Gambling | The Smart Money

Trading places

Touts and tipsters are shedding their sheepskin coats in favour of City suits, degrees in the ‘trade’ and, hopefully, far more consistent returns.

May 01 2010
Jamie Reid

In the 1950s and 1960s, tipsters and touts were the engagingly spivvish characters you’d meet in racecourse car parks wearing sheepskin coats and flat caps and selling sealed envelopes supposedly containing the name of a “guaranteed winner”. Those punters naïve enough to purchase these selections for a tenner often found themselves in possession of the name of an odds-on favourite or, occasionally, a non-runner, but if they tried to get their money back, the tipster would have flown.

The more socially ambitious members of the tipping fraternity advertised in the sporting press, often employing military pseudonyms such as “The Major” and “Colonel Spy”, though the most exotic was the self-styled Prince Monolulu, whose real name was Peter Mackay. Supposedly an Abyssinian chief, the Prince was actually born in the Danish West Indies in 1881 and his catchphrase “I got a horse” enlivened Britain’s racetracks for more than 40 years.

By the 1980s and 1990s most touts had crossed over into the profitable world of premium-rate telephone-line services, the less scrupulous among them prefacing their advice with a lengthy – and for the caller, expensive – preamble. In the 21st century, tipping has inevitably moved to the internet and its dizzying range of chatrooms and forums where every punter can express an opinion. But for the past 20 years there has been a small number of shrewd and successful professional gamblers who have run highly reputable tipping services, both over the phone and online. Patrick Veitch, whose autobiography Enemy Number One I mentioned last summer, is one such example. Another is the likable Geordie Keith Sobey, a former accountant and senior government auditor who started Centaur, a “professional sports betting advisory service” based in the north-east of England.

Centaur now has spankingly modern offices in the City of London and Sobey and his managing director Tony Woodhams, a former derivatives trader, have ambitious plans that could make a career in tipping seem every bit as respectable as investment banking or trading on any other commodity. Sobey’s strategy is the opposite of the old tipster premise of trying to name a winner in every envelope; he believes the key to success lies in the liquidity and scope of the betting exchanges such as Betfair. In a world in which clients can back or lay and bet in running, he reasons that profits can be made from trading on the market without expressing a view on who will finish first or second. To this end, Sobey wants to develop a gaming trading MBA course that could be taught by Centaur staff as early as September and would create a whole new generation of sports betting traders. In turn, it’s hoped this will lead to that most blissful of punters’ and investors’ dreamscapes: consistent returns with a minimum of risk.