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The Wager Zone

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Nov 30, 2008

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Super Systems
By Aodhán Elder

New England Patriot quarterback Tom BradyExtravagant wealth, ruthless businessmen, and the almighty dollar. A place where, with an appetite for hard work, a cunning entrepreneurial eye, and just the right amount of luck, any person can achieve prosperity and affluence. At this time next year, a lowly hot dog vendor could own a large chunk of Manhattan, or a petrol station attendant may own properties overlooking the sparkling Pacific. The capitalist cogs that determine the everyday workings of the United States suggest a country in which self-interest is vital and those not strong enough to stand on their own two feet will have to crawl.

This may be an overly simplified summary of the American dream, but without question, it is a country that, if not encourages, certainly applauds those who single-mindedly pursue the accrual of wealth. With what most Europeans would consider to be near nonexistent welfare and health care for those unable to help themselves, the overriding impression of the country is one of an "every man for himself" ethic. In practice, it may be more of a meritocracy than monstrosity, but self-interest is nothing to be ashamed of.

Whilst sport often mirrors the attitudes of wider society, in the United States, it provides an unusual counterpoint to the prevailing economic mind-set. Equity, fairness, and a helping hand preoccupy American business minds, but their sporting world is based around the betterment of those less well-off. When it comes to sport, the major American sports have come to the realisation that it is better for the whole if the constituent parts have little to separate them in terms of quality, and each team at least has the hope of glory and not just survival. In contrast, look at the English Premier League, where the rules mean that if a team that is not considered one of the "big four" wins the league, it would be a miracle of such magnitude that the manager would probably be fast-tracked into sainthood.

To counteract one team dominating any particular sport, one of the steps taken across all four of the USA's main sports was to introduce a draft system. In the most basic terms, this is where the weakest team in a sport gets the best young talent coming from the college system. Unlike this side of the pond, where university sport is essentially the Oxford versus Cambridge boat race, or their various meetings in rugby union, football, or cricket, college sport in the United States is huge. Games are played out in front of sold-out arenas - in the case of top-level college football, an average attendance of 46,000 - and watched by millions at home with extensive coverage across America's multitude of sports channels. The college system enables the public to see the cream of young talent long before they are tested in the professional ranks. After varying degrees of a college education, the best players go into this draft, and, in theory at least, strengthen those teams that have the worst records from the previous season. This receives massive interest and airtime on television, with stations giving almost blanket coverage reporting every rumour and counter-rumour that emanates from this game within a game. The result is that although success may come in peaks and troughs, no team in American sports remains uncompetitive for massive periods of time, and it provides some interesting betting opportunities for punters.

The NFL is the perfect illustration of the benefits of ensuring that all teams have a certain degree of strength. Since the inception of the Super Bowl in 1967, 17 different teams have won the biggest prize in American sport. In contrast to the major leagues of European soccer, only 11 different teams have won the English top league, the same number of teams have achieved the Italian version, whilst only eight teams have claimed the La Liga title. Taking into account that figure of 17 teams is stunted somewhat by periods of domination by Pittsburgh, Dallas, and, more recently, the New England Patriots, it strongly suggests a more open championship than we are accustomed to in Europe. Translating these statistics into something applicable to betting is difficult, but at the minimum, it hints at keeping an open mind when looking at potential winners.

The very structure of the season stresses the importance of open-mindedness. All teams play 16 regular-season games, with the top 12 teams going on to contest the playoffs - the business end of the season. A record of nine wins and seven losses is hardly spectacular, but very often good enough to secure a place in the playoffs, which is the first objective. After that, every game is a sudden-death eliminator, with the team that times its run to perfection going on to claim the Super Bowl. Last year's competition encapsulated the importance of timing. In the regular season, the New England Patriots, led by Tom Brady, looked simply invincible. They put together a perfect 16-0 record. The Pats looked almost certain to claim their fourth Super Bowl title in seven years, but were denied by a stunning performance from the New York Giants - a team that rarely looked like champions in the regular season and came into the playoffs with 10 wins and six losses. It illustrates the importance of, on one hand, spotting teams with the potential to go all the way, but on the other, having room to improve and save their best for a run in January and early February. It's a rather nebulous notion, but essentially if you see something you like in a team, look to back them on the handicaps, and if the prices suit your pocket, the match betting. The openness of the NFL means that teams are never too far apart in terms of skill, and upsets happen regularly.

The Boston Celtics in the NBA emphasise the openness of America's major sports. It may seem like taking a specific example and applying it to the general, but cases of sudden improvement happen all the time stateside, albeit not always as dramatically. The Celtics finished the 2006-2007 season as the worst team in the Eastern Conference and the second-worst team overall, but a little over 12 months later, the illustrious franchise claimed its 17th championship and first in 21 years. This was based around some clever trades and improvement from players already on the team, but such a swift reversal of fortunes suggests that they weren't all that bad to begin with, in spite of a lowly position in the previous year.

American Idol

A well-balanced team is essential when looking for potential winners of the NBA championship. It's extremely rare that one player can drive a team to success. LeBron James is the quintessential "franchise player" for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Touted as a superstar from his early teens and signed to multimillion-dollar endorsements, he rejected the opportunity of attending college and cutting his teeth at that level before making the step up to the NBA. His vast talent ensured that he never looked out of place, to the point where, a few seasons on, he is arguably the best player in the sport. For all the personal accolades, James will struggle to win a championship with his present employer. He lacks the support of quality teammates to shoulder some of the responsibility at crucial moments. The fans may turn up several times a week to witness James' phenomenal individual scoring performances, and replicas of his jersey may virtually walk out of the sports stores, but supporters of the Cavs may have to make do with occasional trips to the playoffs, rather than landing a championship, unless better players are brought in around him. The template for success used by the recent championship winners involved several players of a high quality rather than one superstar. Superstars aren't exactly an obstacle to success, but strength in depth is vital, even for a game that allows only five players per side on the court at any one time.

Much like the NFL, the playoff format of the NBA somewhat mutes the importance of regular-season displays. Qualifying for the playoffs is only the first step on a path that hopefully ends in a championship. Picking an outright winner is fraught with danger, as the most consistent teams will be a very short price, and are susceptible to a blip in the playoffs that ruins the bet. That's not to say there's no profit to be made in backing basketball. The long season provides plenty of money-making opportunities. Each team plays 82 regular-season games, typically playing three or four times a week in various cities around the country. Those teams considered to be genuine championship contenders can afford to lose a reasonable proportion of their regular-season games, and almost certainly will lose to teams that have little chance of reaching the playoffs. This is the opportunity to pounce. As defending champions, the Boston Celtics will be a short price when playing teams considered not to have the talent to mount a championship challenge. Over the course of the season, this hypothesis will be proven to be correct, but the relatively minute differences between the majority of teams means that on any given night, the underdog can prevail. When teams like the Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, and Suns are odds-on to win a game, there can be little harm in laying them. Obviously, this depends on your budget and personal opinions, but the point is to be conscious of the difference between a team's chances of winning the championship and a team's relative quality on any given night. Plenty of teams have the quality to perform on a once-off basis, and it is this gray area between the two that can be exploited for profit. In general, regular-season games aren't of massive importance - although this changes when the playoffs draw closer - and the top teams will certainly drop a few games to opposition considered far inferior to them.

Ice, Ice, Baby

Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney CrosbyApparently, a million miles removed from the glamour, money, and star-studded courtsides of the NBA are the freezing arenas of the NHL. Although it's obviously a massively different game, and far more Canadian than the other most popular American sports, ice hockey shares the same structure. Again, each team plays 82 regular-season games before the teams with the best records contest the playoffs. Again, the teams that are looking to make it to the playoffs can afford to lose a reasonable percentage of those games and still qualify with relative ease.

There is scope for teams that preformed poorly in one season to improve rapidly, but almost certainly we can expect the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Montreal Canadiens, and the San Jose Sharks to be involved in the playoffs. En route, they will lose several times to teams that have little hope of getting their hands on the Stanley Cup. If anything, ice hockey is more suitable to laying odds on favourites, as the scoring system of the game is in goals - as opposed to the points of basketball - meaning that a team losing by a score of 2-0 still has a chance of getting back into the game pretty much right up to the end. Often in American football or basketball, the scoring system means that games wind down to anticlimactic finishes, with one team almost guaranteed victory after a strong start. It's rare that huge margins separate teams in ice hockey, and aside from the improved spectacle for the audience, it gives smaller teams a better chance of claiming victory.

Despite widely differing chances of an overall victory, the underdogs will bloody the noses of the big teams several times in the course of the regular season. Backing one team to win the NHL championship carries similar risks to those of the NBA and NFL, but one team to look out for is the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Sidney "The Kid" Crosby. Crosby is an example of the benefits of that draft system, as since his arrival, the Pittsburgh Penguins have improved to the point where they ran the star-studded Red Wings close in the Stanley Cup finals of last season. With the 21-year-old Crosby getting more playoff experience, it looks like only a matter of time before he gets his hands on the cup ... and probably sooner rather than later.


Bloodstock - Elvis' Brother Couldn't Sing
By Noel Hayes

Racehorse auctionAs mentioned in previous articles, the actual event of racing is a facilitator for the many other industries that have sprung up in support. Not the least of those is the bloodstock industry - the marketplace where horses are bought and sold.
On European soil, the choicest lots are bought and sold in the main sales houses of Tattersalls and Goffs, whilst others such as Doncaster Bloodstock Sales and Brightwells have made their own industry from breeze up sales.

The sales arena consists of many parties, who together through their collective actions help to form the market. The breeder, the racehorse trainer, the budding owner, the bloodstock agent, the speculator, and the oil-rich sheikh - you will see one and all in your visit to one of the major yearly sales.

There are two streams of horse racing - flat and national hunt - and these horses can come under the hammer at many times. For flat horses, they are sold as foals, yearlings, and then a select few are offered as 2-year-olds in breeze up sales, where prospective buyers can catch a glimpse of the horses doing a light piece of work before deciding whether or not to purchase. Hence, the sales have become known as breeze ups.

National hunt horses generally don't start their racing careers until 4 years of age, so this affords them much more time during which they can be offered for sale. Similar to the flat-bred horses, they are sold as foals, yearlings, and also through breeze up sales just before they embark on their racing careers. In addition to this, they can also be sold as unbroken 3- and 4-year-olds; indeed, this is the biggest marketplace for national hunt horses, as at this stage, purchasers are buying a ready-made product that they can proceed to full training with.

Broadly speaking, if you are at a bloodstock sale in a professional capacity, you are either a buyer or a seller. The sellers are generally stud owners who have bred the horses from their band of mares, or else they are speculators or pinhookers, as they are called in the industry.

By nature of their profession, pinhookers also appear on the buy side of the equation - as do racehorse trainers, budding owners, enthusiasts, and bloodstock agents. These bloodstock agents are pivotal to the industry. They generate a client list and requests to purchase horses from far and wide. Over time, a number of bloodstock agents have proven themselves time and again as the ones capable of purchasing the best racehorses with the upmost respect for budget restrictions.

The biggest sales in Europe have just been completed, with the Goffs Million having been followed by the Tattersalls October Yearling Sales. Yet again, the million mark has been broken.

At the Goffs Million sale, lot number 276, a yearling filly by the highly successful sire Danehill Dancer, came under the hammer and was purchased by bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne on behalf of the Coolmore consortium of John Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith for the price tag of €1 million. Many factors contribute to the final price tag. Somebody else would have had to bid €980,000. This particular filly was also choicely bred, being by a fashionable sire and also full sister to the current crack 2-year-old from the Aidan O'Brien stable, Mastercraftsman.

After a Fashion

Race horsesFashion is key. Had Master-craftsman not found his way to being a hugely successful 2-year-old in the current season, the likelihood is that this filly would have done well to reach the half-million euro mark. This is the sort of family fortuity that pinhookers hope for when they sign for a foal.

A week later in Tattersalls, classic winning stallion and consistent producer of top racehorses Montjeu was responsible for the two highest priced lots to go through the ring. On this occasion, the £650,000 mark was hit twice, and proved that horse racing is a sport for all genres of people when former ABBA frontman Benny Anderson was responsible for purchasing the top lot, this time with the assistance of top bloodstock agent Peter Doyle.

Keeping with a familiar trend, Demi O'Byrne signed for the other joint top lot of the day, again for the Coolmore triumvirate of Magnier, Tabor, and Smith. As with their purchase from Goffs the previous week, they would again have been attracted to a striking individual as well as an attractive pedigree.

The sales arena has become a much more competitive place in recent years. Sales houses operate by taking a percentage from both the buyer and the seller, so the hunt for the best lots to sell is a fierce one for the respective sales houses. The best lots sell for the biggest prices, and the bigger the price, the more revenue a sales house earns.

In a bid to attract the choicest lots, various incentives have been introduced to attract both buyers and sellers. These are normally performance-based incentives given to the winner of a particular race or series of races. What started as a Land Rover Jeep has developed into a €1 million race for those who do their buying and selling in Goffs. It is this type of innovation that sets the top sales houses apart from the rest.

Irrespective of what a prospective purchase is related to, and no matter what his brother may have done on the racecourse, you have got to make sure you have the complete package. Impeccable physical stature and the hallmarks of a racehorse are required to compliment the pedigree.

The Green Monkey

There have been many cases of multimillion-pound purchases proving to be flops on the racecourse. In recent years, there have been none quite so famous as The Green Monkey. An American-bred colt by Forestry, he appeared in a breeze up sales, where he put in an incredibly impressive light workout, or breeze, as you may have figured it is called.

