Steve Ahern was one of Britain’s greatest punters. He won a massive fortune and rose from being a penniless schoolboy to living a life of luxury in a mansion on the island of Majorca. This extract is from his book Riches From Horses, published in 1964 (now out of print).

I only had sixpence in the world when I started backing horses, and I lost it. But I have gone on to earn millions of pounds without ever losing my shirt.

Out of my tax-free winnings as a professional gambler I have invested a quarter of a million in property and have found myself in paradise. Now I am in luxurious semi-retirement, and the time has come to share my betting knowledge with the millions who lack the time and opportunity of the professional backer, but who want to improve their knowledge of betting and their rate of success.

If you were my kid brother, and came to me for a tip about racing, my advice would be:


This advice could change the habits of the nation and ruin the bookmaking profession because one of the greatest misconceptions the English public labours under is that to make backing pay you have to take evens and odds-on.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is my firm conviction, born out of hard, practical experience, that the man who bets odds-on or evens will inevitably go home one day with no boots on.

There is more reason for an odds-on horse to go astray than any other horse in the race.

Remember this, always: Before a bookie can start to bet he must lay the favourite, or the odds-on chance. It is the foundation of his book, and one of the fundamental principles he must observe.

He loves the public for its faith in favourites. It must therefore be obvious – seeing as to him you’re the enemy – that it’s the last thing in the world to do.

The yardstick with which a backer’s judgement is measured in racing is money, and how you stand at the end of the season. I am probably unique in racing in that I have made a fortune out of backing horses, and have retired early to enjoy it.

For 20 years I was able to spend hundreds of pounds a week, tax free, and still have a substantial reserve in the bank at all times.

Of course, anyone can do it. You, too, can have figures like mine . . . in the bank statements. You, too, can make racing pay, season after season, by backing the right horses at the right prices.

All you need is judgement, single-mindedness, dedication, courage, patience, lack of emotion, physical fitness, nerves of steel, self-control, contempt for money, a sharp eye for a horse, interest in the form books, contacts you can trust, and bookies who will take your bets.

Luck helps a little, too. You need greatest judgement than bookies over prices, and greater judgement than handicappers over weights.

You need single-mindedness to know at all times that your judgement is the best. You need dedication to travel anywhere at any time to check even a tiny link in the chain of clues you are building up that may lead to a winner.

You need courage to go on even when your heart has shrunk to the size of a caraway seed. You need patience to go racing day after day, while paying out large sums in retainers and gifts, and maybe not putting a bet on at all for weeks.

You need to be unemotional, always leading with the head and never the heart. You need physical fitness to bear the strain of it all. You need nerves of steel not to faint at the thought of what racing is costing you even when you are winning.

You need self-control not to go overboard and put your shirt on what you know to be a stone-bonkers certainty.

You need contempt for money or you will be bitten by the temptations and the greed that assail so many get-rich-quick racegoers. You need a sharp eye for a horse in making the final assessment before deciding to go ahead with a bet.

You need a working knowledge of the form book assisted by a long and dependable memory.

It is vital to understand luck. The chief thing to remember is that we all go through spells of bad luck. When I felt myself out of luck at any time I immediately reduced my bets to a third or quarter of my normal stake.

It required terrific self-discipline, especially as my expenses were still running at about 200 pounds a week and I was often sorely tempted to go into battle. By resisting I always won through to better times.

If racing were crooked, I would have retired a millionaire 20 years ago. I have had the friendship, over the years, of most of the top jockeys. Most would do anything to help me if they could. If racing were crooked, I would have made a fortune in a fortnight through these friendships but, in fact, not one of them ever put a penny in my pocket.

I remember having this lesson rubbed in one day. I had been interested in a 3yo maiden at Newmarket that had been galloped to a really good horse and seemed likely to be something to gamble big on at Hurst Park.
All my observations and calculations told me it looked a certainty but, as usual, I was looking for last-minute confirm­ation. She was due to be ridden by a jockey who was a very great personal friend in and out of racing, and for whom I had a tremendous affection and respect.

By a fortunate chance, so I thought, I happened to be entering the ring as my jockey friend was going into the saddling enclosure.

I said, "Hello, any chance?"

"No!" he replied positively. "Not this one."

This really worried me. I had been so sure of this horse, and was ready to put a lot of money on her. I hurried down to the paddock and leant over the rails, watching the horse’s parade. One of my very useful stable contacts came over at once and said, "I hope you’re on her, Steve. She’s a certainty for this race."

She looked marvellous to me, too, ripe and ready, but I respected the jockey’s judgement, so I was forced to reply that I happened to know she had no chance.

"You can’t be right, Steve. This is a real good thing," said my contact.

"What makes you so sure?" I asked, not disclosing what the jockey had told me.

My contact mentioned three horses she had galloped with successfully.

"Good grief," I said. "If she’s as good as that she’ll be a blooming Derby horse."

"She is," he replied.

I trusted this contact’s judgement, and the truth began to dawn. My jockey friend, to whom I had always been kind, had misled me. I sauntered into the ring and backed the horse to win 600 pounds which was the most I could get on at this late stage.

My mind was not on the money. I was terribly hurt at being let down by a friend.

The horse trotted home by six lengths and I pocketed my 600 quid. It was early in my professional career as a backer and as I drove home I suddenly realised that I had learned a very important lesson.

The jockey received a handsome retainer from a very big stable, and I knew that the man he rode for was absolutely first-class. He had a far greater obligation to his boss than he had to me, and I realised he had been perfectly right to keep it quiet that he was on a winner.

In the years that followed he still never ever told me a winner but I am pleased to say we are very good friends to this day.

How did I get started in the horse business? When I was 12 my elder brother Gilbert invited me to put sixpence on a horse called Golden Fleece. It lost, but from then on I was hooked.

My gambling career had begun. I stopped reading comics and school books. Only the back pages of the newspapers, the form books and Sporting Life interested me any more.

Within a year I was talked about all over Woolwich and grown men and women would come to the door to ask what I fancied, to mum’s pride and dad’s grave annoyance.

We were so poor (I came in the middle of a family of 13 children) that I sometimes could not even raise sixpence for a sure thing, and this upset me very much.

Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.

By Steve Ahern