I did not wish to burden you with a disquisition on horse-playing this early in my return to the online fold, but feel what I have to say will benefit me (by the action of writing it down) and you if you ever decide to gamble on racing yourself.
I had planned a little canter round the subject of what happens to revered American film directors once they’ve got their Oscar and have entered their seventh decade, but that can wait.
I don’t know if Santayana was a racing fan. It’s possible, I suppose. He knocked about Europe a fair bit and lived in Italy for years. He might possibly have had a few lire on the Palio. However, his little Christmas cracker motto nicely illustrates the primary error of the average punting mind.
Every punter has a bad habit. Indeed most punters simply have bad punting habits full stop. Mine is doing each-way trixies (A multiple bet consisting of three selections covered by three doubles and a treble – four bets. Each way makes eight bets. We’ll come back to trixies another time, for they are rivalled only by women as vehicles for inflicting joy and misery).
The first, foremost and worst punting habit is the one that ensures there is a profitable betting shop situated roughly between every pub and bank in England – the indiscriminate backing of favourites.
Happily it is not bad punting habit of mine. Though I have plenty.
If favourites won all the time there would be no racing and no betting. You cannot ‘buy money’ by lumping on short-priced favourites. OK, it can be done sometimes and is done, but as a strategy it is foolhardy and will send you to the poorhouse in short order. Yet the same people go back day after day to shove their hard-earned or not so hard-earned money at the cashiers for the ‘good thing’, the the jolly old favourite. Habit proving very much stronger than reason.
You are more likely to find me having unprotected sex with an African prostitute than putting a packet on a nag at evens or odds-on.
The following anecdote should prove nicely instructive about the folly of backing favourites.
I was walking to work in central London a couple of weeks ago when I remembered there was quite an interesting-looking race on the Newbury card that afternoon. That particular jumps meeting always has some class action and is usually worth getting involved in. I entered a betting shop in Camden Town a few minutes before the start of a novices' Chase.
The first thing I noticed was a young man gabbling into his mobile phone with a betting slip in front of him which had ‘Spirit River, £200 win’ written on it in an unsteady hand. Oh dear, I thought.
The place was full of Chinese and Poles plus the usual pensioners and builders. They were all lumping money on the favourite, a handsome, powerful-looking French beast, the aforementioned Spirit River, trained by the very clever Nicky Henderson (who trains the Queen's National Hunt prospects). With one eye I watched Spirit River cantering down to the start on the main tv set and with the other, so to speak, I had a glance at the form.
I’m not the greatest judge of equine physique but there was no doubt Spirit River was the best horse in the race and would win if he put in a clear round over fences. He looked as if he would have a high cruising speed and plenty in the tank.
It was a novice chase, so they were all hurdlers looking to score over fences for the first time. Hurdles are much different from fences. Fences are bigger and more of a challenge. If a horse is used to lifting his legs to a certain height he may find he has a surprise when going over fences in a race scenario. However, it was clear everyone in the shop and at the racecourse had elected to believe that a good hurdler will be a good chaser first time out despite plenty of historical evidence to the contrary.
Paul Nicholls’ well-regarded Celestial Halo was also making his chase debut but I didn’t fancy him over fences just yet. A tricky horse, he is.
My eye was taken by Cois Farraig, the only horse in the race with point-to-point experience. Point-to-points being amateur steeplechases.
At 10/1 and with some fence experience he looked like he might be worth a bet. I didn’t expect him to beat Spirit River in terms of racing, but in terms of jumping. If he could jump better than Spirit River – if the favourite fell, to be precise – then he was in with a serious chance I reckoned.
Meanwhile, money continued to pile on the favourite, Spirit River, which was 10/11. The young man approached the counter and pushed £200 under the window. Oh dear, I thought.
Off they went. Cois Farraig led until the fourth fence when Spirit River headed him. I felt a tad gloomy because Spirit River was doing OK. In fact I was on the verge of throwing my betting slip away. The Sporting Life’s report tells what happened to the favourite next with greater concision than I can hope to rival:
‘Led 4th, blundered and fell 11th. Opened 11/10 touched 11/10. £1000-£800 (x3) £500-£400 (x4) £1200-£1000 £1100-£1000 (x2) £550-£500 £473-£400 £1000-£1000 £500-£550’The figures that follow the description are a record of some of the larger punts made with bookies in the betting ring at Newbury.
When poor old Spirit River fell a great oriental lamentation spread across the room, punctuated with Polish oaths. I simultaneously yelled, with a bit of mockery in my voice: ‘There’s no easy money in this game, fellas!’
The Poles regarded me sulkily for that. The Chinese said nothing. They simply shouted at each other and the screen. But I was busy watching my horse, which had looked as if its jockey, Dominic Elsworth, was easing it down for place money in the wake of the favourite. Now Spirit River was out of it every other jockey in the race suddenly realised they might be set fair for some of the £25,000 prize money. Cois Farraig picked up sharply, was
‘slightly hampered 11th, led 12th, driven after 2 out, stayed on well’to win.
I did a little dance in front of screens as I sometimes do under those circumstances.
The race announcer, who’d said he’d backed Spirit River, sounded a bit gutted when talking the race over. No one but me was at the pay-out window. ‘Well done,’ the commentator said, ‘if you picked that one out.’
‘I did!’ I announced to the shop before toddling past them all – including the now dazed-looking youth who put £200 quid on Spirit River – back on to Camden High Street to continue my journey to work. A profitable little diversion.
But the nub is that the following day, the following race even, 90 per cent of the punters in the shop would be back on the favourite, lumping on short price certainty. Habit being stronger than reason.
Spirit River is once to keep an eye on. He’ll win a chase soon enough.
As I walked along chuckling a bit, another Santayana quote suggested itself as a betting shop legend, perhaps embossed on brass plaques above the main screen: ‘If pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved.’