Cheltenham -the Bookies view

The Cheltenham Festival season starts with preview evenings. This is where a room full of 200 men drink pints of Guinness. There are rarely more than 3 women in the place. It’s a free fart zone.

Four or five ‘celebrity’ panelists try to make themselves heard above the general pandemonium. They’re discussing their fancies. One always tries to tip something which isn’t trained by Lord Mullins. Met by large guffaws from the punters. They’re not daft. The beer runs out and the evening ends with most people none the wiser.

Tuesday rolls along. First into the car parks are the bookies. They look nervous with good reason. Moaning hour typically starts at 11am. Griping is a kind of sport with Bookies. It’s cheaper than actually doing anything about it. Whilst I respect my colleagues for their fortitude, their inability to accept the basic premise that cutting each other’s throat is a clear character fault. The worst Betfair price merchants in the ring, typically the first to whine if someone else is seen to take more tickets.


For by that, a racecourse without bookmakers ‘would be a very odd place.’ This in the view of a Judge I had occasion to meet of late. I hope racecourses fully appreciate that. They seem hell bent on racking up the charges, this strikes me as foolish. Bookmakers bring colour and atmosphere. Imagine Kempton on a drab winter’s afternoon without Bookmakers in the ring? Of course you can’t.


Supreme Novice. Here the specials start. Horse falls? – Free Bet. Non starter? Free Bet. Beaten into 2nd? Free Bet. Brown horse? Free Bet. In fact it’s safe to say you’re a complete idiot if you have a bet which doesn’t contain an offer of one kind or another. And of course Non runner no bet remains the daftest offer from any self respecting bookmaker.


Major betting firms set their stalls out to lose at Cheltenham these days. Engorged marketing departments assure executives they can secure increased market share. All you have to do is offer 10/1 Douvan to win the Arkle. Which seems a fair rate to me. William Hill offer the best deal, to match all their major competitors odds, all morning, on every horse, and then guarantee the same against SP. I won’t bore you with the maths, but the odds of prevailing with such a scheme don’t have a recognisable number. Were I the notional head of British Racing I would long ago have structured a deal wth betting that didn’t involve my sport being used as the tool to sell other products. But the BHA aren’t as bright as me it appears. The Bookmakers continue to treat the costly racing product as a weapon. A racing right that ignores it’s customers have to be seen to benefit from that product long term can only fail. That may mean a cheaper deal than 7.5%, but more benefits.


Douvan wins the Arkle.


The Centaur is a huge arena. My firm joins five others in the annual struggle. Not a free bet in sight. No quarter given. I employ three very pretty girls to take the money. It’s sexist in the extreme. If the arena was warm enough I’d ask them to bet in their lingerie. I know this would upset the gambling commission, but they expect me to know the rules before they do anything about anything. My rules.


Day one starts with a seven race card. Mullins wins everything worth winning and leaves the handicaps to trainers who don’t complain about how much prize money Rich Ricci deserves. Ruby Walsh rides the odd winner and waves his pointing stick at the crowd as he rides in, pursued by Alice Plunkett and her pointing stick.


In the Centaur we struggle to keep up with payouts. I don’t remember it being like this when I was a nipper at the track. In those days the festival comprised three days. The Ryanair didn’t take from the Gold Cup. Nobody had heard of grade one animals running in the Mares Hurdle. Michael Dickinson would saddle five in the Gold Cup, as opposed to his modern day equivalent saddling one and sending the other four elsewhere.


Worst result of the day isn’t actually Annie Power for us, who flukes the Champion. I wonder at Faugheen’s prospects against this wonder mare. A question echoed from racing’s anchorman- Nick Luck to Ruby Walsh. ‘It’s never going to happen,’ declares Walsh honestly. The legacy of individual horses rather second place to podium visits from the owner, coupled with daft excuses for the defection of Vautour. Poor show.


At 4pm exactly, one of my betting babes, Vicky, broke a nail. It happened so suddenly nobody was expecting it. People stood around looking shocked. The betting, the excitement of the horse, the flying finishes all seemed so unimportant now. It felt like another Annie Power flops the last moment.


