Don’t bet a loser in the National before it even starts – avoid SP betting

riskThe recent guest article from Geoff Banks drew quite a bit of interest. Geoff sent me another one, which is a bit more technical, so I thought I’d write an article on how the world Geoff works in affects the one most readers will be familiar with – the betting shop, the online punt, the odds your horse wins (or loses) at.

Geoff is one of the traditional bookies you see at a track, standing on a stool, ‘shouting the odds’ in the betting ring.

For those unfamiliar with the impact the on-course betting ring (where all the individual bookmakers stand, competing for your money) has on day-to-day prices in betting shops and online, here’s a potted explanation centred on the Grand National.

Hopefully it will stop you betting at SP in future Nationals, as well as giving you some background if you choose to read Geoff’s latest article.

“What’s the SP?” An expression that’s made its way into everyday speech in some parts of the UK. It means, ‘What’s the news on a particular matter, what is the conclusion, how did it finish.”

The saying originated in betting. SP stands for Starting Price, the odds that are used to settle  off-track bets placed in shops or online (unless you’ve taken a previously agreed ‘early price’ or ‘board price’).  The SP matters.  A lot. It’s the equivalent of declaring a share price in a market. Those holding  ‘share options’ – winning betting tickets, collect at the rate decreed by the SP. Bets cannot be settled until the SP is known.

So who decides what the SP is for each race, and how?

Although the bulk of bets on any horse race, perhaps up to 99%, are placed away from the racecourse – online, in High St shops or by phone – the prices on offer by the bookies, like Geoff Banks, who stand at the racetrack offering odds, are the prices which determine the

But not all bookmakers’ prices are monitored to decide on the SP. The Starting Price Regulatory Committee employ agents who use a sample of between 6 and 24 track bookmakers to decide SPs (at poorly attended race meetings that sample is permitted to drop to a minimum of 3).

The agents (SP validators) monitoring the sample of bookmakers are impartial. Their job is to favour neither punter nor bookmakers when deciding the price.

The criteria the agents use is:

The starting price for each horse is the market price at the off generally available to good money on the boards of those bookmakers in a sample whose each-way terms for a given race most closely reflect the each-way terms on offer for that race in the off-course retail market.

“Good money” is defined thus:

Generally that offered by a Starting Price Qualified Bookmaker who, in the judgment of the SP Validator following consultation with the Betting Operator, is prepared to lay a single bet to lose at least £500 on each horse in a scheduled race at that meeting.

So, supposing there are £10 million pounds worth of winning bets in Saturday’s Grand National: the winner has been on offer at the track at odds of around 16/1 to 18/1 among the 24 sampled bookmakers. The SP agents, who use software to access the prices these bookmakers have been offering, might decide that 18/1 was marginally the dominant price. Declaring an SP of 18/1 rather than 16/1, in this example, costs the bookmakers £180m rather than £160m.

Off-course (retail) bookmaking is a huge business – worth many billions. If you were the boss of Hills or Ladbrokes and a two point difference in the SP could cost you an awful lot of money, what would you do? You would find out which horses were being bet most with you and you’d then send someone to a racecourse to bet those horses in the hope of shortening the SP and therefore your financial liability.

And that is exactly what big bookmakers do, especially at major meetings like Cheltenham or Aintree. But the problem Ladbrokes/Hills have is that they do not know the identity (at least they are not supposed to know) of the bookmakers being used as a sample that day by the SP agents.

It’s a bit like the old stories from the pop business of record execs finding out which sample of record shops were being used by the compilers of the charts. They’d then send people to buy hundreds of records at each of these shops.


Here is a concrete example from 2010. On the morning of the Grand National, Don’t Push It, the eventual winner, was on offer at 20/1. It was the mount of AP McCoy and many of the once-a-year punters latched on to it leaving the major High St bookies with large liabilities. Those bookies had their team on-course at Aintree pour money onto Don’t Push It in the five minutes or so before the off. The SP was seriously affected by that exercise and Don’t Push It was returned at 10/1, saving the big bookies a comparative fortune.

Don’t Push It’s SP on Betfair – an exchange which matches punter against punter and takes the bookmaker out of the middle – was 18/1.

