Interview with an expert: Mel Gee (Part One)

[Ed Note: This interview took place in 2017. Mel’s service, First Favourite, obviously isn’t running at the moment due to Covid-19 but I’ve kept those questions in as they still offer valuable insight.]

Josh Allen: So, let’s start at the beginning… What attracted you to horse racing and what attracted you to betting on horse racing?

Mel Gee: Originally it would have been my dad back in the days of black and white TV, and I’d probably be three, four, five years old and forever being told shush because my dad’s watching the racing.

My dad was an archetypal mug punter. He didn’t win but always thought he would. So in answer to that question, watching came first and betting came much, much later on. It was easy not to bet in the early days simply because I didn’t have any money, so I found that easy.

So I watched and I watched and I watched and I read as much as I could, mainly newspapers, because for me horse racing was, and the people within horse racing were on a very, very different level from me and I would never be on that level. So I was a watcher and a lover of horse racing.

JA: So obviously at some point you started betting on it. How long would you say it took you before you started to actually turn a profit?

MG: Putting hand on heart to say I’m making my living from betting… approximately 40 years!

That might sound a long apprenticeship and it most certainly was, but back in the day there was no computer. It was hard copy newspapers really and what was available to you was very poor in terms of what we have today…

And of course there is no book written that would truthfully show you how to win consistently and if there is, of all the books that I’ve read, I haven’t found that book yet. We can all back winners and we do. We can do that with your granny’s hat pin if you want. We’ve had systems, hunches, but nothing that would sustain an income.

So when I say 40 years, I went through the ups and the downs of all early punters, not really having a strategy, not really knowing what I’m doing, just having a bet. So you’re never going to win like that. But in those 40 years, in the latter part of those 40 years, I learned why horses might lose and that gives me the edge now to why horses might win.

I would never say this horse won’t win because that’s arrogance and I wouldn’t be arrogant, but knowing why they might lose is a real, real edge. And this might not sound very obvious, and I think it’s quite a simple point, but I now do not look for winners. When I’m looking through a race, I’m not looking to see who will win this race. I’m looking to see am I going to have a bet or not, and that’s quite a subtle difference and it’s a big difference.

Betting is dead easy. Anyone can do that. But to make a consistent profit, that’s the key.

JA: Obviously you talk about the highs and lows and we all certainly make mistakes. Would you say there are any particular mistakes that stand out for you?

MG: Yes, indeed, and making the same mistake is the biggest mistake that I made and I think it’s the mistake that most punters starting out do. You repeat that mistake.

It could be something that’s running on the wrong going, something that’s got a bad draw, you might be backing a horse over fences that is coming off from hurdle racing and vice-versa, going the other way, and they really are minefields. But if you’re in the bookmakers or you’re going through the newspaper, you’ll probably bet on one of those, and it’s those kinds of mistakes that once you’ve lost enough money then you’ll stop making them.

So with me, making mistakes and repeating those mistakes is the biggest mistake, and once you learn that then you’ll stop it. You learn that and then you try to find out why a horse may win or may not win.

JA: So I guess you’d say the key is very much patience and constantly learning. There are no shortcuts.

MG: There are no shortcuts and you have to be patient and you have to instil in yourself disciplines and, it really depends on how far you want to take your racing. Most people are happy to remain as punters and they will remain losing punters…

Yes, they’ll have a winner and we all know, we’ve all been there, once you’ve had a winner you’ve forgotten all your losers but you never really get in front and I think that’s where most people are happy to remain, the once, twice, three times a year punters. They’re happy. They’re perhaps playing with £20, £25, if it’s gone, it’s gone. It doesn’t affect them. But if you want to take the business of horse race betting professionally, you have to stop having fun bets. If you’re losing it’s no fun and they are not fun bets and you have to get beyond that hurdle, for want of a better phrase, of having fun bets. Cut them out.

JA: Bearing all that in mind, what’s the number one piece of advice you would give a new starter?

MG: Don’t bet!

It’s very difficult and I can say that today and understand what it means. If someone had told me that 40 years ago, I would have not taken his advice. I would have bet. So what I would say to a new person is don’t bet.

Practice, practice, practice until you can sustain losses, knowing that the win will come, it will bring back those losses and then you will turn a profit. And you’re into golf so you’ll probably know who I’m talking about, the South African golfer, Gary Player, who said the more I practice, the luckier I get, and it’s so true in horse racing. People say you’re so lucky, you keep winning. Yes, but you didn’t see how I got here, and it’s all about practice.

JA: As well as betting yourself you’ve run successful services. When did the first come about and what made you decide to start running a service?

MG: Well I started on a forum putting up selections back in 2012. It was just something new to me. I’d never been on a forum like that before and I became popular because I was giving them winners and some people were then beginning to follow me. And I think one or two got concerned that I might just stop and move on somewhere and a couple of them said, this information is so good I’d be willing to pay £100 a month. And obviously my ears pricked up and I thought, really?

So I started thinking, I wonder if I could do a service and I thought about it, about the possibilities, and what I thought I needed and what I wanted to be was different.

I wanted to be different from most services that were already out there. And I decided number one would be honesty, and that would be the key to what I did so that if anybody asked me anything today and then asked a similar question later down the line, the answer would be exactly the same. And I kind of thought, through experience, if you’ve got this honesty you’re already set apart from most of the services.

