Chris McGrath: Then or now, it's never been so good

Inside Track

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The Independent Online

They say never look a gift horse in the mouth, and no wonder.

By the time the one that appeared at Leopardstown on Wednesday had its jaws prised open, the only surgeon willing to take on the dental repairs was Dr Hugo Z Hackenbush.

Of course, those who collectively matched £800,000 at the price must have known that nobody would deliberately expose himself to potential liabilities of £600m, at 28-1, against a 13-8 chance who had already jumped the last in a clear lead. And few, however vexed, could be genuinely surprised when Betfair voided all "in-running" bets on Voler La Vedette's race.

Lawyers have doubtless been perusing the exchange's rules in the meantime. But whatever options might remain, ethically the situation looks pretty analogous to the betting shop punter who backs Manchester City for the Premier League and finds that the clerk has absent-mindedly scrawled odds of 100-1 on his voucher, instead of 10-11. Bookmakers have rules to deal explicitly with "palpable error", albeit these should hardly be necessary. No honest punter would seriously expect to be paid at 100-1. The historic lifeblood of betting, after all, has been a bond of probity between backer and layer.

That is especially true of credit betting. On an exchange, however, there is no credit – which is why all this has come as such a shock to the system. Ostensibly backer and layer nowadays trade more intimately than ever, bringing nothing to the transaction but funds immediately transferable between their accounts. Moreover, it turns out that all those comforting, traditional precepts of trust governing backer and layer are often being applied between backer and "robot". Software programmes, which automatically detect trading opportunities, are now so commonplace that one such "bot" allowed even a small-time player, with less than £1,000 in his account, to perpetrate this fiasco.

However innocent the circumstances, and however infinite the odds against a recurrence, this has become a mortifying ordeal for Betfair. In the first place, a freakish technical glitch infected the layer's own software; but it was obligingly reciprocated by Betfair's own system, in permitting his account to exceed its exposure so outrageously.

But Betfair has been too brilliant a success for the model to be depicted, overnight, as fatally flawed. And if naïve users are startled to discover they have been betting against robots, then they can take comfort from the fact that those at the sharp end of this surreal episode are divided merely by extremes of opportunism. For even if the system is being routinely manipulated, it is not as if the odds are somehow distorted. Some might even say you're better off betting against a machine than a human being. For the time being, at least, machines remain immune to greed or corruption.

It has been a curious way to end another vintage year on the Turf. Its first Classic was won in stupefying fashion by a colt candidly reckoned "the best we've seen" by Sir Henry Cecil; and its final, dark days were illuminated by a steeplechaser who can himself have few precedents, certainly not measured by sheer durability. Of course, the sport remains prey to an incorrigible tendency to pronounce its latest champion as the best. In their different disciplines, people have almost simultaneously proposed Galileo as the greatest stallion ever; his half-brother, Sea The Stars, as invincible; Zarkava as the best European filly; Zenyatta as the best American mare. (It will duly be seen as impossible to identify even the best female foaled within a 15-month period whose name begins in Z and ends in A.) Now, in a single year, we add Kauto Star as superior to Arkle, and Frankel superior to Secretariat. It would be nice if the sport resolved in 2012 to take better care of its own dignity, and that of the breed itself; to avoid too many fatuous, unprovable comparisons between generations; and simply to give proper, respectful testimony to the privilege of witnessing glory here and now.

For many, of course, the more pressing priority will be to turn over a new leaf in their wagering. The death of See You Then this week, at the grand age of 31, evoked wry memories. In one of his three consecutive Champion Hurdles, he was my first ever £5 bet; 12 months later, he was my first £200 bet. It all seemed so simple. But the opportunities since made available show that even the Voler La Vedette case, is a small price to pay. Never mind the quality of the horses. As punters, we have never had it so good.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Thats Ben (2.20 Warwick)

Point-to-point winner who has shown plenty of promise in two novice chases under Rules, travelling strongly a long way when set an extreme staying test last time, and looks well treated.

Next Best

Ballyegan (2.35 Newbury)

Slipped to a lenient mark when winning in a first-time tongue-tie at Towcester and still looks fairly rated.

One To Watch

Araucaria (Donald McCain) has not been with her trainer long and showed a lot more at Catterick during the week, outpaced over the sharp 2m before rallying for third.

Where the money's going

Coral's New Year specials include 7-4 against Frankel to remain unbeaten in 2012 (at least one run) and 8-1 that he starts odds against for any UK race.