Wednesday was Queen Mum day. Results were bookie friendly with four skinny favourites getting turned over. Fear touched punters faces that day. Sprinter Sacre took the main prize, besting Un De Slow up Cheltenham’s formidable hill. The roof on the Centaur took a bashing that day. Perhaps as big a roar as when Dawn Run took her Gold Cup. As I watched Sprintre Sacre’s substantial arse amble away from a joyous winning enclosure, I rather hoped this would be his last hurrah in Racing. It would be fitting. This would be the first time I’ve ever actually made money from the Bigun’s victories.


I thought Hendo was taking far too long getting Sacre back in front of his fans, but I think a giant slice of humble pie is justified given his performances this year.

Then we have Zabana. Let’s examine this briefly. Here we have another starter, promoted from within Racing, as usual. He’s on his own tryng to judge if all of his horses are standing ready to go. He has no apparant assistance, is clearly inadequately trained, and the procedures are manifestly at fault. Connections prepare a horse for months – and lose out. Punters invest their money – and lose out. Bookmakers make ex gratia payments – and lose out. And Jamie Stier, the man in charge of the whole shambles at the BHA, says ‘it’s untidy, but we’re satisfied we did nothing wrong.’

Now of course this type of thing parallels the Speculative Bid case in many respects. I was called to Chambers by a rather sharp QC this week. Jonathan Harvie. He told me that the case was a ‘Supreme court case wrapped up in a £260 case.’ It could cost £100,000 in fees to the losing side, and going to press I stand alone in what i feel is the right thing to do. A horse denied a chance to run by another thoroughly incompetent official and by poor procedures. Connections who lose out. Punters who backed the horse denied a fair run under the rules, who lost their money. Betting firms who made yet another ex gratia payment. For how long will this archaic, old pals act of regulation continue as supportable, whilst the authority, in the words of the Judge ‘want to govern Racing, yet not be held accountable for its failures.’

Are their individuals out there, betting firms, connections and punters, tired as I am of these appalling failures, whilst they deny their role? Get in touch with me and take this opportunity to establish,  the Authority’s clear duty of care to all of us.


I drive home to the sight of a large man in a pink tutu being propped up by his companion on the way home. I stopped to ask if he could spare me some change.

Victories from Thistle Crack at a silly price, Vautour in the also rans at a silly price and Limini in one of those silly mares races won by Grade one performers, ensure the bookies take a further battering. To be fair though, it’s mostly self inflicted. Bookies are frantically borrowing money from each other to pay the bills. I’m hosed down good and proper by a large treble on the three skinny favourites. I console myself that evening with an equally large double. I receive a missed call from the bank manager.


My car breaks down on the way back to the hotel. I ring Ladbrokes who confirm that qualifies me for a free bet, provided I gamble it responsibly.


I felt pretty confident about the last day. I’ve never been to a festival that’s been completely one sided- I play the odds. It’s a grey day, we’re likely very busy in the Centaur. Crowds are typically huge. From the moment we kick off to final whistle we never stop taking bets…and paying out. The bookie Okey Cokey as three well fancied runners hose up. One bettor thrusts £4000 in my hand for Cue Card at 7/2. The book isn’t as balanced as it once was. I guess I got lucky, and unlucky as Don Cossack stayed past absent friends.

In the end it was a loss to bookmaking of circa 100 million, and before you start whooping and cheering, a consequential loss to racing totaling around ten million in Levy. It behoves the bookmakers to bet better and racing to consider how to best deal with top horses defecting from the best races for cheap gain.


Victoria Pendleton called to commiserate, and doubtless to tell me I’m too pretty to be a man. She reversed the charges. I couldn’t afford to pick up. Another loser I’ve backed..


Greenham 2
Geoff Banks, bookmaker Newbury 20.4.13 Pic: Edward Whitaker








Author: Geoff Banks Racing

UK's Leading Independent Bookmaker. We pay our tax and Levy to British Racing as an Approved Betting Partner. And no begging a proper bet here, large or small stakers welcome! Text, phone, APP or website. Private Client Wagering at its best. :)

6 thoughts on “Cheltenham -the Bookies view”

  1. Cheltenham—from the winning punter’s perspective

    This couldn’t be more different than the experience of the small winning punter—in my case, a liberal professional prepared to bet my lawyer’s salary over the course of the year. If I can get on, that is. Here is the view from the other side of the fence…


    The Festival began before Christmas, when the High St went non-runner no-bet on the headline races. It begins in earnest on 2 March, when Power extend the offer to every race and dangle the carrot for £25 cashback for 2nd, per person per outlet. I do a tour of East London shops, getting lip from a young black cashier when I ask her to check the price on the first of twenty-four beasts I have lined up on my small wedge of slips. ‘I’ve left school, innit?’ I go round to the customers’ monitor in front. I’m right to: All Yours has been cut from 16s to 12s in the County and Squouateur from 8s to 7s in the Conditionals in the ten minutes since I’ve gone through the prices on Betfair.

