The Grand National is a national institution, the one day in the year when most of the population become aware that horseracing exists. People that wouldn’t be seen dead in a betting shop on any other day venture in and have a few quid on their fancy. Offices hold sweepstakes and ITV Racing basks in the glory of 10 million plus viewers. It’s the annual shop window of our wonderful sport so naturally the industry pulls out all the stops to sell itself.
While the race itself has proved to be very unpredictable over its long history, in recent years there have been a couple of certainties landed. One of them is the hysterical ravings of the hard-line animal rights lobby. Social media becomes a fraught place to be as horrific historic images of horses being shot, falling or running with fractured legs threaten to ambush at every click. Worse still, people who have been friends since the last Grand National turn on you for being involved with a sport that condones such ‘cruelty’ to horses.
All of us that love the game know that although a tiny percentage of horses are injured and killed throughout the year it is an uncomfortable inevitability that fate awaits some horses annually. We watch through our fingers as the Grand National unfolds and pray that when the eyes of the world are on our sport there are no fatalities. It’s also inevitable that once the Grand National is over, animal rights activists focus on another avenue to vent their ire.
The second certainty in recent years comes from within and is potentially more detrimental to the long-term health of horse racing. It can be a pressure on journalists to come up with a topic for their tasked couple of thousand words a week. I’m guessing that Grand National week isn’t one of them. Somewhere on some scribe’s calendar the date of the Grand National with be ringed red with ‘SP’ scrawled on it. The grand annual attack on racecourse bookmakers and the system for returning starting prices – regardless of fairy-tale history-making results in the race itself.
The Grand National is an anomaly in the racing calendar. For on-course bookmakers it’s the penultimate heat of a busy three-day meeting. It’s a race they have been betting on all day and one where it is, monetarily, impossible for them to compete with the plethora of on-line offers. Witness the bars full of punters betting on their phone apps, business isn’t what it used to be on course, even on Grand National day, though the cost of being there has never been higher.
This year the SP percentage was 163%. Predictably there were column inches devoted to it. Claims that punters were being ‘short changed’ by prices offered by racecourse bookies. There were also totally false assumptions from some on social media that ‘hedging’ from off-course sources into the hods of compliant layers had kept the favourite Tiger Roll’s price artificially short at 4/1.
The narrative that on-course bookmakers were doing their off-course brethren a favour by betting to a hefty margin is nonsense. The SP was down to nothing more sinister than mathematics. On-course bookmakers have enough on their plate looking after their own business and trying to make it pay than worry about anyone else, it’s a hard game. Over half the field would have been very hard to lay – priced over 33/1 which accounted for around 40% of the theoretical margin leaving just 23% while the favourite was also difficult to lay too, at 4/1 20% of the book, on and off course.
Not being able to take your whack on a jolly leaves the book looking very precarious when punters latch on to the alternative half dozen or so ‘middle-pins’ priced at 8/1 and bigger – a lot of it each way. Basic overround figures don’t tell the whole story. The margin of 1.575% per runner is the Starting Price when all business has been done. Very few bookmakers would have got the horses into their books at the bottom prices. Take the best prices laid by bookmakers on the day and the margins they bet to are much less, that’s true day in day out not just the big meetings.
It’s also confusing who these punters that have been ‘short-changed’ are? All betting shop punters have the option to take a price. Very few of them would be betting the standard four places given the terrific offers available industry wide. Those betting on-line would have also enjoyed value with more places, free bets and even some money back on losing bets. Punters on course would have been able to shop around for the best prices as layers trimmed the horses they were full up with. In all honesty, most punters out for the day care as little about what price they took than what they just paid for a beer or bottle of bubbly, small crumbs for the on-course bookie.
Articles in the press aside, it’s the social media keyboard crusaders posting about how ‘vulnerable once a year’ punters had been ‘ripped off’ and that the SP system is ‘bent’ that really do the damage. Scratch beneath the surface and many have very little knowledge of how it actually works but are still happy to sound off and argue the toss. Tell a once a year punter that they have been ‘ripped off’ often enough even though in reality they have never had it so good and they’ll believe you and will quite possibly give betting on the race a miss next year.
It’s hard to understand why there’s the annual attack on the SP system and a skirmish the odd occasion there’s an all-weather anomaly. It’s a tried and tested system that although isn’t perfect works well for the overwhelming majority of races. If it’s racecourse bookmakers that are the target, and they will be the ones made irrelevant should an industry or off-course SP be introduced, they are already an endangered species, lose on-course bookmakers and a whole swathe of racecourses will soon join them in that bracket. Be careful what you wish for.
Simon Nott is author of:
Skint Mob! Tales from the Betting Ring