Issue 1

Neil Rollinson
Backing a Loser

Great gamblers trust their knowledge and possess the equipoise necessary to go out on that edge where the gods and demons live. Failure lives out there on that edge. So does luck, and a sensation that’s richer than satisfaction… Stephen Dunn

I’ve never been a gambler so I don’t quite know how I hit on horse racing, but I did. I was snooping about on the net while I was editor of the online literature magazine Boomerang several years ago, reading endless amounts of awful submissions, convinced I could dig some money-making scam out of this internet lark. Others were making money so why couldn’t I? I found an interesting forum that was quite busy and full of nice, pleasant people swapping tips and horsy gossip, so I stuck around for a few weeks watching and listening. One guy, called Malcolm was posting a daily racing nap from a betting system he’d just developed, I followed his tips every day for a month, and incredibly, he had a 100% strike rate. Thirty bets, and thirty winners. Amazing. However, the incredible thing about this was, they weren’t winners at all, they were actually losers. When I first started betting on the Internet I was intrigued to learn that you could actually bet on a horse to lose, rather than win a race, so I bought into this guy’s system, (he subsequently sold his tips after such an auspicious start) and I started to bet on horses to lose races.

With the advent of betting exchanges such as Betfair it’s possible to gamble on almost anything, including in-play betting, which means you can actually bet on a race while it’s still being run, or bet on a football match for the whole 90 minutes not just before kick off. The reason for this is that Betfair isn’t really a bookmaker at all; it just consists of members exchanging odds and stakes, more akin to the market place, or more appropriately: Ebay. Betfair doesn’t offer any odds itself and doesn’t pay out a penny; it simply takes 5% of all winning bets.

So, Bob and Mary are sat in front of their computers on a cold Saturday morning in early April. Mary thinks Rumplestiltskin is going to win The Grand National, so she puts ten pounds into Betfair and decides her own odds: it’s quite a competitive race, obviously, so she offers 8/1.

