Having spent many of my weekend childhood afternoons in the betting rings of Yorkshire (see “How I Got Into Horseracing”), it wasn’t a complete accident that the first job I took up after leaving university saw me living and working a five-minute walk from Lingfield Park racecourse.
Almost as soon as I arrived in Surrey I discovered that an ancient byelaw relating to public footpaths across the course meant that local residents were entitled to apply for free tickets to Lingfield Park race meetings. I quickly ensured I was on the electoral roll, and this free entry made a huge difference to me in the early days. In my first job as an assistant houseparent in one of the residential units, I didn’t have a huge disposable income, but free entry meant I took advantage of every meeting I could attend.
Lingfield seemed to race regularly on Thursdays and Fridays, which were my days off. Moreover, on my days on duty we worked a split-shift system to ensure we were around during the residents’ out-of-school hours, which meant I could be working something like 7am-1.30, then 4pm until 10pm; these split shifts were very unpopular with most workers, but they did mean I could frequently dash down and catch almost an entire meeting during my afternoon break.
Although I was very familiar with the mechanics of placing bets on course, I was still very green about form study. In the first year or two betting there, I tried hard to find some sort of edge. For a while, I experimented by trying to back bigger-priced horses on the Tote, drip-feeding my bets in whilst constantly checking the predicted returns screen.
I can only remember one occasion when this paid off. A 2yo with no form called Bohea Destroyer was heavily backed on-course in a seller, but that money failed to reach the Tote pool and the 5-1 winner paid £25 on the Tote. Trainer Paul Burgoyne didn’t have a high profile over a fairly long career, but every now and then he popped up with a significant gamble like this.
The Tote markets at Lingfield generally weren’t strong enough to make this tactic a worthwhile pursuit though – invariably someone else would have the same idea and the tempting dividend suggested on screen would habitually be heavily cut just before the off.
However, the fast-ground stands rail bias on the straight course was probably at its strongest during the first few years after I moved to Lingfield and, once I had worked out the pace bias that accompanied it, I was on my way, and almost my entire betting strategy became based around it.
I loved the atmosphere at Lingfield. Picturesque and homely enough to brighten up a humdrum midweek meeting, it was also just big enough to cope with the bigger crowds of its popular Saturday meetings, both day and night.
The betting ring almost always seemed lively. The “dead men’s shoes” system was still in operation at the time, the prime pitches at Lingfield being held by veteran layers such as “Lulu” Mendoza and Ted Sturman (trading as Fred Binns), both of whom looked like they could have stepped right out of the racecourse scenes from the celebrated movie “Brighton Rock” (1947).
Sturman invariably set a trap for the unwary after a photo finish by betting on the winning margin; if his man on the line thought the margin was a short head, he would chalk up something like evens a neck and 5-4 a head, whilst turning a deaf ear to anyone requesting odds on what was at the time the minimum margin.
Despite appearances, though, during the 15 or so years that I bet regularly at Lingfield and other courses in the south of the country, I never once had a dispute with a bookmaker. That’s astonishing when considering the number of potential things that could have gone wrong, if only by accident, with bets being called through every few seconds to overworked clerks at busy times.
I’d been taught well in that respect, mind you. As a child, I’d once asked my racecourse mentor, Colin, why he didn’t go straight to collect when holding a winning ticket, given a subsequent stewards’ enquiry could change the result. “Because I’d have to give the money back anyway if that happened,” was his immediate reply. Colin was no stranger to trying to blag his way to a saving – for years when returning from the racecourse he’d whizz through Selby toll bridge with a brusque shout to the attendant of “Local!” – but he made a point of never behaving in a dishonourable way towards on-course bookmakers.
I only got the chance to practice the lesson he’d taught me once. I’d backed a winner with John (Joe) Bates, only for the clerk of the scales to object to the winner several minutes after the finish. I’d already been paid out, but to be honest it never occurred to me not to return the money – apart from anything else, how would I ever be able to look him in the eye when placing a bet again?
But his somewhat shocked reaction when I handed back the cash suggested that this was a rare and unexpected occurrence from the bookmaker’s point of view. Most punters seem to be conditioned into viewing bookies as the enemy, but I never felt that about on-course bookmakers. During my lifetime I’ve had multiple disputes with tradesmen who have done work at my house, over a range of issues from reliability to dishonesty, but I never found racecourse bookmakers anything other than honourable.
After a while, I found myself leaving each meeting with a few notes in my racecard about horses that had run well up the unfavoured centre of the straight track, with a view to backing them next time. This meant increasingly frequent walks to the small bookmaker at the far side of Lingfield village centre, about a 20 minute walk from my flat.
