Monday, March 26, 2018

Cheltenham ruminations and resolutions

If you stand still in this game you're dead, so it's imperative to take stock frequently and find ways to improve. I managed to win a tiny amount over the four days of Cheltenham which in itself doesn't bother me (4 days even 4 busy ones like that is a tiny sample of a year's betting) but I did feel that I could have done things better.
The major change this year was 48 hour declarations for everything (previously only the Grade 1s)
What this meant in practice was that markets for the final declared fields were available 2 evenings before. I'm not sure if these prices were laid in shops that evening but they were certainly available the following morning and from my point of view that's when I have to be ready to act next year. I found the day of race markets pretty much bang on in the conditions races, unsurprisingly, as they had had 2 days to converge and eliminate any ricks. I'll be taking  a leaf out of Tony Keenan's book next year and I'll be on the conditions races like a tramp on chips the week before, playing NRNB and ready to act on anything out of line after decs.
The other major area of interest is NRNB on all races from the time all the firms embrace it. It means laying out a lot of money but it's worth it if you have 6-8 horses with multiple targets that you know must shorten in whatever race they end up in. The one I really wanted to be with this year was Whiskey Sour, but I didn't see the County coming. (Willie unpredictable, how predictable) I did get on but only after decs. I spent fortunes backing Sire De Berlais and Early Doors for everything bar the Boat Race for all the good it did me but in another year 2 or 3 of these click and it's well worth it. The late switchers are where the real gold is though: the Douvan shennanigans a case in point- anyone with positions in the Champion Chase and Ryanair could have done very well out of that.
Another thing I realised is not to be put off by the ground if it's the only reason not to be with a horse- it's an overplayed factor. Horses like Balko Des Flos, Mohayyed and Tiger Roll went off much bigger than they should have because of connections' ground fears- if the price is big enough you can take that chance.
On ante post, I'm also going to have a rethink. this year large positions I had in the championship races laying horses arguably stopped me forming new opinions nearer the race- though they made a profit I'm not sure it was worth it especially as it ties up a lot of funds for several months.
This year I learnt to be even more flexible about "trends" to the point of perhaps binning them altogether. Native River couldn't win the Gold Cup because he had been beaten the year before, Shattered Love couldn't win a novice chase because she was a mare, Balko Des Flos didn't have a course win- it's mostly backfitted nonsense and I think I'll ditch the lot next Festival.
Looking back, I don't feel I did too much wrong- I had 18 horses placed all at double figure prices, so it just feels like variance won this year. That's not as good as it sounds by the way, as I'm usually playing 2-3 horses per race.
Lastly, considering it was the first year I didn't attend (excepting the abandoned year and a year in Australia) since the early '90s, I didn't miss it. I'm not sure if that says more about me, or the modern Festival.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

No Mas, Michael.

I have been attending the Cheltenham Festival since going with my Dad in the early 1990s. I've hardly missed a year since. Yet I came out of my now normal two day pilgrimage on the Wednesday night last year and decided I wasn't going back.
My first year attending may have been 1992 (painful memories of my hero Carvills Hill's eclipse) but the fabric of my Festival memories goes back a lot further- to my early teens when I first got interested in racing and began to partake in the endless winter debates about Champion Hurdles, Gold Cups and Champion Chases. Speculation about Irish horses going over to take on the might of England kept us enthused in the long winter evenings and tales of heroes past like Vincent O'Brien's domination of the Gloucester Hurdle, Paddy Sleator's daring raids and Mick O'Toole's tilts at the ring filled many a Friday evening at Uncle Jim's.
It was simpler them, three perfect days, three championship races and nowhere to hide. All that changed utterly when the jamboree expanded to four days. Now we had races at intermediate distances- the Ryanair, the JLT, three novice hurdles, mares races, a Cross Country for God's sake. It was Quantitative Easing for racing- dilute the product and spread it thinner, no one will notice. Outwardly, they haven't. All four days are well attended, the focus on Cheltenham is arguably narrower than ever, the racing is still exciting. The Festival dollar in your pocket still buys what it always did- or does it?
Michael O'Leary was out front and centre this week pushing for another new Festival race- an intermediate distance Championship hurdle. In his argument he mused that the Gold Cup in 2016 was no poorer for the absence of the 176 rated Ryanair winner Vautour. All of the speculation that season after he was chinned on the line in the King George was around whether he would get the trip in the Gold Cup- it split people down the middle like a civil war. Then mere days before Cheltenham the news came that he was ducking the gig and taking the easier option over two miles five. Anyone who asserts that this didn't devalue that year's Gold Cup is a fool or a knave- I'm not sure which you are Michael but it's evens each of two.
The extra races have already torn the narrative of time, of champions- how good was Quevega? Annie Power? Could both have won multiple championship races against the boys? How many Bobsline/Noddy's Ryde clashes have we missed out on since the JLT? Can you name the last 4 winners of the Martin Pipe?
Why do I feel relaxed about missing out in March? It's no fun any more- I don't know what will run in which race, I don't really care who wins most of them and I no longer deem it worth the scrum and the expense. I will go back, but I'm not saying when.
If you're losing me from the March extravaganza you're losing a fair chunk of your previous diehards. In good times like this it may not matter, but when the next downturn comes your four days may start to look a litttle threadbare, both in terms of the "product" and the bottom line.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Irish Racing, because we're worth it.

