Shouting the Odds, part two

Shouting the Odds, part two

The first race of the day, an eleven runner 7 furlong handicap, looks open enough but the canny Southwell punters soon start to sort the wheat from the chaff. As I stand at Ben’s side we watch the screen slowly tell the story of what’s happening in the wider exchange market as well as what’s happening with his own on course book and liabilities.

Most of the bets that Karl barks back over his shoulder from the front of the joint are small beer. ‘Five pounds to win number four. Two and half each way number six’ but every now and again one of the bigger fish in the Southwell pool swims by and has a go at the bait on offer. ‘One hundred and fifty each way number eleven’ calls Karl. The bet is a stand out in terms of its size and also happens to be on a horse that is clearly hot in terms of the exchange activity around it too.

The shrewd punter has nabbed 6/1 about John Quinn’s horse Reprieved. Ben and I watch as the exchange price very quickly dips below what he’s just laid and I haven’t the heart to tell him that Quinn’s horsebox was the first I saw as I pulled in.

Ben seems unflustered, ‘they go out as well as go in. They go both ways if you’ll pardon the expression’. He’s right of course but not on this occasion. Reprieved’s price is headed south for the summer and at a rate of knots.

In the time it takes for me to remark that laying them here and backing them back is not as simple as it sounds Reprieved is 5/1 on course and, if the Betdaq price is a guide, is long odds-on to go shorter. ‘I’d be fairly sure now we’ll be standing that horse’ says Ben ‘I doubt that we’ll be able to bet up to it’. What he means is that, with no chance of effective hedging and with only a slim chance of getting enough money laid on other runners, Reprieved is going to be a loser in the book come the off.

Meanwhile, trade is picking up nicely and they are laying a decent spread of money but the cash keeps coming for the shortening Reprieved and also for Megalo Maniac from the bang in form Fahey yard. The favourite Mackintosh is being well supported too, with only the two pound players favouring anything much else.

Ben’s fingers are a blur as he is recording every bet taken, which in turn fires a ticket out of the machine on the front, whilst at the same time constantly chipping away at those prices which give him some leeway on the exchange. Big priced outsiders are easily backed at much longer odds on the ‘machine’ and ‘there’s nothing worse than watching a 20/1 shot go by in front and losing on the race’ says Ben and he makes sure that anything over 10/1 is a winner for him. It’s not orthodox bookmaking practice but it works for him.

As Simon Holt tells us the runners are going behind, the fate of Ben’s book is becoming clear. The win market looks grim if Reprieved or the well backed favourite Mackintosh comes home in front. A bet of £250 at 11/4 is struck about the favourite late on. What’s also very clear is that he’s going to need to get lucky in the place market in particular. One of the boons of modern computer technology is the way that it reveals each detail of the win and place liabilities at a glance. It can even pinpoint which horses, and in which order, would represent the most punishing win and place outcome.

Reprieved has shortened all the way in to 9/2 and having been well laid to both win and place he’s a dangerous runner, especially when closer inspection reveals that the place book laid is really only at a break even percentage in terms of overround. It’s a stark reminder of the difference between notional overrounds and what actually gets laid in a real life book. It is also a clear illustration of how tough it is to have a worthwhile place book when you’re pushing your win book margins so hard.

‘We’re approaching now the cross your fingers point’ smiles Ben. ‘Reprieved and Mackintosh in the first two places we lose over five hundred pounds which is not a good way to start the day.’

The race produces a thrilling finish with well backed Megalo Maniac overhauled by the rallying Tri Chara and Lousiade back in third. Reprieved runs very flat and is never a danger and the favourite Mackintosh obviously took a rain check too finishing even further back.

It’s a near perfect start to the day for most of the layers down the line. Ben’s had a belter of a result having profitably squared off the bigger priced horses in the book he’s turned a handsome profit of six hundred odd quid on the race and the whole team is all smiles.

Not all of the on course layers have fared so well. Those who didn’t lay off any of their each way liabilities have struggled on their place books, though nearly all will have made good profits on the win market. It’s easy to forget too how little real edge there was in Ben’s book by the off. He’d ended up the wrong side of one of the best backed horses in the field and was no better than a break-even price realistically about the favourite. I can’t help feeling we’ve dodged a bullet.

Explaining his decision making in the run up to the race Ben says, ‘we took £960 off the floor (from punters in the betting ring at Southwell) and £550 of that was two bets. One of the things you’ve got to always avoid is putting yourself too far behind to be able to get out.’

An even more ferocious crossfire was to develop in the second race though with two horses dominating the market. Amanda Perrett’s Welsh Artist and Walter Swinburn’s Halyard were disputing favouritism at around 2/1 each of two when the market opened. With the front two taking out nearly 70% of the book, margins were going to be tight once again on the win market and hopelessly cramped in the place market.

The market soon picked Swinburn’s horse as the preferred of the front two but good money, including from Ben’s idea of one of the best on course punters at Southwell, continued to come for Welsh Artist too.

With the front two horses contracting simultaneously the pressure was on to push out other horses in order to get them into the book too and to stay competitive. The third horse in the market was Mark Johnston’s Staff Sergeant. He’s friendless on and off course and the temptation is to push him out but there is a major hazard in doing so.

A tight win book, and an over-broke place book

Ben’s book is already over-broke on the place market which means there is no theoretical profit margin at all. He is in fact betting to a certain theoretical loss in terms of his place prices. Staff Sergeant’s win price is drifting towards 10/1 now on Betdaq but, very revealingly, he’s still odds-on to place. His place odds of around 8/11 equate to a correct win price of less than 4/1. He’s already 6/1 and making him a longer price is sure to tempt in more each way backers.

‘Here’s another one’ says Ben pointing out a 16/1 shot that he’s just laid each way to a decent punter. ‘This is 16/1 to win, so I’m laying over 3/1 the place. Bigger than 3/1 the place on my prices but if you want to back it back in the place market on Betdaq what price is it? 9/4. It’s a 9/4 shot to place on the exchanges and here we are laying you over 3/1. That’s what we do!’

The maths of place betting can be complicated but there’s no arguing with the evidence of the computer screen in front of me and it’s clear that there is no place margin at all and a pretty competitive win market too. Once again we’re going to need to dodge a bullet, or in this race, two bullets.

By the end of the race though, I’m offering to hire myself out as a lucky charm to on course bookmakers. Both the favourites have bombed and finished out of the frame. The race goes to the Mark Johnston drifter that Ben rightly chose not to knock out too far. Ben also made the decision late on to place lay the front two in the market on Betdaq. His logic? All the money on the front two was on the nose, whilst most other runners had been backed each way. It meant his win book was bad on the front two but his place book was awful on the rest of the field. By laying the front two to place he’s had a double whammy and a hell of a result.

We’re now more than a grand up on the day and I’m thinking of applying for my bookmaking licence.

Would I continue to prove a magic charm, or would the punters bite back?

Find out in the third and final instalment.

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