In this July 1984 story (pictured) in Racetrack magazine, a young bookmaker named Mark Read predicted the demise of metropolitan bookmakers to journalist Graeme Kelly. How prophetic Mark Read's words turned out to be.
I had to have a smile recently when I came across an article in the July 1984 edition of Racetrack magazine entitled “Bookies no longer winning the losing battle”. Only three months shy of being 30 years old, the article has been proven with the passage of time to be eerily accurate.
The article came with a photo of a young bookmaker named Mark Read and the caption simply read: “Mark Read, one of Australia’s leading bookmakers, predicts only 12-20 bookies will field in the main betting rings in the future”. And how prophetic those words of Mark Read have turned out to be? The once vibrant and bustling betting rings of yesteryear have been replaced with just a hand full of on-course bookies, most of whom have little or no sense of humour. I can’t remember the bookmaker’s name, but sometimes at the Albion Park trots in the 1970’s I’d stand for 10 or 15 minutes close to one particular bookmaker’s stand, just to hear him in action. An amply endowed woman walking past would get invited to have a roll of the board about her choice, after he complimented her on her appearance. Many of the women would take up the challenge. If there was no one having a bet at his stand after he’d given the short priced favourite a wind, he’d simply raise his arms and exclaim something like “don’t all rush at once, you’re all on”. Gee I’ve seen some comical bookmakers over the years on city and country tracks and they were truly great personalities at the track.
Where would the racing industry be today without bookmakers? The colour and atmosphere that they added to a day at the races was inestimable back in the halcyon days of big crowds. Now the world is too prim and proper – and the old bookie who would make the wise crack in the name of having a laugh has crossed over and that dreadful thing called gravity has had a somewhat drastic effect on the “amply endowed woman”. Nowadays no one gives her a second glance as she staggers through the betting ring on her walking frame, whereas once upon a time she was unquestionably the cynosure of all eyes. Such is life.
Walk into a metropolitan race meeting in this day and age and you’ll probably single-handedly double the crowd. Some of the bookies age by the week. There’s no new young vibrant blood coming through their ranks. What’s going to happen when all these current ageing bookies retire from plying their trade as a bookmaker?
Here’s what journalist Graeme Kelly wrote in Racetrack in July 1984:
As a profession, bookmaking stretches back some 150 years.
In his definitive work, “The History of the Derby Stakes”, author Roger Mortimer refers to the “change in the manner of betting” leading up to the 1830 running of the Derby won by Priam.
Mortimer continued: “Formerly, owners for the most part had wagered with each other; now the day of the professional bookmaker had begun.”
“It is impossible to pretend that these early representatives of the profession were a reputable collection.
“For the most part they were foul mouthed, illiterate and dishonest.
“They knew no law but the law of the jungle.
“In the great ante-post betting races such as the Derby, the St Leger and the Chester Cup, they went to endless pains to have lame or even dead horses boosted in order to attract the money of the less well informed.
“The majority would have skinned their own sister without a moment’s hesitation had the operation offered the prospect of financial advantage.
“Their speciality was the corruption of trainers, jockeys and stable employees and their motto was ‘win, lie or wrangle’.”
As the years have gone by the image and reputation of bookmakers have improved markedly but now, after a long and colorful history, the future of bookmaking is under siege. This is particularly so in Victoria.
In fact, the Victorian Bookmakers Association (VBA) considers the situation desperate and has, recently, appealed to racing clubs to consider the plight of its members.
A submission to clubs from VBA began: “This association is greatly concerned with the current non-viability of our members in all spheres of our profession.
“As a consequence we are endeavouring to provide information, comments and suggestions to the relevant bodies with a view to alleviating the problem.”
The VBA believes that the constant decline in racecourse attendances is a major contributory factor to the problems confronting bookmakers.
To counter this, the bookmakers believe racing clubs must provide advantages to and attractions for, the on-course patron. These facilities should not be available to the off-course punter.
In the submission the bookmakers say, quite rightly, that: “It is completely illogical to expect people to attend the racetrack when they can sit at home in the comfort of their lounges, with air-conditioning and a drink watching direct television coverage of the races with TAB telephone betting within an arm’s reach.”
The submission continued: “Their on-course counterparts have to brave the elements, spend time and money on travel, pay admission charges and then put up with some indifferent services.”
As a result of this, combined with the poor crowds attending the races these days, the bookmakers are complaining that it has become practically impossible to make their books balance properly.
With so many bookmakers in difficulties, the percentage of “Mikes”- or silent partners – has been steadily increasing.
However, bookmakers believe this also brings problems. For bookmakers being financed by silent partners are – in their desperation – more prepared to gamble than they would be using their own money.
This, in turn, forces other bookmakers to become more competitive and the result is that even greater pressure is placed on the ring in the battle for survival.
In an endeavour to improve matters the VBA has, for some time, been seeking to reduce the number of bookmakers operating by not replacing members who resign or retire.
In this way the numbers can be reduced progressively without hurting anyone.
This confirms a long-held view of leading Sydney bookmaker, Mark Read.
He predicted several years ago that the main betting rings on metropolitan courses would eventually be reduced to a dozen to 20 of the biggest bookmakers.
When making his prediction, Read based his opinion on the assumption that overhead costs would make bookmaking unviable for the small operator.
With the cost of annual licences, turnover tax, stand and clerk’s fees, betting tickets and books, racecourse admissions and ever-increasing bad debts, this has become the case.
Read, a proven innovator, also began promoting the idea of establishing a “phone room” on racecourses to provide a service for the big betting off-course punters who now utilise SP bookmakers.
The “phone room” would enable these punters - providing they had arranged accounts - to ring into a special number at the course and place their bets with a bookmaker.
They would be given the latest odds and be able to bet in much the same way as they do now with SP bookmakers.
The operation would be run under strict Government or race club supervision with all conversations between the bookmaker’s agent and the client being monitored. This would prevent any suggestions of skulduggery.
The beauty of such a plan is that the scheme would trigger a decline in the fortunes of illegal SP operators while not detracting from off-course betting on the TAB.
Naturally such a revolutionary plan has struck resistance among the staid members of racing’s administration.
But with the situation deteriorating so rapidly even those racing administrators with their thoughts attuned to yester-year are beginning to realise that action - urgent action – along the lines being suggested by Read and other bookmakers is needed if disaster is to be avoided.
Today on www.brisbaneracing.com.au there’s a huge montage of photos from past Weetwood Handicap winners, given that that race is on Saturday night in Toowoomba. On www.sydneyracing.com.au there’s an interesting story, whilst on www.melbourneracing.com.au Victorian racing is perused.