This is a simple ‘back’ bet, the kind we’re all familiar with, if the horse wins, then she wins eighty pounds and gets her stake of ten back. Nice work. However, since Betfair isn’t a bookies, Mary’s ten quid just sits there in limbo until someone takes her up on the bet, in other words someone who thinks that Rumplestiltskin won’t win the race. In effect she’s looking for a bookie. Well there’s one born every minute. Here’s Bob, and Bob is a bit of an expert on these things. He studies form! And the form says that Rumplestiltskin won’t like the ground, it’s been raining overnight and the going has changed from good to soft, and all of Rumplestiltskin’s form has come on firm ground, Mary’s tenner looks like free cash, so he’s going to take her up on the offer. He’s going to ‘lay’ Rumplestiltskin, which is to say he’ll act as her bookmaker and finance the transaction.
      As a layer, rather that a backer, Bob has to agree to pay Mary out if Rumplestiltskin wins, and in this case, at 8/1 that’s a hefty eighty quid. If however the horse loses, then he simply pockets Mary’s tenner, thankyou very much; he pays the 5% commission to Betfair, and it’s off down the pub for a few free drinks. So, let’s see what happens.      You can actually ‘watch’ the race unfold on Betfair. Not the actual horses of course, we’re not talking about a video feed here, just the movement of money as punters bet ‘in play,’ Thousands of pounds are gambled during the race, right up to the final moments, and you can follow the progress of the horses by watching their odds change. If Rumplestilskin is leading the field all the way, then his price will fall during the race, but if he’s held up, or bunched in against the rails, then his price will drift: all of which offers further opportunities for the canny, modern bettor.
      Let’s say that Rumplestiltskin is indeed held up in the middle of the field while an outsider, Swift Foot, is setting the pace and looks to be putting in a strong ride. Rumplestiltskin’s price has lengthened out to 17/1 – backers are panicking and have started to try and get some of their cash back by ‘laying’ it, hence the drift in price. But Mary is no fool, she’s got a cool head, and she has faith in Rumplestilskin so she’s sticking with him, she likes the rider’s colours, and she likes the story; and that’s a system too, of a kind! But not only that, she’s noticed an opportunity to make a few extra bob. Her horse is now twice the price it was at the start of the race. Excellent! She bangs in a further ten at 17/1 and sits back to listen to the race on the radio.
      Meanwhile Bob is rubbing his hands, he can smell free money, Rumplestiltskin is running like a stuffed pig, so why not put Mary’s tenner on this young filly, Swift Foot; make hay while the sun shines, kill two birds with one stone, etc etc. She’s three lengths clear already, so the sooner he does it the better, because her price is falling sharply. He stakes ten quid at 2/1.
      Meanwhile, Mary thinks she can spot another opportunity; she’s really on the ball this afternoon. The guy on the radio just said that he thinks the lead horse has set too fast a pace, and what with the heavy ground, she just might find it tough coming up the hill at the end of the race, it’s a tough ask for a young filly.
      It’s a bit of a gamble, but she decides to ‘lay’ Swift Foot, the price is falling quickly, and at odds on, it would be stupid not to. Mary gets on for ten pounds at 4/6. It’s crazy; there are so many bets going in, and so much money swapping hands.
      Sure enough, the filly starts running backwards as she tires up the hill, and Rumplestiltskin, bless him, with stamina on the sire’s side, gallops on through the field and seems to be relishing the conditions: he hits the front with a furlong to go, but just as they head for the finish, Billy Jo, another outsider, puts in a strong rally and it’s neck and neck all the way to the tape. They seem to cross the line together.
      Phew, it’s a tight one. Bob has already lost his late tenner on the filly of course, which was pulled up at the last fence, and Mary has won her ten quid on the same horse, which she laid. Now it looks like a photo. Jesus!
      The market is still open and they’re betting on the result of the photograph! See, I told you, you can bet on anything these days. Thousands of pounds are gambled as the chemicals wash over the milky paper, as the ghostly forms of the horses, neck and neck, appear in the developer tray: well, they don’t do it like that any more but you get the picture. They wait in front of their computers for the verdict, the prices fluctuating as people watch the replays on their television sets.
      It’s Rumplestiltskin, by a whisker! Mary whoops and banks her ton while Bob puts his head in his hands and growls. He’s ninety quid down. He’ll now spend the rest of the afternoon chasing his losses, and end up a hundred and eighty down. Never go chasing your losses. That’s one of the cardinals for gambling.

Something happens when you start chasing your losses, the normal laws of chance and randomness go out of the window and, as Bob will tell you, something akin to quantum physics kicks in whereby your involvement in an experiment affects its result. All bettors know that when you put your hard-earned on a horse in dire straits, then the horse will win if you want it to lose or lose if you want it to win, leave well alone and the desired result will miraculously materialise. This is sod’s law of course! Bob is today’s victim, he goes for five more bets to make up his money, that’s five lays. Everyone knows, absolutely everyone, that you can’t back five winners in a row, it’s just impossible, that’s why we’re layers, but in the next five races, every nag that Bob lays goes on to win! It’s a miracle! He knows with absolute certainty that if he’d backed the buggers they’d have fallen at the first fence, every one of them. His last bet, in desperation, is to actually back the favourite in the ‘lucky last’ at Musselburgh. If you can’t beat em, join em. It’s the Racing Post nap and an odds-on certainty, a shoe-in actually, dropped down in class and trip, and running against a load of donkeys in a seller. It’s got Jamie Spencer in the plate, and if this one loses, then horseracing is fixed and Bob’s going to hang up his jodhpurs for good. It’s a short price of course, so he’s lumping on. He’s going to fill his hods with this one. Of course it loses, doesn’t it! What else did you expect? It wasn’t even placed, which is the final insult, since he had an each-way bet on this, just to cover himself. If he bet on heads today, with a saving bet on tails, the coin would land on its edge!
      Mary on the other hand is a level stakes gambler, she doesn’t have a staking plan and she doesn’t have a recovery plan. She’s got a bit of extra cash in the Halifax and she only bets a set amount each day. Many serious gamblers bet to level stakes, you won’t make as much profit as the others but you don’t suffer the stresses either. She doesn’t use the housekeeping either, that’s another cardinal. Don’t gamble with money you can’t afford to lose!

