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Gambling | The Smart Money

Top of the form

A maths teacher’s vision revolutionised the world of racehorse betting from nebulous guesswork and prejudice to empirical clarity

Top of the form

Image: www.billbutcher.com

November 03 2012
Jamie Reid

Early November may denote the end of the flat‑racing season in Britain, but in Australia and eastern Asia, it marks the beginning of a glittering sequence of international contests drawing top horses from both the northern and southern hemispheres. On November 6, it’s Melbourne Cup day – “the celebration that stops a nation” – at Flemington racecourse in Victoria and, next month, the focus switches to Hong Kong and the annual fixture at Sha Tin, which is being sponsored for the first time by Longines.

The star-studded event on December 9, with prize money of HK$72m, adds further to the portfolio of top international races associated with the luxury Swiss watchmaker. Longines is also the official timekeeper at the Melbourne Cup, as it is at events such as Royal Ascot, the Dubai World Cup and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and its new partner, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is thrilled to have its endorsement of Hong Kong racing, which is continually promoted as high‑end‑lifestyle entertainment. But there is another kind of symmetry between Swiss watches and a sport fascinated with setting and certifying records. There are likely to be more than a few punters in Melbourne next week whose own expensive timepiece was purchased with the proceeds from bets struck on the basis of precise technical information regarding a horse’s form and times. It wasn’t always like this.

Until the 1940s, tips and selections were often made according to inside information from a stable – not all of it reliable – or based on hunches and prejudices about particular horses and riders. The racing correspondents working for the broadsheets, many of them ex-Army, might be from the same social circle as an owner or trainer, and that familiarity, rather than scientific study, would determine their views. All that changed with the advent of Timeform, which has been the smart punter’s bible for the last 60 years. The publishing business was founded in 1948 by Phil Bull, a miner’s son and maths teacher from Yorkshire and one of the most influential figures in the history of the Turf. The bearded Bull was a paradoxical character, who had left-wing leanings, but smoked cigars, drank champagne and made millions as a professional gambler. His approach was empirical and his daily Timeform ratings of every runner in a race attempted to replace guesswork and opinion with rational analysis based on recorded times and the weight a horse was receiving or conceding to its opponents. The guru died in 1989, but Timeform produced – and continues to produce – an annual guide to the racehorses of the year, with a flat-racing volume in spring and the chasers and hurdlers guide in October. In 2006, the business was sold for around £15m to Betfair, another groundbreaking betting enterprise, and the Timeform view of each day’s card continues to be required reading for dedicated punters.

The ratings for next week’s Melbourne Cup will include assessments of the big contingent of European‑trained horses who have made the journey down under. I’ve backed Luca Cumani’s runner Mount Athos, ante-post at 12-1 with Ladbrokes, and I’ve got my eye on a brand-new Swiss watch if it wins.

See also

Horse racing