Clear, concise, comprehensive horseracing analysis and insight from Paul Jones, former author of the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, concentrating on jump racing in addition to the best of the Flat and leading Sports events.
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Action Bets

Here is anoter chapter taken from my book, From Soba To Moldova, self-published a little over two years ago. A few copies still left.

Action Bets

In The Definitive Guide to Betting on Sport published in 2004 by The Racing Post, the chapter entitled ‘Chastise Yourself’ opens up by telling us that “discipline is absolutely vital to success in betting” (no arguments there) and that “so-called fun bets start becoming a lot less enjoyable when they consistently lose.”

I’ve heard that line many a time before and afterwards but to ‘lose consistently’, and that’s the key phrase in the whole argument here, takes some doing. We might lose slowly on the so-called fun bets (hardly an endorsement for what is to follow I grant you) but it would take some run of horrific results to lose consistently. Then again, we might even win. So, as ‘worthy’ and well-meaning as the inference was that we should cut these bets out, I am not going to stop having my ‘action bets’ as I prefer to call them. In fact, please just stop trying to suck the fun out of our day.

I will readily admit that I tried to embrace that book’s line of thinking when I first embarked on this chapter as it was originally called ‘Drop the Fun and Boredom Bets’ in the belief that, if we want to take our gambling very seriously, then deep down it’s the sensible thing to do. Around half way through writing it, however, it dawned on me that given the staking levels that most of us deal in, who was I actually trying to kid, myself included?

Most punters have a mentality that requires them to keep the gambling juices flowing so, unless we have the discipline of a buddhist monk or possess all the joviality of a seventeenth-century puritan, or the characters in Eastenders, we’re going to have our action bets from time to time anyway whether it’s on the Sunday night golf heading into the final round, a fancy for a televised football game or just having a day at the races where it simply wouldn’t feel right turning up and then not having a financial interest. So let’s just accept it and try and find the best way to go about it. Most of us need our action bets. I need my action bets!

Keeping Action Bets Sensible

We can only lose significant sums on our action bets if we (a) bet too much, (b) bet too often or (c) are one of the world’s worst judges. As far as being a rank-poor judge is concerned, though that has paid off for Louis Walsh for decades, I believe that the greatest hurdle facing us is not a lack of knowledge as that can be acquired reasonably quickly. More of a problem is staking too much on action bets and betting too often. There is still ample room to enjoy ourselves now and again as long as we don’t go crazy.

I have a friend whose overall knowledge on racing is far greater than mine and he has virtually single-handedly won racing quizzes for Raceform beating The Racing Post et al. but I am sure that he won’t mind me saying that he is just not wired up in a way that can figure out the likely outcome of a horse race very well, hence why he rarely bets at all. Then there are others that are very good judges of a horse’s ability but struggle to correlate their winning chance to odds. Worse than both are the number of racing journalists known more for their general editorial expertise than tipping but sometimes have their views aired on what is the most likely winner of a race with arguments that leave me cringing.

Action bets are not for the ill-disciplined at all provided that we are sensible about how often they are struck and the stakes involved. If we get as much enjoyment at throwing a tenner or pony on a sporting event as we would taking in a night at the cinema or whatever, then what’s the problem with that in moderation? Shock, horror, I can hear some readers thinking, Jones has lost the plot, but life’s for living, experiences and adrenaline rushes so they can get over it.

Elsewhere in this book I deal with how I like to go about spreading my outlay in the Staking Plan chapter where I explain that I like to keep my action bets as a separate entity to my main betting. I’d offer that up as the most important advice regards these types of bets. Therefore I would suggest making them the lowest limit of any staking plan that you may want to draw up. The second most important advice regarding action bets would be record how your action bets fare separately from your prime bets, just in case you are losing more than you think, if you are losing at all. 

I have to say though, my full admiration goes out to those who purely gamble for a living which is not only very hard and hugely time consuming but also strikes me a lonely existence and I wouldn’t want it taking over my life. I know one pro punter who has the mentality to go weeks without striking a bet and can easily restrict himself to just 30 good-sized wagers a year with no action bets in between but another who prefers to play the numbers game believing that if he has an overall general edge, then volume is the way to go and he’ll have dozens or more bets a day. Like the vast majority of us, I’d be somewhere in between.

