From the archives; Bookies and Punters of the Betting Ring pt1 (2004)

Bookies and Punters of the Betting Ring . Part One – The Bookies

This article was first published in the Racing Post Weekender in 2004. Even though I was writing about the dawn of a new era a lot of what was current then is now largely confined to the history books.

A stroll around the betting ring on a busy afternoon at the races will reveal a real mish mash of characters, some likeable some not, but many larger than life. A people- watching person’s paradise in a world that that only exists for three or four hours each afternoon up and down the country, a perpetual travelling circus. From the flamboyant to the dowdy, the old timers to the mayflies to the winners and the losers. Love it or hate it, whilst the equine action goes on out in the country, the heart of the racecourse that keeps the pulse pumping is the betting ring and its inhabitants. Welcome to the jungle.

The face of the ring has changed out of all proportion in the last few years, the old hierarchy has blended with the advent of buying and selling pitches and prices being displayed on the rails. The rails, now that was a word used to conjure up all sorts of images with novice race goers, a mysterious line of sharp dressed men taking monster wagers from the great and the good who didn’t wish to soil their Savile Row suits or designer frocks by mixing with the riff raff that inhabited the main betting ring. A glance at the racing press would show the sorts of salary busting bets that were taken ‘on the nod’ on the rails on a daily basis. The normal punter wouldn’t dream of wasting the time of a mink-coated Steven Little with their fiver. The rails bookies were the best informed, they had the hotline to their respective HQs and took the bets from those who ‘knew’. Any move from the rails was greeted with a swathe of rubbed prices from the main ring bookmakers.

While a lot of that was true back in the day, these days the rails bookmakers are no longer the mysterious guys of days of old, while some of the old firms remain. Since it has been permitted to display prices there has been an influx of bookmakers from the ring who have decided to bet there as the rails became the new front line and in many places the best pitches on the track. These days, a line of people waiting to have fiver each way on is what the new rails bookie dreams of. Whilst they often get made to jump by a naive big hitter who wanders into one of the Tatterstalls ex-pats asking for a mammoth bet, most punters who bet in telephone numbers know where to go. Though some of the smart money from owners and trainers still does find it’s way to the rails, the days of regular privileged information enjoyed by long established rails firms appears have gone as connections decide to cut out the middle man by getting on with anonymity on the exchanges.

Chepstow 1980s

Chepstow 1980s

One group from the rails whose influence is still respected are the high street firms, their reps are often sent into the ring to try and shorten up a fancied or popular horse. In the days before the exchanges they ruled the roost running up and down the line calling in lumpy wagers and could even shorten a favourite on a quiet day just by coming into the ring hardly having a bet at all. These days they often wear an exasperated and frustrated look on their faces as they call large bets into bookmakers that would normally bluff a wager the fraction of the size only to hear the bet being hedged on the telephone and the price remaining on the boards in the hope of a follow up bet and more free money. Their ability to smash a price up now depends largely on the strength of the horse on the exchanges and the willingness of the on-course bookmakers to ‘play the game’.

As a cool down interlude. If you are enjoying this blog, any chance you could take time out to vote for it in the UK  Blog Awards here?

While the rails are a varied bunch they have nothing on the guys in tatts. One thing to remember about anybody in the ring is you can’t go on appearance. Many a bookmaker will tell stories of little old ladies asking for 5/2 about 9/4 shots. Once accommodated with a patronising smile normally reserved for the bookie’s own granny she’s wiped that smile from the layers face by pulling a couple of grand in grubby scores out of her handbag. The same goes for the bookmakers, a lot of bravado is not matched when it comes to laying a bet. Calls of ‘I’ll take a £1300 to £800’ by a sharp suited bookie are often revised to ‘half of it’ when somebody takes them up on the kind offer. On the other hand a well known bookmaker at Cheltenham has a £200 liability sign on his joint though will lay horses to loses that amount of thousands and though not to that extreme there are plenty of bookmakers out there who will accommodate the strongest punter.