This is not unusual for the Grand National. On-course punters that day are often very inexperienced and will simply bet their fancy without trying to work out the value of doing so at the price on offer.  On-course bookmakers can’t be blamed, I suppose, for taking advantage of this; the equivalent of holiday cost being much higher during school breaks. If there’s one thing better for businesses than a captive market, it’s a captive market of rookies.

The overall value a punter gets from the SP in each race is measured by what is called the overround. Each price represents a percentage value – for example 1/1 is 50%, 5/1 is 16.7%: these are supposed to reflect the percentage chance of that horse winning. The bookmaker’s intention is to have every horse in the race priced so that the total hits 100% + his profit margin. That margin is called the overround.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a big betting race, but many racegoers at Cheltenham are knowledgeable on betting and a have a strong feel for value.

The overrounds in the past five Gold Cups on the left, those on the Grand National, on the right:






A stark example of the effect of weight of money placed by professionals attempting perfectly legal price manipulation. In most betting markets, the shortening of one price leads to the lengthening of another. The figures above show that such a system worked well at Cheltenham, but worked poorly (from the punter’s viewpoint) at Aintree.

Aintree bookmakers might plead that the pure volume of business, especially in the run-up to the off of the National makes it very difficult to alter prices – all their time is spent taking bets. But the Cheltenham betting ring is also manic and they seem to have little problem adjusting prices there.

Anyway, beware on Saturday. If you don’t put your bet on before then, do not take SP on the day – take an ‘early price’.

From a value viewpoint, a number of bookmakers are offering ¼ the win odds on EW bets for the first 5 places. Betvictor offers first 6 places although, as Geoff points out in his article, many of these concessions are blunted by the reduction in overall pricing of all horses, thus boosting that bookie’s profit margin, his overround.

As for tips on the race, I’ll be posting mine in the middle of the week. My current shortlist, along with best prices available, and, in order of my preference is:

Join Together  20/1

Teaforthree  16/1

Colbert Station  12/1

Quel Esprit  50/1

Saint Are 50/1

Ninetieth Minute 100/1

I’m certain (on the basis of this article alone) Join Together will start a fair bit shorter than 20/1 and I think he is very good value with Totesport/Betfred.

And for all Betvictor has chopped most prices to compensate for paying 6 places, he is biggest on Ninetieth Minute who has a quirky style of running and who jumps carefully. He’s the type who will either decide early in the race it is not for him, or one who will pick his way round and might well run on late to finish in the first 6.

Betvictor also offers non-runner-no-bet, so Ninetieth Minute (his last run in England brought a win at the Cheltenham festival) is worth a small EW bet.

A best odds check can be seen here

Good luck


7 thoughts on “Don’t bet a loser in the National before it even starts – avoid SP betting

  1. There are 40 runners in the grand national so a overround of between 155% and 146% is in fact incredibly competitive by racecourse bookmakers. It works out obviously at just over 1% per runner . If the gold cup was only 10 runners and bet to 120% . The gold cup book would actually be worse (still fair) value . Let alone the place book. As the Betfair liquidity is proving it is impossible to be a layer at 0.10 % a runner !

    1. Mike, there’s a fair degree of spin there, is there not? If customers at the National were well up on percentages, or even regular betting shop punters who have a natural feel for a fair book, you’d be betting to nothing like 150%, as the punters simply wouldn’t have it. I did mention the travel industry at holiday time by way of balance, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable for bookmakers to admit that’s the way they’re behaving.

      Whatever way you look at it, I think you would accept that there’s much better value for the GN punter if an early price is taken rather than SP, especially in these days of best odds guaranteed?


  2. It all depends what you believe is fair joe . If the big firms can price up thier morning books to 125% because they are using horse racing as a loss leader or they are avoiding uk corporation tax and uk levy or are making fortunes from running 4 fobts in every shop or casino games on every site . Is that ethical or good for the sport ? As for the exchanges thier are no private layers at thier % it is all bots and software using thier site as a virtual stock exchange. I agree for casual once a year punters take a morning price but the story behind why that price is available is much more interesting and arguably unjustifiable than racecouse bookmakers letting the sp be manipulated once a year .

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