Chris McGrath: Fractional odds? I'm half-convinced

Inside Track

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Like everyone already immersed in the game, I am only half-convinced. Or should that be 0.5 convinced?

For many of us, it was precisely those aspects of horse racing that are now the focus of reform – the arcane, the quaint, the archaic – that seduced us in the first place. So far as fractional odds are concerned, however, you might as well say that a heifer entering an abattoir is a "focus of reform".

The Racing For Change (RFC) project this week set out ways to demystify the Turf, starting with the introduction of decimal starting prices. And really we have to be sensible about this. Like it or not, "dumbing down" is not a charge that weighs terribly heavily on the conscience of a marketing man. By his terms of employment, he is reaching more people. He is getting his job done.

To those of us long conversant with the sport, admittedly, odds such as 100-30 or 11-8 have their own, inherent magic. They are redolent of forgotten gamblers who found a heightened sense of being alive in horses, risk and reward. They are long gone, but we retain a lasting kinship in every wager we strike – shrewd or feckless, bold or desperate. You are never the first to discover that taking 4-11 about something as wilful as a thoroughbred can be a really dumb thing to do.

And even the least numerate punter soon becomes comfortable with his acquired impulses. If his fancy is generally 7-4, and he spots 15-8, his money is out in a heartbeat. On the other hand, anyone at all serious about betting has already had his frame of reference altered by Betfair – and, for that matter, by the Tote.

Once embraced, the process is undeniably painless. In no time, punters will look at incorporated decimal odds and immediately perceive their combined return and stake. As it happens, decimal odds were this week widely demonstrated as hybrids, eg 9-4 as 2.25-1, 5-2 as 2.5-1. In practice, they are instead expressed as 3.25 or 3.5. But the way the news was handled was itself instructive.

The trade press responded to the first RFC initiatives with a shrug of indifference. All that fanfare, and this is the best they can come up with? But the story was seized with enthusiasm by news outlets with a broader reach – from television to newspaper editorials. It emphatically touched a nerve, which is exactly what RFC was briefed to do.

That's why media education for trainers and jockeys is to be underpinned by £100,000 of "appearance money" for mainstream interviews. On the whole, the sport's professionals are already extremely cooperative with their own press. RFC is seeking fresh blood. Sure enough, plans to simplify racecourse announcements prompted news editors to have some fun with our colourful jargon – to explain, for instance, that a horse "hanging" in defeat had not necessarily suspended itself in remorse from the beam of its stable.

Now the mere fact that an idea is embraced beyond its boundaries does not guarantee the slightest profit to the horseracing parish. But the reception of the story implied that it had been broadcast on a fresh wavelength. And no matter how we disparage the witless new audience apparently craved by every leisure industry, we have to deal with reality. They are not preaching to the converted. Yes, many of us are instinctively indignant about the loss of Burlington Bertie (that's 100-30 in tic-tac, for all you pesky youngsters). For precious heirlooms to be discarded in the name of gimmickry would be depressing. But for now RFC warrants the benefit of the doubt.

Radical change remains likely in the structure and presentation of the racing calendar. As things stand, however, RFC has already shown genuine moral courage. After months of consultation, it came up with one, key conclusion far braver than any gaudy innovation. In the words of Chris McFadden, its chairman: "Fundamentally, there is little wrong with racing as an entertainment, leisure and betting medium."

This was too much for some, who wrung their hands about saving the sport from the precipice. But the fact is that even the most ingenious novelty will never achieve as much as those moments that work best for its existing market. Don't tell me I was surrounded by 58,000 aficionados when Zenyatta won the Breeders' Cup Classic. But I can testify that there were 58,000 people wild with excitement.

Perhaps the people at RFC recognised that. Certainly they proved ready to meet the reactionaries halfway. The least the latter can do now is go 0.5-way themselves.

All credit to track staff for staying ahead of the weather

Anyone whose New Year's resolution was to quit betting on horses will have found it plain sailing so far. The rest of us, however, are indebted to the round-the-clock dedication of staff at the all-weather tracks, who contrived to get two out of three cards staged yesterday. And honourable mentions are also due to the British Horseracing Authority, whose emergency fixtures include one at Kempton today, and Channel 4, which hopes to screen no fewer than eight races.

Both the afternoon's meetings are contingent on dawn inspections and, in truth, punters would have to be pretty desperate for a fix to reach the relevant recesses of the form book. True, there's a decent handicap at Lingfield, where the key horse is Fathsta, still well treated but possibly best over a shorter trip and certainly a tricky ride for an apprentice. The Scorching Wind (2.10) is proposed as a highly topical alternative, having flourished when introduced to polytrack in September and better for a recent comeback outing. A speculative recommendation at Kempton is Feel The Magic (3.55). She has hinted at ability once or twice without seeing out her race, and might outrun her odds now that she is tried in blinkers.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Piper's Song (1.55 Kempton)

NB: Lovers Causeway (1.05 Lingfield)

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