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Just before Royal Ascot I asked in my blog if any members had questions for Alan Potts relating to betting strategy, French racing or any other facet of the game after he had agreed to a Q & A session. On the eve of the King George and Glorious Goodwood I am pleased to upload his answers to 25 questions posed and thank him for his time in doing so.
I've done my best to answer these question as openly and honestly as possible and I hope you won't mind the odd one where I've deviated away from the original point. It's in the nature of this sort of piece that winning bets get the most mentions here, either because that's a direct response to the question, or because they provide the best examples when making a point. But please bear in mind that the losing bets, the bad days, weeks and months that don't get a look in here, certainly still existed and are a part of what I've been doing for the last 25 years.
Which are the best racecourses to bet on and avoid?
I reckon this has to be a purely personal thing. I've always had tracks where I seem to do well and I feel this is a matter of confidence and familiarity - they are tracks I've been attending in the flesh for many years, tracks where I know the sort of horse that's needed to win, tracks where I might have some little edge from things I've observed over the years.
Financially my best tracks would be Cheltenham for NH and Goodwood for the Flat. I did some digging through my old accounts over the winter and found that from when I went full time at the start of 1992 to the end of that decade, I'd made over £60k profit at Goodwood, way ahead of any other Flat track. I also had my best ever single meeting at Glorious Goodwood in 2004 when I backed 9/16 winners and netted over £28k in the space of five days.
That golden week was also a prime example of something that you rarely see mentioned in relation to horserace betting, which is the narrow margins between success and failure. Seven of those nine winners scored by less than a length and the total winning margin for all nine was just six and half lengths.
Here's an example of something I know about Goodwood that I can use to help find a winner. The first furlong of the races over 1m 4f is steeply uphill and any horse that goes too quickly up that hill will find itself out of fuel at the finish. By contrast, the horse that is happy to sit out the back in the first furlong is likely to be stronger at the finish. What makes this useful is that it's the complete reverse of what applies over other distances at Goodwood, but my first action with those races is to eliminate the front runners and look for one that has comments like 'held up in rear'.
I used to follow your tips many years ago and am interested to know what you have been up to in recent years. What are you doing these days?
Aside from my betting, as you know I provide occasional input to Paul's website and I'm working with a leading trainer on the purchasing and placing aspects of his horses. I also provide input to a few owners from other yards on the same things - they seem to like dealing with somebody that isn't motivated by earning commission or training fees!
I started in the tipping business in August 1996 and stayed with that on and off for about ten years, operating solo from March 1999 onwards. I stopped in 2006 mainly because I could no longer devote sufficient time to the work required, both for family reasons and because I felt the need for a break after 15 years full time punting. It's probably a bit OTT, but I reckon by then I was burnt out, not helped by the growth in the amount of racing. When I started out in 1992, there was no Sunday racing, no summer jumping, and evening racing was only two or three days per week, which made keeping up with the form quite a bit easier.
I took three months off, not making a single bet between the end of the 05/06 NH season and the start of Glorious Goodwood, and during that time I concluded that I'd need to cut back the workload in order to keep going. I continued to trade regularly on Betfair for some years after that, but made sure to keep at least two days clear each week
I also cut back on the number of days spent at the racecourse, which had already dropped significantly since the 90's with the advent of online and tax free betting, usually only going to the track when the horses I owned (or managed) were running.
Family matters again intervened in 2010/11 and when I started up again after that, I opted to drop the exchange trading completely. Since then I've concentrated my betting entirely on the major festivals and the best races, for three reasons:
a) You know they're all trying when the prestige and/or prize money is high
b) It means I'm dealing with a relatively small pool of horses, since anything rated below 85 is unlikely ever to appear in the races I play.
c) It is easier to get on in races that the bookies know will provide them with high turnover, and of course the same races have good liquidity on Betfair.
If asked I tell people that I'm semi-retired, which is pretty much the case, as I'll be 69 by the time the Ebor meeting starts and have income from both state and private pensions. As an example of the scale of my betting now, last flat season (2015), I made 94 bets in total, of which 55 were in Group or Listed races - average stake about £600.
