Friday, 1 March 2013

How to bet

Author’s note:

This is really long, and about betting on horses. Although I’ve tried to give it a bit of va-va-voom in the prose stakes, so that the general reader could get something out of it, it really is probably for those of you who are interested in this subject.


I am sitting in Tebay, my favourite motorway stop, looking out over the Cumbrian hills, and eating special green soup from a Thermos. I made it specially for the journey. I also have a nice little tomato and parsley salad (like Tabbouleh but without the Bulgur wheat) in a Tupperware box. This may be taking my ironical back-to-the-seventies theme too far.

I am quite tired because I’ve driven 270 miles and I got up at five to make the sandwiches for my picnic.

But some of the Dear Readers asked for advice about betting, in the run up to Cheltenham, and I promised I would oblige, and I can’t be one of those people who don’t do what they say they will do.

Here is the first rule of betting:

There is no rule.

It’s a bit like Fight Club like that.

Really what I mean is that you can do everything right, and still lose. Odds-on favourites get turned over all the time. Horses can get bumped and bored, boxed in, brought down. (All the Bs, I notice.) Thoroughbreds are essentially mysterious creatures. Sometimes, they do the equine equivalent of getting out of bed on the wrong side. They are mercurial and highly sensitive. Last year, a great hurdler called Hurricane Fly was running just a little bit below his best. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong with him, and he was never disgraced, but all the same, the sparkle of previous seasons had gone. This season, it seems to have come back. No one knows why.

So, perhaps your first rule is to expect losses, and not feel like an eejit if you have them. The professional tipsters, who are paid fat salaries by the national newspapers to dispense punting wisdom, have a league table. It’s worked out on profit to a one pound stake. Almost all of them are in the minus column. There must be hardly another profession on earth where people keep being paid for failure. (No banking jokes, please.)

However, you can make your betting much more enjoyable, and stack the odds in your favour, with some very simple strategies. I offer these humbly, because I lose as often as I win. I am quite richly up on the year, but a lot of that is not at all to do with these things I’m trying to tell you. In fact, some of the reason my William Hill account is as fat as it is is that I opened it to back Kauto Star, in November 2011, when everyone said he was finished. I was so angry that I bet £40 at 6-1. I usually bet in fivers, so you can see the level of my fury. I remember doing the same when everyone said Desert Orchid was on the wane and could not win a fourth King George.

It was that heart over head nestegg which gave me the breathing space to take a few risks, and often it’s the risky bets that have paid off most delightfully.

However, the Dear Readers who asked sounded like beginners, so I’m going to offer the sensible, no-nonsense guide.

If you open an online account, I recommend William Hill. They are easy to use, helpful, and well-laid out. (Ladbrokes are horrid, don’t go near them. Paddy Power is nice but slow; the Tote is fine but a bit busy.)

Your online bookie will give you the Racing Post snapshot on every horse, which is very helpful. If you are at the races, it’s worth getting a Timeform racecard, for ratings and a similar snapshot.

Read these snippets. They contain vital information. What you are looking for is: yard in form, gets the trip, deals with the ground, ran reasonably last time out. Unless there is a big excuse, in which case people will say something like ‘you can put a line through that.’

What I quite often do is rule things out. If you add up the question marks over horses in the race – has never been over three miles, hates heavy ground, etc etc – you are sometimes left with one. That’s how I backed Cape Tribulation in the Argento Chase. He was the only one with no question mark.

Sometimes, you get a feeling for a horse. You don’t know why, but you keep coming back to her or him. I usually follow that feeling, but with VERY small amounts. I had a feeling for darling old Hello Bud at Aintree when he was having his very last go over those mighty fences, when on the book, and at his great age, he was really not fancied to win. So I put on a fiver each-way at 14-1 and he roared home round The Elbow, repelling all boarders.

On the other hand, I sometimes have idiot days, when my Feeling is all wrong, and I lose a pot of money and go into the garden to eat worms. So that’s my other rule: it’s a long game.

If you are just doing it for fun on the day, then say that fifty pounds is part of the price of admission; you are going to lose that money. Or ten or twenty or whatever you can afford. If you win, it’s a bonus, if you lose, the money is already spent in your mind. Never bet more than you can lose. You will feel sick and tearful and stupid.

On the other hand, if you plan to bet regularly, then know one bad day is fine; it’s the overall arc you are looking for.

Everyone has different ideas of fun. If you want to put on a pound and have a shout, find a lively outsider at 20-1. It’s rare, but it’s not unheard of for an odds-on favourite to get turned over by a 33-1 outsider. If you want to pay for dinner, you might choose to be a bit more forensic, in which case you could study the form, and find some of the most deserving favourites and put them in a double or treble. This way, you get a good price. Horses that are very short, when combined, can come out at a handy little four or five to one. I had two of those this week, at Plumpton and Doncaster, and very gratifying they were.

You are probably not a statistic person, but one stat you should know is that favourites win about 50% of the time. 

