With most sports, any time you place a bet you will do so at a fixed-odds price. If you wager £5 on a football team to win at 3/1, you will stand to win £15, on top of your stake, if your chosen team does the business. You will know this is the potential reward when placing the bet, and there is no opportunity for it to fluctuate once you have locked in the price (unless you cash out, but that’s another story). Assuming to let the bet stand, you either win the £15 and get your £5 stake back, so a total return of £20, or you win nothing and say goodbye to your original £5 stake.
Horse racing and greyhound racing can work in a different way though thanks to what is known as the ‘starting price’. Regularly abbreviated to ‘SP’, it is an important concept to get your head around because it can have a significant impact on how much money you are paid out if your horse or dog bet comes in.
What Is A Starting Price?
Starting price is a term used in horse racing and greyhound racing, although for the sake of ease we will stick to talking about the former during this article. In British racing (and in many other countries) each competing horse will have an official ‘starting price’, whether it is running in flat or jumps racing. This is the price they were available at on the ‘off’, or in other words, at the moment the race begins. This could well be very different to the price that was initially offered when the market first opened as odds tend to shift in both directions depending on market activity (and potentially other factors too such as an in-form jockey pulling out or a change in the going or information about an injury to one of the runners).
If a particular horse proves to be a very popular bet, their odds will shrink; conversely, if they are unfancied among punters, their odds will typically rise. Some digital racecards are helpful enough to show the odds fluctuations over time so you can see in which direction the market is heading.
The example above is for the Nigel Twiston-Davies runner, Guy, the initial price was 15/8 but it has since increased to 4/1 due to a lack of market support. Assuming the race was seconds from starting though, this does not necessarily mean 4/1 would be the official starting price for ‘Guy’. It could well be, but this is merely the odds provided by one bookmaker and no one individual bookie determines what the SP is. In fact, the SP returned for this horse was 9/2.
Calculating The Starting Price
Calculating the SP is not an overly straightforward process but here is a brief overview of how it works. For each race, the Starting Price Regulatory Commission, an independent body, will collect a sample of odds for each horse offered by the various bookmakers in their sample. They will then order these odds from longest to shortest and then divide their list into two halves. The shortest odds available in the half with the longest odds will then be used as the SP value, meaning they end up taking a median value.
Using this approach, the SP is generally seen to be a fair reflection of the market, not something skewed by some especially generous or very lean bookmakers. Usually at least, six bookmakers will form part of the sample but it can be as many as 24 for very popular races. Calculations have not always taken place this way but starting price as a concept in horse racing has existed (using odds provided by on-course bookies) since the 18th century. The Starting Price Regulatory Commission only formed much later, in 2004, although other bodies performing the same role did exist earlier. In all cases, they have always been independent of the bookmakers themselves to ensure there is nothing untoward and that the process is transparent to punters.
How Does SP Impact The Bettor?
You might be thinking, how does this starting price concept affect me? I place my bets a fixed odds, for example 5/1, and I am paid out at this price. Well, this might be true but there are two reasons why the starting price is important. Firstly, if the market is yet to open on a horse race, punters may only be given the opportunity to back a horse at ‘SP’ rather than a fixed price. Typically, you will see this on for any non-major race not due to start until the next day or the day after that.
By giving punters the option to back a horse at the SP at an early stage, there is a greater window for being able to bet on them. This can be especially useful if you are wanting to place a multiple bet that covers horse racing action over two or three days. If you back a horse at the SP and it does not run, your stake will be returned. This makes it different to an ante-post bet (an early bet where a fixed-odds price is offered) in which your will lose your stake in such an eventuality.
Even when odds are available, some bookies will still give punters the option of backing a horse at the SP. By doing this, you can take comfort in the fact you will be getting a ‘fair’ price although it might not be the best that was available. With the race example shown here, it is possible that the SP for Crystal Caves ends up being 4/1, even though you had the chance to back them at 11/2. It could work the other way too of course, with the SP being higher than the price offered by the bookie.
While it may seem like a 50/50 toss-up as to which is the best option to go with, the SP or the fixed-odds, this is not actually the case at many bookies. Often, when odds are available, you will be best off selecting from the fixed-odds price because of a ‘Best Odds Guarantee’ policy in place. It is mainly because of this widely adopted policy that the SP comes in handy for the regular punter.
Best Odds Guarantee And SP
If you are someone who bets or is likely to bet even semi-often on horse racing, it is wise to look for a bookie with a ‘Best Odds Guarantee’ (BOG) policy. It is something most of the big names provide and it can see you paid out a considerable amount more with a winning bet. Essentially the rule means that you always be paid out at the best price, the higher value of either the price you took or the official starting price. Of course, that doesn’t give you a better chance of your bet winning; but if it does, your payout will potentially be greater.
To see how this works in practice, let us say that you backed a horse at 3/1 in the afternoon for a race taking place in the evening. By the time of the race, the odds on this horse had increased across bookmakers, giving the horse an SP of 5/1. Your selection ends up winning so thanks to the BOG terms, you would be paid out at odds of 5/1, rather than the 3/1 you initially locked in.
The good things is, you are never penalised should the odds head in the other direction either. If, for instance, your selection ended up setting off with an SP of 2/1 after you had backed it at 3/1, you would still be paid out at the 3/1 odds you originally took. It is always the best of the two odds you get so as a punter you are in a relatively good position. As a result, if your bookmaker operates such a policy and your bet qualifies, opt for the fixed odds rather than going for the SP. If the fixed odds are not yet available, simply hold off placing the bet if you can.
While we are big fans of BOG policies, we always encourage punters to read the small print as not all races qualify and bets need to be placed at a certain time to qualify. In many bookies, you will need to place the bet on the day of the race, usually after 8am or 9am. Should you place it the day prior or earlier in the morning, it is possible your wager will not fall under the guarantee. It is worth taking a few minutes to understand all the rules because these policies can make a real difference to your payout. If you bet £10 on a 7/1 horse that ends up running with a 9/1 SP, that would be £20 extra you could potentially gain.
This is far from an unusual difference between the two prices either. From one random day of racing in Ireland, this is how the starting prices differed from the fixed-odds prices. As you can see in the 6:15 event at Kilbeggan, having the best odds guaranteed coverage meant doubling your money.
|Horse||Early/Board Price||Starting Price (SP)|
|Eat The Book||20/1||40/1|
|Hymm Book Too||5/1||10/1|
|Name Me Famous||7/2||6/1|
Typically BOG promises related Irish and UK racing although there are some bookies that branch a little further out geographically.