July 25th 2020: This Time, I Really Don’t Know Where To Start…
LOCKDOWN makes you do funny things.
After a near three-month break because of coronavirus, National Hunt horse racing resumed in Ireland at Limerick on 22nd June 2020. It quickly became apparent that the quality of racing was higher than anyone could reasonably expect at this time of year, if it wasn’t for the exceptional circumstances the world was in. Four days later, the Grade 3 Grimes Hurdle was staged at Tipperary.
My jaw dropped when I saw the line-up. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking this was January, not June. In a 14-runner race – not just quality, but a dollop of quantity for the race type – two horses last seen at the Cheltenham Festival went one-two, County Hurdle runner-up Aramon beating Champion Hurdle-fifth Petit Mouchoir. That’s Aramon and Petit Mouchoir, running over hurdles in June. If they were running on the Flat, it wouldn’t be the same.
There were a couple of plausible explanations for this line-up, as well as the above-average jump racing that was to follow. One was that this was their Punchestown, after the abandonment of the Festival due to the pandemic. Another, as someone replying to a tweet of mine said, was that some horses were prepping for the Galway Festival.
I’d been taking cursory glances at the four-day entries for upcoming meetings – well, I often do that anyway – and a race on Saturday July 4th, which was now Derby Day after the fixtures-rescheduling in Britain, made me look twice.
In a 24-strong entry for a valuable two-mile handicap hurdle at Bellewstown – Mrs rwsteeplechasing may have no idea where it is, but hey, nor do I – there was Tully East, a Cheltenham Festival winner from a few years ago; some of the also-rans from the Grimes Hurdle; and Saint D’oroux and Gealach, who’d last run in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at the latest Cheltenham showpiece. I got an each-way place on Saint D’oroux then.
“What is going on?” Even at this point, my head was beginning to get just a little bit mashed. Bellewstown is a small track, in every sense, a tight left-hander that stages racing only in Summer, and doesn’t put on any steeplechases. I’ll take Wikipedia’s word for it that it can be found 8 km south of Drogheda, on the hill of Crockafotha in County Meath. And I was thinking of having a bet on a race there.
After declarations, which didn’t include Tully East, a flick through analyses I’d made in the past suggested that I was anything between 45% to 55% ‘in the loop’ on the race. I’d done a full race-read on the Grimes Hurdle (where I type a pen picture for every horse’s performance, as I do for every Cheltenham Festival race), and I already knew Saint D’oroux and Gealach quite well. In short, this wouldn’t take a great deal of work.
For the first time in my life, I studied a race at Bellewstown. It was inevitable that, once a spreadsheet was done, there’d be each-way bets made, as I would in the height of Winter.
It was also inevitable that this was going to mess with Mrs rwsteeplechasing’s plans, which involved serving dinner at 5:30 that afternoon – the race’s off-time – so I told her what I’d be doing. In the height of Winter when the last race is around 3:30, she takes it as read that I’m ‘doing racing’ and I’m normally downstairs by 4:30.
After tapping the real prices in at around 2:30 I landed on Construct and last year’s winner Ming Dynasty, at mid double-figures, and Play The Game at 33/1. The latter hadn’t been consistent, but there’d been a decent win at Listowel and an okay-run in the 2019 Galway Hurdle on his record, and I made his chance better than his odds. With five minutes before the off, after a price-drift Zambezi Fix was added, so that was four horses backed each way – the most I’d back in a race since I started regular each-waying in December.
Play The Game chased Ardamir going to the second last, briefly looking the most likely winner, but didn’t find much from the last, hanging on for third and a place. I felt good – the odds I’d taken meant that I made a very small profit on the race.
Then the fun really began…
Irish Starting Price Inflation
The Fast Shipping Bellewstown Handicap Hurdle took place 45 years and eight days since Barney Curley pulled off the Yellow Sam-coup at the track, to this day still arguably the greatest betting job of all time. To make sure that Yellow Sam’s price didn’t shorten in the face of sustained heavy betting shop-support, Curley’s associate, Benny O’Hanlon, occupied a public phone box – the only telephone line to the course – supposedly on the line to a doctor at the hospital treating his Mother, who was at death’s door. One minute she was recovering, the next minute she was deteriorating. She recovered and deteriorated for the half-hour before and during Yellow Sam’s race.
O’Hanlon’s ‘call to the doctor’ meant that on-course bookmakers couldn’t take calls from off-course representatives, so didn’t know about the Yellow Sam-money, and didn’t cut his price, meaning he returned at a starting price of 20/1. No early prices back then.
The only similarity between my wager on Play The Game and the colossal pay-out on Yellow Sam, was that it involved the starting price.
Funny things seem to have been happening in the betting markets on Irish racing whilst on-course bookmakers are not present due to the pandemic. A couple of days previously, someone had tweeted that there had been some big drifts on horses in a maiden at Navan – some of those in the middle to the end of the market started at more than twice the price they’d been earlier in the day.
That happened again in this Bellewstown race. In this price sample I show the best prices I could get (not necessarily the best prices, but the best with bookies I have an account with) on the race, at around 2:30 that afternoon, against the starting prices. In finishing order:
|Price around 2:30pm||Starting Price|
|Play The Game||33/1||100/1|
Not all of them drifted like the proverbial barge, but there’s no doubting that several did, and they included Play The Game. Yellow Sam opened and started at 20/1, but Play The Game’s SP got bigger. Did my bet not get sent through to the course? Oh wait – no bookies on track.
After adding Zambezi Fix to my positions I didn’t watch the market any further – so no way did I think or know that, in that brief few seconds going to the second last when Play The Game looked the most likely winner, I was looking at a potential 100/1 smash – my own version of Yellow Sam.
After checking that my each-wayer was indeed BOG, and with the place terms I was getting a quarter the odds first three, for an eight-point outlay, I was suddenly looking at a return of 26 points. When dinner did get served, it went down extremely well.
Nothing was normal with COVID-19 around, but the next race I got financially involved in was something I would normally study.
When The Mind Really Went
That is, I’d work on this sort of thing during the Autumn and Winter, and usually at the weekend, not on a Monday.
I have a bone to pick with the British Horseracing Authority. Having shoehorned the Flat programme into the reorganised Fixture List, they’ve now done the same with the jumps since it restarted on July 1st. Exactly where the sense was in putting the Summer Cup at Uttoxeter on July 6th – on a Monday to boot – and the Summer Plate at Market Rasen on July 10th, just four days later, you tell me. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to 1/ have a fortnight between the two, and 2/ stage the Summer Cup on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday?
The present UK Government leads the way when it comes to unbelievable lack of competence, but the BHA’s race planning during the pandemic isn’t far off. Anyway, at least there were 48-hour declarations. During Derby Day-afternoon – let’s not forget what day it actually was – before the Bellewstown race, I crunched the spreadsheet for the Summer Cup. In our house, Sunday is usually a chill-day.
It can be simply dealt with – make Minellacelebration and Padleyourowncanoe favourites, so I’m prepared to back them at my 7/1 lower limit, and back whatever falls in the back zone. Padleyourowncanoe wasn’t big enough at any stage, but Minellacelebration was, and got it done, adding to his Staffordshire Plate-successes.
Sure, Bandsman left it late to make mistakes and fail to stay as I thought he’d do, but he did, and Minellacelebration picked up the pieces; however, compared to Play The Game, it was a lot less lucrative – a return of 10.6 points to a six-point outlay. I’d take that – it was the minimum I was prepared to get out of it, and I always want to be on the right side of Minellacelebration when he runs at Uttoxeter.
On the sofa with Mrs rwsteeplechasing that evening, The One Show was on. One of the features was on former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who talked about his gambling addiction. Footballers having gambling problems is old news, but I didn’t know Shilton was one.
She asked: “What did you think of that piece?” I can’t remember my reply, but I expressed surprise, because Shilton being a compulsive gambler was news to me. At the end of the piece, it was clear that he’d come out the other side, which of course was good.
Next question: “Do you think you’re a compulsive gambler?”
Talk about catching me off guard.
There was no need to introduce the fact that I’d had a bet earlier that day – a Monday don’t forget, the first time I’d bet on a Monday in years – into the conversation. But I did feel like I was now on the defensive, even though I knew the answer to the question was no.
I’m not where I was in 2009, looking for 11/4 second favourites in novice hurdles. If a race isn’t studied thoroughly beforehand, I don’t bet in it; and if a horse’s name doesn’t turn red in my spreadsheet, I don’t bet on it.
Then again sometimes, if a horse’s name does turn red, I don’t bet on it. Hell, would that come to bite me in a painful place on Friday.
In my defence, my mind was now in a strange place, where it would stay whilst working – both on racing and when doing my job (through all this I’m still working from home at present). Think Wile E. Coyote, standing in the middle of the desert, with question marks coming out of his head, when the Road Runner has given him the slip yet again – and then, if that’s how your imagination works, picture a darker version of that vision, in a different, more intimidating location, with different characters (although let’s draw the line at Sharon Stone wielding an ice-pick).
The Flaw In The Method
Each-waying, for me, has one flaw. Whereas when backing to win, a ‘team’ of however many were assembled and hope one of them wins, I wanted to limit the horses I’d back each way. In one race at Ascot in November, the prices did that for me when only two horses in one race became highlighted when I tapped the prices in to the spreadsheet – Diego Du Charmil was one of them and he won.
Keeping a lid on how many horses you back, means making decisions – more decisions than the old mob-handed method, when it was just ‘it’s red, back it’.
