Wit and Wisdom of a Racecourse Gambler

This article was originally published on the superb Sippertoad website, which is well worth a visit.   

On the eve of St Valentine’s Day was held the February meeting of the Club, at the usual venue, Jury’s Kensington Hotel. The guest was sure to draw a big crowd, and he did. He was none other than the professional punter Dave Nevison who, once upon a time, was himself a member of London Racing Club. In the chair was Nick Luck, but the Dave was so fluent that Nick did not have to work very hard on this occasion; he simply made a provocative introduction (he and Dave seem to know each other well) and Nevison was off.

It was noticeable that many in the audience had equipped themselves with pen and paper to note all the money-making points to be learned; after which punting would be easy, but the reality is that nothing much changes. Most of those present probably know as much as Dave. The vital difference is in commitment, hard work and the taking of eye-watering risks with big sums of money; a pattern that is not good for family life, and though Dave has four children he no longer has a wife.

This is Dave’s 16th year as a pro gambler and all previous years have been profitable, though one soon realised they had to be. He vehemently rejected the suggestion that this is a golden ago for punters “Cobblers. We’re living at the end of punting.” Indeed he says that when he began as a full-time punter he just caught the tail end of a real golden age, the days of cards schools on trains and a veritable circus of ‘characters’ rolling uproariously around the country from racecourse to racecourse.

Dave Nevison is from Halifax, “Timeform country”. Like so many he picked up his love of horses and racing from his grandfather “an awful judge” who never had any money, so “no-one loved him”, though Dave probably did. Dave bet from an early age and had some startling successes. While at school his runner was his English teacher!

Computer screens are not for Dave. He is a racecourse bettor, but he did use computers when he was a foreign exchange dealer in the City. That was his “final port of call” in terms of conventional jobs before he went to the races full-time; he goes to the course practically every day. Dave’s employer in the City was a French bank (not named) and he had eight people to supervise. He must have been one of those ‘light touch’ regulators for he seemed to spend a lot of his time in a nearby betting shop, which narrowly took priority over time spent in the pub. That is still his approach to life, to have fun and “make it pay”. When Dave ‘hits town’ for one of the big summer race meetings it is party time but by September he is knackered.

Dave is not sure that if he had to begin all over again that he would become a racecourse bettor though he loves the ambience. He says that nowadays a would-be serious punter has to specialise in one area of racing; the whole scene has become too big. Dave hardly bets in cash any more and has several people who ‘put on’ for him, one in particular who scours the world markets through a computer screen looking for any ‘edge’ he can find. They make it pay.

As far as backing racehorses is concerned the most important point to come out of the meeting is that Dave makes up his own prices; that is the major part of his homework. He equips himself with all the aids and subscribes to Timeform but in the end he relies on his own judgement, nobody else’s. When he finds a horse priced at odds significantly greater than his estimate then that horse is potentially of great interest. That’s how he chooses his bets. A subsidiary point is that Dave expects to profit to the extent of 5% of his turnover (if things are going very well that can rise to 7%), so he is working to the same sort of margin as his opponents, the ones who stand on orange boxes and shout the odds.

When Dave decided to become a full-time punter he had enough money to last him four months and, as he said, “The one thing I have is the work ethic.” But those were not enough. Soon his new career was under threat; with no income to rely upon the need to bet bigger sums affected his choices. It looked as if he might have to go to work for a living. He has “never skated on thick ice”, though, and avoided having to slink back to the City when he realised in time that he had to change his methods, which he did.

Dave lived in London just “around the corner” from Eddie ‘The Shoe’ Fremantle who has so often obliged London Racing Club as a guest and who was to be on the panel for the Club’s meeting next after this one. Dave recalled days that Eddie and he bullshitted one another on the train to and from such faraway places as Newton Abbot but ‘The Shoe’ provided vital pieces of education for Dave, especially over compiling his own ‘tissues.’ Another great educator was the trainer Tom Kemp, with whom Dave had horses. His other trainers have included Norman Babbage and Philip Mitchell.

Soon Dave moved on to tales of coups landed with Teenage Scribbler and National Flag both of which were trained by Karl Burke and ran in the name of his wife, Elaine. It was the first of those victories that confirmed to Dave that he could ‘make it’ as a pro punter; but much better than that “It was the best plot ever”.

Teenage Scribbler must have been difficult to train, as they say, because his big day was only his second race in twenty-four months and he finished lame and never ran again after it. The scene was Catterick and the race was the Bridge Selling Hurdle; doing the steering was Guy Upton. The date was 13 February 1993 but nobody at the London Racing Club meeting, least of all the guest, seemed to realise that the tale was being fondly re-told on the 15th anniversary of the coup.

Teenage Scribbler was forecast “in the paper” to start at 14/1 but opened on course at only 6/1. The odds then drifted to the anticipated 14/1 but came in to 12/1, the SP. The money was placed in £20 bets at shops all over the country. At the course things became tense because the start of the race was delayed ten minutes due to fog. When they set off Teenage Scribbler was soon twenty lengths clear and disappeared into the murk. When they re-appeared he was still leading and won easily. The gross figure landed was about £100,000 and Dave’s share was something over £40,000. After that he was determined to carry on.