I’d become accustomed to this walk already, usually placing a few bets on the TV races covered by Channel 4 or the BBC, as well as making sharp dashes to catch the “shoulder races” at Royal Ascot and Cheltenham, which weren’t covered by terrestrial TV. I hadn’t really done very well with these “form study” bets, though, unsurprisingly given most of them were heavily based on in-running comments in the racing press written by journalists.
I started having more success with horses that I watched myself, though, both at Lingfield and elsewhere. With no video replays in those days and much less sophistication about in terms of media form analysis than is the case nowadays, it was perfectly possible to spot horses that had shaped better than their finishing position without the odds reflecting that run on their next start.
Now that I was betting more regularly off course, it made sense to open a few telephone accounts. On Saturdays and the bigger midweek meetings, there were usually plenty of handicaps that were priced up early, and it made sense to try and access the best prices available.
This cut down drastically on my walks to the local bookies, for a while at least. When I first started betting in shops there were no pictures, only the Extel commentary, and I didn’t really miss those occasions when my selection was described as being clear at the furlong pole, only to be caught close to the line 45 seconds later.
As well as in the Sporting Life and Racing Post, bookmakers started advertising on Teletext. This had a dual advantage; not only were prices updated live once the markets had opened, but for Saturdays and bigger meetings they could be published the night before. This left plenty of time for punters to sift through the prices, which was handy, given that there would sometimes be upwards of 20 pages that updated in numerical order, leading to plenty of cursing if you forgot to press the “hold” button on the remote control. The main firms were all clustered close together on Teletext (Hills on page 601, Ladbrokes on 605, Coral on 611); although there were often quite big discrepancies between odds, you could usually get on to reasonable stakes in the mornings if you were quick.
That’s not to say there weren’t restrictions in those days (or much, much earlier), though. One instance I remember well occurred at Lingfield in 1991. It was a Saturday meeting, Derby Trial day in fact, and one of the early price races was a 6f handicap. When the prices started to appear on Teletext the evening before, many people quickly spotted one obvious overpriced horse.
Amigo Menor had bolted up over the same distance at this two-day meeting the previous year when refitted with blinkers, having not worn them on his first two starts of the season, and the same strategy was being reemployed here, with the headgear back on after two prep runs.
Well drawn in stall 10, he was widely tipped in both trade papers and won a shade comfortably after being supported from 12-1 to 5-1. After the race, Julian Wilson, with his familiar mixture of half-disbelief and barely-concealed disdain, left BBC viewers in no doubt what he thought about the £25 restrictions reportedly placed on many punters at the bigger prices.
Although it was Lingfield that had caught my imagination as a punter, I went racing on at least one, and sometimes both of my weekly days off, regardless of whether my local track was staging a meeting. I didn’t own a car in the early days, but there was a wide variety of courses within range by train from Lingfield, so long as you didn’t mind travelling all the way up to Clapham Junction first.
Sandown and Newbury were particular favourites in the early days when my days off were Thursdays and Fridays, but after a year working at the school I was suddenly asked to be deputy in charge of a unit following a number of unexpected staff departures over the summer holidays, and this meant my days off changed to Mondays and Tuesdays. If anything, this proved a bonus; that winter meant regular trips to the likes of Plumpton, always a joy of a course to visit, and Folkestone.
After two years in my job, my days off changed back to Thursday and Fridays again as I was appointed as the officer in charge of one of the residential units, which could be a very stressful job at times, and racing continued to be my escape. You tend not to plan much when you’re young, and if the racing press included the name of the nearest train station for a particular meeting, that was enough for me to be jumping on a train. Sometimes, though, a bit more attention to detail would have helped.
I was aware when visiting Fontwell that I’d need to get the shuttle bus from Barnham station, but was caught out a bit when venturing further afield. I probably should have learned my lesson when Huntingdon station turned out to be a two-and-a-half mile walk from the track, but a little more research would have benefitted when I went on an impromptu journey to Wincanton.
After finishing my working week on the Wednesday afternoon, I discovered that See You Then, the triple Champion Hurdler but so rarely seen on the racecourse other than at the Festival, was making his seasonal debut in the Kingwell Hurdle the following day.
The racing press said that Wincanton was served by Templecombe station, so I bought a return ticket, and via Clapham Junction as usual, I was on my way to Somerset.
The train pulled in around 9pm and I set off in the dark with my rucksack on my back looking for somewhere to stay the night. I had visions of Templecombe being on the outskirts of Wincanton and likely to be full of guest houses, but it turned out to be a tiny village, and within a minute’s walk I was in the middle of what seemed endless countryside.