    ‘No money, no play’, says another cashier in my last shop of the day as I’m dashing to the loo. I give her a slip returning £1,100, and she has to tear herself away from some from grey US courtroom drama to phone up. You can usually wager to take out winnings of £1,000 in Power shops without fuss. The only other time you can bet in Power is the late afternoon the day before–ideally just after Hugh Taylor’s Cheltenham tips come out at 6.30pm. As a box on the Racing Post’s Pricewise page makes clear, Power (now Power Betfair) are the only firm declining to go their traders’ advertised day-of-race price in the morning. The others do their best.

    Tuesday for me is an earlier start than for the on-course books—5.45am, to drive to a town where I’m not known with a dense cluster of betting offices. I’ve got a paper tissue of the exchange prices printed out from the night before, as back-up for screenshots of the exchanges, as backup for a reliable mobile signal. Predictably the mobile goes down. One Coral opens at 7, and I write out slips for Coral (offering prices as 8.30), Hills (offering Coral prices at 8.30 and sometimes, sneakily, their own prices at 8.30, not 9—but otherwise at 9), Lads (9 again) and Power (not ever—but the shop opens at 8 and I haven’t hit it yet for the 2nd cashback offer). I text the bets round to my small number of associates. They’re betting for themselves but I take a slice of their winnings.

    Ten years ago I was betting £20 to £50 and would be jumpy during the race. Now, if anyone attached a heart monitor to me, they’d only see excitation just before my getting on at 8.31am—like a poker player when checking to induce a bet when holding the nuts. Many of my bets will go through as straight bets. Some will be traded and some immediately arbed. If bookmakers are doing all they can to prevent me betting—closing accounts, turning me away in shops—when they offer me a free two or three quid for playing something I don’t fancy, I’m taking it.

    I think if my betting day ended after the last shop offer, Betfred’s last push at 12, I’d be happy to leave it at that. I could even take a nap in the afternoon. The morning prices are so much better than anything even on the exchanges later on. With disciplined staking, I could win and grow a bank without having to smooth by laying back any selections on Betdaq (2% commission for offers), which so often is giving up value. Nothing would delight me more than one of the big two fixed-odds-exchange hybrids allowing you to bet to an Australian-style maximum takeout (currently about £1,100) and prohibiting you from laying the same horse back.

    On the Tuesday, Coral are pushing out Min to 11-4 in the first and are happy to be filled in on outsiders like the ex-Flat horse Penglai Pavilion. That’s £50 for Min, but eight shops for me and my team. This is one I’ll be trading, as I fancy Altior. The Supreme is the biggest betting race of the year as firms vie for what they presume is a captive market over the Festival. This makes it the biggest trading race of the year, a three-dimensional chess-like matrix of free bets and cashbacks to picture and manage. If the car broke down on the motorway at 12.30, any heart monitor attached would see (in its in-running trading-like spikes) something in all probability similar to a coronary.

    When Altior goes in, the relief takes a form not just financial but relating to not needing to troop round a circuit of Ladbrokes shops to redeem free £25 offers. Fred matched Coral’s price to twice the stake in a push (he goes at 10.30 and 12), also going 3-1 Annie Power, which cushions the loss of my having taken the same horse on at the floor price.

    The day is a roaring success because I have the Ultima winner Un Temps pour Tout at 16-1. This was a form (really class) selection, but I don’t have the time to study form during major meetings. In the £20 days, there would be four hours’ study the night before and half an hour’s worth of getting on. Now I know a modicum of the form got up during slow weeks and rely instead on the exchange price, a basic understanding of market dynamics and guesses as to firms’ liabilities based on their standout prices in the morning.

