Philip Alexander, one of Britain's best-known racing writers, reveals the winning secrets of the great punter Phil Bull, founder of the Timeform empire. This is Part One of a series.

Whatever criteria are employed to decide what it takes to become one of betting's legendary figures, there can be no denying the right of Phil Bull of Timeform fame to occupy an exalted place at that table.

Born on April 9, 1910, in the mining village of Hemsworth, his father a miner and mother a teacher, this fellow Yorkshireman was educated at the local Grammar School before progressing to Leeds University where he obtained a poor degree in mathematics.

After university (where he concentrated on chess, bridge, snooker and the backing of horses rather than his academic studies), he proceeded to teach in London. There he bought a small hand press and wrote, printed and published a political diatribe called The Tramp Among The Tombstones, as well as several plays.

Always interested in drama and political economics he soon became disillusioned with teaching, writing on one occasion: "Those who can do; those who can't teach."

In 1942, as a direct result of his favourite subject(s), he published his approach to betting, a slim volume (now greatly sought after by collectors) entitled The Mathematics of Betting. This contained chapters on Odds and Chances, Trading in Odds, Covering Bets and Making a Backer's Book.

In addition, there was also advice on eachway betting, systems and how to structure and utilise a betting bank.

At the time, it was without doubt a model of its type and the forerunner of all that was to follow on this subject. Much of the guidance that was given was entirely new, and whilst the face of racing has undergone countless drastic changes since those days, much of what was written then about betting is still applicable to this day and, I suspect, always will be.

Inclined always to express his thoughts in more words than were strictly necessary, Bull summarised his observations in remarkably few words (for him) for an article which appeared in March, 1965 in The People, a popular English Sunday newspaper.

Paraphrased, and considerably shorter than the original piece, this is what he had to say about the varying personal components that he considered to be a necessity for the average punter to progress towards being a good investor on the horses:

Attention should be paid to the horses first and foremost, not to other racegoers!

Don't just observe owners, trainers and jockeys. Pay close attention to every animal. If the object of your attention happens to be a two-year-old, note the conformation, paying particular heed as to whether it is big and backward. In other words, get your eye attuned to its state of fitness.

Should the horse be round-bellied, this is so often a sign that it is not fit. Look at the horse's hindquarters, the muscles of which should not be concealed by fat. An alert eye is an indication of well-being, as well as a pleasing sheen to the skin.

Note if an animal walks with purpose. Don't be deterred by the occasional bucking bronco act, but do worry if the horse begins to sweat and goes round in circles, fighting the lad who is leading it.

Miss this at your peril, for it can frequently be highly informative. Watch for a purposeful action, especially at the movement of the forelegs. This should be smooth and easy, with no sign of jerkiness. Discard the animal that bolts down to the post, taking charge of its rider in the process. This may appear impressive enough, but invariably it will prove to be no more than wasted energy when the race gets underway.

Speaking collectively, punters must lose money - but not necessarily all punters. The truth of the matter, though, which is habitually overlooked, is that punters do not bet against bookmakers or the Tote, but against each other.

The bookmakers and the Tote are only middlemen who make a considerable financial gain for the pains of taking your money!

Only bet when you have value; that is, when the odds available are greater than they should be, according to your estimation. Discipline yourself to abide by this dictum, for this is the crux of betting for long-term profit.

Examples of bad value can be found at roulette. With 37 numbers (0-36), the house pays 35/1 against any number. The true odds are 36/1, therefore you can only win by sheer chance. The odds are weighted by only 2.7 per cent, but that margin is enough to rid every player at the table if he plays for a long enough period of time.

Horse-racing presents an entirely different scenario. The overall odds in each individual race are weighted far more heavily against the prospective backer than in the above example taken from the favourite casino game. The difference, however, lies in the degree of skill which can be exercised in racing over the mere acceptance of the static odds of roulette.

Remember, what has just been written under the heading of VALUE and realise that there is one important issue at stake which it is absolutely essential to acknowledge.

The overall odds about all runners taken together is heavily weighted against the backer, but not necessarily the odds against each individual horse. That is the determined punter's saving grace if he is to remain determined to profit.

Especially in the early months of a season punters should never underestimate the importance of fitness. V\Tho is to ride what animal is also something which should receive attention. As for the question of draw, Bull admitted quite freely that this was one aspect of a race to which he had paid little heed. (Possibly a distinct chink in the great man's armour?)

Following closely on the heels of fitness and well-being, this is the most important factor when the time comes to assess handicap possibilities.

Especially critical with two-year-olds. Undoubtedly breeding is the best guide.

Far from the purely mathematical exercise it is thought to be.

Interpretation of the many variables present is usually called into play.

(a) You should never bet at odds-on.
(b) A bet isn't a good bet until it has been hedged.
(c) The concept of luck.
(d) The fallacy of staking systems.
(e) The fallacy of sequences - no help to be got from past record of favourites or second-favourites.
(f) That you should not bet in every race.

Temptation to chase losses must always be resisted, self-control on all occasions being the byword.


  1. Seek where thou wilt for winners, but bet only when thou seest value; deliver thyself from the temptation to bet in every race.
  2. Put not thy faith in luck, nor in the law of averages, nor thy trust in staking systems, for these are delusions.
  3. Let thy stake be related to the depth of thy pocket and to what thou regardest as the true chance of the horse; that which hath the greater chance deserveth the greater stake.
  4. Thou shalt not bet eachway in big fields, unless thou art well satisfied as to the value of the place bet.
  5. Bet with the Book or Tote according to thy judgement: thus shalt thou endeavour to get the best of both worlds.
  6. Thou shalt not bet pre-post except upon horses that are known to be definite runners.
  7. Double and Treble if thou must; but bet not upon objections, for thou hast not the evidence and the stewards know not what they do.
  8. Let thy betting be informed by wisdom and diligence, and tempered by patience and caution, and leavened but a little with boldness.
  9. Let thy bets be within thy means: he that would make his fortune in a week loseth his ducats in a day

Despite his atheistic views on all matters religious, Bull took great delight in compiling a list of his own version of the Ten Commandments in true biblical terms, even to the hint of the Lord's Prayer in at least one case. These have been repeated using his own phraseology

Even with the passing of some twenty years or more between the writing of these golden rules and those of John Mort Green, it comes as no surprise to detect an unmistakable similarity between the two offerings.

In fact, one or two of the rules given so closely resemble each other, that they may be said to be almost interchangeable.

It doesn't matter a tinker's cuss whether John Mort Green had ever read Phil Bull's thoughts - although I should imagine he had. What does matter is that we should appreciate the whole of these two presentations for their true worth. Both men took huge amounts from the bookmakers of several countries, neither could have been wrong in his approach.

NEXT MONTH: More betting thoughts from Phil Bull ... and how he made his millions.

Click here to read Part 2.

By Philip Alexander