When The Bookies Get It Wrong And Lose
We all love having a flutter and with good reason. Obviously there is the fact that we can win ourselves some money that is our biggest motivation, but also it’s about taking on experts and coming out on top. Bookmaking however is big business and there are not too many occasions on which they get it wrong completely.
Bookmakers know what they’re talking about, of course. They spend hours looking at the variables of any given event or, at the very least, have intelligent computer models that work those variables out for them. Betting companies set things up in such a way that they can never truly lose by balancing books and building in an edge always likely to always favour the house, whatever the outcome.
When punters win an expected bet therefore it is not just about the money won, but also a sense of pride. We often have a sense of pleasure for other people beating the bookie, even if we don't gain from it personally. The underdog winning against the big corporation is a story many like to hear from time to time.
Bookies might do their best to ensure that they always come out on top, but every now and then something happens to give the bookies a bloody nose. They cannot know everything all of the time and therefore now and again an outcome happens that leaves the betting operators out of pocket and some lucky punters jumping through hoops. This is an exploration of those occasions, having a look at when things didn’t go in the bookies favour.
Big Winning Accumulator Bets
The reason accumulators appeal to so many punters is that they given you the chance to win a huge sum of money with a relatively small stake. Fred Craggs, for example, was delighted back in 2008 when his 50p stake on an eight horse accumulator came in and he won half a million pound. A Londoner once won over £650,000 on an eight game accumulator, placing a £100 bet on an acca with odds of 6542/1. Why were the odds so long on the football matches? Because the punter chose to place his bets In-Play with just twenty minutes left in the matches, betting against the grain in most cases.
For the purposes of this article, though, we’re not going to look at accumulators. That’s not because they haven’t caused the bookmakers no end of upset over the years, but simply because they’re too random and far too frequent to look at in detail. They also tend to give a big windfall to the lucky winner but overall most people who place accas will lose, meaning the bookies win in the end.
Equally we’re not going to look at individual bets that came out of nowhere, such as a man from Newbury named Adrian Hayward who won £25,000 in 2006 after betting £200 at 125/1 on Liverpool player Xabi Alonso scoring from the halfway line after dreaming about the Spaniard doing so. Again, those sorts of bets happen but they’re not common enough to genuinely concern the bookmakers.
For that reason, we’re mainly looking at Single Win bets that were reasonably widespread in popularity and saw the bookmakers lose a decent bit of money. Understandably, bookies are never keen on revealing exactly how much they did lose on any given event, but where that information has been readily available we’ll let you know about it. It’s also worth pointing out that these stories are mainly from the years after 1960, which was the point at which the Betting and Gaming Act legalised off-course bookmakers and took the industry mainstream. Illegal bookies might well have made large losses before then, but they weren’t particularly well documented.
Chronology Of High Profile Bookmaker Losses
1967 - Foinavon Wins The Grand National
The 121st edition of the world’s most famous steeplechase should have been relatively straight forward. Honey End was the 15/2 favourite and was being ridden by the experienced Josh Gifford, a man who finished his career having ridden 642 winners. The race at Aintree started without much of note happening. Popham Down was hampered at the first and unseated its rider, carrying on running around the course, but otherwise things were much as you’d expect. Of the 44 horses that started the race, 28 had cleared the 22nd fence, Becher’s Brook, and Honey End was doing as well as was expected. But that’s when everything went wrong.
Popham Down, the loose horse, veered off to his right and ran into Rutherfords, unseating its rider. Several other horses also got involved in the melee and began running backwards and forwards in front of the fence, stopping other horses from jumping it. Foinavon, who had been offered to three jockeys but was turned down by all of them, was being ridden by John Buckingham and was so far behind that the jockey had time find a gap on the outside and jumped it cleanly, racing into a thirty length lead.
Jockeys re-mounted, but it was too late to catch him and the 100/1 rank outsider became the biggest shock victory in Grand National history. The event has gone down in the steeplechase’s folklore, to the extent that the 23rd was re-named Foinavon in the horse’s honour in 1984. It could have been much worse for the bookies, given that the horse was as long as 500/1 the day before the race! We won’t go into as much detail for all events, but you’ll probably agree this one deserved it. Click to watch the race.
1981 - England Shock Australia
In 1981, England were hosting Australia at Leeds in the third test of the Ashes. It’s fair to say that things weren’t going well for the home team, having been bowled for 174 by Australia after the antipodeans had racked up 401-9 and declared, causing England to have to follow on. Sitting at 135-7 in the second innings, it looked like it was going to be a humiliation for England and bookmakers offered odds of 500/1 for the home side to clinch a win.
