Racing for Change and Betting Rings.

My name is Simon Nott and I have worked on-course in the betting ring since 1989 and lurked there since 1983. I am also a freelance writer and have been published in The Racing Post Weekender, Inside Edge, International Thoroughbred and Racing Ahead. I write a regular column in the latter and have done since issue two, AWOL for only a handful of issues since then. At time of writing all turf racing is at a standstill due to the weather so I thought for my inaugural blog I’d repost an article I wrote back in the summer on a subject close to my heart. The betting ring and the changes that have happened there since I started working there and those possibly being imposed by Racing For Change. Since the time of writing it seems sense has prevailed following the disastrous decimal odds trial but I have left my points on that in as before. The words below were part-published in ‘Racing Ahead’ magazine in 2010. Please feel free to comment and repost as you wish.


Racing for Change?

Embrace the Betting Ring not sterilise it.

There was respectable media attention on the decimal odds trial held at Ascot, even though most of it negative. I am sure that the people at Racing For Change have the best intentions for the good of racing. In one respect they did very well, it has to be said that their week of largely free racing appeared to have been a success. However, whilst it is apparent that racing needs to change in certain areas if it is to thrive as a live spectacle that is not to be confused with change for change sake. But is there any need to change the way the betting ring works?

Anyone that has had any involvement with the on-course betting market, especially over the last twenty years will know that it is constantly updating itself from within. It started in the 1990s when the bookmakers stopped operating the system where only a handful of firms on the waiting list  could fill the gaps left by absent layers with permanent pitches. This was replaced with a system by where any bookmaker on the waiting list could bet and not just those on the immediate supplementary list as before. In the days prior to opening the ‘extended supplementary’ list quite often on busy racing days only a handful of bookmakers were on course to take bets despite there being plenty of vacant pitches and firms willing to fill them though not permitted to.

Contrary to the popular belief that the ring is self-serving this was done to the detriment of the existing layers in good positions who were none to happy that all of a sudden every pitch was full every day. The bookmakers who had been chomping at the bit to bet for years were desperate to show the established front row books how to do it.  The down-side for them in their poor pitches was that they had to bet to much reduced margins to attract punters into the back row. This ensured value for the punters that had rarely been before. There were often too many bookmakers at sparsely attended meetings, the layers who filled the remote pitches soon found out why they were normally vacant. Many soon retired back to the waiting list, financially hurt, where they were happy to stay out of the action licking their financial wounds reappearing only on bank holidays and busy Saturdays.

The established layers had to batten down the hatches and wait for things to find the level that they knew it would. It took a lot longer than many expected and a few of the old money bookies were on the missing list for some time. One veteran at the time commented that the betting ring was a bit like an old black and white western movie, ‘The ESL bookies are like Indians, every time they get shot down another lot appear on the horizon’. And that is how it felt, but the longer it went on the better it was for the on-course punters who could recognise value. The other by-product was that because the ring became so competitive with layers all after the same limited money they were pricing up earlier and earlier with mistakes rewarding shrewd early punters. Quite often the best prices done on course were under 100%, enough to make the bookmakers of old spin in their graves.

During this time another innovation was adopted, not forced, by the layers. Computers issuing printed tickets were being used on the racecourse for the first time. Some of the pioneering bookmakers could be seen lugging car batteries into the racecourses and balancing expensive computers and printers on piles of rickety old boxes more accustomed to supporting tic-tac men. The layers that embraced the computer age were openly laughed at by the majority of their brethren, scoffing that there was no way that a computer could be quicker than a clerk and that they would never keep up at meetings like Cheltenham. They were right to begin with, the embryonic systems were quite temperamental and prone to breaking down, plus the power supply required, car batteries were heavy and unwieldy.

There was one very important factor in their favour, the punters loved the tickets.

It had long been a case that novice punters were dubious as to how the bookmaker would know which bet was theirs when just handed a card ticket with a number on it. Of course the system used was tried and tested, the bookmakers knew it but the novice punters didn’t. There was chance of error on both sides and some less than honest punters knew that too. There were often cases where a unscrupulous punter would claim to have backed a horse each-way when they hadn’t. It was very easy for genuine mistakes to be made, it is amazing how often a punter would be certain in their own mind that they had backed one horse when they had in fact backed another. Tape recorders were introduced to try and solve these problems, these worked very well on quiet days but trying to find a disputed bet on a busy day was a very time consuming job that took at least one member of staff away from betting on the next race. Quite often the punter would get the benefit of the doubt only for the bookmaker to discover later that the customer was wrong and he had given away the place winnings and stake needlessly. That problem was eliminated immediately with printed tickets. Punters could see that the layer knew which horse they had backed and how much they had to come should it win. And of course, if there had been a mistake it could be spotted and rectified before the race.

