Science, Maths & Technology

# Beating The Bookies?

Updated Wednesday 22nd June 2005

The Ever Wondered team gave financial guru Alvin Hall a fiver and sent him off to a greyhound track to explore how you can use numbers to shorten the odds

But before Alvin places his first bet, he needs to talk to people in the know to get some inside knowledge. First stop is trackside.

Copyright: Used with permission Alvin: Does the size of the dog matter?

Sally Killengrey, Race Assistant: If it’s really drastic then we have to pull them out, that’s called a weight variation. They have to be within a kilo of their weight.

Alvin: By just looking at the dog, can you tell which one is going to win?

Sally Killengrey: If they’re happy, their tail’s wagging, they feel good about themselves - it could make a difference out there on the track.

Alvin: So when we go out there to look at them, we should look for a dog that’s been through dog therapy, it has a smile on its face, right?

But does winning depend solely on the dog’s happiness? Is the bottom line money? Alvin investigates what racing has in common with other investment markets. Alvin goes in search of an Economic Historian.

Alvin: Is betting on the dogs like playing the stock market?

Jack Dowie, Economic Historian: Pretty much, you’ve got the gamble, you’ve got the possibility of winning; you’ve got a downside, the possibility of losing. The risk to order ratio is very set and it’s about 20% of whatever you bet with, and because the markets are very efficient, as with the stock market, you can come here and enjoy yourself without losing much money or you can lose it all, but percentage-wise you can have a good time for very little.

Alvin: So how do they set the odds?

Jack Dowie: Well, the tote’s very simple because it doesn’t set the odds, it just waits for people to bet on the various dogs and at the end it calculates the percentage of money on each dog and divides it up amongst the winners. They then take 20% off the top.

Alvin: So the tote always makes money.

Jack Dowie: They always make money, they can’t lose. The bookmaker operates in basically the same way, he wants to end up with 20% and also there’s an initial line which can be set by the experts and then, as people come along, particular bookmakers will react to the supply and demand for that particular dog.

Copyright: Used with permission Alvin: In that case it’s like the stock market: wherever the money flows, the difference gets narrower and narrower. Where there is no money, the spread widens.

Jack Dowie: That’s exactly right. It’s those little patterns and the movements of the odds that I’m interested in because that means I can go to any track anywhere in the world and be a participant. Whereas if I have to know all the facts and variables, about the dogs the horses, I’m out of it.

Copyright: BBC Next stop: to meet the Track Director, Philip Chandler, to find out the difference between a bookmaker and a tote.

Philip Chandler: Basically a bookmaker can only accept one type of bet, which is a win bet, and with the tote you have win, place and forecast, which is getting the first and the second dog.

Alvin: I want some inside information. How can a complete novice bet on a winning dog?

Philip Chandler: The best bet would probably be to buy a good newspaper, like The Racing Post, and follow the experts.

Copyright: Used with permission Alvin: But isn’t there a bit of chance in it?

Philip Chandler: Oh, probably. My wife is always lucky -she just looks at the dog that looks the prettiest. And she backs more winners than I ever could.

More confused then ever Alvin decides to put this racing game into perspective before he places his first bet.

Alvin: Racing is a part of the British soul and betting on racing seems to be one of the passions as we can see from the noise here. Why is that?

Copyright: Used with permission Rebecca Cassidy, social anthropologist: Well I think it’s because it enables people to have a vested interest in something that they’re excited by. You’re coming for a nice evening with your friends and you want to bet. If you don’t have a bet then it’s just another dog race, but if you have an actual interest in number five or number four you can hear everybody cheering their dog on and for a moment or two it becomes "their" dog. Just the same as in horse racing you can bet on the Queen’s horse and for a moment be linked in with her and be cheering with the Queen. It’s you and her against the rest.

Alvin: So out of the two of them, which one do you think is the most speculative?

Rebecca Cassidy: I would say dog racing. But if you want to make money, I would say that you need to go to a horse racetrack. There are far more unpredictable factors involved in a dog race than in a horse race.

Alvin: Well it’s time to place my bet and I’m going to make my decision on three factors:

First, what’s the dog’s history, how has it come in past races?

Second, why did it lose those races, was it buffed, did something happen?

Third, intuition - do I like the name?

I think I might bet a fiver on Left Peg!

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