These are fanciful tales of course, though not a million miles from the truth, forty seven million pounds were traded during the last Wimbledon men’s final on Betfair, just like this, and similar tales of woe and glee will have been played out for the whole four hours of the match. For every winning bet on the exchanges there's a comparable losing bet, and vice versa. The obvious, important distinction to be noted between backing and laying is that if you want to lay horses, then your liabilities are huge in relation to backers’, who only stand to lose their stake, which is why most people wouldn’t dream of laying horses, even though its clear that the betting shops are full of losers, while the bookies themselves are driving big posh cars. Bookies are ‘layers’.

I know nothing about horses, or horse racing. I know nothing about breeding and bloodstock and, I must admit, I’ve never even been to a racecourse. I’ve been to the dogs at Catford and at Brough Park, but never to a horse racing track. No Ascot or Brighton or Sandown, no York or Aintree, none of those famous places, those great crucibles of sporting excellence. I don’t even like horses to be honest. A lot of race going folk are prats, just look at the hats for a start! I’ve never liked horsy girls and well, actually, you can’t do what I do at the race course, you can’t lay horses there, you can’t even lay horses at the bookies. This is something that only happens on the betting exchanges, so it’s just me and my computer. I am learning more about form, but this is just statistics, and you only need to know a few things to take advantage. So while it’s is tipping it down at Thirsk and Market Rasen I’m sat in the house with my slippers on looking for losers.
Breakfast with the Racing Post is one of life’s little joys, the paper spread out at the form guide, a pot of coffee, toast and marmalade, the kitchen nice and quiet with no distractions. What you’re looking for is normally the opposite of what the backing punters are looking for. Your selection needs to be the favourite, or one of the top three horses in the betting, (the lower the price the better. I have a limit of 5/1 but that’s a personal preference, what you’d call my ‘comfort zone’). You don’t want to ‘lay’ rank outsiders, even though they’ve got no chance of winning; at a price of 60/1 and your liability resting at six hundred quid for a ten pound profit, you’d have to be mental.
      After the price, the ‘going’ is the most important element in racing, so check to see if your horse likes the ground, if not, you could take it on that basis alone. The most susceptible horses will have been withdrawn by their stables if the going is not to their liking, but it’s surprising just how many horses do run on unsuitable ground. Then you check the C&D winners, has your horse won before at this course and this distance, when did it last run? If it’s having its first run for a long time then it could be a point in your favour, if it ran in the last week then maybe not, especially if it won last time out, horses get into a rhythm and like to find some racing form. Look for horses who are carrying extra weight, some punters lay these horses exclusively, some lay fillies exclusively especially in mixed sex races. Check the jockey and trainer stats. I hate laying favourites from yards that are ‘on a run’, or have the champion jockey on board.
      In a race like the Grand National, forty or more horses race over four miles, and jump thirty fences; to pick a winner in a race like that is almost impossible, to win the race is almost impossible. However, thirty nine horses are certainly going to lose, thirty nine horses are running for you, as a layer, so let’s have a good look at the form and give ourselves an edge. There’s an element of truth in the notion that you could stick a pin in the race card and lay whatever (as long as the price was right) and still win. About two thirds of favourites lose, and that’s worth bearing in mind, and if you have a well worked-out staking and recovery plan then you might end up in profit, regardless, but why not just go the extra mile and put some ticks in the right boxes. At the end of the day there are loads of variables, and numerous systems, but horses aren’t machines; they have moods, they get headaches, and they can be bloody minded, which is all good news for we layers, and why huge odds-on certainties so often fail to win.

