BETTING is a deeply personal activity, and everyone has different ways of going about it. There are form students who try gather as much comprehensive info about each horse as possible, then synthesise that mass of data before making their selections. Other bettors use more mechanical methods and wager automatically based on their preferred system, such as focussing on trainer or jockey stats. Still others depend on received wisdom from well primed insiders, rather than relying on their own handicapping.

Each approach has its pros and cons, which we’ll look at in this piece. Then we’ll delve back into the archives and meet lunatic punter, Dorothy Paget, who negotiated a unique “past posting” arrangement with her bookie, William Hill – yet contrived to lose a fortune.

Nowadays, horseplayers have access to a tremendous amount of info in contrast to old-timers who had to make do with the sketchy form displayed in slim race cards or superficial field info provided in daily newspapers. Take a peek at the excellent website to see how a transparent wealth of statistical data is presented to discerning modern customers, enabling conscientious punters to weigh up all the factors that determine race outcomes.

The problem with this approach is the real danger of information overload in this high- tech age, which can undermine the best-intentioned research. Not only is trawling through the data terribly time-consuming, but it’s a mistake to assume that the more evidence we have, the better our decisions will be.

Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “Blink, The Power of Thinking without Thinking” about a group of psychologists studying the case of a war veteran, where they initially were given basic information, then provided with increasingly more detail. After each stage they were asked questions about the veteran. Interestingly, the psychologists’ confidence in their diagnosis went up dramatically the more info they received, but the accuracy of their analysis was not any sharper.

Systems players try short circuit things by looking for an edge or quick- glance- angle that can automatically turn a profit. Nick Mordin’s “Winning without Thinking” is one of the classics in this genre. The book is full of disarmingly simple factors that can be profitable. Parochial punters everywhere are biased towards their favourite local fancies and underestimate the chances of raiders, so recognising that mass delusion can be turned into a smart system play. Mordin presents samples showing that simply “betting a legit foreign invader” can generate a 20% winning rate at a 47% profitable return on investment.

Ed Bain is an American pro who makes his living betting horses. His approach is mechanical too and driven primarily by the vital role of the trainer. He eschews conventional handicapping factors like form, class, speed and pace. Instead, he looks for any trainer angle that has yielded eight wins or more, at a greater than 30% strike rate, whilst returning a positive R.O.I. He tracks stats according to that filtering measure all around America, and bets accordingly.

Insider trading is, in theory at least, not allowed on stock markets yet is endemic to horse racing. Many fans base their bets not on their own beliefs, but on the opinions of well- placed connections like jockeys and trainers who are deemed to have special insights. This is a divisive topic. Some heavy hitting punters will only ever venture a bet when given the go-ahead by an insider revealing the intent and confidence levels of sussed connections.

Leaving aside the ethics of “privileged info” for the moment, where it’s certainly useful is when dealing with an unknown quantity. If form is well- exposed and a horse has run recently, any competent handicapper can make a pretty solid judgement call about its prospects. But, if a horse is resuming after a lay-off, has been receiving special veterinary treatment or has shown significant improvement in morning work-outs when trying something different, then the insiders do have an edge. Their conviction is usually reflected in early market support.

Disillusioned bettors that have too often been stung by overly optimistic or just plain wrong opinions from so called expert horseman, chose to dismiss any tips, especially those touted in public, as practically worthless. Heed this cautionary from former Washington Post journalist, Andrew Beyer, “Never listen to tips from owners or jockeys’ agents. Every owner thinks his horse is the next Secretariat. Every agent thinks his rider can make any horse run like Secretariat.”

The peculiar Dorothy Paget.
The peculiar Dorothy Paget.

If none of these conventional methods appeal, then try improve upon the approach of wacky gambler, Dorothy Paget who persuaded her bookmaker to accept bets after the races had been run. The dowdy, dumpy heiress chose mainly to sleep throughout the day. She would surface for “breakfast” at 8h30p.m. then harass, (with demanding phone calls after midnight,) the 20 trainers she would tyrannically hire and fire, communicate cryptically with staff via colour-coded note messages, whilst smoking 100 cigs, playing cards and eating substantial meals till “bedtime” the following morning. Oh, and in the midst of this upside-down, nocturnal chaos, she’d have a few punts!

As humourist, David Ashforth chronicles, “’Paget’s unusual timetable resulted in a correspondingly curious arrangement with her bookmaker. Since she was usually asleep during racing hours, it was agreed that she would be allowed to bet after the racing was over. It was testimony to Paget’s honesty if not her betting prowess, that the arrangement did more for Hill’s bank balance than Paget’s.

She bet on a gargantuan scale. At a time when the average price of a house was 1000 pounds she regularly bet several houses at a time. Sometimes striking a bet to win 20 000 pounds, she once put 160 000 pounds on a 1/8 shot. Fortunately, it won. Many did not, and in 1948 alone, Paget lost 100 000 pounds.”

Losing the equivalent of 100 houses per annum is a pretty dire record, though the aristocrat Paget could comfortably afford such a lavish transfer of wealth. Those of us with lesser means need to find a way that works. Ruling out the devious practise of past posting as dishonest and totally unacceptable, take your pick from either comprehensive handicapping and harnessing of computer power, or stick to uncovering profitable scenarios in system play. A final option is to cultivate a network of contacts that possess genuinely sharp info to help with your wagering.  

-From Mark van Deventer’s Friday column in Turf Talk Newsletter.


  1. I agree and I also don’t agree. Too much information gives you exactly nothing. But using one or two aspects of a lot of information gives you a lot. Punters should have access to lots of information, as much as possible, and then use only the part which they can get an angle on. It should never be someone’s else’s decision what info I should or should not need.

  2. I agree, my study is as much about trainer and jockey habits as it is handicapping form study which is the most popular among general tipsters. Form horses do win, but because of their status, it it much more difficult to find value and make a good ROI.