Phil Bull Bio
Phil Bull (1910 - 1989) was a professional gambler, magazine publisher, and race horse owner.
He became a legend in the racing community due to his betting success and creation of the Timeform handicapping system.
Since 1948, Timeform has offered performance ratings on every British race horse and, in recent years, many international horses.
Aside from founding Timeform, he's credited with aphorisms like "at the racecourse, keep your eyes open and your ears closed."
Let's continue discussing Bull's contributions to horse racing by looking at his upbringing, early gambling successes, Timeform system, Portway Press Ltd., horse breeding background, and administrative stint.
Phil Bull's Early Life
Bull was born in the modest town of Hemsworth, West Yorkshire, not far from Leeds. The son of a miner and schoolteacher, he graduated from Hemsworth Arts and Community Academy (formerly Hemsworth Grammar School).
In 1931, Bull graduated from Leeds University with a degree in mathematics, which later served as a foundation for his horse racing acumen.
But his first pursuit was teaching math at a school in London. Bull didn't last long in this profession, quitting to chase his true love - gambling.
Becoming a Professional Gambler
The gambling bug bit Bull early since he bet on horses as an 18 year old student. Success came early because he won a bet on Caerlon at 25 / 1 odds in the Epsom Derby.
His brief teaching stint was more a side career as he poured over seasons' worth of horse racing results. After studying date and racecourses, Bull began to notice trends that he could exploit in gambling.
Not long after he quit his teaching job in the early 1940s, Bull was already making a living through the sport. The math whiz also sold his self-developed time ratings system under the name the Temple Time Test.
A Huge Gambling Success
Unlike many betting systems that were being sold at the time, the Temple Time Test was a proven winner. Bull could point to his own successes as proof.
His betting records indicate that he made €295,987 in profits from 1943 to 1974.
It's difficult to put an exact inflation figure on this amount because it occurred over three decades.
But even if you calculate that the entire €296k sum was earned in 1974, that amount would be worth over €3.2 million today - an average of nearly €100,000 per year.
Thanks to his reputation, success, and notoriety, Bull made notable friendships with the bookmaker William Hill, along with mainstream celebrities like The Crazy Gang and Bud Flanagan.
Creating Timeform & Portway Press
After World War II, Bull met a fellow bettor named Dick Whitford, who'd also developed his own handicapping ratings system. Together, they created a new betting system called Timeform.
The name came from combining Bull's ratings approach - emphasizing the probable speed of a race - with Whitford's system, which was focused on horses' form.
They also created Portway Press Ltd., the publishing company that would produce their numerous race guides over the years.
The first Timeform publication was called Race horses of 1948, which kick started a series of guides. In addition to producing yearly books, Portway also released daily race cards, which can still be found on race tracks today.
Bull served as CEO of Portway until his death in 1989, and he was succeeded by Reg Griffin.
In 2006, Betfair purchased Portway Publishing for €15 million, which Griffin and the board accepted after rejecting a previous company's offer of €10m five years before.
Betfair saw Timeform as a way to quickly create a ratings database for their website. Betfair and others within the betting industry were also impressed with how Portway Publishing always retained its objectivity when producing guides.
Thanks to its far reaching database, Timeform ratings are used to determine the all-time greatest horses in different classes.
What Is Timeform & How Does It Work?
In the words of Portway Publishing, Timeform represents the "merit of the horse expressed in pounds and is arrived at by careful examination of its running against other horses using a scale of weight for distance beaten, which ranges from around 3 pounds a length at five furlongs and 2 pounds a length at a mile, and a quarter to 1 pound a length at two miles."
Timeform is comparable to the Beyer Speed Figure, which has been used in North America since the 1970s. If you want to translate the Beyer Speed Figure to a Timeform number, you add 12 14 points to the Beyer figure.
- 140+ = Outstanding horse
- 130 to 135 = Above average Group 1 winner
- 125 to 129 = Average Group 1 winner
- 115 to 124 = Average Group 2 winner
- 110 to 115 = Average Group 3 winner
- 100 to 105 = Average listed race winner
Average ratings for 2 year olds will be slightly lower than this in Timeform publications.
