SIMON NOTT: Bookmakers, their own worst enemy

I started working in the betting ring in 1989, I’d been going racing since 1983 so knew the ropes a little. The first bet struck in my employ was £500 at 4/5, I spotted 9/10 with ‘Avalon’ (Eddie Baxter), told my new boss, he jumped off the stool, had it all back and potentially earned £50. Jack looked at me and said, ‘You’ve earned your wages with the first words you’ve said’ or something to that effect. I was employed as a floorman on a casual basis from that point. I was also told ‘The Game’s Gone’ on that day too but that’s another story.

I continued to work in the ring with bookmakers until 2008. To be honest it kept me poor, in those days a floorman could scrape a living full time but rewards weren’t great, but I loved it so much I couldn’t think of doing anything else, add to that I left school with no qualifications. It has to be said I wasn’t a flyer in the game, I worked the floor, learned basic clerking and had my proudest moment when Dave Phillips trusted me to rep for him on the Embankment at the Grand National. I didn’t amass a tank and aspire to buying pitches though. In the end I had the best of both worlds, I worked on the front of the highly-respected and quite hefty laying Ivor Perry joint. I had all the fun but none of the worry.

Times were changing, things were getting tough in the betting ring so when offered a job with the on-course SP team with TurfTV I felt it only prudent to take it. It was a decision that turned out to be correct as my love of going racing most days continued but I noticed the dwindling number of bookmakers and staff as time went on. In hindsight I’m pretty sure the Perry firm only went to some meetings because they knew I had a mortgage to pay, there’s no way that could have continued.

In my time in the ring there were lots of upheavals, the advent of the NJPC (National Joint Pitch Council) taking over administration of the betting rings, buying and selling pitches, boards on rails, AGT, etc. One of my bosses was involved in some of those committees, all I can say was he was in a permanent stake of exasperation. Bookmakers could not agree on anything, just when it looked like a compromise was near there’d be an objection from someone who would not budge. The result of pretty much all those laborious talks was that there’d be no agreement, things would get done anyway and that was that, usually to the detriment of the vast majority of layers.

The competitive element was always there. Yes, in the ‘old days’ there was certainly some justification for being resentful that by luck of birth and inheritance some bookmakers got to bet in prime pitches while others scrabbled for a living in back rows. Of course, you always had the sneaking suspicion that the loudest voices calling unfair from the Extended Supplementary List would have been as so the other way should they have been one of the privileged few.

There was always the seething envy from some quarters looking on from afar as the prime pitches tapped away at 9/4 while their 5/2 was ignored by all but the sharks. There were the surreptitious ‘Skinner Walks’ when there’d been a turn-up, some bookmakers keener to walk around to see how much his neighbours copped making sure it wasn’t more than him than be happy with his own good fortune.

There were also suspicions that some firms knew more than others, always a bit strange how the same ones hedged with you at 7/4 just minutes before Ladbrokes came in taking all the 6/4. Of course others knew more, it was the nature of the game, if a particularly sharp rails firm started backing one, the quick off his feet floorman wouldn’t stand there making a sad face saying how unfair it was he’d be on his toes getting a few quid on in front of him.

These days the betting ring is often a shadow of what it used to be. In many ways, always. No more floormen hedging in the ring, no more tic-tacs, most of the colour gone. Those days have gone for ever, but a lot of characters and vibrancy still exist. The betting ring is still largely much maligned, ignored and most importantly misunderstood. The public are still a little suspicious of bookmakers, the old slightly shady image still ingrained to the mind of novice bettors. Then you have the modern-day critics that the moment a big bet in the ring is mentioned, out they come with the ‘never happened’ or ‘you only had it all back bigger on the machine’ chestnut. There are those bookmakers that grew up in the ring that have now for whatever reason have largely turned their back on it that now spend their time knocking it, like a petulant kid in a park who doesn’t get his own way so takes his ball home doing his best to ruin the game for those still wishing to play.

Most exasperating recently, the event that prompted writing this blog. Much loved and well-respected writer Alastair Down wrote an excellent piece on the betting ring, it told it how it was, in decline but still very much alive. It got a full page in the Racing Post and quite rightly in my eyes some people, Julie Williams and our own Ben included, posted the article on twitter for the benefit of those that hadn’t seen it, happy that a last the ring had been given some positive exposure.

What was to follow from some quarters was little short of hysterical, and by that I don’t mean funny. Actual bookmakers falling over themselves to knock it with ridiculous claims about everything from SP rigging to some bookies being warned that ‘The magic sign’ were about to back one while others weren’t. Some of the stories were from the depths of time, others fantasy, one or two human error or misinformation and some which will no doubt be investigated to ascertain the truth after accusations were made publicly by high-profile people.

Sadly, it soon became a suspicion that the majority of it wasn’t prompted by people infuriated that they thought there was skulduggery afoot. Instead, the fact they considered that they were being left out of imaginary riches being proffered by a proliferation of imaginary bentness to the verge of paranoia.

One thing I took from the whole saga was that bookmakers haven’t changed, in a lot of cases they’d much rather do the ring irreparable damage stemming from their own self-interest, bitterness and jealousy than to help it thrive as a body. I feel bookmakers should be careful what they wish for, if they don’t start working together to protect their interests from increasing threats to their business from outside and stop in-fighting they really will be reduced to an irrelevant ever-dwindling side show.

Simon Nott

skintmobSimon Nott is author of:
Skint Mob! Tales from the Betting Ring