Kevin Blake wrote a blog for Attheraces this week calling for, among other things, an expansion of the winter Dundalk programme and a second all weather track in Munster. I argued against this on Twitter but the constraints of 280 characters prompted this blog.
Irish Racing does entitlement like The Donald does hair and ego. The simple truth is that the Irish industry is blessed by being subsidized from the public purse every year. Betting turnover does not cover the cost of putting on racing. Calls for more racing, especially lower class Flat racing must be viewed through this prism.
Dundalk on a Friday night is one of Irish racing's success stories: it's getting good brand recognition through the Attheraces coverage with the two cheeky chappies and the horses and personalities there are becoming known to a wider audience. People bet on things they are familiar with- Dundalk on a Friday is becoming part of the fabric: you go down to the pub, watch it on the telly and have a few bets- what better way to kick off the weekend? Would Tipperary on a Tuesday night garner the same interest or betting turnover? Would betting turnover increase substantially as the number of 0-65 all weather handicaps ballooned?
They can do it in France, was the cry- ah yes, but they have a Tote monopoly and every penny of betting turnover is made to count. In our model we have to make do with the scraps from the Paddy Power table.
What our industry has to realise is that the only sustainable business model is one where it is self-financing. There is only so much rural employment guff successive governments will listen to when (inevitably) times get tougher. The current exchequer largesse is a low hanging fruit waiting to be picked by the next left-leaning coalition partner facing into a difficult budget with the media screaming about hundreds of patients on trolleys. If at that point we have another all weather track and a further bloated fixture list the pain of loss will be far worse.
The energies of those in our industry should be put into consolidating and selling what we have. The Irish Tote despite some success in promoting the Pick 6 is largely moribund and shows very little appetite for modernization or innovation. It needs root and branch reform to offer a real alternative to exchange betting and fixed odds. TV coverage is gold- the Friday night programme sells the product. We need more features on the people and horses who put on the show, even if the industry funds them itself. Ger Lyons' son recently produced a "day in the life" piece on his Dad which was excellent- that sort of human interest piece is what should be playing on Attheraces between the Friday races. Why aren't we inviting Luke and Jason over for a tour of Meath/North Dublin via Ado McGuinness, Garvan Donnelly and Demot McLoughlin?
If we get into a situation where the product generates enough betting turnover to pay for itself we can talk about more tracks and more fixtures. Until that we need to concentrate on selling what we have.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Day In The Life