Timeform features different ratings for horses racing over hurdles, over fences, and on flat ground. Given this, scores can't be compared between the three types of races.
Here's an example: flat horses Frankel, Sea Bird, and Brigadier Gerard rate at 147, 145, and 144 respectively. Steeplechaser horses Arkle, Flyingbolt, and Sprinter Sacre rate at 212, 210, and 192 respectively.
As mentioned before, Timeform is unofficially used to rate the best horses ever in terms of overall performance.
The lists that you'll see below represent Highweights that race / raced in Australia, Dubai, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and / or Scandinavia.
Up until 2000, horses that raced exclusively in America weren't given Timeform ratings, which is why you won't find any of them listed below.
Top 20 Thoroughbreds on Flat Courses
|Sea the Stars||2006||140|
Top 15 Horses for Chase Courses
|Burrough Hill Lad||1976||184|
Top 15 Horses for Hurdle Courses
|Comedy of Errors||1967||178|
General Betting Tips from Phil Bull
In addition to his extensive Timeform system, Bull also had a set of general tips that he offered gamblers. Here's a look at his most popular tips:
- Maintain a good temperament when winning and losing. Bull was known for his ability to stay level headed during losing streaks and focus on long term results.
- Study the form the same for every race. If you don't see a good bet, then don't force one.
- Never bet more than you can afford to lose. Bull was great at bankroll management, only putting a small percentage of his bankroll into each race.
- Always bet when you see value in odds. Here's an example: if you've handicapped a horse at 7 / 1 and its betting odds are 10 / 1, then you should make the bet. Doing so will always yield a consistent profit.
- Don't follow tipsters and research races on your own. This goes back to what Bull said about keeping your eyes open and your ears closed at the track.
- Never wager on a horse ante post, or futures betting, unless you're certain that it will run.
- Avoid betting each way in races with big fields, and handicaps.
These are basic tips by today's standards, but they represent good rules to live by when you're starting out in horse betting.
Phil Bull as an Owner and Breeder
While Bull is much better known as a gambler and publisher, he also owned and bred his own horses.
In 1947, he opened the Hollins Stud in Halifax, West Yorkshire - the same city where Portway Publishing was born.
His original four mares were Anne of Essex, Candida, Lady Electra, and Orienne. He bred Romulus - winner of the Greenham Stakes, Prix du Moulin, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, and Sussex Stakes - and also Eudaemon - winner of the Champagne Stakes and Gimcrack Stakes.
Bull's most notable winning horses included Charicles (Wokingham Handicap), and Sostenuto (Ebor Handicap).
Bull never attained the same fame in breeding as he did in gambling, and his stable featured very few horses in the 1970s and 80s.
Bull's Four Month Stint as a Racing Administrator
Known for his outspoken and brash comments against racing organizations, Bull was an unlikely candidate to enter the administration space. But he did so anyways in March 1980, assuming chairman duties of the Horse racing Advisory Council.
During his stint, Bull helped install showcase races at the end of the race season.
But his time as the Advisory Council was brief, with Bull stepping down four months after accepting the role. He frequently clashed with other council members because of his authoritarian style.
He was much more effective at implementing changes from the sideline, rather than as part of a committee.
One example is how he pushed for a mile race for 2 year olds in British flat racing. He took action in 1961, establishing the Timeform Gold Cup, which, currently known as the Racing Post Trophy, became a Group 1 race.
The Racing Post Trophy has produced notable mile winners, including Epsom Derby winners Authorized, Camelot, and High Chaparral.
Many have tried their hand at betting on horse racing, but few experience any success.
Phil Bull is an exception to the norm in every way, having made what amounts to millions of pounds today as a bettor.
His Temple Time Test was revolutionary because betting systems like these were unheard of in the 1940s. He would later combine his system with Dick Whitford's form based approach to create Timeform - a rating system that's withstood the test of time.
As a testament of Timeform's longevity and results, Betfair paid €15 million for this data over six decades after the system was created.
Unfortunately, Bull didn't experience as much success as a breeder and racing administrator. But few pay attention to these chapters of his life since he was such a great bettor and handicapper.
Considering his success as a publisher and gambler, it's little surprise that Bull was a very wealthy man at the time of his death.
Updated: January 2016
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