that if you are prepared to give him a dollar, he will give you back seventy cents, together with your dollar, if the horse wins. You are offering him 10/7 about the horse not winning, and he is offering you 7/10 about it winning.

It would take a pretty good sort of advantage in a race for me to get even lukewarm on that one. Well that’s not true either, it would take a gun held to my head. There is no way on this earth, regardless of the gilt-edged opportunity that may be staring me in the face, that I am going to take those sorts of odds. This is the result of seeing too many upsets, and also of making the simple calculation of what you have to gain long-term, as against what you have to lose, from such a form of betting.

All through my racing life, I have been stunned to watch people who must be earning a pretty basic wage, knocking each other out of the road to put the equivalent of a couple of days’ hard work on a horse, trotter or dog which is priced to return them maybe another day’s work. That example is not invented and it takes into account salary rises over the past thirty or forty years.

As a young schoolteacher way back in the dim distance, I might take a couple of pounds to the racetrack with me and I could watch people who were maybe making a little bit more than I was, but not much more, have ten or twenty pounds on a horse hoping to win another few pounds. Right at the beginning of my interest in racing, I can recall an incident with a friend who turned out to be racing’s equivalent of the ultimate alcoholic: he couldn’t let a race go by anywhere without it carrying his money, and he never backed anything but favourites.

He argued that the shorter they were, the surer they were of winning. In those days, this was a far more ridiculous argument than it is today, with our huge advantage of computer calculations and pricings. He would go anywhere to bet, and once I went with him to a local pub on a Saturday night when Sydney was racing Wentworth Park dogs.

I was young and very impressionable, and frankly I thought he knew a great deal about these things. It’s easy to get this impression of a punter when you yourself are inexperienced or naive.

For example, if you go to the races regularly you will see the punters who always fill in those sections of the racebook which are available for the placings, the times, the odds and so on after the races are run.

It doesn’t really mean anything, as you can get this information from any of a dozen services, and even back in the days I’m talking about (yes, even then!) you had The Greyhound Recorder, The Sporting Globe and good old Sportsman, along with a few others I could probably remember if I had to.

So it doesn’t mean a thing and it never has to see somebody earnestly writing figures into their books at the end of the race, unless they are recording their own profits and losses.

Back to that pub story. Well, here we are forty years later, and you know what? I’m going to stagger you by telling you the name of the dog that I backed to get myself out of trouble that night. My mate gave me six bum steers in a row. Actually of course they weren’t steers at all, they were dishlickers, but you know what I mean.
I was down six quid, and I was uncertain as to how I was going to get through the week until payday. When I look back on this story from a distance, I realise it was one of the most important lessons that I ever learned in my life, and the good thing is (you’ll be pleased to know) that it has a happy ending! Sort of.

All we had at that pub was a small mantle radio, the old His Master’s Voice valve type, sitting up on the bar. Of course all this betting was illegal; it was just before the TAB came into New South Wales and the guy who took the bets, a chap called Pat, just quietly sat at a table in the corner near the Gents, with a book and a pencil. His cockatoo stood outside ready to screech a warning if the boys in blue turned up.

What’s a cockatoo? Well, that’s what they genuinely called the SP bookmaker’s scout, whose job was to make sure nobody crept up on them. They had all sorts of little tricks of the trade, and you would have to be pretty blind not to spot the cocky.

Incidentally, another young teacher friend of mine who went out the back of beyond in his first year’s teaching, also enjoyed a punt, and related to me that there was no problem in the town he lived in: the local policeman always had five pounds on the winner of the last race! Believe that if you want to, don’t if you don’t want to, but I’m telling you it was gospel truth. And of course he wasn’t unique, was he?

Magic Try was the dog’s name. He started at 6/4 ($2.50). He was a big stayer and I later saw him run at the Newcastle greyhound track, but on this night he was running in a pretty fair race at Wenty. I think it was seven hundred and something yards and, at the urging of my compulsive friend, I put four pounds on him to win.

