Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Spreading some happiness

All this chatter of punters struggling to get on - of bookies not taking a decent bet on the nags any more - ‘Britain at the Bookies’ and travails of Andy in the cap and Steve Palmer’s roller coaster betting, has got me thinking of a time when things were simpler for the discerning punter.

I’m talking of the pre-internet era, or at least the late-90s, early-noughties were for me, unless I was at work of course, which at the time meant a mixture of Sky Sports, Ceefax and other less-reputable media establishments.

I’m talking more of spread-betting - its introduction, growth and rising popularity of that time. It was something I embraced with open arms – once I got my head around the concept, which for an idiot like me took weeks if not months.

It was the first time the ordinary punter could take a horse on that he didn’t fancy, plus I liked the fact that the more right you were, the more you win. And obviously we know the flip side of that zero-sum equation.

There were also more exotic options like match bets and, whisper it quietly, indices such as distances, top weights...you could even ‘buy’ or ‘sell’ a jockey’s performance at a certain meeting. These were epic developments, ones I lapped up on a daily basis.

What made these bets all the more exciting, at least for me, was that you only found out which races the firms were betting on by turning the TV to Ch4 and hitting the ‘text’ button. Depending on what other sports were taking place on that day, you could be waiting for more than 10 pages to scroll through before you picked up the (usually) three races per day Sporting Index were trading on. Woe betide should you step out for a moment to put the kettle on or forget to press 'pause'.

Obviously I could have phoned up head office but that would have meant asking the operative to run through the whole list of horses for each race, and a spread for each. Always thought that was a bit rude.

I realise if you are under 30 this is probably news to you. But this is how it was for many of us back then. Maybe it’s because I was young (ish) but it was bloody good fun.

But the bet we latched onto were the distances on jumps racing. I say ‘we’ – in a nutshell I was hanging out at the time with a well-known commentator who wasn’t a huge punter, but I dragged him down to my level for a time and we punted gloriously together for a year or more.

It became apparent to us, if not everyone, that many of the top jocks at the time were in some way involved in playing the distances, none more so than a young P Carberry, who for a while was contracted to ride for Robert Ogden, who had many horses stabled with Gordon Richards.

Names such as Buddy Marvel, Disco Des Mottes spring to mind but there were countless others that would win often by a handful of lengths or less having been heavily eased after the clearing the last a mile in front.

We were probably only playing fivers and tenners a pop but were collecting day in, day out. I remember working in a pub in Farringdon to help make ends meet around 97-98 and one time calling in a distances bet for a certain meeting from a public phone at the station, knocking off a few hours later and rushing back to the same phone to close down the bet before the last, pocketing five times more than I’d just working my arse off for.

These were obviously the days before mobile phones were widely used, so if you were out and about you had to plot your day so that you would be near a public phone at certain times of the day. I know I started this ramble by saying life was simpler back then, but it really was. Logistics were the only problem. At least Sporting would take the bet no questions asked, rather than making you wait while you were ‘referred to a trader’.

I miss playing the spreads. I honestly don’t know if I’m up or down with the firms over the years. I used to win on the jumps and do it all back on the flat and on lazy sports bets back then. Which is why I don’t play on the flat now unless I’m at the track.

I remember one cricket bet where England were playing NZ at Lord’s, a green top on which the home side made batting look all-but impossible and were skittled on the first day for around 200 – in those days a pitiful score.  

So in I went with a sell of the NZ runs at something like 250 (memory a bit hazy 18 years on) and I wasn’t best pleased when they reached stumps without loss. The one thing about spread betting – it’s almost impossible to make yourself take a loss when things go against you.

So play resumed on the Saturday morning and of course the pitch had dried out and conditions were perfect for batting, but in my mind there was still hope. I was still playing (not for England, you understand) back then so as we took to the field I was able to forget about the bet until the break between innings, when to my horror I saw the opener (Horne I think his name was) was still batting and on his way to a first Test ton! (You may want to check those facts).

I remember this bet vividly because it was with IG and I didn’t have an automatic stop with them at the time....by this point every run scored was costing me three quid! I felt like I was being stripped bare. This must have been a couple of years later as I was able to bite down and call a stop to the madness with my mobile. But it was a costly four-figure lesson that, clearly, I wouldn’t forget.

I haven’t really played the spreads since I got back into the fold. I called IG once a few years ago looking for a trade, only to be told I could now only bet to 25p a point. I thought they were taking piss but no, they were telling me to piss off. Cantor Spreadfair was a bit of lark for a while, but the liquidity was never there and when there was it was clearly put up by the firm.

Spreadex are great and if I do want a bet they are happy to accommodate. This should last for some time as the half dozen or so match bets I had last winter all went tits up. I might try to play the indices a bit more but to be honest it will always play second fiddle to Betfair.

But you never hear anyone talk about spread betting any more, which is sad, although clearly there's a market for it as the indices are more plentiful and exotic than ever. It was a brilliant innovation that not only never hit mainstream, it never seemed to take off amongst hardcore punters. I suspect too many of them did their dough in double-quick.

But at least you can still get on.

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