Is it more profitable to bet with bookies or the TAB? To discuss this important aspect of betting, we got Jon Hudson, Brian Blackwell and Neale Yardley together to thrash out the major points.

J.H.: As a professional punter, the one argument you are not going to get from me is that betting off-course is better than betting at the track. Anyone seriously interested in making money at horseracing has to make an attempt to attend the races, where he can choose between the best prices available and be on the spot to compare prices between bookies and the tote. If you don't have that comparison available, which you don't when you're off-course, then you are missing out on a possible percentage edge that could mean thousands of dollars over a year's betting.

N.Y.: Even allowing for that, there are statistics which show that TAB bettors are in front as far as payouts are concerned. Tony Arrold, the Sydney journalist, tabulated N.S.W. TAB dividends versus bookmakers' starting price odds for the period December 9, 1964 (when the TAB began operations in N.S.W.) to June 30, 1978, and the figures showed that the TAB payout was $1581 million compared with SP payouts of $1512 million. So the TAB punter was $69 million, or 4.6%, in front of the bookmaker bettor.

B.B.: It can be a most frustrating thing for punters who cannot get to the track to know they could be achieving better odds, but I think punters these days have attuned themselves psychologically to the position and they cop it on the chin. There's also the aspect that so many 'bookmakers are offering such poor value that a punter could be forgiven for believing they're a dead loss, anyway.

J.H.: Never thought I'd hear you having a crack at the bagmen, Brian. You've always been their unpaid public relations man.

B.B.: You're right, but there comes a time when you have to admit that their critics have a point. Some of the prices at which they open in Sydney are ridiculous. No wonder people are saying that more and more winners are blowing in the betting; it's because they are opened up at ridiculous quotes. I know Neale has done some research into more recent figures.

N.Y.: Yes, my figures are for 1987-88 on Saturday races in Sydney and Melbourne. There were 420 Saturday races (nondeadheated) in Melbourne and the Victorian TAB divvies totalled $4224, or an average win price of 9.1/1. Yet the bookies' SP prices for all these winners had an average of only 7.6/1, with a $1 win bet on each winner returning only $3612. In Sydney, there were 406 such races with the N.S.W TAB dividends totalling $3539, for an average win price of 7.7/1. The bookies paid an average of 8.4/1, so they paid better than the N.S.W. TAB.

B.B.: Those are interesting figures, Neale, but the bookies will reply by saying that punters could have, in most cases, done better than the starting price if they had been at the track. For example, a horse might have started at 4/1 and yet it could have touched 10s in the middle stages of the betting. Or a horse could start 6/4 and yet have been available at 5/2. So the fact re~ that a punter on the track has a big chance of achieving much better profit percentages than the SP statistics indicate.

J.H.: On the other hand, I've seen many times a starting price about a horse and yet I have searched in vain for such a price at the track! You know the ones, they start at 9/4 and yet all you can see on the boards is 2/1.

B.B.: Yes, that's a moot point and one that has to be made. What about the Brisbane bookies, Neale? They have earned a reputation in recent years of offering the worst value in Australia. Is the reputation deserved?

N.Y.: Well, in Brisbane in'87-88 there were 395 non-dead heated races on Saturdays and the winners paid an average of 6.2/1 with the bookies, with a $1 bet on them all returning $2844. But the Brisbane winners paid much better on the N.S.W. and Victorian TABS, returning averages of 8.1/1 and 8.2/1. What is fairly clear from my figures is that there is a big difference between the price paid by Brisbane winners with the bookmakers and Melbourne winners with the TAB. Brisbane bookies appear to offer substantially less than either TAB or bookmakers elsewhere!

B.B.: So, generally speaking, it seems that horses in Brisbane should be backed on the TAB whenever possible. As one who bets regularly in Queensland, I tend to agree with that. This is particularly so with the longshots. The Brisbane and Gold Coast bookies don't offer much value at all in the longshot area. Horses that are paying $70 or $80 on the TAB are usually no more than 25/1 to 33/1 with the bookies.

N.Y.: I have come to a set of conclusions based on research, which goes as follows: Longshots, especially those over 20/1, should be backed on the TAB. Horses that are 7/2 and under appear to pay very similar dividends no matter what venue and no matter how they are backed. Horses between 4/1 and 16/1 seem to pay better on the TAB, especially on Brisbane horses. Finally, horses under 4/1 should be backed with the bookmakers as it's often possible to obtain a quarter of a point better than the average price.

J.H.: So a day at the races could be quite evenly split between the TAB and the bookies if you follow these rules? If that's so it would be some comfort to the value seekers.

