Nico de Boinville celebrates on Constitution Hill after winning the 13:30 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle REUTERS/Molly Darlington
Turf Account

Tip? Don’t bet on it

Stephen Pollard: he’s not the man the bookies fear

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Back in the 1990s, I wrote a weekly betting column for the Evening Standard. It was a brilliant idea by the paper’s deputy editor, Don Berry, because it had a unique feature.

The whole point was that I was useless.

The conceit was that we kept a running points tab showing how far up — or, far more often, down — I was over the course of the column

Newspapers have far less racing coverage today than before but even in these denuded times they still all have their tipsters. They’re varying degrees of useless, but no one ever admits it. As I would recount my various punting exploits to colleagues, Don had the notion that we should make a virtue of the fact that most of my bets lost. And so I became the Mug Punter.

The conceit was that we kept a running points tab showing how far up — or, far more often, down — I was over the course of the column.

On top of my weekly Thursday slot, with my suggestions for the following weekend, I would be wheeled out whenever there was a big sporting — i.e. betting — occasion.

If I say so myself the Mug Punter became something of a cult. I would be recognised in the street. Strangers would come up to me in pubs and on the Tube asking for tips. It was surreal, because I would have to point out to them every time that the entire point of the column was that I was useless. My tips, as a rule, lost.

I did one radio show previewing Cheltenham. God knows what listeners made of it as I prefaced every tip by pointing out that I couldn’t tip. (Let me have one of my rare triumphs, though: I went big on Pasternak in the 1997 Cambridgeshire; he seemed to have all the hallmarks of a Mark Prescott plot. Sure enough, his price came in from 16/1 to 4/1 favourite and he won by a never-in-doubt three-quarters of a length.)

Pasternak owner Graham Rock congratulates George Duffield following his victory in the Cambridgeshire race at Newmarket PICTURE BY FINDLAY KEMBER/PA

In mitigation, I had to file my copy on a Wednesday for that week’s Saturday racing, usually without a clue about the state of the ground or even being sure which horses were running. It’s difficult to pick the winner of some races three minutes before the off, let alone three days.

All of which is a way of letting you into a secret. There’s a reason this isn’t a betting or even a tipping column but rather a column about racing.

First, because …well, just look above. Who would want my tips? But second, because the lead times make it impossible. I file my copy for this slot too long before you read it. Bravemansgame has just won the King George as I write. By the time you are reading this, Cheltenham is just a few weeks away.

Next month, I intend to go full hypocrite and offer some thoughts on the Festival. I always do a speculative accumulator weeks in advance, and I’ll share it. After all, having previously defended the dominance of Cheltenham in the National Hunt calendar, it would be perverse to pretend it’s not happening.

But this year we’ve been able to salivate months in advance without having to think about betting, because for me it’s going to be all about Constitution Hill.

I was the Mug Punter, and if you follow my advice what does that make you?

Hype is both the engine and the virus of racing, but there is nothing flaky about the hype surrounding a horse that can win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle by a scarcely believable 22 lengths, and who has this season twice made former champion hurdler Epatante look like a stationary object.

Next month’s Champion Hurdle is surely a formality — even if the charismatic Honeysuckle runs and is back to her best — and bookies have priced it up as such, as they rightly do all Constitution Hill’s races.

Who cares if he is unbackable? The glory of Constitution Hill is there for everyone to marvel at. And with a horse of such limitless potential, we can dream years ahead. The idea of emulating Dawn Run and winning both the
Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup is entirely possible. Blimey — he even has the speed to win a Champion Chase. On the other hand, it’s possible to view Constitution Hill’s ante post price of 1/3 as one of the investments of the century: a third return for just under four minutes’ work. If I had a spare £100,000, I’d consider a £33,333 return something like free money.

But then I was the Mug Punter, and if you follow my advice what does that make you?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover