One of the attractions of going racing is people watching. This is brought into sharp focus this past week during Ascot, when the 5 days is as much a fashion extravaganza as a series of horse races. Designers and milliners compete for official status for the most stylish, the most outrageous, or simply the broadest-brimmed hat. Small wonder virtually every racecourse in the land now has a ladies day. You could spend all day at Ascot gawping at people without so much as seeing a race, watching the full range of human behaviour.
This behaviour was beautifully and wittily extolled in Kate Fox’s The Racing Tribe, first published in 1999. The book is a lively, perceptive and entertaining report on racing people, their animals, and their status assertions and their money. It rapidly became a must-read among the racing cognoscenti, keen to identify friends and colleagues among the pencil portraits of segments of the racing audience, and its observations still hold good over 20 years later.
I’ve always thought the racecourse audience divides into three interleaved interest groups, the size of which attending an individual fixture depending on the event in question. There are the Wannabes; those that have an equestrian connection, who have ridden themselves, or who fancy themselves as the next A P McCoy. You will find many of these regaling stories of the huge fences they have jumped, or horses that took some holding. They are in a majority on Countryside Day at Cheltenham each November for example.
Then there are the socialites, going racing to meet friends old and new, and meet lifelong partners. Plenty of those to be found in racecourse bars up and down the land. Ascot is the finest example of this, closely followed by Aintree’s ladies day.
And then there are the punters – those that bet on horses either regularly, or as part of their day out, helping finance the sport through their losses. Of course, all 3 groups share some common ground. It’s rare a horseman won’t back his judgement with a punt, and very few are teetotal, and similarly, whilst a clear head is best when punting, a drink is par for the course. In short, among those of us going racing, we fall into a bit of all three camps.
But among all three, the act of gambling in the UK inspires the most varied opinions. When being judged, it starts with an inbuilt disadvantage in that the verb “gamble” is invariably accompanied by a negative adjective: “problem” or “compulsive” etc. It is often thought of as an addiction and as such the government is prone to push against the gambling industry, despite being the owner of the largest gambling site of all, the National Lottery. The virtues of the lottery are ever present in order to encourage our participation without ever mentioning that 50% of the stake is taken before the prizes are distributed. If one was gambling on horses the bookmaker would hope to be able to achieve a margin of a measly 15% by comparison.
Whether betting on a lottery or a fruit machine the odds are set against the punter who has no power to influence those odds. When betting on a horse race the punter inputs his knowledge to determine whether the odds offered by the layer are favourable or not. Placing a bet on a UK horse betting site is not a lost cause, indeed, with hard enough study it could become a profitable exercise. This is not, of course, the lot of the “mug punter” attending a day’s racing with a cursory look through the Racing Post of a morning. Success comes about through constant diligent study and application, which is generally tedious.
Professional punters rarely place a bet in a race where the odds on offer show an overround greater than 120. In theory an overround of 100 means, that when all the horses have a proportional bet placed on them, there is a neutral result from a betting point of view, neither profit or loss for punter or layer. If the overround is under 100 the punter can make a profit by backing all the runners with the appropriate stake. There are several ways to calculate the overround, but the simplest is to add together the sum required to win 100 (including stake) on every horse in the race. For example, an even money shot requires a bet of 50 (100 including stake) and a 4/1 chance 20 (100 including stake). When the stakes laid on each horse are added up on has found the overround. In races,such as the Grand National, in which the general public tend to have a flutter, the overround may be as high as 180, and in an ordinary 6 runner mid week race only about 108. Thus if a punter feels that a horse cannot win because of the going, the condition of the horse or the distance of the race, then he can either back all the other horses in the race or simply lay it on one of the betting exchanges to achieve a guaranteed profit.
Placing a bet on UK horse racing can be fun; one doesn’t call a guest who has a cocktail before dinner and a glass of wine with it an alcoholic, so why then do we tend to sneer at those who spend hours in one of our nearly 9,000 betting offices enjoying the thrill of the races as well as cup of coffee and a free copy of the Racing Post implying that they have a gambling disease? This conversation is at the heart of racing’s response to government threats to cap the exposure to betting online.
Alcohol is more freely available nowadays than at any time in the last 40 years. You can buy a drink in an airport at 7am, yet it has nothing of the pariah status that accompanies gambling. Imagine putting a cap on the amount of drink spectators could consume at a race meeting. Half the racecourses in Britain and Ireland would go out of business within 6 months!
There are many among us who bet on a horse race most days, giving us hour upon hour of pleasure and excitement, for a cost greatly less than the price of the weekly ticket to a football match.
In our next blog we will show how to be an accomplished student of form.