But let me introduce you to Martin: he lost fifty quid on a different race today. He layed a horse called No Hoper, for ten pounds at a price of 5/1. But Martin has a system. He’s got a staking plan, and a recovery plan, so he’s not really bothered by these losses, every system suffers losses, you just have to be prepared for them, and he’s not happy to let fate take a hand in his gambling. Losing is just part of the daily life of a bettor.
      But how long can you sustain a losing run if you’re a layer, even with a system? Let’s look at Martin’s, which is quite conservative, but still fragile.
      Come the next morning over toast and coffee, he finds his horse, a horse that will lose in the 4.15 at Southwell, and what his system tries to do is recover loses on the next bet; that’s the fifty quid he lost, plus the ten he wanted to make initially, plus the daily stake of ten quid; so: Seventy quid in toto. If the horse loses he’s back on track.
      However, this is where things get hairy: Seventy on a horse at 5/1 works out at a liability of three hundred and fifty! Yikes!
      Martin uses only 0.25% of his bank as a stake, so you’d think it has a lot of slack. Well let’s see. Let’s give him the nightmare scenario and see how he copes. The bloody nag goes and wins again! His bank of four thousand pounds is now down to three thousand, six hundred after two consecutive losers, not so bad. But next up he has to stake four hundred (that’s the bank’s shortfall), plus his daily target which is now thirty, so a total of four hundred and thirty quid! Wow.
      The Third horse is called Dead Cert, and it runs in the 2.40 at Wolverhampton, and, it bolts up and wins by a mile! What’s going on! Even at a generous price of 13/8 he loses seven hundred and five pounds, and his bank is now standing at two thousand, eight hundred and ninety five pounds. Has he got a head for this? Is this the edge that Stephen Dunn was talking about?
      Next up, and his fourth bet: one thousand, one hundred and five pounds, plus forty pounds, which is the daily stake of ten, which brings his stake now to one thousand, one hundred and forty five pound! Four consecutive losers would be unusual and I’ve never seen it once in four years. So here goes. The horse is called Happy Times and it’s going off at 5/2 which is lucky, because if it was any longer, he wouldn’t be able to lay it with only two thousand, eight hundred and ninety five quid left in his bank. It’s a five furlong sprint, and it seems to take forever, but Happy Times comes in second, just beaten by a head, and Martin breathes out a huge sigh of relief, his body is shaking, he’s been out and feasted with the gods and demons, and come home flush, well hardly flush; he’s come home with forty quid! He looks at his bank and it reads, four thousand and forty pounds – Jesus. All that grief for forty sodding quid!

I could be mean of course, and say that actually there’s a stewards inquiry! This happened to me just last week! Happy Times looked like it was interfered with in the last furlong, and the winning horse, Total Bastard looks to have cut up the second placed horse, Martin’s horse, and unbelievably Total Bastard has been disqualified! You wouldn’t believe it could happen. Not this, not now! But yes, when it all goes wrong, it goes wrong big time! So now he takes a second look at his account and it reads thirty three smackerooneys! Four losers and ruination! This is how the sums add up, an exponential increase in mayhem!

We need a better system don’t we? I recover my losses in a similar way to Martin, initially, lumping all my losses onto the next race. More often than not, that’s all it takes; however, when that second race does go the wrong way then I split all my losses into three, and stake a third on the next three races. So in the scenario above, for instance, instead of staking four hundred and thirty quid on the third bet, I’d only be staking a hundred and forty six quid. This is my stake for the next three races. If it loses again then I divide my losses by three once more and continue on. This means that the first time I hit three wins in a row, then I’m all square again. It’s a much more manageable system; you can go a long way down the plug hole with this one and still come out smelling of roses. A run of three consecutive winners (or losing horses) is quite a normal situation so I wouldn’t expect to have to wait very long to get back on track. That comfort zone again.
But I’m a poet first and a bettor second, I shouldn’t forget that. I need to get my bets on quickly, in the morning, then leave them there until the morning after so I can get on with my writing. It doesn’t matter what the result is because I know my system will deal with it. In the scenario above for instance I wouldn’t have gone with that final bet, I’d have cut my losses while I still had half my bank. I’d have had a good, stiff drink or two, taken a break for a week, and then begun the painstaking task of building it all up again.

Whatever you do, stay away from that edge, that’s where the fools and the romantics hang out, pushing themselves to the limit, feeding off the adrenalin. Be composed, have patience, go slowly, and never waver from the system.