When you started betting full time did you have a back-up (part-time?) job bringing in a level of regular income? In hindsight do you feel this would have been a help when you started out (reassurance income was coming in) or a distraction?
I started out full time after being made redundant from my computing job at the end of 1991, and 'turning pro' was very much something I'd always wanted to try, whilst being aware that success was far from guaranteed. From the outset, I felt that it would need 100% concentration, so I didn't look for any other source of income. I did have my redundancy payoff, which amounted to £39k, and I also had quite a bit of betting capital accumulated during 1991 when I won just over £20k while still betting as a hobby. So I figured I had enough to support myself for two years even if my betting produced no profit, and at the end of that period, I accepted I'd have to go back to work if this venture failed.
My first year was a good learning experience, but my tiny profit in 1992 wasn't enough to cover my racing expenses. Everything changed when I landed another £39k from a Tote Jackpot win in March 1993, a tale told several times elsewhere. I still have a much played VHS tape of the six races that changed my life, as from that day forward, I never again doubted my ability to make a living.
It was only in 1996, after my first book had been published, that I started to take on other work connected with my involvement in racing and betting. By then I had sufficient confidence that I could handle the workload, since so much of it was based on what I was doing anyway.
Do you bet on other sports?
Yes, although it would only make up about 5% of my turnover. My favourites are golf and the season-long markets in football. With golf, I like the ability it offers to bet halfway through a four-day event and that's my main focus, and I do that on about ten or twelve events each year, principally the Majors and WGC events.
My preferred football bet is the Premier League relegation market, where it's possible to make a pre-season bet that can then be hedged if the team struggles, as well as taking a position at any time during the season. My biggest score with a sports bet came from this market in the 2008/9 season when I placed £500 on Newcastle to be relegated at 20/1.
That was the disastrous season that began with Keegan and ended with Shearer as manager. By the kick-off of the final match at Villa, I had been able to hedge to the point that I won £7,000 if they went down and £3,000 if they stayed up. Since then the bookies seem to have worked out that very few teams should be as big as 20/1 in this market and I haven't matched that sort of success since, although Sunderland at a pre-season 14/1 the year they were rescued by Di Canio was good fun.
Probably best to gloss over my truly inspired bet on Leicester City to go down last season and put two coats over the additional 16/1 Leicester to finish bottom!
What’s the biggest load of nonsense spouted about horseracing betting in general?
Probably the idea that nobody can win without inside information, or that trainers (and therefore owners) know exactly when their horse will win. I've had horses in training with a variety of trainers over the years (David Elsworth, Stan Mellor, Pat Murphy, Alan King) and had contact with quite a few others, and apart from twice with the first named, I've never had a trainer tell me a horse would definitely win. And those two occasions were both selling races of the lowest possible class.
Certainly they have on occasion indicated that a horse has worked well at home, but none of them ever had much idea about the form of the opposition. Obviously there are some races in which knowledge of home work is key - a runner in a maiden first time out or a horse that has worked with enough better horses at home for the stable to know he's better than the Handicapper could possibly guess. Jack Hobbs running in a handicap at Sandown first time out last year would be a prime example of the latter type, but his ability was hardly a secret and his price reflected that.
The problem with info based on home work is that your horse might run into something just as good whose connections are just as confident. I can remember being at Salisbury one afternoon in 2007 when Doctor Fremantle was very heavily backed down to 3/1 on for a 7F maiden. At least half a dozen people told me his work had been brilliant since his debut second and that he was a future Group winner who would win this race by a wide margin. But what they didn't know was that Ralph Beckett had a filly making her debut called Look Here, a future Classic winner and although they were absolutely right about the ability of Doctor Fremantle, they still lost their money.
I've been able to make steady profits for 25 years by ignoring this sort of information and seeing through the hype. I watch the races and make my own judgements based on what I've seen, not what I've heard.