His breeze was so impressive and his physical stature so amazing that the previously mentioned "three wise men" from Coolmore - Magnier, Tabor, and Smith - purchased the horse for a jaw-dropping $16 million. Entrusted to the care of crack American trainer Todd Pletcher, the future appeared to be an exciting one for The Green Monkey.

Having ran three times, The Green Monkey was officially retired in January 2008 with a race record that read as zero wins from three starts and career earnings of $10,400, which he received for finishing third on his debut in a Belmont Park maiden race, having started at prohibitive odds of 2/5.

The practice of paying apparently crazy amounts of money for racehorses is not a recent trend. Back in 1985, half of the most respected members of the racing world - a consortium led by the late Robert Sangster signed for the then brother to American Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew - were thought to have lost their minds when they bid $13.1 million for a colt that was later named Seattle Dancer.

From five starts on the racecourse, Seattle Dancer recorded two wins, and prize money of $150,000. He also proved to be of very limited success at stud, and the initial outlay was all but written off. One of the things I was first told when I attended the horse sales was that Elvis' brother didn't sing, and evidently, Seattle Slew's brother didn't race quite like him, either.


The Two-Horse Race

Two-horse raceOver the past decade, the betting industry landscape in the UK and Ireland has changed beyond all recognition. The leading bookmakers rode the crest of a technological wave, transforming themselves from landlords of smoke-filled, carpetless shops to executives of empires of multichannel, multilocation gaming emporiums, boasting online casinos, telephone betting, fixed-odds betting terminals, and mobile platforms amongst their portfolios.

Betting was once seen as a seedy activity, little better than visiting a red-light district. Now, it is as widely accepted as playing the stock market or visiting the gym.

Until the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act legalised off-course betting, gambling revolved around just two sports - horse and greyhound racing. In 1967, the Bookmakers' Afternoon Greyhound Service (BAGS) was launched to provide punters with betting opportunities between horse races.

Today, multisports betting, particularly on football and golf, has broken the duopoly of the traditional horse and dog racing. Over the years, bookmakers have expanded their offerings into a multitude of other sports and novelty/political betting options.

And, as they have gained the trust of successive governments, they have been able to develop their premises to be more attractive and welcoming to both regular and occasional punters.

The latest betting shops look like upmarket coffee shops, a world away from the dingy cloth-capped hideouts of the 1960s, where, legally, the windows had to be blacked out.

The launch of Sky Sports in the late 1980s, and the subsequent explosion in live TV coverage of Premiership, FA Cup, and European matches, has kick-started the revolution in football betting. More than £1 billion was wagered on the 2006 World Cup, a 50-fold increase on the £20 million staked on the 1990 tournament.

Bookies have seized the moment and given strong promotion to everything from golf to snooker, tennis, and Grand Prix. Telephone betting has mushroomed, and the dawn of the Internet has brought UK companies a global customer base, with £5 billion now wagered online annually.

The 2001 change in taxation, scrapping betting duty on winnings, made gambling virtually tax-free from the punters' point of view, giving a further boost to turnover.

Blue-chip events such as the Grand National, Derby, FA Cup Final, and British Open golf remain jewels in the sports-betting crown, but every day, there are hundreds of different betting options and a range of ways to have that punt.

Horse racing, while still the most important single betting activity, accounts for less than half of bets placed. Ten years ago, horse racing provided 70 percent of the turnover for the gambling industry, and nowadays it is down to just over 50 percent and shrinking.

That stake is being eroded by football, golf, and cricket, plus the opportunity to bet on events ranging from the Irish lottery to virtual/animated horse and dog races. Ten years ago, single bets were not accepted on football; its introduction has led to a sharp rise in the revenue produced from the game.

Despite the growth of phone and online gaming, the betting shop still accounts for most sports-betting activity. Today, there are 8,700 active betting shops in Britain, attracting 7 million people at least once a year, almost a fifth of the adult population.

In the mid-1990s, the UK betting industry had a turnover of £5 billion. Fast-forward to 2002, and the figure was around £11 billion. Today, it is a whopping £53 billion, and gambling has almost entirely shaken off its seedy image, thanks in part to the way betting on football has brought in a younger, hipper clientele.

It is clear that the shops tend to attract the more traditional horse and greyhound punter, but when it comes to the phone and Web businesses, football is the top of the turnover stakes.

The newer generation of gamblers is essentially computer literate, with a full complement of Sky Sports channels, whereas the older gamblers see a visit to a betting shop more of a social occasion; they like the whole culture of discussing each race with the other regulars.

Further-afield punters on the continent now have access to bookmakers, and their favoured American sports, such as basketball and ice hockey, are rising in importance.