Many of those books that had scoffed were soon enquiring into buying their own set up when they had to stand by and watch as punters queued to bet with their neighbours just because they were issuing printed tickets. Bookmakers weren’t introducing these tickets for the benefit of the punters, but on the other hand they were as their business requires that they do plenty of business so what is popular with them is good for business. The drawback for the punters was that the layers could see if they were betting badly flickering away on their screens whereas before, many of the ‘new’ bookies didn’t have a clue.

Then the next boon for punters happened, the bookmakers introduced buying and selling of pitches. The previous arrangement for betting pitch allocation was the hotly protected ‘dead man’s shoes’ system. Pitches could be passed from generation to generation and the only way a new bookmaker to hope to bet on-course was to progress through the waiting list which on some courses was 100s of names long. The effect that buying and selling had on the ring was much the same as when the ESL policy was adopted but even more beneficial to the on-course punters. The older established layers had the opportunity to sell up and retire with a few quid. Their places were taken by people who had either decided to upgrade or by a whole slew of moneyed, but often inexperienced, ‘new blood’. Once again the pitches were filled on days that they shouldn’t have been, once again there was financial carnage with some of the new blood lasting only a matter of months before deciding that the game wasn’t all it was cracked up. While this ‘level finding’ was going on the margins were being squeezed to the point that the punters never had it so good.

Then Betfair arrived and things became even better for the punters, firstly for the big bettors, saying that, they are a lot less in number than popular folklore would have you believe. As long as the bookmaker was able to hedge the bet back bigger on the exchanges many would lay a much bigger bet than they would ever have contemplated before. That knock-on effect also limited the influence that the off-course firms have had shortening favourites especially at mid-week meetings, the days where the mere sight of a rep from one of the ‘big three’ could almost ensure 6/4 became 11/8 were long gone. Very soon at least two of the three decided to stop sending money into the ring when they saw books that would normally bluff a £300-£200 sending their floormen to chase after their reps begging bets only to see that money absorbed into the exchanges and the price hardly affected.

The short-sighted nature of the layers actions in those early days were a shot in the foot financially when the off-course money stopped finding its way into the on-course market. The layers that suddenly found themselves in the big league were no longer able to take their eyes off ‘the machine’ because if they did they would be picked off by the teams of ‘arbers’. They were the new breed of backers that were getting plenty on-course in the early days. These days the majority of the ring follow the exchange market blindly with very little opinion of their own often making their pricing decisions on the basis of very little money creating a price. Opening shows are quite often in single figures over the 100% mark offering value as never seen before. On-course punters really have never had it so good, despite the press hysteria on the odd occasion a large margin is returned.

None of the changes highlighted, all beneficial to punters, have been done by the layers for the good of them but the ring is constantly evolving around market forces. The decimal odds idea is not a new one. In fact the very first hedge bet that I was responsible for prompting was when I started working on-course in 1989, my boss laid a bet of £400-£500 and promptly had a bet of £450-£500 back with a layer who chalked up, yes chalked, 9/10. Some books have used 16/5 as an option instead of 10/3 ever since I have been on-course as have 7/5 and  9/5 Even though some punters have been known to take those odds ‘because they can work them out’ most can see that they are getting slightly short-changed taking 16/5 unless of course the 10/3 is taken. Had there been queues akin to those seen when people latched on to printed computer tickets you can rest assured that the whole ring would have followed suit.

The unfortunate by-product of the exchange/computer age is that some the atmosphere has gone from the ring. There are very few floor-men running around hedging bets and the days of guys sprinting from the rails to hedge a big one are long gone, but the off-course reps have made a return. Tic-tac men are all but gone too, one of the most loved sights on course in years gone by.

Rather than force the ring to change their ways by adopting something nobody really needs it should be supported and nurtured as a part of the day at the races experience. The ring will wither and die if it is empty, as will racecourses. The main priority of Racing For Change should be the obvious one, getting people to come racing. The free entry week experiment has highlighted why people don’t come so that would be the obvious answer, make it more affordable. There are plenty of courses that do make the effort to get ‘new blood’ in the ring, family fun days and concert evenings being two. Sadly the former tend to put on face-painting, bouncy castles and falconry displays rather than thinking of innovative and fun ways to educate the novices and children into the mysterious ways of racing. The latter appear to totally miss the opportunity to enthral the masses that have turned up to see bands rather than the racing, one course last year almost apologetically announced that there were only two races to go before the band. How about operating a draw where by a name and a mobile phone number on the back of a losing betting slip entered that person into a draw to meet the band backstage? How about when the advance tickets were sent out do so with a leaflet highlighting the joys of racing and explaining how the betting ring worked and the decimal equivalent of the traditional odds? How about a ‘celebrity’ guide to betting, either in person or on the close circuit TV and big screen? How about more TV coverage of the actual betting on racecourses.