Up stepped Ian Botham, hitting 149 not out to give England a second innings score of 356 and a total of 530. The Aussies came in and Bob Willis took eight wickets for 43 runs, with the visitors eventually finishing on 111 in the second innings and 512 overall. That gave England an eighteen run victory and left the bookies feeling like the Australians - bent, bowed and defeated.
1990 - Buster Douglas Beats Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson was, at the peak of his career, one of the most feared boxers in the profession. Even today not many people would fancy getting into the ring with him, but when he was going up against Buster Douglas in 1990 Iron Mike held the WBC, WBA, IBF and The Ring titles. Tyson had won all 37 of his previous fights with 33 knock outs, whilst Douglas had already been beaten four times in his career to date. The odds of 42/1 you could have found for Douglas before the fight began, therefore, perhaps don’t quite indicate just what the difference was between these two fighters.
Whether it was the death of Douglas’s mother in the weeks before the bout that focussed his mind or whether Tyson just assumed his own superiority we’ll never know, but there was a genuine sense of shock that reverberated through the boxing world when Tyson was knocked out in the tenth, seeing ‘the baddest man on the planet’ lose his titles to a relatively unknown in one of the biggest defeats in boxing history.
1996 - Dettori Wins All Seven
There were seven races on this Saturday at Ascot, considered to be one of the most competitive days of racing in the calendar year. To win all seven of them was thought to be as close to impossible as a sporting event could be, with Wille Cason coming the closest to doing something similar when he won six at Newcastle in 1990. It truly was something else, therefore, when Frankie Dettori rode to glory on all seven of his horses on the 28th of September 1996.
Dettori won on Wall Street, Diffident, Mark of Esteem, Decorated Hero, Fatefully, Lochangel and Fujiyama Crest, ceasing the BBC to take the virtually unprecedented step of interrupting Grandstand to show the race live. The cumulation of these bets amounted to an acca with odds of 25,051/1, which is an incredible amount. The recording-breaking day for Dettori was also something of a disappointment for the bookmakers, who took one hell of a hit by the time punters caught on to what the Italian was about to achieve and backed him heavily.
2001 - Goran Ivanisevic Wins Wimbledon
Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanisevic had already been in three Wimbledon finals by the time he reached his fourth in 2001, but it’s fair to say that by that point his best years were already behind him. In fact, he only made it into the world’s most famous grass court competition as a wildcard, so he wasn’t supposed to make much of an impact on the event.
His road through the tournament wasn’t an easy one, seeing him go up against Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin and Tim Henman before making it to the final to face Pat Rafter. He was viewed as such an outside shout for the title that bookmakers rated the player, who was ranked 125th in the world at the time, as a 150/1 shot. Sufficed to say he caused an upset when he became the lowest ranked played and the first wildcard ever to win the tournament.
2003 - Curtis Wins British Open
The British Open was being held at Royal St George’s back in 2003 and American Ben Curtis was really only supposed to be making up the numbers. You could find odds of 300/1 for him to lift the Claret Jug, which may have actually been quite short considering he’d never won a tournament on tour before and this was his first ever major.
Nevertheless, he saw off more accomplished golfers and finished one-under par for a famous, and unexpected, victory.
2004 - Greece Win The European Championships
You could get odds of 150/1 for Greece to win the European Championships when they were being held in Portugal back in 2004. They were in a group featuring the hosts, one of the favourites Spain and a tricky Russian side, so most people presumed they wouldn’t even make it to the knockout stages. Make it they did, however, finishing second in the group behind Portugal and ahead of Spain thanks to goal difference.
It was expected that France, who had topped their group, would knock them out in the quarter-finals, but the Greeks won 1-0 and set up a semi-final clash with the Czech Republic. The won that game thanks to the rare use of the Silver Goal rule, winning 1-0 after extra time. They faced the hosts in the final, having already beaten them 2-1 in the group stage, so the world shouldn’t have been as surprised as it was when the did it again in the final and ran out 1-0 winners.
2005 - Liverpool Win The Champions League
When Liverpool went 3-0 down to AC Milan in the final of the Champions League back in 2005, no one believed they’d be able to get back into the game. Carlo Ancelotti was managing one of the finest defensive units in the sport and the Merseysiders had done well to even reach the final. They shouldn’t have even made it out of the group stage, needing to win against Olympiakos by two clear goals at Anfield in order to do so, with Steven Gerrard scoring a screamer.
After that they played against Juventus, who scored an away goal back to Turin only for the Reds to grind out a 0-0 draw in the second-leg. Then Chelsea lost 1-0 at Anfield having drawn 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, setting up that final in Istanbul. At half-time you could get odds of 100/1 for Liverpool to win, but Scousers are an optimistic bunch and Ladbrokes estimated that the industry lost more than £2 million when Liverpool did the impossible and won on penalties in a match that is widely considered to be one of the best cup finals of all time.