Following on from my last post I thought it might interest people how the nuts and bolts of my new approach works these days.
Preparation for the next day's racing begins the day before as soon as possible after declarations, work permitting. Firstly I go through every card for "stats" qualifiers mainly using This is a catch all term for various systems I am using based on statistics to systematically pinpoint overpriced horses. It could be a sire on a particular surface, a jockey/trainer combination or a trainer with a high strike rate with debutantes. To use a stat it must have: 1) At least 10 actual winners 2) A strike rate of 20% or very close to it 3) Profit. I don't get very interested unless there's a 50% ROI or close to it. People use stats with lower strike rates successfully but for me it increases the risk that the profit is simply chance and it takes too long to find out. Ideas for systems come from everywhere- sometimes a pundit on TV will quote a stat which sounds promising but usually when I run it through Horseracebase it doesn't stack up. If it satisfies the criteria above it goes in. It's a constant process of adding, pruning and removing systems as time goes on- what worked last year won't neccessarily work this.
 At any time I'll be running 20-30 systems on Horseracebase and they'll spit out anything up to 20 qualifiers on busy days. That's where the work starts, as I don't back them blind. I'll then look at each qualifier individually and ask the question-"has the market priced this horse correctly?" Usually if the horse is 5/1 or bigger the answer is "no" and it's a bet. I leave most of the shorter priced ones alone. I won't back all the bigger priced ones either as there may be a logical reason for eliminating them because of trip or ground concerns, or multiple qualifiers in a race.
If it's a bet the last decision is how to back it. In 90% of cases that's done by placing an SP bet on the exchange with a minimum price stipulation. That usually will be placed at 5/1 or more, depending on the nature of the race and the number of runners with chances. The more automatic this process is the better it works, so I try not to overthink it. I back qualifiers to level stakes regardless of price. If I decide the horse is likely to be well backed I may add it to the list to take an early price on the next morning.The above takes anything from 20 minutes on the average Monday to maybe an hour on a busy racing day.
The next phase of prep is on days where there's Irish racing. I'll go through each Irish race in the traditional "form" sense and make an attempt to price them if I'm interested enough in each particular contest.This analysis is different- I have notes on hundreds of Irish horses based on observing their races. I have a fair idea of their individual quirks and requirements which is my edge over the crowd.  I'll start to get an idea of horses I might be interested in the following day when prices are available to me and will write down possible bets and prices to beat. I may also get ideas about in-running bets like back to lay in running or lay to back. I automate this because with the ATR delay, live in-running betting is suicide. I might back a horse at 10 SP then put in progressive lays at 5, 4, 3  and 2 or even lower if I think it might trade short and get beat. Nora Batt was my highlight for this approach this summer!
In the evening I'll see how they've priced up the overnights- I can't have a bet at that stage but I'll have  a fair idea if my target price is likely to be available the next morning.
On raceday I get the shop bets done for me soon after opening time. I like to do multiples on days when I'm backing a fair few juicy priced horses as the Lucky 15 concession (3 times the odds on a single winner) is actually quite valuable. Most of punting feels like chiselling away for small returns at times so there's always the chance of a year transforming lift if 2 or 3 click. Multiples have a bad name but they're actually a great way to get around stake limits- a trick I learned from a really good UK punter I correspond with is that if I want to back a horse ante post, I'll keep sticking it in doubles or even trebles with my daily bets in the hope that one clicks- that way I can build a really nice ante post position relatively cheaply and under the radar.
Before racing I'll have a look at the exchange and see how the markets are shaping both in Ireland and in the races with stats qualifiers. If I have a solid stats bet that's trading much bigger than my price to beat (50%+) I'll add another half stake with that price as a minimum.
If I have time to watch racing live I'll keep an eye on the live market to see if anything I gave a chance to is drifting to a price I didn't expect and I'll stick in a bet at SP with a minimum stipulation.
For me, taking live prices doesn't work- I've found my sort of horse tends to drift and return better at SP. The danger of watching markets live is that you chase prices down and accept lower than you should- I have been that soldier. It's hard to see a horse start at 6.8 and win when you wanted 7, but over time it's good business. Sometimes if there's been a non-runner or a ground change I can make a logical argument for accepting  a shorter price but mostly you're better off letting the shorteners win and backing the drifters. I have very few bets at under 4/1 these days and I've practically given up laying horses above evens- I just can't stomach losing 4 or 5 times my stake in one hit and wiping out a good day. (The real truth is that I'm terrible at it and the stats don't lie)
The decision whether to take an early price or leave it to SP on the exchange is often not easy and is something I get wrong almost every day. I try not to beat myself up about this nowadays and accept that markets are chaotic and difficult to predict- I find myself leaving more and more to SP as the upside to your expectations can be huge. Knowledge of the habits of the trainers or owners involved can help predict if the cash might arrive.
It should be obvious that my turnover is high- it's routine for me to turn over 20-30 times a normal stake in a busy day. That's not for everyone but it suits me, as it smooths returns. You need to set your stakes at a level where a blank day doesn't get to you too much.
Every bet I make goes in a spreadsheet and with the help of someone more tech savvy than myself I hope to be able to do more analysis of this going forward.
My aim on a day with an Irish card is to be able to look at the results and say that I didn't miss a findable, significantly overpriced winner. If favs go through the card, I'm happy to take my medicine.
If there were one piece of advice I could impart to do this well, it's to stop trying to back winners. That may sound perverse, but there's a powerful herd impulse to back the winner regardless of price and shout about it to your mates. It's harder to accept a lower strike rate and accept that you will have losing days, weeks and months even if you're doing everything right. You simply need to work hard to try and ensure that you make good bets, that is bets with positive expected value (look it up) and allow time to prove you right.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Beating The Machine

Most punters who make a genuine effort to win at the game go through various phases: mug punting, managing to limit losses for a while then eventually getting to the point where winning can reasonably be expected at the start of most years. At the latter stage the difficulties begin- accounts which show profit over time are restricted or closed and you become forced back to the shops. Phone calls to the traders, limited stakes and knockbacks- it grinds you down over time and takes the fun out of it.
At that point you can either spend your energy moaning about your lot on Twitter or try and find another way.
I freely admit that over my punting life, I have struggled to win on Betfair- give me access to 3 or 4 firms' early prices and betting value horses is relatively easy, beating the "machine" is a different matter. Something changed for me in 2017 though and I thought sharing what I think are the reasons might be helpful to some in a similar position.
My shop woes came to a head this year and I made a conscious decision to migrate more to Betfair and have a proper crack at it. The approach is totally different to the early price one however. Spotting overpriced horses the evening before and trying to get on before the value goes doesn't work- by the time there is enough liquidity the price you thought was value the night before may not be there any more.
The first change I implemented was a change of mindset. You need to think of Betfair as a Tote- you are playing against the crowd and it should be just as possible to beat them there as it is to win in other ways.
Secondly the method changes. I now look at the races I'm interested in for the next day and come up with minimum prices for anything from one horse to half a dozen. Then it's a case of either leaving SP bets with this minimum proviso or watching the market live and reacting to the value that's thrown up. This means that I actually have no idea what I'll end up backing until near the off and this takes a little more mental flexibility. The upside is that often horses you didn't really anticipate as bets stick out a mile as value when you've done the requisite prep.
My personal method involves either a full or partial tissue betting to 100% then adding a 50% margin in odds to build in a profit- for example a 2/1 chance would need to be 3/1+ for a bet, and 8/1 would have to be 12/1+ etc. It's important to look at reserves in Ireland as they are often not assessed as accurately. The shape of the race both in how it's run and how they might bet can change a lot if a reserve or reserves get a run.
It's also important to anticipate how the markets and the tissue might change if conditions change before or during the meeting- softening ground, a draw bias on the Flat and so on. Punters without fixed fancies are at a major advantage if they can change tack as races are run.
From taking or leaving Dundalk, for instance, I now wouldn't want to miss a meeting as there are horses with chances trading at insane prices almost every week. Staking is fairly level, but I'm inclined to have another half to full stake on horses which are double my value price or more.
All I can say is that I'm now 80% Betfair and it's paying. I hope this will remain the case- maybe I'll do a progress report at year's end.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Yesterday's four horse coup divided racing folk neatly down the middle. On one side are the romantics, myself included, who grew up heady on the fumes of past "them and us" battles with the bookmakers passed on down the generations. On the other are the cognoscenti, disciples of the formbook, appalled at the egregious conniving and scheming required to bring off such a touch.
In my time on Twitter I have rarely seen the depth of feeling that this event brought out on both sides and I thought it would be worth explaining why I sit firmly on the conspirators side of the fence.

I grew up in a town called Ashbourne, a mile from where Arkle was trained. As a boy I had no interest in horses or racing and indeed used to wonder why my father was wasting his time on winter afternoons watching brown blobs tackle various differing obstacles while a priest-like figure commentated in hushed tones.

It was the numbers on the screen that piqued my interest and the muttered phone calls: when the "odds" were explained I was hooked, line and sinker, for life. From this grew a love of all things racing as I learned a new language and began a steady diet of Friday night racing chats with Dad and Uncle Jim. Out of those humble beginnings came a lifetime of punting, owning and eventually breeding.

Jim was a heroic figure in my father's eyes: He was Paddy Sleator's form book man in the days when Paddy struck across the Channel in a series of lightning raids, mopping up races all over England. Jim's job was to tell him where his horses were best in, in the days when every course had a different handicapper. Their team were greatly feared and took fortunes from the layers in a golden period before I was born. Jim had a peripheral role in the "Gay Future" affair as well and he and my father could recall the party afterwards, when lads were dropping money on the floor, so much had they stuffed in every pocket.
Jim had without doubt beaten the bookies over his lifetime but sadly I was to overestimate his prowess without Paddy Sleator's horses and waste a considerable part of my early punting life believing that riches lay in backing odds-on"certainties" and combining them in doubles and trebles. He did however introduce me to the magic of the weekly "Irish Racing Calendar" and the Form book, which received far more of my undergraduate attention than my veterinary textbooks.

The point is that it was Dad and Jim's tales of daring coups and gambles that sparked my interest in the sport, and hence I will always have a place in my affections for those who can put one over on the "Old Enemy"  The reality is that times have moved on and taking the bookies for large sums becomes more difficult by the day with improved communications, liability controls and firms becoming more bean counter and less bookmaker all the time. I myself have hardly had a bet with a track bookmaker in 5 years and can't remember the last time I was laid to lose a sum I would consider exciting on the phone or online. The truth is it's all Betfair nowadays, even more so since Barney's coups further closed the gate.

I think people should view Barney as the end of an era. He still regards the bookies as the enemy and wants nothing more than to have them scurrying for cover as their liabilty limiters catch fire. When he goes he closes the book on that time in history, which was magical to a small boy looking for heroes who fought with their heads, not with their fists.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Saturday 1st Sep 2012

Ballyadam Brook saved the day yesterday- an excellent ride from Davy Condon. On a habitual front-runner he realised the early pace was too strong and sat off them pouncing late. Orpheus Valley ran a blinder but ran into a monster in Kalleshan. Denis Hogan is going places and could have a shout in the Plate next year with this fella.
Thin pickings at Killarney today for me.
Tandem looks a good thing here and the evens with Bet365 looks a gift- 3 pts win.