Apart from getting our twitter account suspended for alleged infringement of RMG’s copyright (there’s a blog for a later date) which was unexpected – the criticism for betting 1/5 the odds in 16-21 runner handicaps on course but not off (go to starsports.bet or call 08000 521 321 to open an account) which was predictable – Star Sports got genuinely unexpected criticism from some quarters for publicising big bets that were laid.
One on-course bookmaker who I have a lot of respect for even described the way we publicise big bets as ‘vulgar’. I was quite taken back by that and some of the other comments on social media. The reason for my surprise is that reporting big bets is almost as old as racing itself, still practised in the press today as it has been in the Racing Post and its predecessor The Sporting Life for decades.
The earliest record I could find was in The Sporting Magazine dated February 1826 where transactions on the Derby were reported including a bet of ‘£18,000 – £1,000 laid against a horse called The General, by ‘one sporting character’ as well as £1,700 – £100 taken against him many times over.’ The report was followed up by a list of odds for the race. The first bet equates to roughly a bet of £1,260,000 to £70,000 in today’s money, they knew how to have it on back in those days, Ben will have to up his game. Incidentally, the race was won by 50/1 shot Lap-Dog not even listed at the time, another cop for ‘Sporting Characters’ and quite right too.
Moving swiftly on to the 1980’s, when I first got into racing, stories of Terry Ramsden having hundreds of thousands on the likes of Katies and Brunico captivated me. I used to annoy the local William Hill betting shop manager because I was always unpinning his newspapers to look on the other side searching for results and any big-bets contained therein. I also remember seeing a photo of a horse in mid-air at the last in a race, at I think Newbury, then another of it crumpling on landing, the £100,000 bet someone had placed, going down with it.
Moving forward to the late 1980’s there was a documentary screened on TV ‘A day in the life of Barney Curley’ where Barney is filmed backing a horse to win £10,000, with the fractions, come racing, on the rail before we see him watch impassively as his bet gets beaten. I had that recorded on a VHS tape for years, if anyone has a copy please let me know.
At around the same time rails bookmaker Stephen Little had become well-known for laying huge bets on the rails. He was happy to lay them and report them too because he thought it good for business to let potential big-staking punters to know where to come if they wanted accommodating.
Not only were those bets reported in the press but also on television where, by this time, John McCririck had brought the hitherto racecourse-exclusive colour and excitement of the betting ring into everyone’s front room. Moving further on, who wasn’t enthralled by the well-publicised punting battles between J.P McManus and the late, great, Freddie Williams? What punter didn’t love hearing about Gary Wiltshire’s apocalyptic losses on Fujiyama Crest, the last leg of Frankie’s magnificent 7?
In my humble opinion all of the aforementioned add to the glamour, colour and mystique that make up a lot of the huge tapestry that is British horseracing, and certainly much of its appeal to the non-racing on-looker. So why do people suddenly think that it’s wrong to publicise the bets? Ben Keith has several individual qualities but his undisputed unique selling point of his Star Sports business, on and off course, is the willingness to take on large-staking punters at the right price.
As with Stephen Little before him, reporting bets is the only real way of letting potential big punters know where and with whom they can be on. The only difference between Stephen’s time and Ben’s at Royal Ascot is that we know have the added publicity vehicle of social media, predominantly twitter, with which to get news of those bets out there, it’s just the same as the reports of the ‘Sporting Character’ in 1826, just more bang up to date.
It must be noted that by the end of his career Stephen Little had stopped reporting his bets to the press because ‘one journalist almost identified my punter’. That fact also ties nicely into my conclusion of this blog that some twitter pundits proclaimed that by publicising the big bets, the punter’s privacy was being invaded. Codswallop. The bets reported are just figures, nobody is identified, on-course commission agents don’t identify their clients that’s why they are used. That as a given, any business from a punter who asks for their bets to be kept in-house aren’t reported, of which there are several that bet with Star Sports.
There won’t be many that would argue that the betting ring at mid-week meetings is a shadow of its former self. That’s an incredibly sad thing to see for someone like me who has worked in it all their working life. It’s also heartening that the big meetings are as busy, yes big cash punters are very rare these day, but those mega punters that know where to go, can get lumps on and still do. I’m sure advertising those bets still bring an added dimension to the enjoyment of those watching and reading at home. At monster-bet levels, as with the £375,000 and £400,000 bets Star Sports laid at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, they become mainstream news and can transcend racing into general sporting media which surely has to be a good and not a vulgar thing?
Simon Nott is author of:
Skint Mob! Tales from the Betting Ring