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Don’t bet a loser in the National before it even starts – avoid SP betting

riskThe recent guest article from Geoff Banks drew quite a bit of interest. Geoff sent me another one, which is a bit more technical, so I thought I’d write an article on how the world Geoff works in affects the one most readers will be familiar with – the betting shop, the online punt, the odds your horse wins (or loses) at.

Geoff is one of the traditional bookies you see at a track, standing on a stool, ‘shouting the odds’ in the betting ring.

For those unfamiliar with the impact the on-course betting ring (where all the individual bookmakers stand, competing for your money) has on day-to-day prices in betting shops and online, here’s a potted explanation centred on the Grand National.

Hopefully it will stop you betting at SP in future Nationals, as well as giving you some background if you choose to read Geoff’s latest article.

“What’s the SP?” An expression that’s made its way into everyday speech in some parts of the UK. It means, ‘What’s the news on a particular matter, what is the conclusion, how did it finish.”

The saying originated in betting. SP stands for Starting Price, the odds that are used to settle  off-track bets placed in shops or online (unless you’ve taken a previously agreed ‘early price’ or ‘board price’).  The SP matters.  A lot. It’s the equivalent of declaring a share price in a market. Those holding  ‘share options’ – winning betting tickets, collect at the rate decreed by the SP. Bets cannot be settled until the SP is known.

So who decides what the SP is for each race, and how?

Although the bulk of bets on any horse race, perhaps up to 99%, are placed away from the racecourse – online, in High St shops or by phone – the prices on offer by the bookies, like Geoff Banks, who stand at the racetrack offering odds, are the prices which determine the

But not all bookmakers’ prices are monitored to decide on the SP. The Starting Price Regulatory Committee employ agents who use a sample of between 6 and 24 track bookmakers to decide SPs (at poorly attended race meetings that sample is permitted to drop to a minimum of 3).

The agents (SP validators) monitoring the sample of bookmakers are impartial. Their job is to favour neither punter nor bookmakers when deciding the price.

The criteria the agents use is:

The starting price for each horse is the market price at the off generally available to good money on the boards of those bookmakers in a sample whose each-way terms for a given race most closely reflect the each-way terms on offer for that race in the off-course retail market.

“Good money” is defined thus:

Generally that offered by a Starting Price Qualified Bookmaker who, in the judgment of the SP Validator following consultation with the Betting Operator, is prepared to lay a single bet to lose at least £500 on each horse in a scheduled race at that meeting.

So, supposing there are £10 million pounds worth of winning bets in Saturday’s Grand National: the winner has been on offer at the track at odds of around 16/1 to 18/1 among the 24 sampled bookmakers. The SP agents, who use software to access the prices these bookmakers have been offering, might decide that 18/1 was marginally the dominant price. Declaring an SP of 18/1 rather than 16/1, in this example, costs the bookmakers £180m rather than £160m.

Off-course (retail) bookmaking is a huge business – worth many billions. If you were the boss of Hills or Ladbrokes and a two point difference in the SP could cost you an awful lot of money, what would you do? You would find out which horses were being bet most with you and you’d then send someone to a racecourse to bet those horses in the hope of shortening the SP and therefore your financial liability.

And that is exactly what big bookmakers do, especially at major meetings like Cheltenham or Aintree. But the problem Ladbrokes/Hills have is that they do not know the identity (at least they are not supposed to know) of the bookmakers being used as a sample that day by the SP agents.

It’s a bit like the old stories from the pop business of record execs finding out which sample of record shops were being used by the compilers of the charts. They’d then send people to buy hundreds of records at each of these shops.


Here is a concrete example from 2010. On the morning of the Grand National, Don’t Push It, the eventual winner, was on offer at 20/1. It was the mount of AP McCoy and many of the once-a-year punters latched on to it leaving the major High St bookies with large liabilities. Those bookies had their team on-course at Aintree pour money onto Don’t Push It in the five minutes or so before the off. The SP was seriously affected by that exercise and Don’t Push It was returned at 10/1, saving the big bookies a comparative fortune.

