Who to back in the Grand National? Not the tipsters
April 12, 2012
The “Sport of Kings” is not something I have ever wanted to know a lot about. I’ve had the odd flutter on the Grand National or the Ascot Gold Cup, but that no more makes me an aficionado of racing than the odd game of poker makes me a card sharp. Also, when I bet, I tend to lose, which – luckily for me – is something I really don’t like. Gambling is not in my blood.
Which is why it is ironic that the most dangerous thing I have ever done – to fight a bull in the Spanish style – resulted in my having to take up betting.
The short version is this: in 2008 I went to Spain to take a proper look at their bizarre national pastime of fighting bulls. I went with what I thought was an open, balanced mind – half full of doubts about what the animal rights groups were saying, half with doubts about pro-bullfighting authors like Ernest Hemingway.
After a year watching from the stands I decided I was for it (with serious reservations) and the matadors I met all said that if I really wanted to describe their world, I had to see it from the sand. I did, I survived, and I wrote the whole two years as a book which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the “Bookie” Prize. I didn’t win, but what I did end up with was a thousand pounds at William Hill which I had to bet.
You might think that someone crazy enough to become a bullfighter would just go hell for leather (excuse the pun) and put it all on the nose of a horse chosen with a pin and The Times’s racing section. However, bullfighting, for the survivors at least, is actually about risk management. The trick is to keep your cool and remain rational.
Now, I know a bit about horses, but this was clearly no help as people who have devoted their lives to studying them usually lose. That said, clearly some people make a living at it and they are called bookies. Or racing journalists.
Every newspaper has a horseracing section in which an in-house expert gives tips for the price of the paper. However, which one to follow? So, I decided to study the “form” of the newspapers’ tipsters, in particular their daily top tip, or “nap” as it is known. I bought the nine daily nationals on March 5th, minus my old employer the Financial Times (they think gambling beneath them, which is funny given recent stock-market performance), along with the Racing Post. And I have bought them every day since.
Within a fortnight, a clear pattern was emerging: on average, the papers were right a quarter of the time. The Daily Star was out in front, followed a length behind by The Times’s stablemate, The Sun, followed by The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Express and Racing Post all with nothing between them, the others straggling behind.
So, I decided I would spread the thousand pounds across the tipsters, but dividing the sum according to how reliable they were. And, to get a proper data-set, I kept studying their form for a whole month. (And, for insurance, I got a commission to write this article.)
On April 6th I was set. I went to the newsagent and, in time honoured fashion, onto the nearest bar – Boisdale in SW1 – and circled the tips, entering the names into the spreadsheet so I knew how much to bet on each horse. Then I strolled around the corner to the William Hill betting shop on Elizabeth Street. I laid my bets and we took our seats in front of the huge flatscreen TV with the sound of metaphorical rolling dice in my ears.
My first runner was the favourite, Seeking Magic, picked by The Guardian for the 3.10 at the flat-racing course at Folkestone in Kent.
The Guardian, in common with all the broadsheets save the Telegraph, has had a bad month and the horse went straight to the back. However, at the closing stages of this 6 furlong sprint (3/4 mile), he whipped round the outside of the other four runners to take the lead. It looked like I was going to win on my first race when at the last second a 16/1 outsider called Kingswinford found that last little reserve of speed and pipped The Guardian at the post.
It was a small bet, so I wasn’t worried. The day had only just begun and the horse had come in second which boded well. (I was only betting to win as so many newspaper naps are favourites with short odds.) I had also enjoyed the little adrenaline spike as my horse took the lead.
My next race was the broadsheet favourite the Telegraph – second overall only to The Sun – so it was a hefty bet I put on Talkonthestreet (who was himself the joint favourite): £141.18 of my £1,000. It was a long race – 3 miles with jumps – up in Ludlow in Shropshire at 3.20, so we settled in.
After a little drama at the first fence with a shying horse slowing down half the field, the eight runners settled into a nice jumping rhythm with the Telegraph staying around second or third and never letting himself get boxed in. Towards the end of the slog, when all the others were tiring, the Telegraph showed his true mettle and dug in to slowly build up a lead of a hundred yards, yomping home to pay me four hundred and fifty odd quid.
I wasn’t quite jumping for joy yet, not least because the punters around me had all lost, but I was definitely smiling.
My next race, the 3.50 at Ludlow, was set to be my first competitive one, pitting the rank outsider The Independent against the odds-on-favourite The Sun, but the Indy – or rather its horse Marescsou – was withdrawn, returning my stake to the pot. However, I still my largest single bet riding on The Sun’s ten-to-one shot, Persian Gates.
Despite all the hype – and the all the money I had poured onto it – The Sun just wasn’t in the running. He sat in the middle for the first mile and a half, was obviously flagging for the next half mile despite the jockey’s best efforts, and for the last half mile fell so far behind the cameraman couldn’t keep him in shot nor the commentator be bothered to mention him. Did he even finish? I don’t know and I don’t care. He’d just cost me one hundred and fifty two quid.
I only had a ten minute wait for my next race, this one in Wincanton in Somerset for the “Somerset National”. This was the Daily Star, a solid performer, which had chosen the favourite Upham Atom.
This was singularly the most thrilling piece of equine athletics I have ever seen. Four horses, equally matched, jockeyed for position across almost three and a half miles of high hedges. Upham Atom, who had been in contention for the lead for most of it, took a jump badly and fell into last place near the finish – “as he so often does” remarked the commentator grimly.
At this point, I noticed even the photographer was taking an interest. I myself was on my feet shouting at a jockey in the West Country to “get his bloody nose out.” Which seemed like the right thing to shout at the time.
Then, blissfully, the jockey found an opening, allowing this beautiful long-legged wonder of nature – and selective breeding – to glide over the line in first place.
By now I was feeling great. Half of the newspapers had run and I was just over two hundred short of recouping my stake. The photographer was even debating about following my system and having a flutter himself.
However, the basic fact about gambling and the very existence of bookies and casinos is that “house” must win more often than it loses. This is how it happened.
In the 4.20 at Ludlow the Daily Mail and Racing Post on the first favourite and the Daily Mirror on the second each led for a bit, but in the end came in fourth and fifth over the 2 miles. In a short flat sprint back at Folkestone at 4.40, the Daily Express was a mid-fielder at the start and second last at the finish. Finally, annoyingly, was The Times’s choice of Caminero, the joint favourite at the 4.50 at Ludlow over 2 miles 5 furlongs. Of him, I will remain discretely quiet. (I think he finished.)
So, I got my roughly the expected average number of winners proved that, with the most rational system I could devise, I still only managed to turn £1,000 into just under £800. However, I did have a lot of fun. So, my advice for the Grand National is don’t bet if you want to win. If what you want is fun, spread it across the tips from The Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph and Racing Post Spotlight, and bet each way as it is always a high stakes race.
Now, to invoice for this article…
Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (Profile Books), “an engrossing introduction to Spain’s ‘great feast of art and danger’” (The Times) is available from all major bookshops in the UK, or at a one third discount from Amazon UK by clicking here (also on Kindle) or Amazon in the US by clicking here.