Sad to say it appears that some racecourses would rather that some bread and butter meetings are hardly attended at all. The evidence for this is very little, if any, promotion and facilities closed to those that do turn up and pay the quite often extortionate amount asked for entry. How about the powers that be insist that a set amount of money is spent advertising in the local community before they get any funding?

The Betting Ring should be used as a selling point, it is still inhabited by colourful characters either side of the fence. There is still a buzz on a big day with four and five figure bets changing hands. It may be going a bit far to suggest employing a tic-tac man just for aesthetic reasons but it will be a sad day when they are all gone, but that day is near. Their extinction is a result of the bookmakers betting into exchanges rather than with each other and before that the use of radios and not decimal odds. However, a bi-product of imposing a new decimal system is the loss forever in a generation or so of the racecourse tic-tac inspired slang used for the traditional odds. ‘Half Arm’ ‘Wrist’ ‘Tips’ ‘Top of the head’ all gone forever.

The betting ring and its tradition is a part of UK racing heritage and should be treated as such. If the bookmakers decide that their business would improve if they used decimal odds that will happen naturally. All the other changes highlighted have been self-imposed because the layers need customers and are in direct competition with each other. They need to offer the punters what will attract them so constantly strive to get the edge over their brethren.

Modernisation for modernisation sake is not wanted by anyone, Racing For Change should concentrate on the area they have already made great inroads, getting people to come racing, the ring should be highlighted as one of those reasons, not by changing it but nurturing, cherishing and supporting it.

(c) Simon Nott


11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by jim clarke on December 2, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Well done Simon giving geoff a run for his money.


  2. Posted by Jane Hazell on December 2, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Very interesting reading Simon, brought back a lot of memories of the good old days.


  3. Posted by Charlotte risius on December 2, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Brilliantly written simon and incredibly incisive


  4. Posted by Colin Phillips on December 23, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Excellent stuff, Simon.

    Wish you the very best of luck with this blog.



  5. Posted by mick nestor on December 24, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Very interesting and inciteful Simon. Couple of things , could you explain if you get a chance more regarding the market percentage and how it effects the bookies overall profit , I have heard pundits refer to this but mot exactly sure how it operates. On racing for change I think its appreciated the work they are trying to do but its very hard to get people interested in the intricacies of racing if they weren,t brought up watching and going to it. My dad let me have a bet every saturaday when I was 9 or 10 and I learned loads from him and tv and going. Unfortunately now this would be seen as not P.C if it was encouraged and ultimatly this is how kids get intersted in racing and follow it through their lives. Enjoy your stuff keep it up.


    • Thanks Mick, the basic principles are the same as for any business, the bigger the profit margin the bigger the profit. A bookmaker’s book in the most general sense would ideally be over, showing a profit whatever the result. If a bookmaker priced up a race to 110% then in a perfect book he’d show a profit of £10 for ever £100 taken on the race. Some bookmakers try to operate like this but in reality they all have their own methods but the chances of betting ‘overs’ in many cases is either impossible or pointless due to the lack of business. Quite often bookies bet so badly in terms of their own profit margin that the best percentage of prices ‘done’ is quite often less than 100%. The punters really never have had it so good as far as on-course value is concerned, what they don’t have these days is a lot of choice either because of low bookmaker turn-out or uniformity of exchange influenced prices. I hope that answers your question. If not feel free to ask in greater depth. All the best. Simon.


  6. Posted by Steve Key on March 4, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Hi Mick,

    Really interesting piece, congratulations. I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on your views!) enough to be asked to sit in on one of the Racing for Change task forces, specifically one to get more young people involved in racehorse ownership. Some industry heavyweights were present and it was a real honour to be involved, so I do follow all RFC news with interest and loved reading this.

    I agree with your sentiments, getting people in the racecourse first is the key, but I don’t think we do enough once they’re on course. One example I’ll never forget was watching a punter who backed a winner on course (one of the Newmarket Nights was the day) and there had been a Rule 4 in the race. The punter couldn’t understand why they weren’t getting paid out the price on their ticket and the bookmaker, although pretty curt, clearly had other punters to deal with so didn’t really give the customer the time needed to explain. That’s the sort of thing Racing needs to embrace in my opinion.

    Ambassadors for Racing could be a start – I love taking friends to the races who’ve never been before, as when they realise what they’re missing the seed has been sewn and their desire to go again is massively increased.

    Enough of my ramblings, great article, well done again.



  7. Posted by Steve Key on March 4, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Sorry Simon – I don’t know why I put Mick in that last comment. Please accept my apologies!


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