Super-punter Woods quietly masterminded a revolution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2008, 12:00am

Alan Woods may have been a name unknown outside professional gambling or Hong Kong racing's inner circles but his passing on the weekend saw the loss of a significant, if reclusive, influence on horse racing.

Woods knew little of horses. They were names at best and just numbers more likely. He wouldn't have known if he had backed a grey or a chestnut and the actual running of a race was of little interest until the numbers were posted - but he was the father of the computer betting syndicates, a front-line player in the development of computer analysis and wagering on horse racing.

And his operation contributed up to 2 per cent of the billions bet with the Jockey Club every season.

Even now, there is a section of the Jockey Club hierarchy which would believe that anyone winning the kind of money that made Woods a billionaire several times over had to be doing something crooked.

When the Jockey Club closed accounts for the final meeting of one season a decade ago when the Triple Trio jackpot had risen to an extraordinary HK$300 million, it was to sabotage the computer teams for that day for fear someone would undertake something corrupt to ensure a big win.

In what other business would an operator undermine the participation of its biggest customer? But it also showed a poor understanding of how the computer teams worked, as their predictive models rely on racing being run in a clean, uncorrupt fashion.

With an American partner, Bill Benter, Woods formed and largely funded the first computer team in the 1980s, analysing racing objectively and in much the same way that insurance companies analyse everyday occurrences in life and assign them a mathematical probability of happening.

When you insure a car, the insurance companies have a predictive model for the chances of having to pay out on that policy if the car is damaged in an accident or some other event. The 'odds' are determined by the car, the age, gender and experience of the driver, garaging policies and whatever past history, or form, that driver might have.

The same is true of any policy offered by insurance companies, who are basically bookies determining the true odds of you collecting on a policy then asking you to pay a premium for that policy which is more expensive than the odds say it should be.

For Woods and Benter there were no stable tips, omens or gut feelings, just a list of the same factors that form punters take into account - recent form, fitness, weights, times, barriers, luck in running, distance, jockey, trainer, age, consistency, length of racing career and so on. Only their list of factors was black and white rather than a notion in someone's head.

They were a long way from being the first to look at racing this way, but the rise of personal computing during the 1980s added some number-crunching muscle to their attempts to objectively assign the correct importance to each of those factors better than anyone ever had.

Their syndicate went bust more than once before they got the mix correct and with a sophistication at analysing form which was completely missing in Hong Kong at that time.

Woods and Benter split in the early 1990s after a dispute, forming rival syndicates, and Woods freely admitted that Benter's model actually became better than his own by the turn of the century.

Benter all but retired as a very wealthy man himself several years ago and has participated from afar on a much smaller scale since, while Woods continued to spend millions on improving his model and became the clear leader in the field once again, ahead of another formidable Australian team.

As one source said in recent days, despite heading up this huge operation, which could have become an unemotional monolith, Woods remained proud of having changed the lives of many of those who worked for him after coming from nothing themselves - some became very successful punters in their own right - and he enjoyed the idea that personal friendship and trust bound his team tightly together.

After a lifetime of avoiding publicity as a card counter and then computer punter, Woods had recently changed course, believing the world should know more of what he had achieved and acceded to be part of a significant magazine article in Australia in 2005.

He had plans to put together a book recording his life and times but the odds turned against him when he was diagnosed with rare appendiceal cancer last year. There is a cruel irony to that, as Woods has regular health checks but cancer in the appendix - we are not doctors but have been led to believe - is extremely unusual and thus not a regular part of cancer examinations. By the time it was found, the rare cancer - this outsider of the field - had already done extreme damage.

Woods passes away leaving a vast fortune from betting, serious wealth in anyone's language, and the legacy of a true pioneer in racing's great field of dreams.