PUNTERS are cynical beasts. They hope for the best while expecting the worst. Respect from them is hard-earned but down the years I’ve noticed they recognise broadcaster Tanya Stevenson as one of their own. It’s not mistaken either, she loves the game’s cut and thrust, its sublime lure of a big-priced winner and the need for a mixture of hard-nosed form study laced with intuition
Asked her most memorable race or horse it would actually surprise were she to reply Frankel or Sea The Stars. Instead she cites Terimon’s 16-1 success in the 1991 Juddmonte International at York.
“This is entirely mercenary,” explaining that her choice “is based on the money that we won. It’s funny, my attention was first drawn to him by a terrible printing blunder when he was a two-year-old - and the hoo-ha this caused when it meant that he was missing from betting shows. That sort of thing is unusual and you looked out for him to make sure it never happened again. Michael Roberts rode him for Clive Brittain . . . I ended up backing him each-way at 500-1 when he ran second to Nashwan in the 1989 Derby. That in itself felt incredible . . . 100-1 the place!
“My dad Michael owned three betting shops but also had horseracing and greyhound pitches, I grew up around betting and was soon also working for SIS shortly after it was founded. Dad had pitches at York and given Terimon was my favourite horse, the plan there was that we should bet ‘bar one’ in the International and also back him. It is my sweetest moment in racing . . . it will never happen again.”
The other side of the coin is losing and at that sort of price there will be lean spells - but Tanya advises punters never to chase losses. “Cash is preferable, it feels more real, but of course with the volume of races and sport that I take an interest in, you often bet on-line.
“Shop staff are well-trained to spot signs of problem gambling and I don’t envy them going up to someone playing on a FOBT to check if they are really in control. Yet that can’t happen at home on your computer or mobile - where it can be a secret addiction with few outward signs. I’d urge punters to set limits - these are easily done on accounts - and never bet beyond your means. Keep a separate betting bank account and debit card with limited amount of money - and never, ever accept an overdraft on it. Paying interest on losses is the same as wearing a ‘I am a mug’ sign, that must be avoided.”
Given SIS started in 1986, the same year as the Racing Post and Sharastani’s Derby win, you quickly calculate Tanya is older than she looks. “I was helping out even before I turned 18; when I did George Irvine there then kindly gave me a job, helping collect and process information. It was to lead to also becoming floor manager for the Sky Sports greyhound shows and eventually to 20 years with Channel 4 Racing.”
That made her a national figure, working with the likes of John McCririck in the betting ring and dealing with emails from viewers - including punter complaints.
When the TV contract was switched this year to ITV and a new team of presenters became involved, Tanya won admiration for the upbeat way she simply got on with her life.
“I’m now 47, although can hardly believe I’m that age. I loved every moment of C4 Racing, but I’ve also seen gutting closures of so many dog tracks, some where my family had the best pitch and you could never have imagined them going. Such change toughens you, nothing remains the same and you look for the next challenge.”
I caught up with her on Ascot’s Qipco Champions Day when she was heading for a shift on GBI Racing, the worldwide joint-venture between Racing UK and At The Races. “I am a freelance and have been lucky enough to get work even from rival companies such as Turf TV and The Racing Partnership. Turf TV’s operation effectively gets taken over by SIS next year - who knows, I may be back there. I also make regular appearances on Betfred TV from their Salford Media City centre and have loved appearing on talkSPORT - radio is entirely different from TV, but I like it too and the passion for all sport among its presenters incredible. They noticed I can talk with equal excitement on cricket, darts, NFL and golf . . . even my team, Arsenal! And yes, I am among those that agree that Arsene Wenger’s time has simply passed. If we could ever attract Joachim Löw, he’d be my choice.”
She also writes for the Scottish Sunday Mail, helps Weatherbys with its Bettrends premium service, but also took the opportunity after C4 Racing ended to help as a volunteer steward at cricket: “it was great experience and opened my eyes too in terms of what a sport should be doing within modern society . . . this has directly led to my getting involved with the BHA’s diversity panel.”