The latest Gambling Prevalence Survey has shown that 12 percent of young men between 18 and 24 years of age participate in at least one form of remote gambling.

Almost three-quarters of the British population (72 percent) took part in some sort of gambling activity within the past year. Although that is still lower than some other countries, notably Australia (90 percent), the British are unique in their diversity of gambling.

Dublin-based budget airline Ryanair plans to cash in on this by introducing in-flight gambling, hoping that they can offer passengers free flights by covering their costs with the revenue that gambling generates. According to chief executive Michael O'Leary, Ryanair hopes to launch a gambling service in the next 12 to 18 months, provided it can devise a payment system that enables it to debit a passenger's credit card before the plane lands.

Passengers will be able to gamble by using their mobile phones or Blackberries supplied by the airline. He predicts that if 25 percent to 30 percent of passengers choose to enjoy a mid-flight flutter, it can easily add £50 million to Ryanair's bottom line.

Internationally, although the European Commission has recently muddied the waters by proposing a transition period for gambling monopolies until 2010, it is probably safe to say that the writing is on the wall for Europe's state-run gambling monopolies in France, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands.

The formation of a single European market in betting services is also on the horizon. Stateside, while declining revenues have jeopardised the horse racing industry in some parts of the country, a new breed of racing casino may save the day.

More than 35 racetrack casinos, or "racinos," have opened up since 1992. According to the American Gaming Association, racinos raked in £1.8 billion of punters' money last year, a 16 percent increase from 2005.

The transformation of the UK betting landscape clearly owes much to the introduction of choice, while Sky Sports, the Internet, and the National Lottery have also paved the way for Britain to become a true nation of gamblers.

The culture of the long-established betting shop will always include regulars discussing the horses and dogs, and for the older generation, they will remain the big two on which to have a flutter. The younger generation will continue to shift the landscape even further away from the traditional sports. For them, it is no longer a two-horse race.

Best Bets From Blue Square

BasketballThe NBA regular season has begun, and punters will be keeping a close eye on the Boston Celtics to see if they justify being as short as 3/1 to win the title. Their victory against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 finals gave them their 17th NBA championship, which is the most of any of the franchises. The Celtics bossed the NBA from 1959 to 1966 (a winning streak unsurpassed by any North American sports team so far), and their fans will be hoping that last season's victory kick-starts a return of the glory years.

However, it won't be easy for Doc Rivers' side, and they will again face a strong challenge from the Lakers, who are also 3/1 to taste glory this term. Phil Jackson's men have a long rivalry with the Celtics, having met them 11 times in the finals, and will be desperately keen to go one better this year, especially as they have beaten them only twice in the end-of-season showpiece.

It's unlikely that the regular season will be a two-horse race, though. The Detroit Pistons are quietly fancied in some quarters to improve on last season's showing, which saw Flip Saunders sacked at the end of the campaign. His replacement is Michael Curry, who played for the Pistons at the turn of the new millennium before becoming assistant coach for Detroit. The Auburn Hills outfit traded D.J. White to Seattle in the recent draft, in exchange for the rights to the Supersonics' number 32 and 46 picks, which were used to select Walter Sharpe and Trent Plaisted. The Pistons were put in their place by the Celtics in the NBA Conference Finals last year, but will fancy their chances of turning the tables this time around.

The most open division this season looks to be the NBA Southwest, where the San Antonio Spurs are the 13/8 favourite to prevail. Last season saw the Spurs go 56-26 and finish third in a roller-coaster Western Conference, in which seven games separated eight teams. However, confidence is still high in San Antonio, and with the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all contracted to at least 2010, there are plenty of reasons for thinking that San Antonio can go far during this campaign.

The other divisions look reasonably straightforward, with the Boston Celtics 8/15 to top the Atlantic Division, Detroit 4/6 to take the Central Division and the L.A. Lakers 1/3 to win the Pacific.

Two other sides to look out for are the Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz. Orlando is 4/7 to top the Southeast Division and can be backed at 22/1 to take the championship this year. Stan Van Gundy's side fell in the second round of the playoffs last season to the Detroit Pistons, but their first-round victory against the Toronto Raptors was their first in 12 years, and after six first-round exits, confidence is high at the Amway Arena this time around.

The Utah Jazz are 2/7 to take the Northwest Division and 12/1 to take the title outright. Utah was eliminated in the NBA Western Conference semifinals last season, where they lost to the Lakers. Their first-round draft pick was Kosta Koufos, a center from Greece, and he should make his presence felt as the Jazz look to improve on last season's form.

All prices correct at time of going to press. Get £50 in free bets when you sign up for a Blue Square account at www.bluesq.com/cpebet.