Action bets are not for everyone though. I was watching a debate on Attheraces in which Kevin Blake, whose views I have plenty of time for, told us that the only fun bets he has in a year are on Super Bowl night and the Grand National. That’s way too disciplined for me! Interesting though that he thinks the Grand National is not a race to take seriously as a betting medium. True, it is much harder now for punters to find the winner than a decade ago but I still believe that there are very good angles into the race to as pointed out in many an edition that I wrote of The Aintree & Punchestown Festivals Betting Guide.

I also wrote the 32-page official guide commissioned by Aintree Racecourse in 2015 called How To Find The Crabbie’s Grand National Winner which had a print run of 10,000 and was given away free as a promotional guide and was an enjoyable project to put together. It wasn’t recommissioned the following year though as digital rather than print is the more cost-effective way of thinking these days but hopefully plenty of people took something from it. The one thing that I can 100% guarantee that they didn’t take from it though was that Many Clouds was going to win having been the biggest trends-buster in the race that I can ever recall overcoming a number of big patterns. Not so long ago a good half of the field rather than around a quarter of the declared runners these days could have been confidently overlooked via very strong patterns. It’s a race on the change though as I have outlined in the Adapt or Die chapter.

Our bets when enjoying a night out at, say the casino or the dogs, can also be categorised as action bets and most of us don’t have a problem doing that. For example, do we really enter a casino expecting to re-emerge late into the morning with as much as we entered? The amount of times I’ve heard friends comment the likes beforehand of “I’ve come here to lose £100 and no more.” Similarly, unless we know the greyhound form book, not that in my experience form means a whole lot outside of open races as it seems more of a case of who is up to what, we are not going for a night out at the dogs with the expectation of getting one over the old enemy and certainly not if betting on the greyhound tracks’ on-course tote operation with a 28-30% take out at most courses. Absolutely obscene stuff for six-runner races! The new boys to the sport, Towcester, at least go 20%.

In both those examples, unless we think that we’re the equivalent of poker legend Phil Ivey on the tables or an experienced greyhound fanatic who has seen it all and knows the local scene inside out, we’re essentially having action bets as, first and foremost, we want to enjoy a fun night out. If we can have action bets on the black jack table or trying to cop the trifecta at Perry Barr (my dad’s default bet - he was always trying win the big pot) then there’s no shame in extending that to major sporting or horse racing events no matter what the professionals will tell you.

My manager at Raceform back in the 1990s used to produce his own horseracing speed figures and he thought it would be interesting to test the same formula during our office nights out at Peterborough dogs. My system worked better though, just back anything trained by Ginger McGee or David Pruhs or anything being heavily backed with the bookmakers as the greyhounds loaded the traps on the tote as their odds wouldn’t have time to shorten as quickly.

For four consecutive Novembers between 2013-2016 I travelled with a group of friends to gambling-mad Malta (though not as mad as their driving which is akin to a 24hr grand prix - queuing is another thing the Maltese just don’t do) for a week’s poker. Not for ‘The Battle of Malta’ which is a much higher-stakes tournament that takes place annually during the same month but in the smaller casinos of Bugibba and St Julians. Believe me, it is quite some sight seeing row after row after row after row of retired women with strangely red-hinted hair spending hours night after night donating their euros to fixed odds betting terminals. At their age though, fair enough, do what makes you happy and I’ve long given up telling my 85-year-old dad to stop smoking and living off Indian and Chinese take-aways. He still enjoys his odds-on football accumulators despite me telling him to change those for more sensible bets. Yes dad, the chances are at those prices that it will be just one team that lets you down week after week. But watching young men throw away their wages on pure luck in Betfred? That really makes for depressing viewing. There are action bets where judgement has to play a part but these FOBTs aren’t designed for that. I am led to believe that they don’t appear in bookmaker shops in Ireland and those firms seem to be surviving ok.

It’s sad I know but the ‘hunt the value’ snob in me means that I really struggle to partake in any form of gambling that doesn’t involve some form of judgement. I used to go to a CIU working men’s club on Fridays (my friends like cheap beer) which held a weekly meat raffle for which I even struggled to force myself to buy a strip of five for £1. They also run a ‘Joker’ rollover jackpot raffle whereby if your number is drawn out, then you next have a chance to try and pick out the Joker from 53 playing cards on a board that has been under lock and key since the previous draw and the prize rolls over for every week it is not won. At one stage the ‘Joker’ had reached a prize level pool of over £1,500 with only around ten cards remaining after 43 straight weeks without a winner but even this could not drag me in having seen the number of £1 tickets sold and then having worked out that the true odds of (a) drawing the winning ticket and then (b) multiplying it x9, meant that the odds were around 4,000/1. As it turned out, it was the guy on the next table to me whose ticket was drawn out and then he successfully went on to pick out the Joker card too. I don’t think that he cared too much when I told him that the odds he was getting were around three times worse than his actual chance.