These days there are a few different types of bookie, in one extreme you have the team that are set up in a manner to rival GCHQ, several computers and joint and staff bristling with aerials running around the ring like ants and the board lit up like a Las Vegas casino, the man on the stool talking to persons unknown though a headset and perpetually changing prices. In the other extreme the guy who has been scraping a living for years, he uses a joint salvaged from three or more old ones of differing colours and has his name written up on the back of an old list stuck over the previous owners headboard, he runs on a shoestring, still issues old tickets and says ‘leave me out’ an awful lot when confronted with a trade bet, though rarely loses. Those two are permanent fixtures as are the established husband and wife and family teams who have seen it all, bet under the names of the fathers and grandfathers and are proud to have been established ages ago they advertise the fact. These firms pick and choose where and when they bet and sit back and let the others get on with it when margins are no longer there, with them there’s always another day.

Newton Abbot mid 2000s

Newton Abbot mid 2000s

In between the permanent you have the mayflies, these are the guys who have bought in to the game and are going to show the rest of the ring how to do it. These chaps are the most popular in the ring, both with the bookmakers who make them squeak with hedge bets and the shrewdie large punters but most especially the arbours. The latter are a new breed unique to the 21st century, but more on them later. The new guy, quite often a very nice chap with a ‘handle’ or nickname has all the gear and feels the way to win is fill the bag with money and the results will look after themselves. The look on his face is not a pleasant one when he realises that the three worst losers in his book finish in that order with monotonous regularity with the worst possible result each way just sneaking into the frame just to top it up. The sprightly spring in his step and the willingness to lay any wager, win or each-way, from all comers soon disappear, as does the firm unless he wises up fast.

The other type of bookmaker that is a recent phenomenon and fantastic for the punter is the guy that totally relies on the exchanges, he seems to grasp nothing of the concept of bookmaking, percentages and built in profit margins and just prices up depending on how horses are trading on the exchanges, if he can beat it on the exchanges he’ll price up accordingly. The record for prices done so far was 87%, terrible news for traditional bookmakers but fantastic for those punters that bet to figures. One skill this type of bookmaker has is ‘The Betfair Twist’ when asked for a large bet he spins on the ball of one foot while the other bends at the knee with his foot flaying in the wind while he peers into his computer screen, if he’s missed the price going there’s no bet. This chap would normally have an established clerk who has been around for years, he can often be heard murmuring that his new employer ‘Doesn’t have a very good book’ while scratching his head at goings on hoping there will be enough left for his wages.

Any bookmaker, would no matter how dynamic would be nothing without his staff, though he’d probably not want to admit it in case the matter of a wage increase or occasional bonus reared its head. The bookmaker employs a clerk and a floor man and in some cases a bagman. Staff seem to have changed along with the ring in recent years. The days of a team of old boys tapping away have pretty much gone with the emphasis now on modern technology, and speed. Clerking for a bookmaker these days is no longer the skilled job it was when the clerk stooped behind the bookmaker scribbling down bets and doing three separate sums in his head, before scribbling it down, often in script legible only to himself and his boss, stopping only to brush the ash from the book after it had dropped from his permanent roll up cigarette. These days, the old boy puffing on the gasper is likely to have been replaced by a young whiz kid often pretty and female. She no doubt grew up using computers and learned how to clerk in an afternoon. A good operator used to handling accounts etc is still sought after, though no knowledge of mathematics or bookmaking is required.

The whipping boy of the team is the floor man, he is the bookmaker’s eyes and ears, though is often ignored and is always to blame if anything goes wrong. Sometimes it will be his fault, sods law decrees one momentary lapse of concentration will happen in the exact moment there is a monumental move for a horse and when his boss decides to lay all of the bet thinking he can get it back, but often it’s not. Taking the blame for anything that goes wrong is part of the job description. The old-school floor man is often grumpy and spends most of the time moaning to other floor men about his boss, the other trait is losing his wages before he gets them on a regular basis by backing the worst in the book with a neighbouring book swearing him to secrecy. One old bookmaker commented that despite a thin crowd, there were always plenty of floor men to ensure a profitable day, this would probably explain why many an older floor-man has his gaze fixed to the floor looking to ‘scoop’ dropped bank notes between races.

TBC -The Punters.

*My new (and first) book ‘Skint Mob! – Tales From The Betting Ring’ is out now. It covers people and events in the betting ring from the 1980′s where hopefully some colour has been captured. It is a royal sized paperback. Full details can be found here.


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