It is the bleak mid-winter down here in the summer hemisphere and, although we were treated to some first-class racing from Queensland just recently, we find ourselves immersed in the year’s most barren month in terms of quality racing action.

No doubt many of you will have retreated to your desk in the study, poured yourself a brandy from the drinks’ cabinet and settled into a comfortable armchair so that you may ruminate on the Australian racing season of 2006/7. Or perhaps you retreated to the outdoor dunny and reflected on your year of outrageous profit or soul-destroying loss.

Maybe you just broke even – never a truly bad thing. But whichever way it turned out you may feel that you need something to fill the gap until the Missile Stakes at Rosehill ushers in the new season for 2007/8.

Of course, you need not wait that long for superior racing action to materialise in front of you as you might have noticed the races being broadcast from the UK as part of Sky’s big Saturday night extravaganza of entertainment.

Yes, while some uninspiring “dog” races from Wojidanga are inauspiciously squeezed into the melee as well, Sky has been displaying some major and minor UK races from the British Saturday afternoon card with some of the dreariest broadcasting known to man.

In spite of their attempts to reduce racing from Pomerania to mere fodder, these transmissions still allow us a window into a world where we can bet with precision, using tools freely available on the Internet. I long for the day, though, when TVN wrests these broadcasts from the cold and icy hand of Sky so that they can have proper justice done to them.

If these Saturday night broadcasts, or perhaps the recent Royal Ascot broadcasts, have inspired you to take closer interest in UK racing, then it would be prudent to direct your attention to the UK bookies if you have felt the need to have a punt on them.

You might remember that, back in May’s PPM, I’d gone to some trouble to talk about the racing calendar that would unfold over the course of this year and also made a small mention of the hallowed British racing organ known as The Racing Post from which you could extract copious amounts of information.

The Racing Post is freely available over the Internet to all parties and so are Britain’s betting institutions. Betting on British racing can, as we know, be made via the TAB in Australia and, in some cases, this isn’t such a bad idea as the longshots of any given race can often be offered at their longest price on the good old TAB.

Well, as nice as that is, it is a far better thing to back horses on British races using British (or Irish) bookmakers not because of any great moral standpoint but because Brit bookies will allow you to fix a price on your bet right up until off time and so, as a consequence, you can have the chance to obtain the best price possible in a “live” and dynamic market – just as if you were in the ring yourself.

The suggestion being made here is, therefore, to combine the Sky broadcasts, The Racing Post and the plethora of Brit bookies to increase our chances of a making a profit as we punt. There is a fair amount of choice out there so it’s important to check out some of the main players.

Funnily enough, having an account with British bookies will also help out with your Australian racing punts. As Brit bookies are taking greater interest in the Aussie racing calendar they are now running books on nearly all the major meetings held on an average, and above-average, Aussie Saturday.

UK bookies can also be used as alternative betting media when you’re trying to get on a horse but are being hampered by the TAB’s website grinding to halt. Last year the TAB website was particularly sluggish on Melbourne Cup day and it wasn’t absolutely perfect on a couple of other occasions. In these instances, I found that betting on the Melbourne Cup was a much easier exercise with the likes of Ladbrokes and William Hill.

Another area of happiness that the big Brit bookies offer, and which is superior to the Aussie TAB in this respect, is the each way punt. On big races such as the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, British bookies will pay down to fourth place and this little fact can be quite useful at times. As an example, an each way bet on the popular horse Activation would’ve been fine for anyone who’d backed him in last year’s Caulfield Cup (where he was placed fourth).

Over the last 50 years the main British bookies Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral have been referred to as “the big three” and have taken up the lion’s share of the market, but there are still quite a few others to choose from. In fact the reality of today says that there’s really a “big two” (Ladbrokes and Hills) and that Coral’s position has been gradually usurped by the likes of Betfair and the spread betting exchanges. This only makes things better for us out here in the punting universe as we now have a wide range of choice on offer and choice, as I’ve mentioned already, is something that will help to give us an edge.

Nickname: “The Magic Sign” – this is the on-course codename for Ladbrokes used by other bookies on a UK racecourse. It’s been in use for many decades and is now in popular comical use with us regular punters.

Unknown to most Britons is the fact that Ladbrokes has been a going concern as a bookmaker since the 1880s. It was in fact bookmaker to the aristocracy in the Edwardian era but was eventually bought out by Britain’s biggest and best-known rails bookmaker of the pre-second world war era – Reggie Stein. Stein was an East London bookie whose family inherited and enlarged the brand name to become the biggest bookmaker in Britain. The credit for this expansion really goes to Reggie’s nephew Cyril Stein who took over the chairmanship in the 1960s right at the time when High Street bookmaking had been legalised.

Nowadays, Ladbrokes status has not changed since the 60s as Britain’s biggest bookmaker and it’s website, decked out in the customary red and white, is a pretty acceptable one; not least because of the wide range of coverage it offers. It allows for horserace betting at all UK and Irish meetings and most high-ranking European meetings, as well as ample coverage of US and Australian racing. There’s also markets for virtual horseraces, greyhound races and even political races. As I write I can see they have prices for the Irish, UK, US and Swedish elections!

The website is relatively easy to navigate although I’m not the biggest fan of the betting slip that you fill in, simply because it’s a little bit “busy” with quite a lot of info on display. This causes it to be a little slow to put itself on screen and to react once you’ve clicked “OK”.

Aside from this, there are a myriad of other ways to “do your pieces” with poker, lottos and bingos to play if you’re into that sort of thing. A couple of other more important positives, though, include the website allowing you to choose the language you’d like it displayed in and also showing clearly what the “local” time is in Britain on every page your browsing through.