What has been your luckiest and unluckiest race down the years?
I don't really like to subscribe to the idea of luck, preferring to think that winning or losing is a question of skill. But there's no doubt that unforseen events, which most would describe as luck, can influence the outcome of a single bet. So having given this question some thought, I've concluded that for me, both answers stem from the Cheltenham Festival.
Undoubtedly the race which has made me the most money in recent years is the Gold Cup with Kicking King, War Of Attrition, Synchronised, Long Run and Bob's Worth all backed with four-figure stakes. And much the worst has been the Champion Hurdle, in which I have a long history of backing non finishers, seconds or horses that might have won but didn't. Much the worst was the tragic fate of Valiramix, who would have dominated the post-Istabraq years but for his injury in 2002. Every year I tell myself to avoid betting on the race, every year I get tempted and temptation finally produced a reward this year with Annie Power. But I'm still many thousands down on the race over my career!
Do you let the draw influence your betting much?
It was a big factor in the 80's and 90's, but apart from special situations (e.g. Chester, 7F races at Goodwood) I would no longer use it as a primary reason for (or against) a bet. There are times when the track position a horse will get a result of his draw can be seen as helpful - e.g. if your selection is a front runner, better to be drawn near the inside rail than out wide in a big field - but then you come up against the biggest problem with draw based methods in the modern era.
And that's the jockeys, who no longer seem interested in taking advantage of a potentially helpful draw, but prefer to race in one group down the middle of the track, or move away from the inside rail in the straight as they do at York. I'm pretty sure there is still a faster strip along the rail closest to the stands on the Newmarket July course (this only applies when they are using the near side half of the track), but I watched the jockeys desert that rail for the comfort of the middle of the track in every race at the recent July festival. So as long as our riding corps show the tactical wisdom of a flock of sheep, betting a horse on the basis of its draw is a risky business.
Do you have a daily routine for betting purposes?
I certainly don't now, given that I'm only betting at weekends and the festival meetings. And looking back, I can't say that I had any regular schedule that I stuck to, other than reading the Sporting Life over breakfast. After that it would depend on whether I was going racing that day, since 80%+ of my betting in the 80's and 90's was done on course. I was never one for spending long hours poring over the form, as I quickly recognised after going full time that others were doing that and they were better at it than me - once I'd reached that understanding, most of my bets were more down to intuition than perspiration.
When you had a profitable betting angle how easy did you find it to drop it if/when the market has caught up and there is no value in that type of bet anymore?
Early on from when I started full time, I was aware that one of the things I had to do was be alert for anything that would remove my edge, and be prepared to work on new ideas. This was very much the theme of my second book, The Inside Track, which starts by acknowledging that my current methods had produced a significant loss over one flat season and details my search for a new approach.
Since I enjoyed the research and testing of new theories, I don't believe I ever had any difficulty in dropping things that no longer produced a profit. To give one example, I outlined my use of a specific spread betting market in that book, which provided regular profits for a period of about 18 months. After that, it seemed to me that the spread betting firms had cottoned on to what I was doing and adjusted their quotes to remove my edge. I never did establish whether this was a general change to that market, or whether they just gave me a different quote to the one they gave other customers. Either way, the profits were no longer available and I stopped betting on that market - in fact I haven't had a spread bet of any sort in about 15 years.
Is there a certain type of race you like to bet in more than others and what type of races would you put a line through straight away?
On the Flat, I now limit my bets almost entirely to Group/Listed races and handicaps class 3 and above. Within those categories, I tend to prefer longer distance races to sprints, but don't go so far as to rule out the latter entirely. Going further back, I was more comfortable with lower class races, partly because that was what you got if you went racing midweek at places like Bath, Salisbury, Windsor etc., partly because there were fewer races to work with anyway.
For NH racing, I've always preferred chases to hurdles for betting, and again it's the longer races that appeal most. As on the Flat, my betting nowadays is limited and mostly based around the best races and meetings. In the last NH season (2015/16) I made 107 bets and 41 of those were on races at Cheltenham, whilst Aintree, Ascot and Newbury make up another 32 between them.
