Friday, January 17

Alex Bird's Golden Rules to Finding Winners


Born in Newton Heath, three miles east of Manchester city centre, in 1916, Alex Bird was the son of a bookmaker. Consequently, he was introduced to horse racing and gambling at an early age. However, in a classic case of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, following the death of his father, Bird sold his share of the business to his sister, May, and embarked on a career that would make him one of the most famous, and successful, professional punters of the twentieth century.

Golden Rules

1. Refrain from betting, at all, if the going changes from one extreme to the other. 

2. Keep an eye out for promising apprentice jockeys, whose weight claim can place them at a distinct advantage.

3. Avoid betting in handicaps.

4. Avoid betting in maiden races restricted to three-year-olds, especially three-year-old fillies.

5. Avoid betting at ‘first show’ prices, which almost invariably increase, especially if the betting market is weak, as it often is at run-of-the-mill weekday meetings at lesser racecourses.

6. Concentrate on conditions, or non-handicap, races, with between eight and ten runners and a limited number of in-form horses. Avoid backing favourites in such races and combine second- and third-favourites in each-way doubles and trebles instead.   


Alex Bird began his career as a professional punter in 1946 and, luckily enough for him, the photo-finish was introduced to British racecourses the following year, following a feasibility study by the Jockey Club. Bird discovered that, from most vantage points, an optical illusion invariably favoured the horse on the far side or, in other words, the horse furthest from the observer, in a photo-finish. He also discovered that, by standing in line with the winning post, in an elevated position, and closing one eye, he could prevent the optical illusion and accurately identify the winner. So, for the five minutes or so it took to develop the photograph, he was in possession of information that few, if any, on the racecourse had. He used the information to excellent effect, reportedly winning 500 photo-finish bets in a row and amassing a small fortune.

However, Bird placed his biggest single bet ever on Mill Reef in the Gimcrack Stakes at York in August, 1970. Having won his first two starts as a juvenile, including the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot by six lengths, Mill Reef suffered the first of just two defeats in his 14-race career when beaten a short-head by My Swallow in the Prix Robert Papin at Maisons-Laffitte. On the eve of the Gimcrack Stakes, torrential rain turned the going on the Knavesmire heavy but, undeterred by the desperate conditions, Bird invested £60,000 at 4/6 on Mill Reef. His confidence was not misplaced because Mill Reef, who was blessed with a beautifully light, fluid action, put up what Timeform later described as ‘a performance that had to be seen to be believed’, winning by ten lengths, with jockey Geoff Lewis sitting motionless. 


Alex Bird published just one book, his autobiography, entitled ‘Alex Bird: The Life and Secrets of a Professional Punter’, which he co-wrote with Terry Manners, in 1986. Unsurprisingly, the book chronicles the ups and downs of his decades-long battle with the bookmakers, which was nonetheless conducted in a spirit of mutual respect.


Alex Bird is often referred to as the ‘original’ professional punter. He flourished in an age before betting exchanges and, in the early days, before just about everything the modern punter takes for granted, including the form book, handicap ratings and standard times. Of course, his early success was due, in large part, to the fact that photo-finish technology was still in its infancy, but his longevity bears testament to the fact that he was anything but a ‘one-trick pony’. Bird turned over an estimated £2 million annually, but worked with a return on investment of 2%, so on-course betting tax, originally levied at 2½% and raised to 5% in 1968, before being reduced to 4% in 1972, did his career no favours.  Nevertheless, Bird continued to land touches until well into his seventies, famously backing Final Shot at 40/1 – against a starting price of 12/1 – in the Ayr Gold Cup in 1990. The fact that Geoffrey Hamlyn, who returned starting prices for ‘The Sporting Life’ for over four decades and came across all the major players in horse racing, regarded Bird as an ‘investor’, rather than a ‘gambler’, speaks volumes

by tips4punters |