"Starting price" (or SP betting) is one of the oldest betting terms and it is inextricably linked with the development of the gambling industry in Australia. It is a term linked most commonly with horse racing, although it can also be used with greyhounds or harness racing.
Put simply, the "starting price" for a horse at a race meeting is the official Bookmaker’s Starting Price as determined by the official on-track Bookmakers Pricing Service. When results of races are published in newspapers and online with accompanying odds, these printed odds are the "starting prices" of the horses in the event.
SP betting is popular with punters both at race tracks and online as it provides them with certainty about the odds available for the runner on which they place their wager. Starting price betting also provides protection against those odds shortening before a race commences.
SP betting can be traced back over a century to the early days of horse racing and track side gambling. It was introduced in the late nineteenth century as an alternative to the "tote" model. The "tote" (or "totaliser") is a betting system in which all bets of a particular type are placed together in a pool; taxes and a house "take" are removed, and payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets. SP betting offers a fixed starting price which provides punters with specific odds for their chosen runner before the start of a race.
Originally, SP betting was only legal for bookmakers operating at race tracks themselves. With the onset of telephone and radio technology, a large SP betting industry began operating illegally. "SP bookies" as they were called (or "turf accountants" for the wealthy) flourished between the 1930s and 1960s. These off-course SP bookmakers would often work in cahoots with either the tote or with on course bookies, and corruption was rife.
To counteract these illegal practices and to ensure that state governments pocketed the much needed tax income that was being denied to them the Totalisator Agency Boards (TABs) were set up in the 1960s and 1970s to legalise off-site horse race betting.
The reason that there is a need for a "starting price" is that the odds on a runner in a horse race can fluctuate before the race begins as bookmakers take ever changing amounts of money on different runners and riders. A horse might start in the betting at long odds but then be heavily backed by punters who feel its odds are misrepresented, that the conditions suit it perfectly or that it looks good in the paddock or show ring. Similarly, a runner may start at short odds which then lengthen as punters side with other preferred horses.
SP betting is available both on course and online. As tote prices can fluctuate wildly before an event, many punters like the certainty of knowing what odds are available for their wager. Whilst there is a possibility a punter may miss out on a price fluctuation which would have increased their payout at least the price is fixed and so a staking plan can be determined knowing for sure what the potential payout would be.
Rules and regulations vary from bookie to bookie but there is generally a deadline before a race in which a punter is permitted to place an "SP bet". These deadlines can vary from a couple of minutes right up to thirty minutes before a race.
With increased competition in the betting industry many bookmakers have looked to protect punters from significant pre-race price changes by offering a "best" or "top" fluctuation service (sometimes called "best fluc" or "top fluc"). This means that as long as a wager is placed a certain time before the start of a race (again, this is often thirty minutes to one hour) a bookie will guarantee to pay the punter based on the longest odds available on a particular runner.
For example, a punter might back a horse at $10 an hour before a race. The price initially drifts to $12 but as the weather conditions change the runner’s odds shorten to $8 which becomes the "starting price". A "top fluc" product would ensure the punter was paid out on the maximum odds available – $12 – even though the starting price of the runner might have been much shorter.
"Top fluc" bets have meant that in many cases the starting price of a runner is now irrelevant. However, the requirement for SP betting remains in many instances, particularly where a bet is placed very close to the start of a race where "best fluc" terms may not apply.
Interestingly, many experienced punters avoid SP betting on the occasion of major horse races. Here, betters frequently place wagers early on the day of an event, fully expecting the prices to shorten across the field as more money is wagered as the start of the race approaches. Using SP betting in this example could reduce any potential win as the odds may well have shortened between the morning of a race and its start. However, clever punters taking advantage of a "best fluc" product will benefit either way.
Some punters prefer to bet on horses and greyhounds using the "tote" system and take a chance with the fluctuations in prices inherent in this system. However, many betters prefer the surety that the odds they have chosen are going to be honoured irrespective of any ante-post price changes. This is why SP betting endures and remains an important part of any punter’s betting strategy.