Unless you have a briefcase of fifties and nerves of steel, I would not back odds-on favourites. You win very little if they oblige, and if they fall at the last, you feel like forty kinds of fool. I do it on very, very rare occasions, and there is usually a lot of love involved. I have backed both Sprinter Sacre and Frankel in the past at odds-on, because I had faith in them and loved them enough to forgive them if it all went south.

If you like backing each-way, which is a sporting bet, it’s really not worth it unless the price is bigger than 4-1. If you like fiddly bets, you can choose four horses and do a variety of accumulators and other fancy tricks. There is a good William Hill betting guide which explains all these. I do one every so often for fun, but mostly stick to trebles and doubles. The problem with accumulators is that all of your fancies bolt up, and you are about to win thousands and then your nailed-on last choice falls at the final hurdle or gets mugged on the line, and you have sackcloth and ashes instead of wine and roses.

If you can, look at the horses themselves. If you are at the races, I recommend the pre-parade ring, which is where they go before they are saddled. Also, it’s often empty. You can commune with the equine beauties, see who is well in his coat, who is on her toes, who is a good mover. What you are looking for is a horse to be alert, but not sweating too much, shiny in the coat, and quite slender. Big, burly horses look lovely, but usually are not match fit; on the other hand, if they look like greyhounds they can be overtrained. Bear in mind that horses have different physical types, just like humans, so some are naturally bigger than others.

Obviously, if you are watching television, it is harder to see the horses since CHANNEL 4 WON’T SHOW THEM TO YOU. No wonder it has lost 12% of the previous audience. In that case, you have to rely on the book.

What else can I tell you? All the obvious things. Don’t chase your losses, have a limit, try not to listen to the last person you see. My old dad used to do this. He’d be approaching the rails and he’d meet someone who’d heard a ‘whisper’ and all the morning homework went out of the window, usually to disastrous effect.

For Cheltenham specifically, I have six words for you. They are:


Cheltenham is really tough, and some horses just don’t take to it. You need strong, balanced horses to cope with the undulations and the murderous hill at the end. You need horses who are as game and willing and lion-hearted as they come. If they’ve won there before, put a huge tick in the box.

Also, you can’t mess around with distance at Cheltenham. If they only just get three miles on a flat track, they are certainly not going to get it over the ups and downs of Prestbury Park. Jumping really matters too. Anything with Fs and Us in its form must carry a big question mark.

And one final thing: they need to be mentally tough. Some horses don’t do well in big fields. If they get buffeted about, they can shut down and give up. Some thrive on it, fighting like terriers. Many of the fields at Cheltenham are huge, so if you can find that out, it’s a definite advantage.

More generally, I have a rule that I only bet on races where there are horses I feel quite strongly about. This can be an old hunter chaser I love at Wincanton, or an eager young hurdler who’s just caught my eye. Betting for the sake of betting is very lowering. You need, I think, skin in the game. Maybe you love Ruby Walsh, or perhaps you adore greys, or maybe there is an old veteran you’d love to see get up for one last hurrah. Perhaps you really admire Venetia Williams, the chicest woman in what is still largely a man’s game. One should not let the heart rule the head, but I think the heart must be there. Or it’s just bingo.

And now there is just time for two pictures, using the new Cinemascope function I have just discovered on my lovely free Picasa software:

1 March 1

1 March 2

Happy Friday.


  1. Could I not simply bankroll YOU to bet for me (with no worries about seems to me that you consistently select magnificent, munificent winners!).
    I long ago discovered I couldn't pick a winner even if there was only one horse (or dog) in the race!
    Once went to jai lai with Miami sister & our husbands, who all did quite well. My lesson learned: Do NOT bet based on astrological signs. That cutthroat Scorpio is not going to trounce the spacy Gemini...(ah me!)

  2. Fabulous explanation ~ partly because you say, "You can do everything right and still lose" (my standard MO), LOL.

    Enjoy Cheltenham. Will be following an American turf writer/ex-jump jockey, Sean Clancy, who will be reporting from there this year. The joys of Twitter . . . hope you'll be tweeting too.


  3. I tend to do most of my betting at Aintree (just because it's my local course and the one I go to most often) and I'm feeling quite smug now because I follow most of your advice already. Obviously course form is not quite so important there, except over the National course.

    Ah, I have fond memories of winning a LOT of money on lovely old Monet's Garden as he zoomed his way round.

    I never rule out the odd bet just because you like a horse's name. Madly unscientific of course, but sometimes it's just as good a way of picking a winner as any other.

    ps - Tebay makes me happy

  4. I only bet when I go to the races which is fun and a great day out, I expect to lose the money as I know nothing about racehorses so I am never disappointed.

  5. You see, I SAID you should have a monthly racing column in a quality women's magazine. Please ask your agent to put out feelers...

    I have family in 'Nam, and lived for twenty years in the Oxon Cotswolds, and yet never went anywhere near the Festival. In fact, I have never been to a race meeting of any shade or hue. My wariness of betting, or even fruit machines, or stcks and shares, tells me I am an inveterate gambler deep down, so my internal policewoman is leading me quite firmly by the elbow away from such delights.

    I like to watch gee-gees on TV and imagine I am backing one to win. That's quite enough excitement for one day, for me...


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