Don’t Push It’s SP on Betfair – an exchange which matches punter against punter and takes the bookmaker out of the middle – was 18/1.

This is not unusual for the Grand National. On-course punters that day are often very inexperienced and will simply bet their fancy without trying to work out the value of doing so at the price on offer.  On-course bookmakers can’t be blamed, I suppose, for taking advantage of this; the equivalent of holiday cost being much higher during school breaks. If there’s one thing better for businesses than a captive market, it’s a captive market of rookies.

The overall value a punter gets from the SP in each race is measured by what is called the overround. Each price represents a percentage value – for example 1/1 is 50%, 5/1 is 16.7%: these are supposed to reflect the percentage chance of that horse winning. The bookmaker’s intention is to have every horse in the race priced so that the total hits 100% + his profit margin. That margin is called the overround.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a big betting race, but many racegoers at Cheltenham are knowledgeable on betting and a have a strong feel for value.

The overrounds in the past five Gold Cups on the left, those on the Grand National, on the right:






A stark example of the effect of weight of money placed by professionals attempting perfectly legal price manipulation. In most betting markets, the shortening of one price leads to the lengthening of another. The figures above show that such a system worked well at Cheltenham, but worked poorly (from the punter’s viewpoint) at Aintree.

Aintree bookmakers might plead that the pure volume of business, especially in the run-up to the off of the National makes it very difficult to alter prices – all their time is spent taking bets. But the Cheltenham betting ring is also manic and they seem to have little problem adjusting prices there.

Anyway, beware on Saturday. If you don’t put your bet on before then, do not take SP on the day – take an ‘early price’.

From a value viewpoint, a number of bookmakers are offering ¼ the win odds on EW bets for the first 5 places. Betvictor offers first 6 places although, as Geoff points out in his article, many of these concessions are blunted by the reduction in overall pricing of all horses, thus boosting that bookie’s profit margin, his overround.

As for tips on the race, I’ll be posting mine in the middle of the week. My current shortlist, along with best prices available, and, in order of my preference is:

Join Together  20/1

Teaforthree  16/1

Colbert Station  12/1

Quel Esprit  50/1

Saint Are 50/1

Ninetieth Minute 100/1

I’m certain (on the basis of this article alone) Join Together will start a fair bit shorter than 20/1 and I think he is very good value with Totesport/Betfred.

And for all Betvictor has chopped most prices to compensate for paying 6 places, he is biggest on Ninetieth Minute who has a quirky style of running and who jumps carefully. He’s the type who will either decide early in the race it is not for him, or one who will pick his way round and might well run on late to finish in the first 6.

Betvictor also offers non-runner-no-bet, so Ninetieth Minute (his last run in England brought a win at the Cheltenham festival) is worth a small EW bet.

A best odds check can be seen here

Good luck


Will UK’s proposed enforcement of online betting tax make things even worse for our racing? reports that despite the likelihood of UK regulation forcing offshore bookies to pay Gross Profits Tax, the whole issue is a melting pot which could boil over and scald a few.  The UK Gambling Commission reckons that the best that can be hoped for is some ‘informal consistency’ among EU countries.

“The internet is crawling with unlicensed gambling operators. According to the EU Commission there were 14,800 sites active in the EU at the last count, and over 85 per cent were unlicensed.”

If it proves difficult to enforce GPT, what chance any formal Levy income, at least for as long as that structure lasts?

Full article here.

Twitter betting-folk directory

Courtesy of, here are the twitter names for some bookmakers, betting analysts, tipsters etc. One who doesn’t appear in the directory is Robert Gibbs @bechersbrook. I’ve been following Robert for some time and am very impressed with his tipping (he doesn’t pay me anything – nor does any sponsor or company or person mentioned anywhere on my blog).

With new people joining twitter all the time, the list is unlikely to be up to date. If you want to add to it or comment on it, please use the ‘leave a comment’ section at the foot of the page rather than sending me a tweet (that way, you do the work!)

