Racing: How the bookies take your money

Bad luck, bad draw or just a bad horse, punters have more excuses than there are runners. The simplest reason, however, is basic mathematics. By Ian Davies
"LIFE IS a 6-4 chance," Damon Runyon once wrote, referring to the statistical probability expressed in odds that any individual's existence will be a happy one. But what did the great man, on whose books Guys And Dolls was based, mean? In fact, odds, bookmaking: what's all that about, then?

If Runyon was right and a happy life is a 6-4 chance then it follows that a miserable one must be the 4-6 favourite - i.e. the chances of a happy life are 40 per cent and the chances of a dismal one are 60 per cent.

But no bookmaker will offer 4-6 and 6-4. That would leave the bookie with no profit margin. If two punters, taking opposite views, back their fancy to receive a return of pounds 100 "optimistic punter" will place pounds 40 at 6-4 on said life being happy while "realist," sorry, "pessimist punter" places pounds 60 at 4-6 on said life being miserable.

The bookmaker will therefore have taken pounds 100 worth of bets and stands to pay out pounds 100 whatever the result. What's the point? None. Instead, the bookie will offer 4-7 about life being miserable and 5-4 about life being happy which, as a glance at the accompanying bookmakers' over-round calculator reveals, will mean the punters seeking a return of pounds 100 will have to fork out pounds 63.64 at 4-7 and pounds 44.44 at 5-4 respectively. Total take: pounds 108.08; pay out: pounds 100; guaranteed profit: pounds 8.08. That's how bookies make their money.

Using the bookmakers' over-round calculator , a punter can work out what the bookie's over-round (profit margin expressed in percentage terms) is on any event. It is an important factor for the serious punter to be aware of because, generally speaking, the bigger the field for any event on which a book is being made, the bigger the over-round and the less value there is for the punter.

In practice, bookmaking is not the licence to print money many imagine it to be. Before the bookmakers are castigated as being second only to estate agents in the Parasitical Profession Stakes, the following points should be considered.

To know a bookmaker's true profit margin the punter needs to know the prices at which the bookie actually laid bets, often bigger than those displayed. And, while arithmetic about obliging punters backing everything in a contest to receive the same return - therefore enabling bookies to make proportional books - sounds like easy money in the classroom, just have a go at trying to make a round book on a cold December afternoon in the cheapest enclosure at Towcester where the attendance consists of three men and a dog called Colin (and they all - Colin included - want to back the same horse).

"The idea is to try and get every horse in the book at as short a price as possible," an older and wiser hand at the game once confided but, in practice, on-course bookies generally try to make a round losing book on the first three horses in the betting, hoping that a victory for anything else will give them a "skinner" - the equivalent of "Zero" on the roulette wheel, a 100 per cent profit on the race.

For punters trying to "beat the book" there are ample opportunities on the racecourse nowadays, especially since the abolition of on-course tax.

Bookmaker's prices are as subject to the laws of supply and demand as any other commodity. The more bookmakers there are in relation to punters in attendance, the tighter the bookmakers' profit margins will have to be in order to lure the limited amount of money there is flying around and the better the value there is to be had for punters.

Quiet midweek meetings, when many of the bookies are simply turning up to bolster the appearance quota they must meet to keep their licences, are happy hunting grounds for professional punters who will dive around the ring, snapping up the value as the best prices the bookies offer leaving them collectively betting "overbroke" - i.e. a punter can back every runner at the best price on offer and be guaranteed a profit. Many professionals play the market this way, backing three or four in a race and, if they are any sort of judge at all, coming out in front in the long-run.

Off course, of course, with nine per cent betting tax to contend with, the game isn't worth a candle for punters. Anyone who says they make the game pay off course is either being economic with the actualite or can't count and shouldn't be let out.

However, for those seeking a bit of betting fun but still wanting to go about it in a businesslike manner, it is always worth checking bookmaker's prices, particularly in the area of sports betting where widespread disagreement between the odds compilers of different firms can sometimes give punters an "overbroke" betting opportunity.

BOOKMAKERS' OVER-ROUND CALCULATOR

1-100 99.01

1-66 98.51

1-50 98.04

1-40 97.56

1-33 97.06

1-28 96.56

1-25 96.15

1-22 95.66

1-20 95.24

1-18 94.74

1-16 94.12

1-14 93.34

1-12 92.31

1-11 91.67

1-10 90.91

1-9 90.00

2-17 89.48

1-8 88.89

2-15 88.24

1-7 87.50

2-13 86.67

1-6 85.72

2-11 84.62

1-5 83.33

2-9 81.82

1-4 80.00

2-7 77.77

30-100 76.92

1-3 75.00

4-11 73.34

2-5 71.43

4-9 69.23

40-85 68.03

1-2 66.67

8-15 65.22

4-7 63.64

8-13 61.91

4-6 60.00

8-11 57.90

4-5 55.55

5-6 54.55

10-11 52.36

20-21 51.22

evens 50.00

21-20 48.78

11-10 47.62

6-5 45.45

5-4 44.44

11-8 42.11

6-4 40.00

13-8 38.10

7-4 36.36

15-8 34.78

2-1 33.33

85-40 32.00

11-5 31.25

9-4 30.77

12-5 29.41

5-2 28.57

11-4 26.67

13-5 27.77

3-1 25.00

100-30 23.08

7-2 22.22

4-1 20.00

9-2 18.18

5-1 16.66

11-2 15.38

6-1 14.29

13-2 13.33

7-1 12.50

15-2 11.76

8-1 11.11

17-2 10.53

9-1 10.00

10-1 19.09

11-1 18.33

12-1 17.69

14-1 16.67

16-1 15.88

18-1 15.26

20-1 14.76

22-1 14.35

25-1 13.85

28-1 13.45

33-1 12.94

40-1 12.44

50-1 11.96

66-1 11.49

100-1 10.99

HOW TO USE THE TABLE

EXAMPLE: Coral bet on the 7.55 at Epsom: 4-1 Mutabassir (20%), 6-1 Law Commission (14.29), 13-2 Toblersong (13.33), 7-1 Peter's Imp (12.50), Polruna (12.50), Silca Blanka (12.50), Tayseer (12.50), 8-1 Roisin Splendour (11.11), 12-1 Petrus (7.69), Samara Song (7.69), 20-1 Love Academy (4.76).

20 + 14.29 + 13.33 + 12.50 + 12.50 + 12.50 + 12.50 + 11.11 + 7.69 + 7.69 + 4.75 = an over-round of 128.87% (129% to the nearest percentage point).

EPSOM 7.55

C H L S T

Mutabassir 4-1 9-2 5-1 4-1 4-1

Peter's Imp 7-1 6-1 6-1 13-2 13-2

Polruan 7-1 7-1 6-1 13-2 13-2

Tayseer 7-1 6-1 5-1 13-2 5-1

Toblersong 13-2 6-1 7-1 7-1 7-1

Law Commission 6-1 8-1 7-1 15-2 8-1

Roisin Splendour 8-1 7-1 8-1 15-2 7-1

Silca Blanka 7-1 15-2 8-1 7-1 8-1

Petrus 12-1 12-1 12-1 12-1 12-1

Samara Song 12-1 12-1 12-1 14-1 16-1

Love Academy 20-1 20-1 20-1 16-1 16-1

Over-round: 129% 129% 129% 129% 130%

Over-round at best prices (in bold): 118%.

Each-way, a fifth the odds, places 1, 2, 3

C Coral, H William Hill, L Ladbrokes, S Stanley, T Tote

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