The only category of race I've always avoided, from day one to now, is the NH Flat Race, or Bumper. And I've never had a bet on a Cheltenham cross country race either, apart from the day Davy Russell cut a corner and the stewards called an enquiry. I knew for certain that he was okay because I'd read the relevant rule and helped myself to 1.6 on the exchange about a winner that was already past the post.
As it has been a long time since you wrote your last book and a lot has changed since then, would you consider writing another incorporating new ideas to fit in with modern day racing?
Three years after my second book was produced, the publisher went into liquidation owing me over £5,000 in royalties, of which I never saw a penny. The writing of that book had taken me six months and at the end, I felt stressed and unwell for several weeks. My reward, assuming I'd ever collected, would have been £1.80p for each copy sold - i.e. 10% of the cover price, rising to £2.70 per copy once sales passed ten thousand. So not surprisingly, I vowed 'never again'.
Previously you were fairly dismissive of racing journalists’ views. Has your view changed over time and if so what journalists do you currently respect and listen to? How much attention to pay to views of trainers and jockeys?
I no longer read much produced by newspaper journalists now that the Post is online, so I wouldn't have any strong view either way, though I doubt if much has changed. The only writer I make a point of reading is Greg Wood in The Guardian, but he's most often a lone voice bashing his head against a very thick brick wall.
As for the reported comments of jockeys and trainers, always bear in mind that their number one priority is to ensure that they keep the training and riding fees coming in. The anodyne pre-race comments from the majority are worthless as input to your betting - I wait in vain for the day when a trainer tells us 'This horse is completely out of his depth and has no chance of winning, but the owner insisted on running because he's entertaining his friends in his private box'.
What is the main thing you do differently now to 20 years ago in punting?
On average how many bets do you have a month?
I put these two questions together as the answer covers both. In 1996, I was having around 40 bets each month, now the figure is nearer 15. And the main difference that makes is that I back fewer losers.
You're thinking, well of course if you have fewer bets, you inevitably back fewer losers, but what I've done is improve the ratio of winners to losers. Another way of putting it would be that I've become more selective and as part of that process, I've learned to pass up the marginal bets. Those being the ones where perhaps the price is just too skinny, no matter how much you fancy the horse - or the ones in races that are really too competitive to be worth betting in at all.
I should add that I'm not saying this approach would suit everyone - a lot would depend on how much turnover you want and what sort of profit margin you hope to achieve on that sum. Even at 15 bets per month, I'm still staking almost ten grand, compared to about fifteen grand each month twenty years ago.
What is the biggest mistake punters make?
This relates to the previous answer, because I believe it's the commonest failing of punters to immediately forget their losers, but celebrate and remember their winners. Once each week, I sit down with my betting spreadsheet and review all my losing bets that week, with the objective of learning any lesson I can from the bet. Not all losing bets are bad bets by any means, but I want to work out why I eliminated the winner and whether I missed anything that might have put me off the loser.
It also helps this process if you've got something in writing that explains your reasoning for the bet. When I was tipping horses as well as backing them, I had to provide the arguments in favour of the horse I was recommending and against those I was opposing. I found that a big help in getting things clear in my own mind, so much so that on occasion I would go to bed planning to tip a specific horse the next day, only to find when I put my arguments into writing that I wasn't even convincing myself, so went back and had a rethink.
Did you look at a race and try and work out a bet or have a list of horses you know you want to back so wait for the right race to bet on them?
Both. Nowadays I'll look at any top class race to see if I can find an edge, which usually means a favourite I'm willing to take on. But I also have a small list of horses I consider are potential group class performers that have lenient handicap marks. Most of my bets in handicaps will be on that type of horse.