2015 - Jeremy Corbyn Elected Labour Leader
Ed Miliband chose to resign as leader of the Labour Party on the 8th of May 2015, following the defeat of his party in that year’s General Election. The decision triggered a Labour leadership contest, with Jeremy Corbyn going up against Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Corbyn wasn’t even going to stand originally, put forward by some back-bench colleagues who believed the party needed to take a different approach.
When polling showed that Corbyn was the favourite amongst those who eligible to vote, it caused numerous high-profile party figures to come out against him. The likes of Tony Blair, David Miliband and Gordon Brown all stated publicly that Labour would be unelectable if the MP from Islington North became Labour leader. The public didn’t listen, however, and Corbyn won the election despite being as long as 100/1 to do so the day that Ed Miliband resigned.
2016 - Leicester City Win The Premier League
For years to come, any talk about an upset at the bookies will undoubtedly include reference to Leicester City winning the Premier League in the 2015-2016 season. The odds on the Foxes were 5,000/1 before a ball was kicked, with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United all ranking much higher than the East Midlands team. In fact, such was the unlikelihood of the event occurring that some people believe bookies simply ‘plucked the odds out of thin air’.
That they achieved the unthinkable under the management of Claudio Ranieri was one thing, but what truly hurt the bookmakers was the fact that they didn’t lower the odds of it happening suitably enough even as Jamie Vardy was banging in the goals and taking them on a ten game winning streak. In December you could still get odds of them winning the league as long as 150/1, which is part of why their victory caused the bookies such issues. The longest single-odds win in sporting history, it will take something truly special to outdo this one in terms of shock factor.
2016 - Donald Trump Wins US Election
Many consider the decision of the British people in the referendum to Leave the European Union to be one of the biggest political upsets of all time, yet the reality is that the longest odds Ladbrokes say they offered on Leave winning were 5/1. There’s little doubt that it paved the way for bigger political shocks in the future, however, with one election result standing head and shoulders above all of the others.
Hilary Clinton was one of the most qualified people ever to run for the office of President of the United States when she won the Democratic nomination. Donald Trump, meanwhile, was a gameshow host who had never held public office and was embroiled in numerous scandals by the time the American public went to vote. With the words of the former host of The Apprentice informing Billy Bush that he could just ‘grab [women] by the p^ssy’ still ringing in their ears, few expected Trump to win.
The longest odds that Ladbrokes offered on Trump winning were 150/1, making it half as unlikely again when compared to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. If Brexit was a somewhat shocking appetiser then Trump winning the election in 2016 was a moment that shook the world and had lasting consequences on the American political scene. It also hit the bookies where it hurts them the most - in their profit.
Do Bookmakers Ever Really Lose?
As mentioned before, bookmakers are wise to ensure that their systems are set up in such a way that they virtually always make a profit. Even so, there’s not much they can do when a rank outsider wins big, as in some of the examples we’ve outlined above. It leaves them exposed in a big way and the likes of Leicester City’s Premier League win is believed to have cost the industry around £25 million.
What you have to remember, though, is that only a select few punters would actually bet on such a long-odds bet, with even fewer still placing large wagers on it. Professional gamblers and high-rollers tend to opt for the favourites in any given competition, meaning that when an outsider wins it actually tends to be better for the bookies. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Ladbrokes head of football PR, Alex Donohue, had to say on the matter:
"It’s a falsehood if any bookie says they have lost money overall on Leicester £3m is a record net payout for a title winner, but we did well out of Leicester upsetting the odds to get there. No complaints at all”.
To prove the point, it’s worth comparing the 2016 Cheltenham Festival with the following years. In 2016, nine favourites and a joint favourite won over the course of the 28 races, leaving the industry suffering around £60 million worth of losses. The following year, however, there was a swing of about £70 million in favour of the bookmakers, meaning the need for Bob Geldof to throw a fundraiser on their behalf was somewhat reduced.
More people are likely to bet on something that they think is likely to occur. Professional bettors will look at the things most likely to happen and bet quite large sums, while amateurs will go for something with short odds because they assume that means it’s got the best chance to win. If you’re bringing in large sums of money from large numbers of different punters then that will naturally help you to mitigate any losses created by a long-shot coming off.
The house, as they say, always wins. That’s why we shouldn’t feel too bad for any of the bookmakers out there when we manage to rack up a big win. They might be paying out some money with one hand, but they’ll be raking it in with another one! We might be disappointed when the favourite wins because it will mean a long-odds outside that we’ve bet on has missed out, but it will at least be a small amount of consolation to know that the bookies won’t be pleased at all. The more favourites that win, the less happy the bookmakers will be, meaning that we’ve given them a watery eye if not a completely bloody nose…