Is there a better way to back a horse in a race than in a calcutta? The value to be found in a calcutta can be the difference between a winning or losing year. There are downfalls but a smart operator who identifies the vagaries of a calcutta can certainly get an edge, and make a difference to their annual results.

Firstly, for the uninitiated, what is a calcutta? Calcuttas are generally held on country cups in the area they are held and important races such as the Melbourne Cup. There are generally two parts. First is the selling and drawing of tickets to allocate ticket holders to horses and second, the auction of all horses in the race.

There are an unlimited number of tickets sold, all for a predetermined price, usually at $1 each. All money from sold tickets goes into the calcutta pool.

Bidding for each contestant begins in a particular order, generally from the longest price to the shortest price, with only one horse being bid upon at any time. Accordingly, participants bid among themselves to “buy” each of the horses, with each horse being assigned to the highest bidder. All money from the auction of horses goes into the calcutta pool.

Calcuttas differ depending upon the venue but in most cases, the owner of the drawn tickets “owns” half the horse (Drawer) and the winning bidder “owns” the other half (Bidder). If the Drawer is also the winning bidder, they only pay half the winning bid. This is because they already “own” half the horse.

The Drawer can decide not to bid on the horse and in this case, he receives 50 per cent of the final bid price and the winning bidder “owns” all of the horse. It sounds a bit confusing but all calcuttas should have rules available prior to the commencement of the calcutta and you should read and understand them before bidding.

The rules will also show the percentages of the pool to be paid out to the “owners” of the winning horses, which are obviously based on the official result of the race in question. Percentages paid are generally 70 per cent for first, 20 per cent for second and 10 per cent for third.

The reason we would attend a calcutta is to purchase the horse we like, and to maximise our profit by doing so. Look for a calcutta that pays a high percentage to the winner. 70 per cent is good and anything extra is a bonus.

This, however, is not the most important point. Many operators look at holding calcuttas to get people in the door of their pub, club or hotel. They do this by seeding the pool. For example, a good sized metropolitan club may run a calcutta on the Melbourne Cup and add $10,000 to the pool. This is like adding ten grand to a TAB win pool, with no deductions, with only 24 bets on the race. It is a beautiful thing.

How do we determine what price to pay? This is the most interesting element of Calcutta auctions, determining an appropriate bid for our selection, as the payout will directly hinge on the size of the pool and thereby the size of the bids being placed. The odds of each horse will fluctuate during the course of the auction.

You would be unsure of the exact value of the prize pool until the last horse has been bid upon as the payout would depend on the sum total of all winning bids. All good calcuttas will show calculated odds as each horse is auctioned so you can see at a glance what price you are getting. You can, however, see as the Calcutta progresses the changing price of the horses sold and can estimate the odds you will receive as you bid.

These odds only increase as each horse is sold and the prizepool increases. As horses are auctioned from the longest price through to the favourite, the most expensive horses are in the main sold last and attain the highest prices.

If you are bidding on the favourite, which may be listed at 3/1 in the current market, you would only bid to a level where you would get a greater price than 3/1. This happens for a number of horses in every calcutta I have attended.

The value occurs for a number of reasons in addition to the seeding money. Calcuttas are attended by locals who have their favourite horses. They form syndicates where they seem to buy their selection, regardless of price. This gives extra value on other runners, in addition to the ‘free” value obtained through seeding money from the clubs.

These same locals tend to bid right from the start and run up a horse’s price. I prefer to wait until the end before I bid, wait until it looks like most bidders are done then hop in with what I hope is a killer single bid to knock out all remaining opposition. It feels good when this plan works but I am sure everyone has their own favourite ploys for bidding.

Have a look through the papers when the country cups come around. Check out the local clubs to see who is running a Melbourne Cup calcutta. Obtain a copy of their rules and see who is seeding the pool. I have yet to attend a calcutta where at least two out of the first three in betting have not been sold at significant overs.

Some horses I have purchased in calcuttas over the years include She’s Archie, a $200 puchase where the 2nd place collect was a little over $4,000. This equates to 20/1 the place! I have also had a similar result when Yippyio placed in the Cup. My best collect was by purchasing Ethereal the year she did the double. I paid $700 and collected a little over $13,000. She was a 10/1 chance on the tote.

So go out and do some homework. Read the rules for the venue you attend so there are no surprises. The calcutta itself is normally a good night out as well. I generally do not purchase tickets as I know the horse I want to buy before I attend the auction. Buying tickets takes some of the profit from the equation and relies solely on luck. I prefer homework and a good selection plan.

By Rory Fisher