Simon Nott explains how to find the value when grass-roots racing
There could be a future Gold Cup winner running in a field somewhere very near you – and running against opposition that will never ever trouble a judge.
Point-to-point races (PTP) run countrywide from darkest January until June each year, and there’s tons of information for backers wishing to make the most of the fantastic betting opportunities to be had backing horses between the flags. These chases are run by local hunts for amateurs riding horses who qualify by being ridden in the hunting field. Though not under Jockey Club jurisdiction, PTPs are sanctioned by them.
Each year a group of specialist backers make a regular, healthy profit travelling the country backing winners.
But any racing enthusiast should go, whether it’s for a flutter or just to soak up the atmosphere of pure grass roots racing. With six to eight meetings nationwide on most weekends in the season and considerably more on bank holidays, you should be within range of a meeting wherever you live.
Due to the fairly regional nature of most PTPs, you can specialise in your particular area to gain an in-depth knowledge of local riders and horses during the season. Weekly results and reports are published in The Weekender and on specialist websites.
Most meetings charge by the carload so the more of you that can jam into your car the cheaper it gets. But it’s best not take your Ferrari, regardless of its posh totty pulling power, just in case it has to be towed onto the field by a tractor.
Make the afternoon pay for itself
Courses vary widely for facilities. Some viewing can only be described as superb while others leave most spectators (and in some case the commentator) in the dark. One thing you can be sure of is a beer tent and plenty of opportunities to eat. As on the racecourse, a whole cross-section of the country community rub shoulders with each other in harmony. At meetings like the Beaufort it wouldn’t be out of the question to bump into royalty – though do try and say sorry.
The race cards are essential and chunky, as loads of horses are listed but you won’t know exactly who are running until they’re declared some 30 minutes before the advertised off-time of the race. The best bet to get the runners first is to hang around by the line of bookies, as they employ a numbers chap who runs to and from them to the declarations tent to keep the layers up to date with jockeys and declared horses. Once declarations have been made, you have a short time to make your selection. Astute punters go through each race previously when the entries were published in The Racing Post and highlighted a short list of probable winners.
It’s not unusual for a race to be split when the numbers of declared runners are more than the safety factor for the track. It has been known for a meeting to stage upward of 13 races, so with this in mind the first race is often at midday.
There are eight different types of races: hunt members races, maidens, restricted, intermediate, confined, ladies’ open, gents’ open and mixed open, and conditions for each race are set out in the race cards.
As well as getting familiar with the horses, getting used to whom the jockeys are is as important if not more.
It’s fair to say the capabilities of the jockeys on pointers range from professional-in-all-but-name to incompetent-nigh-suicidal. Jockey names will be posted on the numbers board but the bookie will know first. It’s also essential to mug up on who can train and who’s not quite so hot.
Some PTP stables are million-pound operations while others are one horse, owner, trainer, rider affairs.
Plus, it would pay to try and get some paddock time in. Many excellent form students who can spot a potential winner on paper from a country mile couldn’t pick out a pit pony from a Gold Cup winner in the flesh. Paddock Judging is by no means an exact science but gaining some knowledge of how to spot a fit horse from an equine equivalent of an out-of-shape sumo wrestler is going to help a lot.
Watch, listen and learn – it will set you in good stead not just for point-to-pointing but also on ‘under rules’ (professional horse racing).
The betting market itself differs in a major way to what a regular race-going punter will be used to. The margins bookies work to are often huge, which would normally be offputting for the serious punter, but not so at point-to-points. In many races the vast majority of horses couldn’t win if they started half-an-hour early, while many never even complete a race despite being entered regularly by over-enthusiastic owner-riders. Races are quite often so uncompetitive that the jolly is well odds-on.
Betting odds-on is against the grain for many punters, but the PTP backer has to get out of that mindset. Many horses that win at 2/5 should really have been 1/10, as realistically they only had to jump around to win, so represent obvious value. Similarly, nags priced at 33/1 are realistically 500/1 shots, and that’s just to finish!
The bookies are, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Though you may have a job to get a lump on in some places, you’ll probably recognise some regular racecourse tatterstalls bookies, many of whom will lay a reasonable bet – albeit not the size they might lay you under rules. While most of the bookies will bet straight, there are often opportunities to have an unorthodox wager, though these types of bet rarely offer value to the punter.
One serious advantage you do have over the PTP bookies is they mostly just have to get the favourite in the book. In a weak market or in bad weather they are often desperate to do so – the fear of a short one getting beaten when they haven’t laid it is enough to cause some bookmakers sleepless nights. The nearer to the start the race gets, the edgier they become. This is when they’re prone to start giving it way but going too long on what should be a shorter priced horse.
Bookies who would rather go evens a 4/7 shot and watch it win than not get it in the book can be taken to the cleaners by a sharp punter. It also pays to watch the bookies set up – the later their pick, the worst their pitch is for business. This is the end where the layers will often be struggling to take money so will need to offer the best odds.
Is this the end?
The same bookies who have to ‘get’ the favourite regardless of the price they must go will often happily give away a few quid in-running to anyone close enough if there’s an outsider that looks like trotting up. They’ll often call very generous odds to cover themselves if disaster struck and the certain winner got beaten, regardless of how unlikely it looks.
A word of warning though: many of the PTP bookies are no mugs, so beware backing a horse in-running that looks certain to win with three or four to jump – unless you’re certain of its form, several horses are short runners and don’t get the trip. You’ll soon get to know the mug bookies from the shrewd – just be sure you don’t learn through your pocket, as many novice point punters have.
When you go pointing there isn’t a camera and judges are often stood on a trailer positioned next to the winning post. You may have seen your selection win by a good neck but it’s the judge’s eyes that matter and, for some reason, they don’t always correspond with the others on the course. It was rumoured that many moons ago a well-known Devon bookie used to advise the judges on what had won before snapping up all odds seconds before the official announcement, but these days there is no doubting the judges’ integrity.
There’s no denying the draw of the spectacle of a good point-to-point (even if it is sheeting it down and you’re up to your ears in mud) or the chance to spot great horses before they make it big – several Gold Cup winners have started their careers between the flags, Paddy Power winner Celestial Gold being one. This horse could have recently been backed at places like Buckfastleigh.
Is this the end?
Not only will the regular point-to-point backer have the privilege of seeing such future stars, he’ll also have the edge when they appear under rules for the first time or run in hunter chases. These races appear on main cards at jump meetings and flummox many, especially on the exchanges. The opportunities are there to make guessers pay with your superior knowledge gained in the glorious (and sometimes muddy) countryside.
One final (albeit non-betting) reason to support races between the flags this year is that they’re run by hunts, who will have effectively been outlawed by the banning of hunting with dogs in February. So 2005 could well turn out to be the last year we are able to enjoy a sport that has existed since the 19th Century and is the roots of National Hunt racing in it’s present form.