In a couple of weeks' time virtually the entire nation will have its annual punt on the Grand National. With that in mind, here are a few gambles on the stock market that I think could prove to be winners. The companies I'm highlighting here are not for the risk averse. If they make money, it isn't much and don't even think about a dividend. But they're all businesses I've come across in my travels that get my nose twitching in the same way that Finian's Rainbow got my nose twitching half an hour before he won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
First up is Probability. I mentioned this stock briefly in a review of the gaming sector this year. That, however, was before results from Betfair and Paddy Power which demonstrated how big an influence the smartphone is having on the world of gaming.
Probability is the only pure-play mobile business, which puts it right in the middle of a sweet spot. Of course it has competitors. But the offerings of most internet-based gaming groups are tailor-made for laptops and desktops. Their mobile offerings are conversions and, in many cases, they simply aren't as good as Probability's tailor-made mobile games.
As the smartphones revolution rolls on, so will Probability. The group was nearly taken over by William Hill last year. It is quite possible that another bid could materialise before too long, and I'd expect to see some interesting developments in the meantime. The chief executive Charles Cohen is smarter than the average gaming bear and his backers include the likes of Icap boss Michael Spencer, who is no dummy when it comes to investing.
The biggest risk? tax. The Government is changing the way it taxes gaming businesses. Previously this was based on the location of the business, so if your servers were offshore you wouldn't incur UK tax. In the next couple of years legislation will be enacted to levy gambling tax on a "point of consumption basis". In other words, it will be based on the location of the punter. Probability will need to either grow very fast or persuade the Government that smaller entrepreneurial outfits ought to benefit from a lower rate. That said, it could very easily grow very fast. I'd be a buyer.
Britain's poor record when it comes to producing tech companies of global standing has often been remarked upon. We have Arm Holdings (which will be featured in a future column) but even though it is valued at over £8bn it is still small compared with the giants of the US tech scene. There are two major headaches facing aspiring geektrepreneurs in this country. The first is securing funding. There are no equivalents here of the Silicon valley entrepreneurs who often use their fortunes to finance the next generation of start-ups. Second, is just as companies start to obtain critical mass they get bought. This happened with software group Autonomy.
One company it might be worth getting in on at the ground level is Nanoco. This column has repeatedly highlighted the virtue of the company, which manufactures quantum dots, minute particles whose uses include the lighting of visual displays and lighting generally. They could also have biomedical applications and a number of other uses. They have the virtue of being energy efficient and come free of cadmium, a nasty heavy metal pollutant.
Its AGM statement showed a company getting itself sorted out, and that's a good thing, The shares have certainly enjoyed an encouraging run. The investment column last recommended a buy at 42.5p in October. They are well on their way to doubling that. Keep buying.
If, in the future, GW Pharmaceuticals, lives up to expectations you'd be best advised not to say "put that in your pipe and smoke it" to anyone who had questioned your investment in it. GW makes use of the cannabis plant, and in fact grows 20 tonnes a year of the stuff. With government approval too, "somewhere" in the southern part of these islands.
The shares first took off after Sativex, a treatment used by multiple sclerosis patients, was approved. It hit the market in this country last June and other countries have followed. But that's just the start. The company believes cannabinoids, or chemicals derived from the plant, could yet be used to treat several more conditions: diabetes, high cholesterol, liver problems, even cancer. It is a testament to the plant's controversial nature that the potential uses of cannabinoids are only now being discovered. What works about GW as an investment is this: it has successfully brought a treatment to market and is deriving earnings from it which will, naturally, help fund development of future products.
There are any number of biotechs on the UK stock market, but not many of them can actually say that. With the shares having drifted lower in the past few weeks I'd say there was a buying opportunity here.
This, the third of my gambles, doesn't actually look like that much of a gamble when you think about it.