Tote standWhen it comes to betting, we all like to maximise what we walk away with, making the most of every correct selection. For many sports, finding the best value is easy as it is just a case of comparing the fixed odds available across several bookmakers. Even for multiple bets, you do not need to do the maths yourself as the potential returns will appear on the betslip, no matter how many legs it features.

Finding the best value when it comes to horse racing though is not as straightforward. Not only do you have starting prices (SP) as well as fixed, pre-race odds to choose from, but you also have the addition of the Tote to consider. Some believe that by avoiding a traditional bookmaker, the Tote ends up providing better value to punters. As we will explain though, the answer is not so clear cut.

How Does the Tote Work?

People in line for the Tote

With a traditional (traditional in the UK at any rate) fixed odds bookmaker, you place your money and are given a fixed price should your bet prove to be a winning one. With a winning bet at the Tote though, rather taking any money from the bookie, you are taking a share from a collective pot, formed via bets from other punters. The Tote simply facilities this pooled betting experience, collecting and paying out funds, while also taking a cut for themselves to cover their costs. This style of wagering is called pool or pools betting, or parimutuel betting.

To give you an example of how this works in practice, imagine you had a three-horse race and it had attracted ‘win’ bets totalling £10,000. The Tote may then take a fairly sizeable chunk from this, for instance, £1925, leaving £8,075 as the claimable pot. How much each successful bettor takes from this depends on how popular their horse was among fellow punters. If £4,000 of the £10,000 was staked on Horse A then each winning punter would be paid out £8075 / £4000 = £2 (the figure is always rounded down to the nearest 10p).

If Horse B ended up victorious instead, and only £500 was staked on this unfancied runner, the payout (also known as a final dividend) would be £16.10 (£8075 / £500). As you can see, there are three things that influence a divided payment at the Tote: the cut for the Tote themselves, the total money staked in the market and how much money was staked on the winning selection.

Always bear in mind that the Tote calculation is a dividend rather than a complete payout. If you bet £10 on Horse A, this would mean winning £20 (£10 x £2 divided). As such, you are always getting a proportional payout based on the money you put into the pot.

Best Odds Guaranteed

Before we compare payouts between fixed odds bookies and the Tote, is it important to mention that many bookies operate a ‘best odds guaranteed’ (BoG) policy. This basically means if you place a bet on a horse at a fixed price, and the starting price (SP) ends up being higher, you will be paid out at the SP. A very quick example would be to say if a few hours before a race you put £5 on Horse 1 at 4/1, odds which happened to be the best price available at the time.

Due to changes in the market though, the price begins to drift with the result being the independently calculated SP ends up being 6/1. An SP calculation takes odds from a range of bookies at the time of the race start and then selects the median value. With BoG, you get the higher price, rather than shorter, early odds.

This means than rather than your winnings being £20 (4 x £5) you would get £30 (plus your stake) instead (6 x £5). If the SP is lower than the fixed odds price then you are just paid out at the odds you initially locked in, so as a customer it is a win:win situation. This is something that gives fixed odds horse race betting a lot of extra appeal as it does not matter if you time your bet ‘badly’ so to speak.

Tote Guarantee

In order to stay competitive with the bookies, the Tote also runs a very similar deal, something they initially launched in 2020. With their policy, they tell customers that they will never be paid less than the SP price on a win only bet. If the final divided was due to be lower, the Tote will simply reduce their own cut from the total pot to cover the extra cost. As with the bookies too, if their own price exceeds the SP, then punters will be paid out as usual at the higher rate.

This is a really big plus for fans of Tote betting and makes their standard win bets far more attractive. Whilst it is a shame that the deal only exists on the simplest bet offered, it still keeps them very competitive with the raft of fixed odds betting sites that now offer BoG as standard.

Payouts Compared: Win Only Bets

Traditionally, the Tote has been viewed as a better option when backing an outsider, but less so when backing one of the favourites. This is because the leading horses in a race typically attract a disproportionate amount more in bets. Imagine you had a three-horse race including a pair of 5/4 favourites and a 5/1 outsider. In theory, the 5/1 shot should receive 15.8% of all bets but in many cases the actual figure would be lower than this, with more punters persuaded by either favourite. For an example like this, the payout on the outsider would probably be better than you could get at any bookmaker as there will be relatively few people getting a cut of the prize pot. There is no assurance but on average one would expect that to be the case.

Payout compared: Tote

For the same reason though, the Tote returns on short-priced runners could often be lower than that of the bookies. This is much less of an issue now due to their Tote Guarantee policy, however, which comes into play on a very regular basis. To highlight this point, let us cast our attention to the result of one evening’s racing (28th April 2022) at Chepstow. At this meeting the highest priced winner was 5/1, all winners came from the top three in the betting and there were a number of winning favourites.

Race Winner SP Tote Payout SP Payout
Nordhalla 9/4 £3.25 £3.25
Dundory 100/30 £4.34 £4.34
Profit And Loss 11/4j £3.75 £3.75
Some Nightmare 4/6f £1.67 £1.67
Rhubarb 5/1 £6 £6
Thibault 13/8f £2.63 £2.63
Nathanael Greene 85/40f £3.13 £3.13

For every race, the Tote Guarantee came into play to ensure punters were paid out at the SP price as they otherwise would not have been. We cannot say for sure how much lower the payouts would have been without the promise but looking back at older meetings, Tote payouts could easily be 10% less, if not more.

When it comes to betting on one of the favourites, fixed odds betting does appear to be the way to go providing you bet with a bookie with a BoG policy. This is because with the Tote, the best price you are likely to get is the SP, whereas with the bookies, there is a good chance you could lock in a superior fixed odds price. In very few circumstances will you end up with less money because the Tote seldom exceeds the SP payout on short-priced horses, and when it does it is usually only by a small amount.