As part of the ‘Raceform Strange Night Out’ series which included a séance at my digs (and I’m never ever going to do that again, that I can promise you!), a trip to the Wellingborough bingo hall and a Porridge and Mole Trapping evening, we went to a local Race Night where you have a choice from eight horses from an old video, place your bet on their tote which takes out a good 50% for the fund-raising event and then watch the race with a new commentary dubbed over the top where horse names are replaced by saddlecloth numbers. Perfect for the American racing audience then! I’m sorry British-born ATR pundits on the Stateside shows, but I can’t have you say: “I fancy the 3 in this from the 5.”

Our table had been lucky earlier in the evening so collectively we decided to stick all of our winnings on lucky number seven in the final race of the night. Most of the races shown were day-to-day contests so we had as much idea what would win as the man on the street once the race had started but after the Betamax had got rolling for the final race of the night, up popped Brough Scott telling us that this was the 1990 St Leger so our table therefore knew the result even before the race started! The cheers then went up when we saw the white blaze of Snurge walking round the paddock wearing lucky number seven, much to the confusion of everyone else in the hall! We even started queuing up for our winnings after only half a furlong - the smugness of it. Even that entertaining experience means that I struggle to bring myself to attend any more of these race nights, probably as I was once paid out at 7/4 for an effective 7/1 shot. I’d rather make a flat donation to the fund raising event and be done with it. Once a value punter, always a value punter.

With regards to action bets when there is judgement involved, I was at a dinner party many years ago and sat next to a vicar who, after I informed told him that I wrote books on horse racing, he asked me how much do I bet? When I told him my average annual outlay I think he said a prayer for me! In his eyes though, I could have lost the whole lot but of course the risk was spread over hundreds of bets and a total novice or complete imbecile shouldn’t in theory lose more than around 15% over a long period of time (the bookmaker’s average take for acting as the middle man) if betting to similar stakes even if they bet blindly.

It depends on the sport and the bookmakers’ margin but I tend to work on an average of 15% in horse racing if I price up a race. However, I clearly remember a Cambridge-based bookmaker who I noted betting to around 330% on the Grand National at Horseheath point-to-point in 1988 won by Rhyme ‘N’ Reason taking full advantage of all the Rupert’s and Jemima’s more interested in quaffing on their champagne with zero knowledge about betting percentages. The 8/1 favourites were priced up at 7/2, the 25/1 shots were 8/1 and so on. It really was that bad. In fact, a friend of mine took a photo of his board on his polaroid and sent to John McCririck hoping that he might name and shame the said bookmaker on Channel 4 Racing but it didn’t receive an airing. 

Sometimes we need a financial interest in the form of an action bet purely to get us through a major sporting event that has the scope to develop into a turgid affair or to keep up our interest levels over a long period of time such as pre-season football bets that won’t get paid out for over nine months.

Big tournaments that last a few weeks often require action bets to sustain us over a number of games rather than one individual outcome, like the FIFA World Cup for example, and that way we can also feel like we are getting value for money in some way as one bet can cover a month’s worth of action rather than for less than a minute in some 5f sprints. Another example would be backing a jockey in Leading Rider market for the Cheltenham Festival so we could be getting almost 30 races all wrapped up in one bet or attempting to find the winner of the Golden Boot throughout the Premier League or Champions League. If there is such a thing, these would be good-value action bets in terms of interest levels.

A big event doesn’t mean the necessity to place a bet of course but let’s face it, we’re gamblers so let’s move on. The temptation will be greater than usual due to the extra coverage it will naturally command and it’s hard to resist. It’s very easy for me to let a big horse race go without an interest if I don’t have a fancy but it’s harder for tournaments spanning weeks, though it is often best to wait until the eve of the tournament as bookmakers will be bending over backwards to draw punters in with inflated odds on the leading teams etc.

