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The Odds Couple

Every time any of us place a bet we do so based on the odds offered to us by bookmakers, the setting of which is a skill that few ever learn and even fewer truly master. Gareth Bracken has been to Ladbrokes HQ to meet the people behind the prices

The odds compiling department at Ladbrokes head office isn’t nearly as frantic or frenetic as I’d imagined it might be. Having expected the sound of ringing phones and booming voices to fill the air I am instead met by a scene reminiscent of that in an everyday office, with the main assault on the eardrums being the light tapping of computer keys. I ask John O’Connell, the company’s senior horse trader, whether this is normal. “It’s calm today because it’s a Monday,” he explains. “Last week, a busy three-day meeting at Newmarket, it wasn’t calm at all.” It makes sense really. It probably wouldn’t have been helpful to either John or me if I’d have come in to talk to him on a busy day. “Royal Ascot and Cheltenham are the worst,” he continues. “Aintree is very busy but slightly more relaxed.”

The more laid back atmosphere at least gives John time and space to talk as I look to pick the brains of a man who boasts over 25 years of odds compiling experience. I’m curious, first and foremost, to know the process he and his team go through every time they set odds for a race. “We start from a blank canvas,” he explains, “all we’ve got are the entries and the weights. We’ll then go through each horse in the race and price them up one by one. We’ll have an individual price up of the race, then discuss it together and come up with the final prices. For example, if one of us is 10/1 and one is 14/1, we may well go 12/1, unless one convinces the other one otherwise.”

What becomes apparent very quickly is that there isn’t a magic formula that produces a golden number, it’s all about knowledge and research. “You’ve got to do your homework,” says O’Connell. “That’s why we need at least two or three of us in each day. You can’t just look at Betfair, it doesn’t work like that. If people tried to make it work like that they wouldn’t be in business much longer.”

There are no shortcuts to success but things have at least become a tad easier over the years. “The Racing Post website is absolutely fantastic, you can’t miss a trick on it,” says O’Connell, pointing to a nearby computer screen. “You can see a horse’s handicap mark and whether it wants fast ground or soft ground, whether it needs blinkers. We don’t need the lumpy old form book anymore.”

Despite this easily-accessible wealth of information it’s clear that the tools in question are only as good as the workman using them. “To be an odds compiler you have to be a huge, huge horse racing fan,” says O’Connell. “You need to be a bit of a racing nut and if you’re not you wouldn’t enjoy it, and the job probably wouldn’t enjoy you.” To illustrate his point he opens that day’s copy of the Racing Post newspaper and runs his finger along the list of runners for a Windsor race later in the evening. “Because you have to look in so much depth at these ordinary races, people would get found out,” he continues. “It’s not a job you can just walk in to and try to find an interest in horse racing as you go along.”

O’Connell describes his aim as “trying to get the price as accurate as possible in every race every day”. Not that this is in any way easy, even for a man of his experience. “The lower grade races are the harder ones to price up,” he explains. “You have very ordinary horses that are unlikely to run to their form too often. Maidens are very difficult to price up as well as the horses may have never run or they might have only one or two runs. It’s very tricky and you have to be very cagey and give it a lot of attention.”

It’s at this point that I refer to O’Connell and his team as traders, a mistake he steps in to correct. “I suppose you could call us traders,” he says, “but we’re really odds compilers.” He swivels his chair and points to the other side of the room. “The lads over there are traders,” he explains. “Once our prices go out we don’t touch them again. It’s the traders who then deal with them, based on the money coming in. If they want to shorten it they’ll come over to me and have a chat about it. For example, sometimes I’ll tell them that if there’s any money for a particular horse then keep it under; be with the horse.”

“In an ideal world, if you price a horse at 8-1 and it wins, you want it to win at 9/1 or 10/1. Then you feel like you’ve done your job properly,” he says, concluding: “You just try and do it to the best of your ability and take everything into consideration.”

A short walk across the office from O’Connell sits cricket odds compiler Sabe Karunananthan. As I join him he is trading a one-day match in running, meaning his focus is alternating between each of the four TV and computer screens that surround him. Sabe compiles odds for cricket matches and then updates them as the game progresses. This betting in-running, or in-play, is hugely popular these days. “About 90% of our website’s cricket turnover is in-play betting,” he says. “You’ll only really see decent money pre-match for something massive like an Ashes test.”

A boundary is scored and he immediately clicks a button on his computer. “We use this interface to pass information on to the website,” he explains. “Strauss has just got four so I clicked ‘four’ for him and that changes a range of markets. It looks like masses of information and it takes a lot of concentration but you get used to it.” I wonder if this automatically updates prices, but this isn’t the case. “What this does is changes players’ handicaps, innings handicaps and also stats – like in this case the number of fours,” he explains. “The prices I change myself.”

He’s just explaining to me how in this sort of one-sided contest it would need a wicket, rather than a boundary, to trigger a price change, when one falls right on cue. After a couple of seconds consideration 1/50 becomes 1/33 and we’re back focusing on the game.” Setting the prices is based on years of experience,” Karunananthan says. “Obviously you’ve got other firms to fall back on but it’s pretty much your own judgement.”

That judgement involves considering not only a team’s form but also where they’re playing. “Certain teams don’t do well going abroad,” he says. “Asian teams like Sri Lanka find it hard to play the ball here as they’re not used to a seaming sort of wicket. It’s also notoriously hard to travel to Asia and win a series over there.” He also needs to consider market position. “If you’re 10/1 about something and you can lay 8/1, why not? It makes perfect sense,” he says. “That’s where the experience comes in.”

Money coming in can also force a price change and Karunananthan says you need to ensure you get things right. “You’ve got to make money, otherwise you’ll get found out very quickly,” he says. “You’re always judged by your results, your margin. So it is very pressurised. For the high-profile games it can be quite stressful, but when you do have a good result you feel proud. There’s plenty of job satisfaction.”

Speaking about how his role has developed in recent years Karunananthan says: “When I started there was no betting in-play. We priced up an event, say a Test match, and it would stay there and that was it. We’d sit there watching it. We might update it at lunch for 40 minutes or at tea for 20 minutes or at the end of play, but that was all.”

He keeps his eye on the ongoing match as we chat, occasionally offering impromptu comments or analysis of the play. His passion for cricket is clear and he lists it as one of the most important factors for being in the job. “Love for the sport is vital,” he says. “Maths is obviously quite important too, as is flexibility. You can end up working Australian time or Indian time and waking up at 4am.”

Speaking about the work in general, Karunananthan gives an interesting perspective. “It might not seem the best job compared to people who are saving people’s lives like doctors and ambulance crew,” he says,” but in terms of my own satisfaction it’s a great job. Apart from in a dream world where you’d want to be a professional sportsman, a cricketer or footballer, for me there’s nothing better.”

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