Nickname: Hills, Billy Boys.

William Hill was another of Britain’s leviathan bookmakers and established himself on the racecourse rails after the second world war alongside Reggie Stein at the major racecourses of Great Britain. Like Stein, he would take on all-comers for all sorts of wagers and soon achieved a reputation akin to Bill Waterhouse in Sydney. Hills, along with Ladbrokes, took advantage of the legalisation of High Street bookmaking and soon has many shops open to the public over the course of the 60s.

As a consequence, Hills became Britain’s other big bookmaker decking itself out in pleasant blue, white and yellow colours. Perhaps it’s because they’re northern (based in Leeds in Yorkshire), but Hills has always offerred a no-nonsense but agreeable web interface and, in a Holden/Ford kind of way, I‘ve ended up preferring the Hills to Ladbrokes over the years.

In addition, their telephone support is the best in the business with knowledgeable staff couched in voices that are especially amusing to me as a southern Englishman. This is because the staff’s accents are invariably plucked from the surrounding Ridings of Yorkshire. Ahh, the Yorkshire accent is a magnificent brogue, eee by gum.

Anyway, this website is by far the easiest and most responsive to use largely because it’s not graphically intensive ie. the “picture” the website has to “paint” within your web-interface (such as Microsoft Explorer), is not complex and therefore quick to display on the screen. Thankfully, they haven’t been sucked into the idea that the transaction you make needs to be prettied up with intensive graphics and windows. This means that the transaction is always easy to read and is executed with the minimum of fuss. You’ll always know when the bet has been successfully struck and this can still happen nice and quickly right up to “off” time. Being a simple soul this feature wins many brownie points with me.

Nickname: Uncle Joe.

Coral’s make up part of the “big three” triumverate of High Street bookies. They were established in 1926 by Joe Coral who was another rails bookmaker, like Reggie Stein and William Hill, with a fearsome and brave reputation. “Uncle Joe” may have had this reputation but he died in 1996 at the age of 92 so clearly being a tough mongrel didn’t weather him too badly. Like the other big two bookies, Joe Coral saw his opportunity in the 1960s and set up the Coral chain of bookmakers which saw quick growth in the “turf accountancy” market place. The big three have managed to between themselves, end up owning half the High Street bookmakers in the country.

Sadly, when the Internet came along Coral found themselves to be a little slow out of the traps with a website that lagged behind their competitors. They finally got their act together on the web and now the website resembles something that you can actually use. The telephone support staff have moved on too, because for a while they weren’t that good. The website itself offers most of the usual fare and can be a tad slow but it looks pretty enough. An account with these guys is usually worth it simply because they often give prices for outsiders that are slightly longer that either Hills or Ladbrokes.

If I’m honest I should think that most British punters wouldn’t thank me for lauding the big three bookies as your first place to shop, largely because they have never been that responsive to allowing customers to bet large at the prices advertised. Nevertheless, these organisations offer widespread coverage on all the races you should be interested in so accounts with these guys are probably still a necessity.

It’s also important to at least be aware of the big three and the markets that they offer, because even if you don’t bet with them you will find that their inside sources of information for horseracing are second to none so this means we must take note of their perspectives.

There are, of course, many other bookmakers from which you can choose to do your business so the following list maybe of some use.

Nickname: Don’t really need one with a name like that.

Ireland’s leading bookie. Well worth an account as they can offer surprising money back offers for certain scenarios. They refunded all ante-post bets for the withdrawn 2000 Guineas favourite this year. They do this kind of thing quite often.

Nickname: Wide boy.

Entrepreneurial Victor has been a blessing to UK punters as his offshore bookmaking in the 90s helped to pave the way to tax-free betting.

As a West Australian resident I am unable to bet with this mob but for those of you who can you should investigate this operation. In many ways it’s probably fairly essential these days to have a Betfair account as you will always find better deals there. The drawback is getting an instantaneous return after you’ve won but I hear this situation is improving.

There are a few betting exchanges available on the web. These enterprises are highly original ways of punting your money. They are well worth an interest especially if you have an interest in punting sports such as soccer. Essentially, the idea is to bet by punting on “long” and “short” prices. Be warned though, betting exchanges can enrich you but they can also decimate your betting bank in a trice. Take considerable care when learning about how the system works. IG Index and Sporting Index are the leading exponents on spread betting.

A number of bookies are named here and it would be as well for you to open as many accounts as possible if you are to take betting on European racing and sporting events seriously. This is only because it will allow you greater freedom to obtain the prices you want with the amounts that you want to stake. This course of action is certainly not meant to be undertaken as a signal to gamble your socks off! The more sensible British punter will take this approach so that your punting strategy has greater width.

For me personally, the Internet still acts as my umbilical link to UK racing via The Racing Post and all these bookies. It took me many years to let it become a rewarding venture but it may be different for you so keep your interests at a minimum at first. Take your time in getting a feel for the environment as there are plenty of quirks, tricks and traps to avoid, but once you’ve settled in you might begin to feel right at home.

Technical Note: In my previous life I was a computing engineer for two decades and can proudly state that I was a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. This not only means that I am a pointless little nerd but I can also, on the plus side, make a fairly good critical analysis of these websites and their support staff. So, I would recommend that punter/users stick to using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer when using most of these websites. Applications such as Mozilla Firefox are frequently unable to execute the Java commands used on the these web-sites and so, much as it pains me to say it, I’d recommend that you stick with MS Internet Explorer when browsing.

By Julian Mould