Other honorary roles for her include Tattersall’s Committee - which adjudicates over on-course horse racing betting disputes and rules, also the Horseracing Bettors’ Forum - her term on that ends next year - and the Racing Post/SIS Betting Shop Manager of the Year. Tanya is one of the judges and often most challenging in quizzing candidates. Fools need not apply!
The HBF has recently been bitingly critical of the SP process and the role of the overseeing Starting Price Regulatory Commission.
“The general enthusiasm within the HBF alone is sensibly worthwhile,” she says, “it is proving a useful sounding board for the likes of the Gambling Commission as well as the BHA - for instance the non-runners system was being abused and had to be addressed, while I’m also encouraged to see the new hi-tech replay review system in place. It’s about having well-trained professional stewards and staff, although I can understand the reluctance to extend any referee replay analysis to say football. How sterile and clinical do you want your sport? It does though work for racing.”
However, she argues that the SP and its issues are complex: “Everyone has to remember the numbers of both bookmakers and punters at many routine meetings have dwindled. As large a sample of bookmakers as possible is needed to help compile the SP, but this is being artificially restricted because many are betting win only or using a concession to offer significantly reduced place terms eg only paying four places in a handicap when there are over 21 runners when the Tatts rule was always 16 or more. Dealing with this alone would make a significant difference and it’s a case that someone is needed to sort it out, ideally by getting the key players in the same room. I believe punters should get the same terms on-course as they do in a betting shop . . . the option to offer significantly worse is a mistake.”
Tanya notes that the Gambling Commission is now policing things more effectively. “I like the impact Sarah Harrison [chief executive] has brought there . . . previously it seemed to cost a lot but achieve little. For instance it’s now looking at Advertising Standard Authority judgements in a stricter way. I like that.”
And what of Ibas? “I’ve passed across many hundreds of disputes and queries to Ibas down the years and have to say I’ve always been satisfied that its team deals with them appropriately. Everyone had great admiration for its founder Chris O’Keeffe - who of course managed the original Sporting Life Green Seal Service. The same standards apply and I’m intrigued by the arrival of its new web site. If this can make Ibas more accessible to punters and ideally speed things up - also an issue for Tatts Committee - it has to be a win-win. That said, adjudication by its nature means winners and losers - somebody will always be unhappy! The thing is to try and accept that someone is doing their best to be constructive. It’s not really a war, as some see it, between punters and bookies, it’s actually about providing a service. Sometimes things go wrong.”
One element in that service, the morning price guarantee - especially relevant for Racing Post Pricewise selections - is being offered by far fewer firms. “This was inevitable,” she says, “ given the impact of the internet. Pricewise is available from 8pm the night before on your iPad, so prices crash overnight. The guarantee has become a source of frustration for both bookmakers and punters, with limited bets being offered at the original price. This change is effectively catching up with the times, but what would be good for punters would be real prices with real bets being accepted.”
Who has recently caught her eye in the training and riding ranks?
“David Menuisier, who is based in Pulborough, brings a refreshing, slightly different approach to training. He’s built a solid team after learning his trade with John Dunlop and Criquette Head.
“A flat jockey who can only continue to improve under the guidance of Richard Hughes is Finley Marsh, while similarly over jumps Mitchell Bastyan is also excitingly progressive for Evan Williams - I’m looking forward to seeing him on better horses.”
Favourite racecourses? “Aintree . . . I feel as if I grew up there standing by my dad’s pitch, it’s magical. York and Newcastle were also special.
“At the dogs, I find Sheffield welcomingly earthy, while Nottingham has always been well-run. I’ve not yet been able to get to Towcester’s greyhounds . . . Kevin Ackerman (CEO there) and Ben Keith (the Star Sports Derby sponsor) are both rightly cross with me, that is a visit I’m looking forward to.”
She describes herself as “privileged and lucky. When I’m not working, I’m glued to whatever live sport I can find while I also thoroughly enjoy the banter with punters. The betting life seems increasingly frowned upon by critics yet, for me, is actually a priceless joy.”