Cut Out the ‘Fear of Losing Out’ Bets

Hopefully I have convinced you that action bets are a perfectly acceptable thing if approached sensibly but a completely separate entity that I am still trying to eradicate from my betting is being sucked into the ‘Fear of Losing Out’ bets. These are the bets where we know beforehand that we don’t fancy the horse in question particularly strongly but will still kick ourselves if they then go and win having been left unbacked, so we feel the need to have a nominal financial interest on….you know, just in case.

There are many ways that we can fall foul of these bets, the most common being; (1) that we have followed a horse off a cliff without success and it will be sod’s law if it wins next time out if left unbacked, (2) the odds are simply way too far out of line with our expectation usually adding to our ever-expanding list of ‘value losers’ or probably most common on all, (3) feeling the need, or pressure, to get involved having been the recipient of a supposed inside-information tip. When one of those goes in at a tidy price and we leave it alone, they are the ones that can really hurt, especially when the informant then rubs it in your face afterwards asking why we didn’t follow their advice. I’m pretty good at ignoring tips in the main unless it’s from a source that I trust that has done me a favour before, but I need to work harder on the other two.

Do Not Let the Last Bet Influence the Next

Fortunately I have always been able to just walk away after a losing bet so the temptation to chase losses has never been a problem to me. As David Nicholson remarked after he had a bad day saddling no winners, not to worry, there are six more races tomorrow. Or seven as now is the norm. Or eight in Salisbury’s case with all their divided races, and don’t I know it having been their form guide writer in the racecard for many years.

What I was guilty of though during my first 20 years was attempting to turn an already good day into an even better day by playing up my winnings betting in races that I had never intended to at the start of the day. This is a very poor choice of action bet. That said, I never took the view that if I was winning then I was playing with the bookmakers’ money, which is plainly ridiculous but something that I still regularly hear. Sometimes these ‘playing up’ bets can be due to over-confidence in the belief that you are now seeing races much more clearly but backing the last winner has absolutely zero effect on how your next wager will fare so it is pure coincidence.

In-Running Betting

Action bets can include in-running bets and work much better for sport where individual events are played out of a number of hours. One area I like for in-running punting in sports betting is looking for a leader that I think will tighten up. The amount of times that a golfer gets twitchy once it has dawned on them that they have hit the front in any given tournament, especially a Major tournament, never ceases to amaze me. It’s as if they have now frightened themselves into not playing the same kind of positive golf that got them to the top of the leaderboard in the first place and they start to move into protection mode.

The tell-tale sign here that they are nervous is when leaving their putts short just like a darts player when they become nervous by underthrowing inside the wire when trying to close out an important leg. Getting over the winning line in darts seems harder than in any other sport and especially if the player in question is not expected to win. In fact, as a punter I don’t think that there is a sport that puts you more through the wringer than darts with all its highs and lows in a single match.

Tightening up also happens frequently in tennis when players are attempting to serve out for the match, and in football even before a ball has been kicked for matches when it really matters most. Take the European playoffs for the 2018 FIFA World Cup for example when 5/8 matches ended 0-0 and another was 1-0. The snooker equivalent of the World Cup playoffs is the final round of qualifying for the World Championship and it is no coincidence that the world record for a single frame in the professional game came in a final-frame shootout to make it to the Crucible which lasted 2hrs 3mins. Over an hour of that was just on the yellow. I have also played a frame of snooker that lasted 2hrs+ but that had little to do with nerves!

Only very occasionally would I have an in-running bet in a horse race, mainly because I am uncomfortable that what I am watching can be a few seconds behind real time and on-course punters are beating me to the punch. How these punters are allowed to book corporate boxes by the racecourses expressly for this purpose I will never know. There can be exceptions, like if I see a horse getting into a beautiful, early, jumping rhythm in a staying chase or if I know a horse well enough to believe that it will keep pulling it out under pressure but has started to drift in the market after being ridden along earlier than its rivals.

So summing up on action bets, getting our fix, fun bets or whatever we choose to call them. At the end of the day, betting for most of us is a recreational, intellectual challenge rather than us making a living from punting, and the ‘recreational’ element of that is not a derogatory term, so given the likely staking levels that most non-professional punters deal in, betting is more of a fun escape from whatever we want to escape from so enjoy it without fear of being labelled a mug. As the old Sky Bet advertising slogan correctly and cleverly pointed out to try and draw us in, “it matters more when there’s money on it.”  Unless you are a die-hard fan who can watch a game for the pure sport of it, then that is hard to disagree with.

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