To give an example, I saw a Khalid Abdulla/Lady Cecil 3yo colt win a maiden at Chelmsford on ATR last year and was sure I'd seen a horse that would prove to be Listed class by the end of the season. That had nothing to do with the form of the horses he'd beaten, but is just an instinctive feel based on how smoothly he travelled, how he responded immediately when asked - a purely visual impression that's difficult to explain in writing. He got a handicap mark of 89, but was beaten first time over 9F at Sandown, seeming not to get home. Dropped back to 1M at the Newmarket July meeting, he made all off 93 and rewarded support at 6/1, after which he was raised to 103. He's now in training in the USA.
I don't go too deeply into the form of the opposition for this type of bet, as essentially it's just me betting against the official Handicapper.
Are you a let-it-ride or trade out punter if the odds shorten significantly on your bet?
So far as horse racing is concerned, I'm a let it ride, taking the view that if the horse is now shorter, whether that is pre-race or in running, then it means I have better value. But with the longer term sports bets mentioned earlier, such as season long football markets, then I factor in the possibility of hedging at a shorter price when I make the bet and stake accordingly.
What bookmakers, on course or off course, if any, do you respect?
Don't think I've ever thought about it in those terms - respect wouldn't be a word that came to mind when talking about bookies. In the 90's, when I was full time on course, I was friendly with quite a few of the regulars in the southern rings, but it was purely on a business level. On the rare occasion I go racing these days, most of the old faces I knew are long gone. As for off course, well there are a couple of firms that will still lay me a bet within reason, but inevitably I'm punter non grata for most in this age of restrictions and account closures.
What was your most successful bet of all time?
In terms of the amount won, then the Jackpot mentioned earlier is well clear of any other bet. But the best return on a single race came from the 2009 World Hurdle won by Big Buck’s. I was convinced that the market for that race was upside down and that the short-priced favourite, Kasbah Bliss, was the lay of the decade, whilst Big Buck’s, on offer a week before the race at 6/1 or bigger, was the best 6/1 shot I'd ever seen. I voiced this opinion loud and clear at a Cheltenham preview three days before the race, as Paul can testify (I was there….Ed.) On the day, I bet £2k on Big Buck’s at just over 7/1 (after commission) on Betfair and laid £2k of Kasbah Bliss at around evens, thus producing a £16k profit on the race.
Do you place doubles/Yankees etc.?
No, I'm almost entirely a single win backer. Maybe once or twice each year, I'll use a double as a means of getting a bigger stake on at a price I think won't last until the off. So if I want to back a 10/1 shot that I reckon will go off 6/1, I know that the bookies offering 10/1 in the morning will only take £50 from me. But if I have another horse I like in an earlier race at say 5/1, I can place a double that will give me a lot more than £50 on the 10/1 shot if the first one wins, and if the first one loses, well I haven't lost a big stake. The fact that bookies seem perfectly happy to lay this sort of double is probably the best indicator you’ll get that it's not the best way to bet!
How often do you go racing and how much emphasis do you place on paddock watching?
Three or four days a year to Salisbury, two days at Cheltenham and an occasional trip to Goodwood or Wincanton would be about my annual schedule these days. I don't enjoy the big meetings (too crowded) and I don't like travelling to the tracks closer to London as the traffic can make journey times double what they were in the 90's.
I've always been an avid paddock watcher but on the Flat I reckon that watching the horse go to post is the most important benefit of being at the track. It takes practice to learn what to look for, but being able to differentiate between those that scratch to post looking sore or unhappy on the ground, and those that display an athletic stride and enthusiasm for the job in hand, can be very useful. Sadly there are several tracks now that adopt the policy of sending horses direct to the start without cantering in front of the stands, a policy that shows total contempt for those that have paid to be there.
How much importance do you place on trainer form and trainer trends? What trainers do you like to follow and oppose?
In summary, not a lot and none. It's just not something that I'd have on my list of key points to consider. I might well look at the stats for a trainer, both short term and long term (i.e. does he win this type of race, does he win at this track?), but it would never be a deciding factor in having a bet. The problem with this sort of approach nowadays is that the info is freely available to all punters and odds compilers, so there's no edge to be had.