When backing outsiders though, here is when a flutter on the Tote can sometimes offer a little more bang for your buck. Rather than looking at a meeting that provided nothing in the way of shocks like at Chepstow, let us cast out attention a few days earlier at Bath (14th April 2022) where races ended up being less predictable.

Race Winner SP Tote Payout SP Payout
Go Razzmatazz 16/1 £17 £17
Whistle And Flute 7/2 £4.50 £4.50
White Lavender 12/1 £13.30 £13
Granary Queen 14/1 £15.70 £15
Bella Veneta 15/2 £9.40 £8.50
Kalamity Kitty 3/1f £4 £4
Militry Decoration 4/1 £5 £5

At this meeting, there were three races where the Tote win payout exceeded the SP price, admittedly not by much though. It is realistic to think you could have gotten just as much money, if not more, with a bookmaker so very narrowly beating the SP is hardly much of a selling point. If looking to place a single on a horse between 5/1 and 20/1, it is likely that the bookie remains the better option, providing you are covered by a BoG policy.

The only time that the Tote can offer more appeal on a single bet is if you are going for an extremely ambitious punt. On the 25th November 2020, both Lingfield and Hereford saw shock 50/1 winners spaced just a few minutes apart. The Tote prices for each were £75.40 and £65, so had you managed to call either race correctly, the Tote would have likely rewarded you more handsomely. This is not to say the Tote always proves best when betting on huge upsets but it is where you see them beating the SP most often.

Payouts Compared: Forecast Bets

If you are an adventurous punter that likes to predict the finishing order of races (either top two or top three), rather than just a winner, you might be thinking, ‘Tote or bookie’? If placing such a bet with a bookmaker, some will give you a fixed odds price (not covered by any SP guarantee) whereas others will use a computer straight forecast (CSF) to work out your return. This calculation is not performed when placing your bet, instead it is worked out afterwards, so you cannot be sure how much you stand to win when entering your stake.

A CSF bet is similar to a Tote Exacta or Trifecta in this sense, as in neither situation can you ever be sure how much you will win, you only control the stake. A CSF payout is, however, only dependent on the number of runners and the odds of the horses fishing in the top two or three, along with other known inputs to the algorithm. With a Tote forecast, your earnings depend on how much money has been staked and how much of this money went on the winning combination.

What you will find is that not always, but more often that not, picking the winning 1-2 combination will pay more via a Totepool Exacta than it will with a CSF bet. Here are the totals for two randomly selected meetings at Brighton and Nottingham to highlight the point.

Brighton CSF Payout Tote Exacta
Race 1 £22.55 £26.50
Race 2 £126.69 £149.50
Race 3 £5.68 £6.90
Race 4 £37.12 £37.90
Race 5 £13.72 £10.60
Race 6 £31.93 £37.40
Race 7 £6.89 £9.40
Total £244.58 £278.20
Nottingham CSF Payout Tote Exacta
Race 1 £87.19 £100
Race 2 £35.69 £53.70
Race 3 £21.86 £24.70
Race 4 £15.56 £24.10
Race 5 £4.15 £3.40
Race 6 £69.07 £61.40
Race 7 £6.86 £6.10
Total £240.38 £273.40

From 14 races, in 10 instances the Tote Exacta paid out more than the CSF. What’s more is that while the CSF tended to narrowly beat the Tote, sometimes the Tote would be distinctly larger (see race 2 at Brighton for example). Overall, had you somehow managed to call all 14 races correctly, a £1 bet across all of them would have left you £66.64 better off with the Tote than the bookmaker.

As for Tote versus a fixed odds forecast bet, the former is regularly the best option and by a good margin too. It will not be the case every singly time but very often the Tote will provide much better value as you can see through the examples below. It appears as though with the bookies you are paying a premium to know exactly how much you stand to win. While this is a benefit, it is not worth the considerable premium you have to pay.

Race Top Two Finishing Odds Bookie Fixed Odds Payout Tote Exacta
Newmarket 2:25 7/4 & 12/1 £10 £15.30
Goodwood 2:40 11/4 & 7/1 £14 £20.90
Wolverhampton 2:50 15/8 & 11/2 £10 £15.60
Newmarket 3:00 9/2 & 13/8 £5 £13

Tote v Fixed Odds: Conclusion

Tote stand

When betting on win only singles, you are likely to enjoy better value with the bookies gambling at fixed odds, providing you bet somewhere offering a best odds guarantee. If your chosen online bookmaker does not offer this, or you are betting with an on-course bookie, then the decision is less clear-cut. It ends up being a judgement call if you think a bookie is offering a good price and if the market is likely to fancy the horse you have backed. If you believe that the odds are more likely to drift than shorten due to lack of support, then the Tote becomes a sensible alternative.

Heading to the Tote is also not a bad idea if wanting to back an outsider priced over 20/1 (even if you have access to a bookie with a BoG). As dark horses typically attract few bets at the Tote, the dividend can exceed what you would get at the bookie. Whether it is worth the trouble though for the very occasional optimistic punt you manage to pull off is another matter mind you, especially as the payout is unlikely to be better by a huge amount and you have the uncertainty of no knowing until after the race

While the Tote perhaps does not offer too much appeal for ‘win’ only or each way gamblers, for those looking to place forecasts it is a different story. Over the long run you are likely to find that forecast betting with the Tote provides you with greater returns than you would get with a bookmaker. This is especially true if your bookie offers fixed-odds forecasts (rather than a CSF) as these regularly come in at under the Tote dividend and often are much lower.