Fortunately, I stumbled across a hotel in the middle of nowhere. As you’d expect from its name - Horsington House, now privately owned - it was posher and more expensive than I’d bargained for, but the alternative seemed to be a night in the hedgerows, so I bit the bullet. The staff were most accommodating, though, and the following morning remains the only time I’ve had a lift to a racecourse in the back of a laundry truck heading for a commercial cleaners. Sadly See You Then, sent off at 1-2, was pulled up lame and promptly retired (he did make a return a couple of years later), but at least the diminutive and ever-popular Floyd won the race.
In 1989, one of the biggest developments in British horseracing for years arrived, as Lingfield and Southwell held trials on their all-weather surface. I went to the Lingfield event, where most interest seemed to centre around a couple of impressive Martin Pipe hurdlers who won their respective trials in a canter. One of them was listed as Pipe’s moderate selling plater Celcius in the programme (yes, there was a very basic list of “runners” issued on the day), but turned out to be Regal Ambition, a 67-rated Flat recruit who went on to win the 2m4f novice hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival later that season.
With the trials deemed a success, I duly turned up for the opening all-weather meeting at Lingfield – it was surprising how many people made it for the 11am start. There are many aspects of that day that seem incongruous now, but one phrase I doubt we’ll see repeated at any time in the future is “Frankie Dettori finally rode a winner on the twelfth race on the card in division five of the claimer.”
The advent of the all-weather opened up new betting opportunities, especially for punters quickly able to identify specialists on the new surface - Rapporteur, for instance, won eight of his first sixteen starts on Equitrack, but the shortest SP for any of those wins was 5-2 and his average odds were around 5-1.
Other new angles appeared for punters, notably via the new medium of sports spread betting. There were two advantages to the early adopters – the markets were traded quite aggressively, and, especially in the early days, the market makers made mistakes.
I remember doing quite well from selectively selling National Hunt winning distances - an average six-race card on good ground at one stage was consistently being quoted six or seven lengths higher than when the markets finally adjusted after a year or two – and also buying total rugby league points in certain scenarios, which again the markets took into account after a while. As ever, it was a case of trying to move on and find new edges as others disappeared.
For those looking to improve their horseracing betting, the quality of literature available to punters was, in this country at least, fairly grim. Timeform was still a long way ahead of the rest in terms of interpreting form, but the literature available on the horseracing shelves at WH Smith – and indeed much of the guidance in the racing media – was peppered with guidance that consisted of folksy hand-me-downs and unverified prescriptions.
I lost count of the number of times in late 1980s/early 19990s literature that readers were advised “never bet in handicaps”, and there was a heavy reliance on literal interpretation of form in terms of pounds per length, whilst indiscriminate citing of collateral form also seemed de rigueur amongst many analysts.
One well-touted book that was amongst the best-sellers in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave this piece of advice to its readers: “Odds on are bad odds as they are unfair and unreasonable. They can never favour the backer, who stands to lose more than can be gained. They always favour the bookmaker, whose risk is less than his possible gain.” Presumably the author retired to a Caribbean island once Betfair arrived and he was able to lay odds-on chances all day long.
Thankfully, the quality of “how to bet on horseracing” books increased noticeably in the 1990s, led by Alan Potts’s Against The Crowd. Moreover, the second half of the decade saw the introduction of widespread internet availability in the UK, albeit via dial-up.
The early adopters tended to be younger, tech-savvy types, and when racing discussion groups started to spring up on the internet, the first contributors tended to be very open to new ideas.
Indeed, the uk.sport.horseracing newsgroup, which was formed the same year that Against The Crowd was published, was an offshoot of the alt.sport.horseracing newsgroup, and the originators of the UK version were therefore already familiar with the works of the more influential US racing writers, notably speed guru Andy Beyer.
With much discussion prompted by Potts’s book, as well as influential publications in the 1990s from the maverick, but innovative Nick Mordin and Pricewise founder Mark Coton, a new generation of racing punters sprang up very quickly. The new newsgroup arrived in the same year that The Racing Channel launched via subscription, and this development provided a massive boost for punters who didn’t want to base their betting decisions on a race reader’s verdict in the form book.
I was a regular contributor to the newsgroup, wrote the odd article here and there for online and printed magazines, and in the summer of 2000 somehow managed to parlay this limited experience into a full-time position in the original Arena Online editorial team led by David Stewart, which quickly assumed the same role on the original attheraces website.
Perhaps I’d missed a trick spending fifteen years on what had been a racing and betting apprenticeship – social media nowadays is, after all, crammed with young men barely into their early twenties yet confident enough in their abilities to suggest you should pay a subscription for their racing services. But being a racing fan had never been a means to an end to me, I had a fantastic time learning the game; and 20 years after starting my first job in racing, I’m still having a fantastic time, and still learning the game.