This meant (you’re ahead of me) that if Magic Try was victorious, I would come out square for the night, and if not . . . I didn’t like to think too hard about that. These staying races lasted for a bit over half a minute, and the classical voice of Ray Conroy, who to be quite honest was an appalling caller but enjoyed enormous following in both dogs and trots at that time, would call the field. Fortunately he kept a very strong eye on my dog and it swept to the lead in plenty of time, totally destroying the rest of the field.

OK, let’s get back to the main plot. If that dog had been a shade of odds on that night, I would have backed it. I had to. But now, even if I was in the same plight, I would not. I had backed three odds-on dogs that night, and they had all gone down.

Of course I would have backed this dog at 4/6, but that doesn’t make it a sensible bet. It’s easy to remember narrow squeaks, and experiences which added massively to your education, and this was one. Somebody who is a subscriber to the “winner at any price” philosophy is probably going to argue that the dog was a massive certainty and I had to back it, whereas my position today is that I wouldn’t back it if the other seven dogs had all been nobbled.

Looking at a recent example of an odds-on “romp in the park”, why don’t you pull your old formguide out and have a look at Canterbury for April 5? Racing to Win really looked to have a mortgage on the Canterbury Stakes. The five-year-old grey gelding had four opponents, two of which would need one of the other three runners to fall over if they were going to fill even third place. If you doubt this, have a look at the distance between third and fourth placings.

Anyway, Mentality led all the way after a beautifully-paced ride from Sydney’s best jockey. There was always the chance that Racing to Win, which actually went into the race coming off an injury scare, might not be able to make up the ground on Mentality, if the race were run exactly as in fact it was run.

To be offered, as punters were, best odds of $1.60 to $1.65, must have appealed to the bookmakers as a licence to print money. As I have pointed out, there were only two other chances in the race, Mentality and Sniper’s Bullet.

You could get $4.30 about one of them and $5.50 about the other one at various stages of the betting.
So as a bookmaker, you could lay the favourite over the moon (remember that $1.65 was the absolute top offer and didn’t last very long) and make your own book on the other two (remembering that the final two, which I am ignoring, had Buckley’s chance).

If, as a punter, you had been prepared to lay the bookmaker odds of 3/5 (6/10), what exactly were you hoping to achieve? A win at any price? Nobody who was totally serious on course that day, well, nobody I met anyway, believed that the horse was a certainty. We all knew that there had been a problem in training and there was even the very strong likelihood just a week or two prior to this that the horse would go for a spell. And here he was lining up at odds usually reserved for Kingston Town and Tulloch!

What did anybody learn from this? I’ll tell you, and frankly it’s pretty depressing when you think about the average punter and the focus of the majority of the press. The praise for Darren Beadman was immense, as indeed it should have been, but the real lesson of the afternoon for the average punter should have been that this was not a $1.60 investment.

Yes, it was a favourite. Of course it was, and it deserved to be. But was it an odds-on favourite? Well, maybe, mathematically, it was!

But, should it have been backed? Emphatically not. And this is still another dimension of the odds-on dilemma. That horse might, in terms of proven ability, size of the field, etc, etc, have been a very hot favourite on paper, but this is not enough to encourage you to put your money down.

Not if the price is wrong (which it is, simply because it’s so short and consequently never, ever value). Not if you are the average punter working hard at making a profit out of your hobby or system. You would need to be successful at a rate of about 65 per cent win strike rate to cut somewhere around even, backing horses in this price range. 

Looking at this from another point of view, you would need to be backing two winners every three bets.

I have never met anybody, regardless of the odds they accept or the selections they make, who has gone remotely close to that over the long period. Show me the long-term winner of two races in every three and I will show you a fibber.

But wait, there’s more, as they say. Show me that incredible Mandrake the Magician, that Houdini who can pull winners out of a bottle at the rate of 66 per cent, at odds like we’ve just quoted above, and I will ask him and you:

“So what?”

All that, to cut even? So you see, using just one example, and a losing example at that, they do go down. And when they do, you are faced with getting the next two of them home just to be able to cut even on the run. Miss out on a few of them in a row, and don’t you dare say it can’t happen, and your whole betting season has been thrown into disarray. And for what?

All things considered, I cannot see the logic in laying the bookmaker odds. It’s his job to lay the odds to me. If he doesn’t want to do that, then I am not interested.

By The Optimist