Jockeys Directory

Trainers Directory


Racing Media

Racing ‘general’ Directory


Name Twitter ID
Betfair Betfair bettrends
Coral coral
Coral Politics coral_politics
Dale Tempest Skybet_Dale
Dave Nevison bodugi_dave
David Johnson davidjohnson82
Gavin Dobson gav_dobson
GeoffBanksRacecourse geoffbanksbet
George Primarolo GeorgePrimarolo
Iain Turner IainWBXdotcom
James Knight jamesaknight
Jamie Hart jamieh7
Jayne Clarke JayneVClarke
Ladbrokes Politics ladpolitics
Matt Doyle Matt_Doyle_Sky
Michael Wilson bodugi_Mike
Nick Goff nickgoff79
Oddschecker oddschecker
Paul Jones sportspunter01
Simon Clare siclare
Simon Rowlands Rowleyfile
Spreadex spreadexsports
Stan James stanjames
The Racing Forum theracingforum
Victor Chandler VictorChandler
William Hill willhillracing
Paddy Power AskPaddyPower
Bet365 Bet365
Andy Richmond Bickley14

When the going gets good, do the good get the going?

Cheltenham’s clerk of the course, Simon Claisse has very shaky form with his going descriptions for day one of the festival meeting. Good to soft has been his verdict in four of the past five years (soft in 2008).

Timeform, using race times as well as other information, has disagreed with that description  four times in the same period. Simon Rowlands’, (head of research and handicapping at Timeform), article on this is here.

Many readers know that the going is the key factor for most form students. Millions will be bet on Cheltenham runners over the next four days but until we hear the verdict of the jockeys after the first race each day, no one who is serious about their betting can back a horse with any real confidence.

Accuracy advocates put plenty work into trying to get things changed.

A thread on the Betfair forum, faithfully noted official going descriptions and compared them with time-based ones, publishing the results, for two full seasons.  One of the architects of that thread voted in my blog poll and left the following comment:

“His (Simon Claisse) stick readings defy belief , He has Champion Hurdle day (2010)  as softer than when Grand Crus won the Cleeve!!!!! But until you dig around and find out when a lot of the readings were taken(up to FIVE days old!!) then you are not going to get a lot of sense out of them

Take them 2 hours before the first and an hour after the last if you want them to have ANY meaning”

So, who cares? It’s Cheltenham, the NH season’s X Factor now, with almost all other big races being treated as an extended equine ‘boot camp’ for contenders. Maybe many people don’t care. The ‘holiday’ atmosphere of the festival, tempts them to abandon discipline for the duration and treat their bank as spending money.

A week ago I opened a poll on this blog based on the question Do you agree with festival policy on producing easy ground for day one? I placed a link on my home page, inviting votes. The home page has over 2,000 views yet only 198 people chose to click through to the poll.  Of those 198, just 70 voted.  The top ‘answer’ with just over 31% was “I don’t mind, so long as the going description is accurate”

Only 10% opted for ‘Yes, it’s the best strategy for welfare and safety‘ (You can see all results by clicking here then clicking ‘View results’ on the bottom left of the panel)

I’m no pollster. I intended to be objective in compiling and wording the options though perhaps I missed in that aim thus discouraging people from voting. The result was as I expected – most of those experienced in betting on horseracing, don’t care what the going is so long as it is accurately described.

How much will be bet on the Supreme tomorrow and what percentage of that on Cue Card? He’s seen as a banker by many yet, based on Timeform’s going descriptions, his only hurdles defeat has come on good ground.

Just 70 voters would cut little ice with statisticians, I suspect, the sample size being considered too low.  But isn’t it time Racing for Change started looking seriously at this subject?  Much of RFC’s focus seems to be on attracting newcomers, yet every marketer will tell you that it is much cheaper to retain current customers than to recruit new ones.

Racing’s dilemma here: the more that people learn about horseracing, the less attractive it will seem as a betting medium compared with sports where full and accurate information is available.  A description of the going, which punters can trust, at every track, is essential to the long-term financial health of the sport.  It might not be an easy objective to achieve, but we must find a solution.

For a start, when racecourse execs sit down to compile their list of “stakeholders”, they ought to add, close to the top, “off-course punter”