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'I stopped spread betting years ago. I think it was for the best'

The writer recalls some of his memorable betting moments

David Ashforth: selling total SPs at Fontwell was a bad decision
1 of 1

Whenever I met Compton Hellyer, the founder of Sporting Index, he always looked jolly and was smiling. I assumed it meant that he had just been studying my latest betting statement.

Sporting Index had a nice colourful logo and an appealing way of marketing sports spread betting as a novel form of fun, a bit like a new girlfriend, the one who turned out to be a homicidal maniac.

Hellyer was a Pickwickean figure, a waistcoated stockbroker later elected to the Jockey Club whose plummy tones contrasted sharply with the more street market air of Wally Pyrah, Sporting Index’s PR man. The odd couple.

Sports fans were used to a system of betting that involved handing £10 to a bookmaker, receiving a receipt in return, waiting until the event was over then deciding whether to find a waste bin or just drop the ticket on the floor. It was straightforward and had stood the test of time.

Spread betting worked differently. You handed £10 to the bookmaker and after an exciting interlude realised that you suddenly owed £140. After gaining painful experience and prudence, you changed your approach. You started by working out what the worst outcome could be, what that would cost and staking accordingly. Later, you realised that you had confused the worst thing that you thought could happen with the worst thing that actually could happen and just had.  

If possible, it’s always best to have someone else to blame; it’s better for your self-esteem. A friend of mine was an expert on golf betting. When the 1993 British Open arrived at Sandwich, a par 70 course, Sporting Index quoted a spread of 276-277 for the winning score. In 11 previous Opens played there only one winner had ever finished under par.

The key, I was advised, was the weather. It was going to be unplayably windy. Emboldened, I bought heavily at 277. I can’t remember if Greg Norman played in shorts under a parasol but it was lovely and sunny and Norman played every round under par, rounding things off with a 64 to win with 267. Something Ernest Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon came to mind. “Death is the sovereign remedy for all misfortunes.” Unlike Hemingway, I didn’t have a shotgun to put the theory to the test.

Sticking to horseracing, there were other disasters. A nadir was reached on April 21 1994, at Fontwell. Believing that the combined SPs of the winners would total less than 53, I sold accordingly. There were several low points during the afternoon. Shortly after 2.50, Master Comedy triumphed at 33-1. Soon after 4.20 and the fall of Call Home, the odds-on favourite, Woodlands Boy won at 50-1. 50-1 winners are quite rare but an hour later there was another, Polish Rider, ridden by C. Huggan (7). It was Huggan’s first win for over three years and Polish Rider’s only ever win. The SP total was 153. I lost 100 times my stake.

It wasn’t always like that. At one point I realised that certain jump jockeys, associated with certain trainers, seemed particularly determined to win by as small a margin as possible. Often riding hot favourites, they spent a novel amount of time looking behind them and walking their mounts up the run-in. When they could have won by 30 lengths they won by two. It was more than merely having handicap marks and the horses’ welfare in mind. While spread betting was new, alien territory for most trainers, a few recognised its potential for making money within the rules, on distance markets.

I should have translated my observation into a healthy profit but I’m not sure I did. On the other hand, there was a high spot in the 2001 Grand National.

You had to be there to fully appreciate the awfulness of the weather and ditto of the ground. Taking the trouble to ruin my shoes on the track I couldn’t believe that the meeting would go ahead. When it did it was obvious that there would be very few finishers in the National. I sold the number of finishers, I think at 11, and have never been so confident of success. At one point there was a real possibility that the make up would be zero. Eventually Red Marauder won, two horses were remounted to complete the course to and there were four finishers.

I stopped spread betting years ago. I think it was for the best.


Sporting Index in numbers

350,000 Number of pounds sterling raised by City futures trader Compton Hellyer to get Sporting Index off the ground 25 years ago.

75.8 million Price in pounds paid by HgCapital for the company in 2005.

5 Number of staff on the day Sporting Index opened their doors. They had 50 clients.

11,000 The number of pounds sterling they lost in their first year of trading

300 The number of staff they have now, give or take the odd one or two.

18 Number of on-screen spits in the 2010 World Cup match between England and Germany. The original official figure – adjudicated by OPTA – was 19, with most contributed by German keeper Manuel Neuer, but following a complaint from a losing punter on Sporting’s Spitting Image market, the rather lacklustre 19th, which hit Neuer’s chin and never made it to his gloves, was ruled to be a dribble rather than a spit and was thrown out by the stewards.

25 The number of complaints received about Sporting’s 2014 Brazil World Cup ad, which featured an image of the Christ the Redeemer statue that had been digitally manipulated to show Jesus with his right arm around a bikini-clad woman, his hand resting just above her bottom, and a bottle of champagne in his left hand. The Evangelical Alliance led the charge against it and the Advertising Standards Authority concluded it was likely to have caused widespread offence and linked gambling to sexual success.

60 The percentage of Sporting’s business that is now provided by football.

You handed £10 to the bookmaker and after an exciting interlude realised that you suddenly owed £140
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