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Computerised attack on horseracing

November 3rd, 2000

The winning edge
A punter's program makes millions trackside
By Yulanda Chung. Hong Kong

Bill Benter seems like an unassuming enough guy when you meet him. The well-dressed, soft-spoken computer buff is a Hong Kong Rotary Club member who occasionally lectures university students on subjects like statistics and mathematical probability. But Benter's real job begins in the evening, when his facility for numbers takes a glamorous twist. With the help of 750,000 lines of odds-calculating computer code he's spent years perfecting, the 43-year-old American makes his living as part of a small horse-racing gambling syndicate. And it's a very comfortable living at that.

Benter's software program works so well, it's riled the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the powerful organizer behind Hong Kong's $10.7 billion-a-year horse-racing circuit. The Jockey Club thinks Benter and other professional betting syndicates hold an unfair advantage over casual gamblers. It's closed the accounts of some of the pros in the past because it felt they were "not in the best interest of the general public." While not banned from the track entirely, Benter has not been allowed to place bets over the phone since 1996.

No matter. He and his buddies still usually bet about $260,000 each race, and make an average return of 24%. Let's do the math: There are some 600 races a year at Hong Kong's Sha Tin and Happy Valley racetracks. That means Benter's annual take-home pay amounts to $37 million. The vast majority of punters take home only memories and a pocketful of losing tickets.

The secret is the software. It scores each horse on 120 different handicapping factors, then estimates its probability of winning and calculates the appropriate amount to bet — a crucial point because if too much money is placed on one horse, the odds will drop, making the bet less profitable. The variables are also key. One reason Hong Kong is such a favorite with gamblers is that the same 1,000 or so horses compete against each other throughout the season, which helps keep things consistent. That's important when you're considering handicapping factors as complex as Benter is. For example, he calculates a score for each horse based on the number of lengths it has lost by in past races, giving heavier weighting to more recent ones and taking into account the fact that horses tend to spread out more in long races. It sounds tedious. But those are the sorts of subtle considerations that have made his syndicate victorious.

Benter has honed his gambling skills over a 23-year career. Immediately after finishing a university physics degree, he hit the blackjack tables in Las Vegas. Seven years later, he was winning so much that the casinos kicked him out. He then hooked up with a like-minded gambler whose expertise in horseracing complemented his own in computers. The two became racing partners and in 1984, moved to Hong Kong.

The beginning was rough. They started out only considering 16 variables for each horse — but they had to use pencil and paper to collect the data. By the third season they had computerized their system, allowing cumulative data to be analyzed. Still, the two didn't make a profit for five years. "It takes 10 man- years of effort to build up the system," he says. "I used to work non-stop." Since then, technology has helped ease the team's workload. "Computer speed has increased 100 times over since we first started," Benter says. Over the years, he has also hired academics specializing in statistics from Ireland, Las Vegas and Boston to serve as consultants.

Benter says his single-minded quest for trackside victory is perfectly legal. But he can sympathize with the Jockey Club's distaste for gambling syndicates. He likens himself to a professional golfer who participates in amateur tournaments and wins all the prizes. "If we do make money, the money has to come from somewhere. Well, yes, the general public loses a somewhat higher ratio."

He is by no means the only one who has come up with gambling software. There are others in the market. RaceMate, a program containing a 13-year database on horses from the Jockey Club, is at the disposal of any gambler willing to pay $425 up front, plus a $425 annual fee. But Benter has no intention of cashing in on his success by selling his software to the general public. It's strictly for private use. That's because if everyone had access to the same information, they would all pick the same horses and knock the odds into chaos. Why give away your winning edge?

Benter, however, is branching out in a different direction. Despite the fact that his arcane computer model has made him a wealthy man, he is now writing transcription software for U.S. doctors. The physicians' spoken medical reports are recorded on an electronic sound file and sent to India for cheap transcribing. Since every doctor in the U.S. must keep such records for insurance purposes, Benter sees it as a great opportunity. Perhaps. Odds are though, it won't turn out to be as rewarding as the gambling business.

 

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