Can You Really Make a Profit Backing Horses?


Many people dream of making a profit from gambling, but can it really be done? One summer, I had the chance to find out…

It is Sunday night, May 13. I am looking at the following day’s horseracing, specifically at the 3:35 at Catterick, a small racecourse in North Yorkshire. Looking at Oddschecker – a price comparison site – Peace Terms is generally available at 7-to-1. However, Betfair has the horse at 9-to-1. Four runs, the last one at Ascot, which is a much higher standard than Catterick, a good jockey booked to ride…

I go to Betfair’s site and try to have £10 ($13.50) on Peace Terms to 9-to-1.

The maximum bet Betfair will allow me is 80p ($1). This is from a company who have countless ads running during live sports events, who make much of their “Tap tap boom!” slogan. Not so much tap, tap, boom as tap, tap, wimp…

Why has Betfair refused my bet?

Rewind the clock four years to the summer of 2014. I was between one job and the next – what’s colloquially known as “gardening leave”. And it gave me the chance to answer a question I had always wanted answering: could I make serious money from gambling if I really put my mind to it?

In the summer of 2014, I had four months to answer that question. I had a good knowledge of football and horseracing, I was reasonably competent at math, and I’d been betting for most of my adult life.

In total, through May, June, July, and August of that summer, I placed bets on 101 days. My total stakes were just over £36,000 ($48,500). My returns from those bets were £43,300 ($58,410) to give me a profit of £7,245 (just under $10,000). My return on stakes was 19% and – using a notional starting bank of £2,500 – I had very nearly quadrupled my bank in four months.

The Holy Grail?

At which point, you may conclude that I had found the Holy Grail – that I would never need to work again and could just sit by the pool, laptop in hand, gradually increasing my stakes and making a very comfortable living from betting.

In fact, I proved exactly the opposite. I proved to myself that by the end of the four-month period, I couldn’t make serious money from gambling because very few bookmakers would accept my bets. Stan James (now Unibet) was the first bookmaker to close my account, swiftly followed by three others. Several others – as the Betfair example above shows – restricted my bets to such a degree that they were pointless.

So yes, I had proved that I could beat the bookmakers and their odds-compilers: what I could not beat was their restrictive trading practices.

It’s a simple fact, if you are a punter who likes to bet in accumulators and combine the number of corners with the first goalscorer with the score at half-time, then the bookmakers will welcome you with open arms.

If you place single bets only and bet only when the odds are in your favor, then you will quickly struggle to have any meaningful bet accepted.

Is this fair?

Going back to Peace Terms in the 3:35 at Catterick, Betfair, like any bookmaker, are offering a product for sale. That product is the chance of Peace Terms winning the race and 9-to-1 is their price for that product.

I think there is an exact parallel between Peace Terms and pasta sauce. When my children were teenagers, we had meals involving pasta, meat, and pasta sauce a lot. Eventually, I woke up. The next time I went to the supermarket and pasta sauce was on a half-price special offer I bought 20 jars. I gradually started to do the same with other products – anyone with teenage boys will know how much they eat – and reached the high point of my bargain hunting career when I pushed a supermarket trolley full of half-price breakfast cereal up the road.

At no time did the supermarkets say to me, “You’re banned. You take advantage of our best offers so you’re banned. Sorry.” I could shop in supermarkets indefinitely, only buy special offers and loss leaders and there still wouldn’t be a security guard at the door when I went in.

And yet that’s what Betfair – and the other bookmakers who have closed my accounts – have done. They have effectively said, this product is available, but it isn’t available to you.

Bookmakers may pay lip-service to accepting bets – witness Ladbrokes much-trumpeted announcement about laying bets to lose £5,000 ($6,740) in their shops. The simple fact is though, that virtually no serious bets are placed in shops: the days when a “coup” was landed by teams of men running from betting shop to betting shop are now the stuff of legend. The vast majority of serious betting is done online – where the bookmakers can very easily restrict people who win consistently.

What makes a good gambler?

From my experience, to gamble successfully you need three character traits: a certain proficiency in math, a large amount of self-discipline, and an understanding of your own psychology. For example, I am not a good poker player. I have played a few Texas Hold ’em tournaments online – I think I once won $50 – but poker doesn’t suit my temperament. I realized that I got bored and made bad decisions out of boredom, and so I stopped playing poker.

But I do know my football and horseracing. I can’t make any money from it because bookmakers won’t take my bets. They are advertising a product for sale, but only to people with a track record of losing.

This week, the UK government has taken action to protect people who were consistently losing to the bookmakers thanks to Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). Perhaps they could now take action to protect the much smaller number of people who win from the bookies? I won’t hold my breath.

Oh, Peace Terms. I got a bet on at 8-to-1. The horse started at 3-to-1 and finished last. Disappointed? Not at all. There’s something else you need for success: the understanding that you won’t win every time. You’re playing the long game…

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