“We did it again with National Flag” in a juveniles’ selling hurdle at Worcester seventeen months later. But it was not quite so. Though the bets were supposed to be placed only with ‘independents’ the fact was that Ladbrokes knew. That was disastrous for the odds. National Flag “opened at 3/1 after 33/1 in places”. What’s more Dave thought National Flag was a lucky winner as a very dangerous opponent fell at the second-last flight, but National Flag was ridden by Rodi Greene and the faller had a 5lbs-claiming amateur up, at least until the second last. National Flag was bred by Darley and that ‘seller’ was the only race he ever won.

Dave gave some general advice. For instance he said that what sets punters apart from each other, divides them into the sheep and the goats, is the sort of mind that is betrayed by a punter who wants, say, 8/1 about a horse but cannot get that price and accepts 11/2.

Dave used to want to get every favourite beaten but is not so prejudiced against favourites these days. For instance that very afternoon he had fancied Charlie’s Double in the last at Leicester. The horse won at 25/1 but Dave did not back it because “the trainer put me off”. The trainer is his business partner John Best, with whom he has invested £1,000,000 in horses that are now two-year-olds. The idea is to campaign them in such a way as to increase their capital value as much as possible and to sell at the opportune moment. The horses will run under the name Kent Bloodstock. Dave described this as an exclusive syndicate because “no-one wants to join it”. Some details are given in a footnote to this piece.

To fool a bookie on course it can be useful to look a bit unkempt; the layer won’t take you seriously (they have never taken your correspondent seriously); the difficulty of ‘getting on’ was mentioned but not dwelt upon; Dave can quite often back three or four horses in the same race and, when he does, he tends to spread his patronage around different bookies; ante post betting can be dangerous but if one must indulge the races to concentrate on are the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks, as alternative races for good fillies are few so the selections are more likely to run.

His biggest wins have come when he has been “on the brink” and often have come over horses he has backed in the morning and whose odds drift out in the afternoon. When that happens he goes in again. It is logical. Dave says this is what one must do if there is not an apparent reason for the drift in the odds.

Other remarks included – “You pay to learn at this game”. “Goals must be high.” “If you stop learning ….” If you start getting comfortable ……..” The racecourse betting market has been badly weakened by the disappearance of the £100 punter while “the £500 boys from the City” bet by telephone. The Scottish bookie Freddie Williams got a favourable mention because he tends to have “a bit of an opinion”. Is the soul of racing dying? “Yes.”

The groundwork for his recently-published book, details below, which was on sale after the meeting with Dave signing each copy sold, was done in the Strand Palace Hotel. David Ashforth made the recordings. The two had regular sessions there. Staff wondered what they were up to and seemed, at least at first, to be quite dubious about them. Other sessions were held in the Maple Leaf pub nearby.

For the second half of the meeting Nick Luck reversed the order of play and threw the meeting open to questions from the floor.

There were no betting exchanges when Dave started as a pro but the information provided on the screen to people using exchanges represents the opinions of the “collective brains of the world.” That recalled an earlier remark by Dave about his days in the City where he described his abilities as being pretty good but by no means in the front rank, where the “best brains on earth” fill the places. So the real brainboxes must like money, too.

Some races are too good to bet on; many are too bad to bet on. On-course prices are effectively set by people using exchanges. “A minute before the off you won’t beat Betfair.” “In high-class races Betfair will be right.” He has met many of the racing journalists who were his heroes as a boy. They turn out to be flawed. One of the best-known soon tapped him in the racecourse press room for the loan of £20.

Dave is expanding into ownership of horses by accident, as he put it. He was referring to a new vehicle, Kent Bloodstock. He fancies himself as a buyer of bloodstock, though, oddly, he also says, “Don’t ask me what to deduce from horses in the paddock”. With the £1,000,000 invested he and John Best could only obtain seven horses of the type they wanted. Dave fears he may have overstretched himself financially (again). Is he on the brink?

This was where last year’s Group 1 winner Kingsgate Native got a mention but Dave did not say that he stood to win £100,000 on the colt when he started at 66/1 on his debut at Royal Ascot, where Kingsgate Native was beaten a head. What he did say about the colt was that half the trainers at Newmarket and most of those in the north of England now claim “We were going to buy that” when Kingsgate Native was offered at the St Leger Yearling Sales. But it was John Best who actually bought.

Dave was on Sizing Europe at 14/1 for the Champion Hurdle and that was his charity bet. Nuff said. Last year he had a terrible Cheltenham Festival but just about got out on Kauto Star.

About small-time professional punters Dave was scathing (he expresses himself sardonically, wittily and robustly) and described them as the sort of people you would rather did not sit next to you on a bus. They work one hundred hours a week for about £4 per hour “but they don’t pressure themselves to the point of wanting to jump out a window”.

Dave ran a half marathon on the Saturday before this meeting, the same day a race with his name in the title was run at Chepstow, the ‘Read Dave Nevison on wbx.com Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Chase’ (winner, Madam Harriet, 25/1). Dave was due to run in the London Marathon on Sunday, 13 April. His heroics can still be sponsored, proceeds to Racing Welfare. The sometime chairman of London Racing Club, Richard Hoiles, has contributed. You can, too. It’s an on-line thing; the address of the website is below.

Though a good deal of what Dave said sounded like an elegy for what were said to be the great days of racecourse punting – “It was just great fun” – summer beckons once again and he is gearing up for the Flat season. To cut out drossy racing he is going to confine himself to following the cameras of BBC and Channel 4 Racing around the country. So, ‘The world’s great age begins anew, the golden years return’. It is sure to be fun in the sun and lots of money will be turned over. Let’s hope Dave retains a fair bit of it and that the horses of Kent Bloodstock come good.



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