One of the key pieces of phraseology you’ll hear when watching a horse or greyhound race is the ‘SP’ or ‘starting price’. The starting price is just for information purposes either, it’s crucial within the industry.
The SP, as we like to call it, shows the closing odds on each horse or dog in a race based on where the market stood at the time the race went off. Before that time, they can fluctuate and each bookmaker may offer different odds however on the off, there has to be an industry-standard SP attached to each runner for the official result.
The Meaning of the SP
SP, as we’ve mentioned, stands for ‘starting price’. In betting terms, it’s an official description and represents the precise odds, across the board, that a runner goes off at when the race starts.
While odds can and do change in the build-up to a race, there has to be an SP. Also, it is one SP per runner, despite the fact that in the lead-up to an event each bookmaker can offer their own odds. The SP is determined by specific people for a number of reasons.
Who Sets the SP?
In the past, the starting prices for each race in the UK were set by appointed on-course bookmakers. Only the odds shown by specific bookmakers chosen could be used to formulate the SPs. When the UK went into lockdown in 2020, racing went ahead in June but no crowds and therefore no bookmakers were on course. At that time, it was changed so that the industry SP could be worked out using the odds from online bookmakers instead.
After crowds and bookies returned to racecourse, a new agreement was made which meant the SP was decided by a mixture of on-course and online bookmakers. As of 2022, the industry has returned to lockdown rules with only select online bookmakers now essentially dictating starting prices for all runners in the country.
How Is the SP Set?
Logic dictates that there has to be an average or a median figure to form an overall starting price using the bookmakers chosen. The problem is that there would always be a worry that bookmakers would organise it so that the average is less than satisfactory. So, what actually happens is that the bookmakers chosen to formulate the SP each show a price. At the off, the odds offered by said bookmakers are split equally. The lowest number from the upper half of the odds table is the SP for the runner in question.
For example, imagine that these were the odds offered for a horse with ten different bookmakers. The list would be split into the upper half and lower half, the shortest odds from the upper half being the official price, shown here in bold:
This sort of disparity between bookies isn’t unusual, even just before the off. The runner in question here has prices quoted from 9/2 up to 13/2, with 11/2 being the official SP. That SP looks fair, but given that the rule in question is solid, it can lead to slightly unfair SPs without the punters even knowing it. For example, if this happened:
In this case, it’s true that there is plenty of 4/1 about, but it’s also the lowest price on offer. Had it been about averages, then 9/2 would be a much fairer price.
Getting the Best Price
Beating the SP used to be a bit of an artform. The choice was always the same; take the price, or leave it to the SP. What a headache! To a degree, and depending on who you’re betting with, that headache has been largely mediated. With ‘best odds guaranteed’ now offered by many bookies online, you can take the price regardless and, if your runner happens to win at a bigger SP, you are paid out at the higher odds.
For some customers and with some bookies, that just isn’t possible. So, how do you know what the right thing to do is? Well, there’s no hard and fast we to decide on this. If you want to go by general standards and you are willing to get the best price sometimes while losing out other times, then take the price offered. If your horse is going to win then more often than not it will be well backed in the market and will go off at a shorter SP.
If, however, you are determined to go for a horse and see that something else in the race is very well touted and/or is being well backed, take the chance on leaving it to the SP as your horse may drift markedly in the betting which can lead to much bigger returns.
The Importance of the Starting Price
Within horse racing especially there are many areas of integrity which need to be maintained. In some cases, they need to be improved upon. One such area is the SP. The SP is hugely important within the sport. This number directly affects all winning returns for punters everywhere and so it has to be kept fair at all times. It is, of course, regulated for this purpose.
Bets, such as forecasts and tricasts, are paid out using a computer algorithm, one influence on which is the SP. The higher the SP, the higher the payout on such bets. Even when you’re using pool betting, such as the Tote, the industry SP remains crucial. If you place a Placepot, Quadpot, Jackpot or Scoop 6, for example, and your horse is declared a non-runner, the bet stays alive with your selection moving to the SP favourite. When it’s tight at the top of the market then, and no matter how much money actually went onto each horse, the one listed as the SP favourite affects stats and figures, as well as people’s bets.
Fluctuating Odds from Opening to SP
Odds, specifically within horse racing, take on many forms. A ‘betting forecast’ can be drawn up by certain industry publications. This is to give punters an idea of what the betting may look like before bookmakers start publishing odds. This is also colloquially known as a ‘tissue price’ and, in America, as ‘the morning line’.
When bookmakers first put up actual prices, these are known as the opening odds. Both these and the tissue prices are based analysis of form, statistics, rumour, breeding and other factors. They are formulated before a single bet is taken. These odds then typically fluctuate as either rumours come in about the well-being or otherwise of a runner, and as serious bets start to be placed on runners which will then force their price down and the price of others up.
As the odds change, punters then look for what they perceive to be good value. This keeps going, sometimes months in advance if the race is an ante-post event, and certainly from a day or two before the race when final declarations are known. Betting activity then typically hots up in the last ten minutes before a race, odds moving all the time, until the race goes off and the SP is confirmed. In these examples, you can see the difference in how odds are reported:
In this case, the odds are still changing quite a bit. These are the moments before the race. You can see that the favourite has been well backed from 15/8 to 7/4, 13/8 and all the way to 6/4. Although slightly higher than a low of 3/1, the second-favourite has also been well backed from 5/1 into 10/3 while the third horse in the market is pretty stable at 4/1.
After the result is made official, you’ll see only one price and that is the SP. In this case, the winner returned 4/6 favourite, the second 9/2 and the third and fourth were both 18/1 at the off. Where you see ‘op’ in brackets this is the opening price, put there for information to show what odds each horse was given when betting opened on course.