    In excluding me from shops and online, the firms have turned me from an aficionado into (for at least two weeks and thirty Saturdays a year) a near-professional. My winnings are nothing like my salary, even on an hour-for-hour basis. My age means I’ve only ever known the exchange era and am accustomed to a steady stream of day-by-day, if not race-by-race profits.

    In winning, perhaps something like Geoff Banks, I see myself as a service provider. He laid Cue Card at 7-2 for 4k; I laid it for £250 at 4.2-1 to balance my book. His service is dancing girls and mine the best price for exchange customers. I get my price from Coral going 7-2 about Don Cossack in the morning, and from Djakadam at 5s from Fred, and in fact at lower prices, in a dicey trade, from elsewhere. Heaven knows where he finds his sexy cashiers.

    The hardest part of winning (for me) is not going off the rails after defeat, especially what’s perceived as unjustified defeat. But for a young punter without problem, the hardest part—and all the advice I’d give—concerns getting on. Try to establish yourself (I’d say) in shops as a loser, as an unlucky or incontinent person. Play up winnings on an SP jolly, giving back three quid through a surreptitious trade. When it loses, throw an in-shop wobbly. Throw in rubbish, bets on shorties in Premiership football, on your online account. Disguise your good horse bets by including them in multiples with odds-on shots at SP, even anything as last leg, so you migrate your wins to the exchange.

    The satisfaction of winning rationally isn’t the same as that of finding a winner. When Vroum Vroum Mag hoovers up in the Mares at Fred’s 2-1 double with Douvan (£100 in six shops), the pleasure is of a plan properly executed. I make about £1,600 on the day and never do as well again, although Lads first race offers hit paydirt every day. The most obvious selections against the jolly, Altior and Yorkhill, cash in the Supreme and Neptune, and the favourite and so the offer collects on the Thursday and Friday.

    There is something grubby about betting to win, though I’d see the bookmaker practice of only accepting bets from guaranteed losing punters as grubbier than what I do. The maximum bet on the unexposed Henderson horse and Pricewise selection Hunters Hoof in the Coral Cup from Ladbrokes on Wednesday in £5ew. £5, for the biggest meeting of the year! This is accountancy and has nothing to do with forming a view about horses.

    On the third day, Fred’s area manager has somehow got wise to me and refuses me his 10.30 push. SP only from now on. I make a song-and-dance, telling the other punters that ‘as soon as you find out how to win, you’ll be shown the door’. Cruelly, I tell one he’d have to go the daycare centre if his multiple hit, but don’t worry, they make the tea there the same. None make eye contact. This is a smokescreen for my placers getting on in shops in the same area ten miles away. I’m frustrated as one push is Outlander, which I fancy against the English horses in the JLT. But it’s the Irish horse that’s backed, trained by Mullins and ridden by Walsh, with equally good form from further back, that wins.

    Independent, or even any shop, bookmaking now is like being a metal-basher in Pennsylvania or catfish-farming in the deep South. They do it cheaper in Vietnam. On the betting, they do it cheaper on the exchanges (where the programmers are Portuguese and Romanian). It used to be that the bookie could know nothing about horses and sit back, allowing the overround to scoop up his winnings. Now the margins are slimmer; the casual or ignorant bettor is on the machines or the football; and the only people betting in volume are the whales, the ‘Premiership footballers’, the ‘Loch Ness monster?!’–or, more likely, people who know more than you.

    There also used to be something called the ‘betting judge’–the bookie who won by being better at predictions than the market. These people either no longer exist, are no longer better than the market in the age of the machines, or are playing for themselves, not as employees—as the people the firms employ as compilers are now rigidly machine- and accountant-led. It would cramp the style of any good form-student or trader to be given so little autonomy as they’d enjoy managing the liabilities of any significant firm.

    Ironically, my best ‘snide’ win on the third day is the fifth place of Our Kaempfer, which was a strong form and class fancy, from Fred at 12s. He’s paying out five places and I’m paying out five on Betfair—what the finance boys call ‘double alpha’. Market movements also put me onto the winner, Mall Dini for a pocket-sized Galway yard. I used to be touched by racing stories, when betting was about being right, rather than targeting a profit.