The one thing that would attract my attention would be a change of trainer, especially if the same switch from trainer A to trainer B has produced good results in the past. And that would include a horse changing hands at a sale, as a pattern of success would point to the buyer having solid info from somebody connected with the selling stable.
What is your view on how sophisticated or otherwise modern markets are? I note from a simple glance at the overnight shows that the multitude of bookmakers price up races in a strikingly similar way suggesting correspondence between them prior to publishing prices so that none of them get caught with their pants down. Do you know if this is what happens and, of course, if one is wrong means that they are all wrong? Regarding Exchange prices close to the off, do you think this is a result of informed money (and God forgive me for using this vogue expression: they are ‘well found in the market’) or more of a case of lemming-like activity?
I'd say that the sophisticated part of the market now is the punters, who are much more knowledgeable and have access to much better information than when I started out so many years ago. Bookmakers do make mistakes in the early prices, even for the type of top class race I'm interested in, but online betting ensures that they can react very quickly to correct those prices. From my own experience, I'd say it's more often one or two that stand out, rather than all of them getting it wrong, so I just have to hope that the big price is with one of the firms that will lay me a bet! But given how few bets I have with bookmakers in a year now, my view is based on a very small sample.
As for the exchanges, your guess is as good as mine as to what prompts the late market moves, although I'd agree that the lemming tendency does exaggerate what's going on. As I've never got involved with 'bots' or trading, I'm happy to operate from my position of semi ignorance as a backer just happy to be able to get on and at a fair price. But late price fluctuations are less common in the sort of races I play anyway, and although I do sometimes watch the markets at everyday meetings and can see what you refer to, I'm not getting involved so don't feel the need to work out what's happening. I'm sure I'd feel differently about it if I was thirty years younger.
What betting books would you advise as a good read?
I can't help you with this one as it must be at least 15 years since I bought or read such a book. And the authors I did read in the 90's, particularly the US writers, no longer have much relevance in a world in which we have exchanges, bots, masses of online information, video replays etc. And that would apply just as much to my books, whose ancient nature can be guessed at when I tell you that I wrote them on an Amstrad word processor and sent the text to the publisher on floppy disks!
What is your favourite horse of all time?
I'm sure I could come up with a convincing case for at least twenty that have provided me with profits over the years, but the ones I've owned have meant a lot more to me than any of those, even though none of them were well known by the racing public. So my all-time favourite has to be a gelding I bought when he was already six years old, called Salute.
He'd previously been trained on the Flat by James Eustace at Newmarket, winning two races as a 2-y-old, then by Philip Hobbs who won a novice hurdle with him. I bought him from the Doncaster Sales in May 2005 for £20,000, at which time he was rated 79 on the flat and 114 over hurdles.
Over the next four and a quarter years, he ran 60 times in my colours, winning 9 of them, before being retired in one piece to spend his days relaxing on a Welsh farm in company with his former stablemate, Greenwood. For any horse to win 12 races in his career is very rare and it's normally only achieved by sprint handicappers or Group 1 performers. To win nine races over a minimum of 1m 4f starting at age six is normally the domain of those horses like La Estrella (who once beat Salute) that run exclusively in claimers and sellers, but Salute managed seven of those wins in handicaps.
He started with a bang, winning a £20k handicap at Windsor four weeks after his purchase, beating a field that included horses owned by The Queen, Khalid Abdulla and Godolphin by five lengths. I have that race on VHS and always smile at Ian Bartlett trying, but failing, to keep the surprise out of his commentary as Salute hits the front and starts to draw clear. He had problems with stiff joints on his forelegs, which meant he was much happier racing on the AW tracks rather than on turf, and between July 2006 and January 2009, he earned win or place prize money in 21 consecutive races on the artificial surfaces. He won four times at Wolverhampton and twice at Kempton, but never liked Lingfield as that downhill final turn seemed to unbalance him.
Over his entire career he ran 90 times, winning twelve and earning over £140k in prize money. There are very few like him and I loved every minute of owning him.