Racing: Cautious tip from Teeton's owner

The price is wrong says the man behind a leading candidate for the King George VI Chase; A heart transplant has not stopped Stephen Winstanley becoming a betting guru
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The Independent Online
THE FACT that Stephen Winstanley does not recommend a bet on Teeton Mill in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Saturday is not, on the face of it, the most important piece of news around this morning. But consider this. As the rest of the country tries to spend itself to a standstill, Winstanley is giving away information that you would normally be expected to pay for. The January sales, it seems, really have started early this year.

Winstanley is the founder, proprietor and fiercely analytical brain behind The Winning Line, one of the few private tipping services which has managed to shake off the image of threadbare spivs touting brown envelopes in racecourse car parks. He has about 500 clients who pay a little over pounds 1,000 a year to share in his assessments of the form book. "I look at myself as a financial adviser," he says. "If people want to bet, they might as well take the advice of people who spend 12 hours a day looking at form and horses, and have informed bets."

Some of Winstanley's clients are so eager to take advantage of his selections that they stand in betting shops with mobile phones, dialling repeatedly to be sure that they get the tips as soon as they are released. But even then, they may find that a 5-1 chance has shrunk to 5-2 in the time it takes to write out their slip. Like George Soros in the Square Mile, Winstanley is a man whose opinion can move markets.

And like so many others on the turf, he also has an interesting story to tell, even if his eagerness to keep a low profile is such that requests for a photograph to illustrate it were politely but firmly refused. Now 42, Winstanley was oblivious to racing until his early twenties, when he was a reporter for Piccadilly Radio covering the Manchester United beat during the Ron Atkinson era.

"A lot of the footballers in the squad were very keen on horses," he says, "and I got interested through chatting to them. And what I also realised was that a lot of them seemed to lose vast amounts of money on it, even though they had trainers ringing them up with information."

Winstanley's interest became more acute following an introduction to the late Alex Bird, probably the most famous professional gambler of the last 40 years. "I spent a lot of time picking his brains, and one thing he always impressed on me was that he didn't listen to anyone. I used to go round there and someone like Dick Hern would ring up, but he would take everything that trainers told him with a pinch of salt. He always said that the only horses he never did very well on betting-wise were his own, because he would find himself making excuses for them."

Winstanley studied hard at the University of Punting and graduated with honours, but all the while, a demon which had haunted him since birth was demanding urgent attention. "I was born with severe pulmonary hypertension," he says, "which is very high blood pressure between the heart and lungs. Every now and then I would break a blood vessel, just like horses do, funnily enough, and I'd start coughing up blood. Sooner or later it was going to be fatal, and I knew at the back of my mind that at some stage I would need a heart-lung transplant."

While he waited for a suitable match, Winstanley's doctors advised a change from the endless scramble of a news reporter's life. He thus became perhaps the only person in racing history to take up professional punting for the sake of his health. The Winning Line was founded at the suggestion of a friend, first as a premium-rate telephone line, and then as a private subscription service. The most important phone call of his life arrived three-and-a-half years ago. A match had been found, the transplant was a success, and now Winstanley says that "I'm fitter than I've ever been in my life".

The horses, too, have their rejuvenating qualities. The Winning Line's string of horses, in which all clients have the option to take a small share, is now into double figures. Like Teeton Mill, the Hennessy Gold Cup winner, most are stabled with Venetia Williams, including Stretarez, who won the Ormonde Stakes at Chester's May meeting last season. And did so, what's more, at 25-1, a price which would have been much shorter had Winstanley tipped Stretarez to his clients.

It is, as he admits, "one of the main problems with running a tipping service and having your own horses. Obviously, they're not all going to win, and you have to treat each race on its merits, but if they win when we haven't tipped them, our members are going to want to know why. The King George is a typical example. Teeton Mill is 3-1 now, and I don't think he's anything like a betting proposition at that price. You still get 3-1 whether it's our horse or anyone else's, and there are at least five possible winners. There must be better bets on Saturday than that."

Winstanley takes particular pleasure in searching for horses with untapped potential, and then attempting to buy them. "I find that an enormous number of trainers don't seem to have a very good handle on how good or bad their horses are. One of the things which sets Venetia apart is that she uses the ammunition she has very carefully, whereas some trainers just seem to decide to give a horse a run a week on Wednesday even when it's got no chance."

Whatever the result on Saturday, Teeton Mill's owner will quickly return to the eternal battle he wages on behalf of his clients. What with the bookies shortening up the prices, and inevitable runs of bad luck and losers, his life does not get any easier. He also lives with the knowledge that "some of them are betting with money they can't afford to lose. That's the nature of it, we tend to attract people who want to make money quickly, rather than those who have it already. It can be quite a strain, and when we have a bad run, I wake up at night worrying".

But even so, the memory of the times when he would make his selections with form books spread out on his hospital bed gives him an important sense of perspective. Transplants, he says, "don't tend to last forever, so you have to make the most of life. Racing people tend to get obsessed by it and it takes over their lives, but whether Teeton Mill wins the King George is not the be all and end all. It's just horse racing."

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