    The wobbly races of the last two days are where my main initial selection is weak in the market and I’m torn between holding the bet and limiting my exposure. Lads go Evs about Vautour, reportedly uninterested in his work, in the Ryanair for £500 per shop. When this happens, the course is to lay yourself and wait, before (if you must) taking the higher price. I’m similarly discomfited by a smaller drift on Superb Story in the County Hurdle, hardly a race with only one plot. It wins doing cartwheels, but I haven’t won. I’ll have to playact satisfaction when going in to collect what’s in fact a negligible loss. This is at the shop where the cashier is an old-timer (‘there was none of this rushing round in my day’) who puts bets through at a rate of one every thirty seconds and would win any Oscar for a portrayal of confused infirmity.

    On the four days I’m up in the small-to-mid four figures—less than 5k. It would be hard not to be. This is the only week of the year when the books (providing always for the £5 max. on Hunters) have some interest in betting.

    In my view, bookmaking forfeits social legitimacy by excluding winners. I am excluded because like 99% of 18 year-olds, and maybe the same percentage of intelligent adults in their 40s, I can use a mobile phone and don’t need to take under the machine price. What is the future for racing in a bookie like Hills with a shop estate, rents and employees they need to pay, and no exchange income stream? What’s the future when their habitual shop-punters die out? It’s FOBTs—and when these go out the window with tighter regulation, what?

    I guess any bookmaker reading this will accept I’m going to win, but I’m not the person they should be worried about. I have no aspiration to bet professionally and just do the biggest sixty days a year. They should be worried about the professionals and the connections getting on in a drip-drip down through the prices. Racing itself prizes the second kind of bettor—it is the second kind of bettor—but could do without me. It should think again. Small winning punters are an essential part of the betting ecology. In winning, we say it’s good to bet—it’s fun, it’s interesting—because we know the betting public at large are our source of winnings. The bookie is a middleman.

    What I would like the BHA to do is promote racing as the betting medium ‘where winners can win’, ‘where winners aren’t closed down’. This is the most powerful marketing you could have. They should have bought Flutter, not Betfair. But that bird has flown. What they should do now is offer the prices, including Paddy’s, in the Pricewise box between 7 and 7.05am on Saturday to registered customers up to a maximum of £100 per bet or £1,000 takeout, whichever is greater. Any individual customer winnings over the 22p tax threshold should go to racing charities or the Exchequer. In return for laying bets, the authority would get the right to use the personal details of any winning punter in its publicity. End the farce of factoring winning players to nothing and let all horse enthusiasts with lives to get on with to get back to them and back to watching the races.


    1. totally fascinating blog and I’m very grateful not just for the education, but the entertainment
      It truly astonishes me firms bother with any kind of morning odds service, or all these offers, but unlike the ignorants who believe a major making 150 million is ‘coining it’ I tend to view that as a tiny margin on gargantuan turnover – and ripe for bankrupcy or takeover. We’ve seen it in other industries – betting is no different


  2. Boomaker “offers” – completely ridiculous. The aim – To attract “new accounts” but end up being ones they have actually closed down last week/month/year etc under various alias’. After all these years they still havent learnt. Its not “bookmaking”, its gross stupidity !
    BHA – Completely out of touch and should be done away with. They serve no purpose which is beneficial to the sport.
    Starters – Totally agree again. They will soon want to take a photo for the start to make sure they are all in line. With animals like that it will NEVER happen. And how many times have we ALL seen perfectly acceptable line ups only for the starter to turn them round again and again.
    And as for the Speculative Bid saga. This must go down as one of the BHA’s most embarrassing and incompetent moments. Farce !!!


    1. Thanks Rob- I believe most right minded people are appalled by the behaviour of the BHA over speculative Bid , but with exception of Guardian and Racing Post and one or two columnists, Delargy and Cunningham, the BHA enjoy their ‘relationship’ with the press better than football does. Those in the press who sit about waiting on the next report on Annie Power will all end up on the dole queue eventually. Journalism is about stories and drama, and this is unquestionably both of those. So how come the Daily Mail et al isn’t interested?


  3. Very enjoyable read Geoff. How is the case going ? Sounds like the QC was trying hard to make you pull out.


    1. that’s their tactic. Complicate a 260 case such that is has to go multi track with the forecast of six figure legals, appeals etc.
      It astonishes me big betting hasn’t put them in their place over this matter. Instead there’s real prospect BHA can be as incompetent as it likes in any department and it won’t be challenged. Staggering


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