High Life, Racing,

Were we brave?

Dancing Brave nearly ruined the bookies in 1986. Mark Cancea relives an antepost roller-coaster.

In 1986, a horse called Dancing Brave took antepost betting and the industry to a place no one ever thought possible. In all my years working in the betting industry, I have never witnessed or been on the end of a gamble quite like the one we saw in the lead-up to the Epsom Derby.

The Derby was run on Wednesday 4 June 1986 – I literally remember it like it was yesterday. I say this because I was working (for Ladbrokes) on the Spring bank holiday weekend – 10 days before the Derby – and we were sitting on a sizeable antepost liability on the impressive Shahrastani, the Michael Stoute-trained horse who had won the Dante. Shahrastani was the horse we couldn’t see being beaten, and was chalked up at 5/1.

Two weeks before the Derby, Shahrastani was a £30,000 loser for us (in our book) and as a result was reflected in his 9/2 antepost price. Dancing Brave was 10/1.The Sporting Life headlined on the bank holiday Monday an article with jockey Greville Starkey dispelling any rumours that Dancing Brave wouldn’t stay the 1m 4f trip. Dancing Brave had done a proper piece of work at Coombelands (Guy Harwood’s stable) on the Sunday and there was palpable excitement that this was a genuine class horse, capable of doing something very special. As Starkey said in his interview, “Dancing Brave would stay 10 miles, let alone the 1m 4f.”

There were always doubts about his staying the trip due to his sire Lyphard, and because of this breeding and the super-impressive Shahrastani, we couldn’t see Dancing Brave mounting much of a challenge. There was a perceived view within the Ladbrokes ranks that Dancing Brave was a class horse, but would never stay the trip. How wrong were we…
We started fielding our first calls for Dancing Brave on that Sunday afternoon.

The important thing to note here was that the general public wouldn’t have been privy to the Starkey article until Monday morning, so the calls on the Sunday would have been very much clients with connections into the yard. We laid him at double-figure prices – nothing was out of the ordinary at that point. As the hours drifted by, however, it became clear that Dancing Brave was becoming something of a gamble. Our prices were being slashed every half-hour, and by 5pm he was down from 10/1 to 8/1!

This had become the mother of all gambles. Dancing Brave had caught fire and there was nothing we could do about it. What went from being a connection gamble had turned into a public gamble the next day. We closed our telephone credit betting lines at 6pm on that Monday with Dancing Brave now our antepost favourite at 4/1. Our telephone credit business alone was a £150,000 loser for us (the equivalent of more than £400,000 today). We were staring down the barrel and it was extraordinary.

I can’t stress enough the significance of a gamble like this back then. To move a price from 10/1 into 4/1 was unheard of. As I touched upon earlier, these were solid markets; the Derby was the second biggest horse race of the year from a gambling perspective, and this horse had moved a market that we were confident couldn’t be moved to that extent. Demand also didn’t relate to the price. With the Derby you would see money for all horses, and we were still laying bets on Shahrastani, but it was so lopsided.

Dancing Brave closed at 7/2 the week of the Derby. The mood in the office was a strange one, not necessarily because of the extraordinary liability we now had on the horse, but also because we had all backed Shahrastani at the start of the week and still actually couldn’t see him being beaten. They say there’s a fine line between arrogance and stupidity, and in this situation that line was slowly disappearing. I guess edgy would be the best word to describe the mood. We certainly were still confident that Shahrastani, who had now been eased to 11/2, would do a job for us. It’s amazing what can cloud your judgement sometimes, I guess.

The accuracy of knowing what our liabilities were back in 1986 was probably about 75 per cent. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. To be that far out, not knowing what you’re sitting on, is unheard of in this day and age. The issue we had was all our betting shops had a points system they worked on where any bet under £200 didn’t have to be rung through to a trader (on normal horse racing days this figure was £100), so we were always a little blind come race day. Every time Dancing Brave was backed in a shop for a stake of less than £200 (multiples and forecasts included), the bets never went into a fieldbook – these bet slips were counted a couple of hours before the race and the total number of Dancing Brave selections were called out to us, rather than a liability figure. It was guesstimation at its disastrous best.

On the day of the race, Dancing Brave was 7/2 favourite, with Shahrastani 5/1. What we saw in the period before the start was nothing short of incredible. Dancing Brave would be backed again, and would go off at 2/1, with Shahrastani going off 11/2. The weight of money backing Dancing Brave was incomprehensible. The only way to try to explain the mind-numbing numbers, with 50 per cent of bets taken on the race going on Dancing Brave, is if the Tote had a monopoly on racing, Dancing Brave would have been sent off at even money!

Our total liability on the race for Dancing Brave across all platforms was now over £1,000,000. In the space of 10 days, Dancing Brave had gone from being a winner for us to being a result that would have crippled our own antepost betting service and completely destroyed our credit betting service. Because of the finger-in-the-air nature of liability, the loss was anything between £1 million and £1.2 million, with absolutely no hedging in sight – an eye-watering amount to lose.

The race, to be honest, was a bit of a blur. The gamble on the day for Dancing Brave had shattered any confidence we had in Shahrastani and there was a palpable sense of loss among us. The atmosphere was weighing us down and it didn’t look as if there was any way out.

There is so much conjecture about the race. Was it a poor ride from Starkey? Did the trip actually suit Dancing Brave? I’ve watched the replay of that race probably a thousand times and I still don’t know the answer to that question. The one thing I am certain about is that if Dancing Brave had won there would have been a lot of questions asked internally, and there would have been some massive changes to the betting industry regarding antepost betting.

How I felt when Shahrastani won is impossible to describe, one I still can’t put into words. Was it idiotic, sitting on that kind of liability? Absolutely. Was the thrill and elation of watching Dancing Brave get beaten the best ever? Absolutely not. Dancing Brave was a horse that changed gambling for ever, and when you talk about being on the right side of a gamble we did well. But even so, I don’t think the saying ‘fortune favours the brave’ is completely true.

Antepost betting really isn’t what it was back then. There is a remarkable difference between what you get on with bookies now and what you used to be able to get on when I was trading director at Ladbrokes. Antepost betting markets now account for a fraction of what a firm will take on a race – the complete opposite of what it was like in 1986. The importance of antepost betting has decreased over the years, to the point where these markets will never significantly affect the liability on the day for any horse race. The money that really affects a bookmaker today is money taken on the day of the event.

Back in my day, antepost betting was effectively how we marketed ourselves. You see firms now spending millions of pounds on ridiculous commercials, trying to be the most competitive firm on the high street. Things really have changed. Antepost prices were our shop window – that was our marketing. These were the prices that got us noticed by the public. The funny thing was, these were some of the very few times as a punter you could back something at a price.

This was so important to punters. In 1986 there were probably two or three races that you could have a bet on in the morning when they were on TV; the rest would have to be 10 or 15 minutes before the race (on the show). Antepost was the only time where you, as a punter, could take a view on something, take a price, and have a significant bet on that selection. Don’t forget, too, that these markets were strong, with huge liquidity – not like those we see today, where just hundreds of pounds could move an antepost selection. It gave punters a real incentive to bet!

Mark Cancea is a former trading director of Ladbrokes.

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