It was a lovely afternoon’s racing at Newton Abbot on Tuesday. Even better that the light appears to be at the end of the pandemic tunnel for racing. Some owners could attend, with one bookmaker there to service them. The bookie was happy to be there too but it’s fair to say that had it been a pre-Covid day’s racing he’d have been considering if he’d ever bother again given the business. I spoke to him just before the sixth race where he just laid his 32rd bet of the afternoon, £600 – £100 the ultimate winner of the race, which returned 5/1.

The on-course bookmakers have had a bad time, over 12 months with hardly any opportunity to pitch-up at all. The lucky few that have been allowed to bet at the behind closed doors meetings have reported very light business. The latest blow to them is that it has been decided that the Industry SP system that was put in place by necessity when racing resumed with no crowds back in June is to continue. Traditionally the Starting Price has been collected from a sample of on-course bookmakers. The has been a rumbling in recent years the on-course bookmakers are using the betting exchanges prices as a guide to their own prices the tail has been wagging the dog. 

It’s hardly news that the majority of money wagered on horseracing has always been done so off course. That said, the organic origin of those prices ,has rightfully in my opinion, has been on-course. 

So, it’s all change, the SP is going to be returned from a selection of off-course bookmaking firms with just the possibility that on-course bookmakers will be included but their small contribution to the sample will be ineffective. As there is already wrangling about who will pay to have the on-course prices collated it’s by no means certain that they will even get that nod. 

There has been scrutiny of the industry returns, while the overall overround has been competitive it has been suggested that prices at the front of the market have been compressed with those that ‘can’t win’ inflated. There has been a recent case of two horses returned odds-on in the same race and noticeable discrepancy between the exchange SP and that of the industry. The latter has been a rod with which to beat on-course bookmakers when it occasionally happened. Nobody seems too keen to pull the industry up on it though. On the face of it, an industry SP that is good for the off-course bookmakers who fund the levy is good for racing. Most punters already get a great deal of value from bookmakers, best odds guaranteed, money back for all sorts of bad luck in races, money back fallers, shortheads, the list goes on. Not being cynical, but realistic, all the bookmakers are doing is allowing the average punter to lose their money just a bit slower.

The on-course bookmaker at Newton Abbot highlighted a chink in the armour of the new SP system. It’s the each-way prices of the outsiders that they could never compete with. There do appear to be a lot more huge-priced horses winning that there ever were when the SP’s were taken from on-course. 

Going back to when I started working for on-course bookmakers in the very late 1980’s the market revolved around the front few in the betting. Very few of the on-course bookmakers paid much attention to the outsiders, they would certainly not be going out of their way to try and lay them. They just got priced at 33/1 and probably stay unlaid. If ever any of the on-course firms did lay a bet a rag, the floorman would be sent to have it all back with the fractions to try and get an earn from it. The worst fear for most on-course bookmakers would be to lose over a 33/1 ‘result’, almost to a man they’d have the rags running for them. The traditional book would be the ‘jolly’ losing and the second-in a taker, the rest winning and the rags skinners. 

When I say ‘to a man’ there were some exceptions. One that springs to mind is Dave Pipe, father and grandfather of trainers Martin and David Pipe respectively.  He’d go bigger prices to get the rags in his book. On the rare occasion that one did pop up his floorman Frank couldn’t resist scampering around the whole ring gleefully relating that his boss had done his money over the no-hoper. The ring all partook in some schadenfreude that the big bookie had come a cropper, but he was really laughing all the way to the bank for years. 

In hindsight, Dave Pipe was the shrewdest man on the track. When you consider that it’s accepted that the exchange SP is as true a reflection of a horses’ chance you can get what value he was having. Imagine over the years how many bets he laid at 33/1 something which had true odds of ten times or more of winning. Dave Pipe always said you cannot eat value, but he could certainly spot it. 

As with the on-course bookmakers of old, the off-course firms creating the market are basing their business around the front few. The difference is rather than in a competitive manner you would see with on-course books trying to attract their share of limited money, they are being trimmed.  The Achilles heel of the current system is some outsiders appear to be overpriced. The value is there in the each-way, especially with bookmakers offering enhanced terms. The difficulty is knowing which horses are too big and which can’t win, the shrewdies will spot the value. The problem for them is that as soon as punters with the ability, start picking off the value they have identified, the bookmakers will identify them too and wade in with the restrictions. 

Some firms appear to have already realised that they are vulnerable to a rag-generous SP by withdrawing best odds guaranteed for all customers on enhanced place markets as well as taking away the option to bet at SP. The battle is on, those that can take advantage of the current trend should make hay while the sun shines. The likelihood is that as scrutiny of the SP system wanes, those value-added rags will start to disappear too. 

Simon Nott

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