Johnny Ward: 'One of the most audacious gambles in the history of sport... that almost came off'

Our columnist considers the fallout and implications from the long-shot racing treble that just came up short on Sunday.

Blowing Dixie wins the Betway Casino Handicap at Southwell.
Blowing Dixie wins the Betway Casino Handicap at Southwell.
Image: PA

THREE DAYS ON and those mixed feelings remain about what was almost one of the most audacious and successful gambles in the history of sport.

At one level, one cannot but admire the planning that went into it, the military-like execution, what might be called a “spectacular” in guerilla warfare. David took on Goliath and had Goliath reeling.

Fire Away (1.25 Musselburgh), Blowing Dixie (2.35 Southwell) and Gallahers Cross (4.25 Musselburgh) were low-rung horses that will take their place in the annals, even if it didn’t quite come off.

This wasn’t one long-shot: it was three of them. It wasn’t one trainer: it was three of them. It wasn’t one owner: it was three of them. It was impossible to connect the three horses, even if one was trained until recently by a trainer of another, and the third was trained nearby – but all of this is after the fact.

In 2005, eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry reasoned that the United States housing market, based on high-risk subprime loans, was obnoxiously unstable – something that seemed fanciful to pretty much everyone else at the time, including those who laughed at and bet against him.

Anticipating the market’s collapse in the second quarter of 2007, he proposed to create a credit default swap market, allowing him to bet against, or “short”, market-based mortgage-backed securities, for profit. His bet exceeded $1 billion.

Burry’s wager was one of the three key and interconnected storylines in the acclaimed movie The Big Short. The protagonists reckoned that if they were betting against a house built on sand, they may as well bet against several mansions while they were at it.

Sunday’s British racing heist was similar. Once the first horse won, one could reasonably surmise that there was a very strong chance the other two would as well. This was not betting on one long shot: it was betting on three of them all winning. And they very nearly did – though the fact that they didn’t, two of them winning easily and one of them failing to place, illustrates that even when something like this is planned, horses can and will let you down.

On Saturday night, a scatter of bets were placed pretty much simultaneously on three seemingly unrelated horses that were all put in as long shots on Sunday. Within minutes, bookmakers were facing into losses of millions, and the real liability, which will never be known, could have been somewhere between €10-15 million.

One firm, Star Sports, went SP only on the three races on Saturday evening. Their evasive action was consistent with a firm that knows the ins and outs of racing – and it was hardly a good look for the sport.

Barney Curley and later Charles Byrnes showed the colossal liabilities that can build up for firms when you bet on multiples at odds that are fancifully long compared to the actual chance of the horses winning. Curley, who has done admirable work for charity, had the temerity to bemoan not being able to get bets on many years ago, when account closures were relatively rare.

So a trainer/owner whose horses had a tendency to improve several stone from their previous run when well-backed was giving out that bookmakers wouldn’t lay him.

It is thought that bookmakers have a profit comfortably north of 10% on multiples placed on horses. That’s a big margin in these days of guaranteed odds and punters being more sophisticated than ever.

But Sunday’s attack will have them petrified of copycats being planned in the near future – and justifiably so. Many of us who have innate misgivings about Sunday’s gamble will, whether we like it or not, be wondering how we could do something similar with a bet – only better.

Sunday’s gamble, which was initiated in Ireland, would have taken months if not longer to plan. It was a success, if not quite the success it might have been. The three trainers, whether they like it or not, will always be associated with it.

But bookmakers – who appreciate that what was once the only game in town is now an increasingly small slice of the betting pie – will reflect on Sunday’s gamble and start reconsidering how much business they want to do on racing full-stop.

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And spare a small thought for those punters who backed any of the three horses who were part of the gamble on Sunday – not on Sunday but when they ran before, down the field, probably at a big price.

Bizarrely, the Southwell-Musselburgh plunge rather divorced Leopardstown to the undercard in the discourse of the sport on Sunday. That should not have been the case, with Appreciate It’s victory over Ballyadam one of three odds-on favourites winning, all popular in the sort of trebles the bookmakers relish laying.

jack-kennedy-on-ballyadam-wins Ballyadam (file photo) finished second to Appreciate It on Sunday. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Ballyadam travelled really well and bounced back from a run that clearly was not reflective of his talents at Christmas. He will relish the better ground at Cheltenham and I make him far closer to Appreciate It than William Hill’s market for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on 16 March does.

He is a fine each-way play at 8/1, with very few making any real appeal.

  • Recommendation (scale 1-5)
  • Ballyadam to win Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
  • 1pt each-way 8/1

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Johnny Ward

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