In both races I bet in on Friday July 10th, the Summer Plate at Market Rasen and the one-mile six-furlong handicap at Newmarket, decisions had to be made. Horses were left out of my positions, and then the hope would be that they didn’t go anywhere near winning.
A flaw in my method, that was about to be ruthlessly exposed.
So, I’ve bet in a race at Bellewstown and got away with it. I’ve bet in a race on a Monday and got away with it. Now, to add to my growing list of funny things I’m doing in lockdown, comes the first ever time that I’ve bet in more than one race on a single day during July, and the first ever time on which I’ve bet on a jumps race and a Flat race on the same day. Shoot me now.
That I was betting in two races is the only excuse, and a lame one at that, that I can come up with for not including the winner, Really Super, in my positions for the Summer Plate. She was highlighted red, but no, I stayed with the sexier horses, Drumcliff (back in Harry Fry’s yard, the sort of thing everyone jumps on), Imperial Presence and Knockgraffon (trained by Olly Murphy, a trainer who the media’s decided can do no wrong, even if he has a bad run). From the home turn to when she scooted away after the last, well, I had no words.
Move on. Next up the mile-six handicap at Newmarket.
I’d been continually analysing the better performances – those of horses officially rated 85 and up – in handicaps over one mile three furlongs or longer since Royal Ascot, but hadn’t bet in a Flat race since the Ascot Stakes in which I landed on the winner Coeur De Lion. Huh! The only thing missing from the two-mile four-furlong Ascot Stakes was a set of hurdles!
Four horses were highlighted – King’s Advice, Dubai Future, Ernesto and Amazing Red – and again I only backed the three. Guess which one I left out. I’ll give you a clue; he finished third, and could have been backed at 50/1.
I had no words.
With different decisions, or a more aggressive approach, I could have taken something out of both races; but mentally I hadn’t turned up. I was entitled to feel confident, after the Bellewstown race and the Summer Cup, but no, on the Friday afternoon when I turned the work laptop off and turned mine on, I walked on eggshells when I thought about and placed the bets.
I sloped off downstairs. I’d told Mrs rwsteeplechasing up front that I was betting that day.
“Did you win?”
“Nah. No serious damage though.”
That’s the regular Saturday post-racing conversation in Winter. There is another version of that, which sometimes comes out:
“Did you win?”
If only we could have had the latter version of the post-racing conversation.
Cut to later that evening. The test match-highlights are on the television. What’s happened to Ben Stokes’ hair?
Said my lovely wife: “I had a go at the lottery – poor again…” I presumed this was the midweek Lotto-draw.
“Did our numbers not come up again? We need to have a word with someone.”
“Didn’t lose much though, only a couple of quid.”
“Whatever it is, never risk more than you can afford to lose.”
“How much did you lose today?”
I instantly and casually stated the amount.
This was a feeling of being reduced to the size of a mouse. But I had experienced it before, in 2014, when I hit the ground running on day one of the Cheltenham Festival, went miles in front, and dropped a chunk on the Wednesday, told my wife how much I’d lost, and got a b********g times ten. Here, once again, she went on to let me know where she was coming from.
No amount of placating, convincing, whatever, could talk her round. I’m in a position where I’m in front on my betting for the calendar year so far, I was in front in June, I’m in front in July, I’m in front on betting since racing resumed – and this loss was partially offset by Monday’s win, which I told her about for the first time at this point – but the whole thing, as far as she was concerned, turned on this one day, this one revelation, that I’d lost X in a day.
You only have yourself to blame on all occasions when it goes wrong – that’s the good thing about betting. It’s the one thing in life that you don’t blame on other people when it goes wrong. You click the buttons.
The most obvious flaw for the day… actually I’ll discuss that later. I’ll deal with the conversation with my wife first.
The one thing I believe in where betting is concerned, is honesty. I am prepared, at all times, to reveal if I’ve had a bet or not, and if I lose how much, and if I win how much, when my wife asks. I’m also prepared to volunteer the information.
That I ended up revealing the amount is surely related to Monday’s conversation, after we’d seen the Peter Shilton-thing on The One Show. I asked: “Would you like me to be more transparent in future?” The answer was non-committal, but I decided to put it into practice on this particular day anyway.
Honesty, transparency, and truth. That’s what my wife deserves when it comes to what I’m prepared to tell her about my betting. If you are a betting person and you’re in this position, this is what your partner, and your children, if they are wise enough to understand, deserve too. Remember, if you have control of your betting, there’s nothing to hide.
Whether it’s when your partner asks you how much you’ve won or lost, or it’s you starting the conversation, you must always be in a place where you can be comfortable to reveal all straight away, like I did. If your answer contains tell-tale pauses, errrmms and stammers, that tells your partner everything, before you’ve put a figure on it, and it’s then that you need to have a long think about what you’re doing.
I believe that in no way am I a compulsive gambler. I’m a National Hunt horseracing fan first and foremost. Yes, I bet, and yes, the aim is to make money, but I don’t go around calling myself a professional punter. I’ve read many books, and yes I want to take my betting somewhere, but I’m still on that journey to somewhere.
My wife has seen the credit side – she saw a screengrab of my balance after Indefatigable won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham, but I wouldn’t have won the amount I did without risking a certain amount first.
I could see where she was coming from. I could handle the loss, I knew that, it was no major dent to my coffers – but any non-gambling person would be like ‘what the hell, you lost that much?’. That didn’t stop me feeling dumbstruck, taken unawares, to a greater extent than I had been on Monday evening. The very vast majority of people would react the same way as my wife did, and because this conversation happened, I had to deal with it.
Yes, the amounts I bet are what some would regard as significant. Yes, they are amounts that people on furlough or who have lost their jobs because of coronavirus, could do with. Do I think about what I could have bought instead? There’s nothing I want to buy at the moment. If I couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t do it to that extent. I know the risk. I’ve got this.
But the conversation definitely did make me think, and that’s something I have to take stock of. I don’t think it will play on my mind, but the way I’m wired – non alpha-male, put it that way – I can’t be sure.
If, when I have the spreadsheet ready, and I go on Oddschecker, and the conversation of the evening on Friday July 10th pops into my head as I’m getting the prices, what will happen to my bottle? It definitely knocked me sideways, and, a fortnight on, I’m still a bit knocked.
There’s only one way to find out…
Modifying The Method
Where was I? Oh yeah, the most obvious flaw for the day, as regards my betting on July 10th.
The irony is that if I’d been a bit more reckless, and risked more money – which I now know runs the risk of greater upset still in our house – I’d have got returns in both races that I’d bet in.
If I’d backed four horses in the Summer Plate then, given that the fourth one would have been either Really Super or More Buck’s, I’d have got something out of it. Had that fourth one been the less-exposed Really Super, I would of course have won it.
And if I’d backed the fourth horse in the Newmarket race (only four went red on the spreadsheet), that one would have been Amazing Red, who was third, and I’d have made a small profit on the race, as 50/1 was there for the taking in the early afternoon. Oops, nearly forgot – he was another drifter. He started at 66/1. BOG-tastic, if you had backed it each way, as I could have done…
It’s not as simple as backing a fourth horse. The problem in the Summer Plate was that I didn’t have a position at the outer end of the back zone – the outsiders, to put it that way. The method I’m using is with the idea of landing on such horses in mind. That’s why I do more double-figure field good handicaps than any other race type these days – that’s where the decent prices are. Including a fourth horse in the Summer Plate – or even swapping a mid-price for one at the outer end – would have meant getting at least a place, if the horse included had been More Buck’s.
Perhaps the way to look at it is like there are three tiers: the lower end (my minimum of 7/1, fancied and a genuine favourite’s chance, like Minellacelebration), the middle (14/1, 16/1, 18/1), and the outer end (20/1-and-upwards). If you fall on a lot in the middle, make sure that you’ve got something at the outer end included also.
Goodwood And Galway Are Swerved
Thanks to the fluke-result – let’s face it, it was a fluke – with Play The Game, July is a profit-month. Even without the conversations with my wife, I was thinking it’s best left at that for now. Analysis of the best Flat-stayers and jumps is continuing, and the intention is to bet again during August.
It’s a shame, as I’d like to have had a crack at Goodwood and Galway (with Goodwood, there’s a race that’s similar to the Ascot Stakes and that would have picked itself as a race to study), but you’re in it for the long haul, and if something is making you think ‘I need a betting break’ – whatever that something is – then it’s best to take that break. In my case, it’s part stuff-that-got-into-my-head, and part bad-results-on-July-10th.
Aside from my mental turmoils I could do with Goodwood and Galway being staged in different weeks anyway, particularly at this time when the racing authorities in Britain and Ireland have unwittingly put races and meetings that would interest me the most, if not on the same day and same week (instead of being spaced out), then on different days of the week to when they would normally be run, and not just the best jump races – they put the Old Newton Cup at Haydock and Marsh Cup at Newbury on Sundays, when I’m not participating, rather than their usual Saturday-slots. We’ve got nine- and ten-race cards now, often starting at midday, there were three divisions of a Class 5 handicap hurdle at Southwell the other day (had to happen at an Arc track didn’t it), and we’re back to two jump cards on some Summer days. They’ve made racing as difficult to follow now as it always was pre-pandemic.
Going forward, I’d like to take on board my revised methodology for each-waying – include a fourth horse if one’s highlighted, and make sure the outer end of the price range is covered.
But what else will be in my head when the time comes?
I’m at least back from the intimidating place. I’m back in the desert with the question marks coming out of my head – I just might need a little while to get back in the room properly.