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
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
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’
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
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.
Timeform Ratings for 3 year olds and up:
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
Flat vs. Hurdle vs. Steeplechase
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.
Top rated Horses of All Time
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
Top 15 Horses for Chase Courses
Burrough Hill Lad
Top 15 Horses for Hurdle Courses
Comedy of Errors
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
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
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.
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.
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
During his stint, Bull helped install showcase races at the end of the race
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
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.
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