B.B.: Neale's figures are interesting but I doubt you could accept them at facevalue each and every time you had a bet, because there are so many variables to be taken into consideration. There often doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason in the differences between tote and SP. Take, as an example, a few races on February 24. In the first at Rosehill, the winner Time For joy started at 60/1 and yet paid only $25.30 on the Queensland TAB-less than half the SP. That's a huge difference. A tote punter gets $25 back and the punter on-course gets $61. Yet in another race, we saw a different situation. Scarlet Bisque won the Oakleigh Plate at 33/1 and the Queensland TAB divvie was $45.45. Kara's Magic won at 10/1 and paid $15.30 on the TAB. Wong won at 9/1 at Rosehill and paid only $6.80 on the TAB.

J.H.: All that merely points out the fact that to have a proper go at winning you have to be at the track. If you're not in a position to check prices then you'll probably end up taking the wrong end of the stick too many times.

B.B.: The other way these days is to have telephone accounts with TABs in different States. Then you sit at home and, through Teletext or Viatel, you check the prices on offer with the various TABs and then place your bets with the one offering the best dividend. You could have accounts in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and with five minutes to go you check the divs for the horse you want to back--say $2.50 in Melbourne, $2.60 in Sydney and $2.90 in Brisbane-and you back the one at the best odds, in this case the Brisbane tote.

J.H.: Betting like this is going to become even more the thing once satellite racing coverage is beamed into homes. This will revolutionise betting in this country. At the moment, a punter has to go to the TAB, a club or a pub to see the races direct, so using Teletext or Viatel is not something that can be done by the punter who wants to see the horses race. Once the Sky Channel transmission is available in your own home, more and more punters will stay at home.

B.B.: That's if the governing bodies allow it to happen. I predict that organisations like the VRC and the AJC will fight tooth and nail to stop Sky Channel going into private homes. They will be worried that hardly a soul will turn up at the track. Home transmission will also spell disaster for bookies, I would imagine. So somewhere along the line everyone has a great deal of thinking to do.

J.H.: I can't understand why bookies are not allowed to take bets by telephone at the track. This surely would deal a blow to the illegal SP operators.

B.B.: You have to realise that the governments are involved in this and where they are concerned you have to throw logical, rational thinking out the window. All the government is interested in, basically, is monopoly.

Politicians wouldn't spare a tear if bookies died away. My own feeling is that a certain number of bookies should be allowed to open their own off-course betting palaces. They could pay an annual licence fee to the State Government, plus the usual turnover tax. The betting palaces would provide some needed opposition for TAB agencies, who would have to pull their socks up and provide punters with more than the basic, smoke-filled facilities.

N.Y.: Whatever you say about offcourse betting, the fact remains that being on-course is best. You see the action 'live' for a start, plus you have choice. I recall The Optimist telling me awhile back about the day he was at Warwick Farm and backed a horse called Tinted Blade. He got 14/1 and reckons he was one of the lucky ones because the fluctuations were 10, 12, 10. Tinted Blade won by a head that day, so The Optimist landed his 14/1 bet. But guess what the horse paid on the TAB? Only $9.50, so the off-course punter was dealt a savage blow.

B.B.: Another example of the crazy seesaw of prices that you come across all the time. My advice to punters is to attend the track if possible. Most times you can wait until five minutes before the jump before checking the tote odds and then the best price available with the bookies. That's when you have your bet.

J.H.: Let's not beat about the bush--get to the track if it's humanly possible! That doesn't even mean a track at which the races are being run. You can go to the provincials and still be able to bet on all the city races everywhere else. To get the edge that's needed, you have to be in a position to take advantage of the very best price on offer. For those of you who just can't get to the track, you should follow a few rules about TAB betting.

Always wait until the final minute or two before placing your bet, because although you can bet early and the price then looks great, you have to remember that what you get is the final price. How many times have you put on a bet at the TAB with 10 minutes to go and it's paying $5.60, say, and you think that's great. Then in the final minutes the price drops to $3.20 or something near it! It's a frustrating thing to happen, but it does, a lot of times.

B.B.: The aim always should be to obtain the best price no matter where you are betting. On-course, you've got more chance. Off-course, all you can do is hope you've got the best price. Sitting at home, with the divs displayed on Teletext and Viatel, you at least have the chance to get the best TAB odds.

N.Y.: Until we get a national TAB ...

B.B.: That's another story!

By Jon Hudson, Brian Blackwell and Neale Yardley