Transparency, that was key, and also accessibility. If people wanted to talk to me through email then I would reply to them out of courtesy as soon as possible. I was always confident, because of the 40 years I’d done, that I could remain profitable and consistently provide the winners. And whoever followed me, I was certain that long term, because long term is so important, that if they followed me long term then they would win with me.

Also, anyone who knows me knows that my sport is horse racing and always has been and I would never knowingly do anything that would bring the sport into disrepute. And so I was quite happy to start a service, keep it clean, keep it honest and then no way would the sport be hurt by me. And that was really what made me say give it a go. So First Favourite was born. I went public as a paying service in 2013, but my own personal betting remained as it was and as it still is.

JA: Obviously running the service is very different to just placing the bets yourself. What do you find are the main challenges from doing that and actually providing information to people?

MG: Well, some days it is a real challenge. Staying honest is okay. I’m happy with that and that’s not a challenge. And I don’t do hype but what I do try to do is convey what is happening each week through a Sunday weekly summary so that my clients know exactly what my thoughts are, what we’re doing, where we are, where we’re going.

Because First Favourite is very selective, we have many no bet days and that in itself brings its own frustration and pressures. It puts pressure on the next selection because if you’ve gone three, four, five, six days with no bet, everyone thinks this one must be going to win. So that’s quite a pressure and I do feel that.

That said, consistently we get a better than 55% strike rate year after year, so my clients expect winners. And should the inevitable happen, which it does, and we have two or three consecutive losses, it’s their money that I’ve lost them and that does bother me…

It’s something I care deeply about. And that turns the pressure up again to quite a degree because I know my clients, they’re expecting me to deliver winners and when I’m not, I feel the hurt. And I lose my money as well. It’s not that I’m asking them to do something that I’m not doing. I’m doing exactly the same.

That said, the client base that I’ve got is fantastic. I’ve got their trust, I’ve got their support and it’s brilliant. I can say I’ve never had a cross word with anyone and I’ve never had to fend off the email of abuse and that’s all credit to them.

Because of the success that they’ve enjoyed with me today, and that’s anybody that’s been with me since March of this year, 2017, back to when I started, 2013, and there’s a lot of them that have been with me for that period, the size of their bets have increased because with winning it increases confidence and they’ve increased their bets.

So I’m aware that when I give a selection there is a lot of money on. But I take that pressure willingly, not gladly because it’s a lot of pressure, but I take it willingly because I knew what I wanted to do when I started out. And the process that I use for First Favourite I know long term will win and so do my clients. And I think that’s why I don’t get any abuse. They expect to have losses but they know long term they’ll get it back and then some.

JA: There’s a bit of a punter cliché that favourites offer no value and you’ve got to bet long shots. So why have you decided to focus on favourites?

MG: That is so true. I think the accepted percentage is something like 31-32% of favourites win, but I’ve hit something like 55% in First Favourite. I don’t know how many thousands of hours that I’ve spent getting to this point, it’s frightening, but I’ve studied, studied and I got good at what I did.

At higher prices good is 18, 20, 23% strike rate, winners to bets. But even with a strike rate around 20%, say, the probability of a long losing run is still there, and the probability around a 20% strike rate is something like 36, 37, 38 losing bets. It’s only a probability but it means it can happen.

When I took the knowledge that I had to get me to that kind of percentage strike rate, I just had one of those what ‘would happen if?’ moments and what I said was, what would happen if I put my strategy, my knowledge to favourites only? And it was like, bingo, there it is. I went from 20% to almost 60% strike rate just by putting it into favourites.

But even with 60% strike rate, as it was, there were a lot of low priced favourites winning so I put a cap at odds of 1/2. The logic there was if you can get 50% return on an investment, that’s pretty damn good. So I capped it at 1/2 and that reduced the strike rate, but only slightly, to around 57% year after year. But I only claim 55% for two reasons; one, if I claim 57% and we hit 56, people can shoot at me. So I only claim 55 and I haven’t dropped below 55. So I’m not a target today to be shot at.

The average winning price is around evens. So the maths are there; long term you can’t lose if you stay with it. If you’re in and out, jumping in and out, altering your stake up and down, up and down, you are likely not to win. But within the members area of First Favourite I have a plan. If you follow that plan, keep to the discipline that I suggest, then you should, we should end up winning. We’re not gambling. We’ve taken the gamble out. We’ve now become investors and that’s how I see First Favourite today.

JA: Within the analysis of favourites, you obviously look at lots of different parameters, suitability on the ground etc. Would you say there’s maybe one or two in particular that really stand out, if you could give a tip to anyone in what to look for in a good favourite?

MG: Yes. For me the number one thing, once you’ve decided I’ll look at this horse, which is a favourite, the number one thing is class. If the horse has the class to win its race that it’s been entered for, that’s the trick or the key. Most of the other things will follow.

If the horse has got the class, particularly if it’s got a shade more class than the others, it will overcome a draw, it will overcome unsuitable going, it will overcome that it’s not at its best distance because of its class. But once I’ve found the horse, once I’ve decided it’s got the class to win, there are many, many other factors that I run through that horse to make sure that it’s going to be a bet rather than my first decision it might win the race. So class is number one but it’s not the be all and end all.

Part two of my interview with Mel will be sent tomorrow, so do keep an eye out for that.

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