Putting Life Back In To Punting

“2/1 the field” might have been the cry in the betting ring a few years back, and for a hundred years before that. Not any more, though, it’s all the mighty dollar now – all you will see is $3.00.

The trouble is that it’s all turned plastic. There’s no feel to it. The atmosphere has gone. It’s like walking into an old-time bank to make a deposit.

This is a policy challenge because punting is what sets racing apart from run-of-the-mill gambling.

The big query is whether people understand what they are buying? At the TAB, which is where most learners are, you see people putting $10 on a $2 favourite and getting upset when it doesn’t win. They can’t accept that even money means one chance of winning and one of losing. It seems they expect to win, say, three times out of four. Would it make any difference if it was posted as 1/1? Maybe. Maybe not.

Underpinning all this is a failure to assess the odds, a lack of understanding of the laws of probability, an ignorance of statistics. In other words, their maths is lousy.

Mind you, trainers can be unusual, too. Many times you might have heard one rate a country bookmaking ring, not on the basis of the prices on offer but on how big a bet they will take.

The South Australians tried to make some inroads a few years back when they built a half way house. They started posting the odds to 10, such as 13/10, 15/10, and so on, which were easier to follow than typical bookie prices of 15/8 or 13/4 and the like. But it didn’t last as it was overtaken by events: the push to more decimalisation, computerisation, competing with the TAB, and the steady decline of oncourse bookmaking and the punters to patronise them.

So be it, there is no turning back. Admittedly, at a glance, it is easier to understand $4.50 than 7/2 because the former is what happens in everyday life. But it’s what is behind those figures that count. It brings to mind that little clause attached to discounted travel offers – “conditions apply”.

The outcome is that we are left with a large slice of racing’s patrons with little or no knowledge of figures or value. This is (partly) why they also play the pokies or buy Mystery bets which have no hope of winning over time. They lack the means to sort out whether a $3 favourite is good value. They can see what the price is but they cannot assess the odds. There is a difference and it is more than semantic. Do you buy a suit without trying it on?

Apparently, these folk learnt little at school, possibly because any tricky statistical subjects are left out of the course many take these days. Does this make them a candidate for the problem gambling list? Possibly, although studies suggest those people appear more often at gaming tables and poker machines than in racing areas.

Still, it is a problem for racing as ignorance in maths often runs in parallel with ignorance of racing form or knowledge of the tricky bits of certain tracks. In fact, many will not even know where the track is. Critically, it is the younger brigade that seems to offend most. Not only did they miss something at school but they also rarely go to the track to brush shoulders with experienced owners, trainers and punters. Or, if they do go, it’s to booze up with mates.

At one stage, Betfair conducted a series of information nights around the country to explain to punters how it operated and how to take advantage of the opportunities. That was good, but it essentially preached to he converted – ie to existing serious punters – not to youngsters or newcomers. Otherwise, it is hard to recall any effort by any code in any state to educate anybody about racing and wagering. You are expected to learn by osmosis. Or, worse, from tipsters.

Of course, that does not work very well, which is why every indicator available tells us that more and more cash is coming from mugs and less and less from serious punters. Just look at the over-bet favourites or the lopsided pools and dividends for Quinellas and Exactas. TABs don’t help by promoting Mystery bets which include boxed Trifectas which do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of giving you a profit over time. Their brochures go to great lengths to explain how to fill out a ticket (although in the case of the Quinella ticket they still have not got that right). But they do little else. Their corporate philosophy is to turn races into four-legged poker machines.

It is in the interests of raceclubs, racing codes and governments to invest in serious educational programs. A well informed patron will bet more and more often. Bookmakers should contribute to the effort, too, because they have the most to lose and some folk find them scary to start with. And online bookies even more so, as their clientele is unlikely to contain the proportion of mugs betting elsewhere. The better the general public is educated the more they would make use of electronic means to access their betting outlet. Mugs could actually be part of their future.

Any reduction in the impact of problem gambling would be a bonus.

For some perspective, consider some recent comments from Tony Shepherd, president of the Business Council of Australia (The Australian, 6 April): “Better national educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth”
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Or, more generally: “We should be asking what kind of system Australia needs for a changing world and a changing economy”

While thinking about that, note that not everybody will support the educational approach. Some years back a high school maths teacher in country NSW inserted in his standard syllabus a visit to the local racecourse so that students could study and compare odds offered by the tote and the bookmakers and report back. But, eventually, the wowsers triumphed and he had to cancel the trip. I understand much the same thing happened in Tasmanian high schools. The tragedy is that many of those kids are going to end up in a TAB shop or a poker machine palace anyway. They will go in blind.

In NSW, the law requires poker machine operators to post notices and provide brochures telling customers how tough it is to crack the jackpot and how much is taken out of the pool. No such requirement applies to TABs which will eat up anywhere between 14.5% and 25% of your dollar (more if you buy a boxed Trifecta), which is considerably more than the pokies take.