The history of bookmaking in Australia is as long and storied as the very sport it is intrinsically tied to, the sport of Horse Racing itself.
From their rapid growth in the 1920s &1930s, to their exclusive on course rights, to their ongoing battles to remain relevant and the odd bit of controversy along the way, Australian bookmakers have been a part of every chapter of the story and in some cases have taken the stage in the tale.
Where as in days gone by the art of bookmaking was driven by bookmakers personal markets and relied on the bookies personal opinion and skill at the art of creating a market, or “Creating a book” that would, in their hope, set the market in the favour of them making a profit on the race, the proliferation of technology on a race course now means that modern day bookies tend to all contribute towards a “hive mind” of intelligence, essentially creating an overall market and driving prices not only within their own bookmaker ring but now across the country.
Since the time the sport of kings first took foothold on Australian soil, wagering on the outcome of each race has been the driving fascination behind the sport.
The first recorded races on which bets were placed in Australia date back to as early as 1810, with wagers being placed on a horse race held in Hyde Park, Sydney.
This sparked what for many was the fascination of a lifetime as racing began to take it’s place in Australian culture and by the end of the century most major towns included their own racecourse, which in those days became a major social hub and key pastime for many Australians and the first official racing jurisdiction, the Australian Turf Club, was established in 1825.
By the time Archer won the first Melbourne Cup in 1861, bookmakers had a firm foothold on course and by 1890 full bookmaker terminals were being installed on all courses, which would drive attendance to new heights. Soon it would be considered nothing out of the ordinary for up to 40,000 people to attend a regular race meet.
The Rise of the SP
Up until 1931, legislation required that bets could only be placed with a bookmaker present at a racecourse. However, and this is a theme that will run true throughout bookmaking history, it was technology that was to change the way Australians received race results.
As the wireless radio and the telephone become more commonplace in society, Australians across the country became interested in racing outside their jurisdiction.
In Sydney, as the Great Depression took hold, horses like Phar Lap & Peter Pan became heroes to many looking for some hope in bleak times.
SP Bookmakers, mostly driven by members of organised crime syndicates looking to further their reach while distancing themselves from the eyes of a police force determined to stifle their illegal drug trafficking efforts, began to pop up in increasing numbers. While most punters couldn’t afford the costs of entry on course or the travel to and from via public transport, they were happy to drop into their local hotel or pick up the phone to place a twopenny or shilling bet - Horse Racing Tips.
While for a long-time off course betting was considered in the same vein as prostitution, an Australian vice that was beyond any law enforcement, it began to find controversial support from members of the Australian Labour Party. They recognised the bookmakers popularity with the working class society that was the majority of their voter base.
The dwindling of on course turnover as a result of the continued growth off course meant that the Australian Jockey Club began to place increased pressure on NSW government to bring SP bookmaking into line, with eventually “common game houses” being established in an attempt to have some measure of control over of course betting.
In 1938 a SP bookmaking bill was introduced, proposing the restriction in broadcast of off course results, making SP bookmaking a prison offence. Barred from monitoring phone lines, police attempts to restrict bookmaking only saw the larger bookies move their base of operations to Canberra while still maintaining a foothold within Sydney.
Famously one afternoon Prime Minister John Curtain, on the eve of war with Japan, tried to place a call to the State Premier but was placed in line behind some 60 phone calls being made to SP Bookmakers.
Debates regarding off course wagering continued for the next three decades, until in the 1964, three years after it’s establishment in Victoria, the NSW government legalised the Totaliser Agency Board and the first TAB was created, fielding its first bets across meetings at Canterbury and Menangle.
The Bookmakers Ring
Despite the growth of off course betting, on the track Bookmakers rings were a feature of each and every race course. In the days before pre-post betting, the first markets wouldn’t appear until thirty minutes before the start of a race and the betting ring was always a hive of interest and activity as the first prices were unveiled to the public on course.
This would then spark frantic activity as the smell of cigarette smoke wafted over the packed ring. Bookmakers clerks scanned the ring, their runners bustled their way through the bustling crowds to secure top odds or run mail back on price changes around the ring, and the rank and file punters lined up to have their hard earned ten or twenty dollars each way on their fancied selection.
On the Rails was considered prime position in the betting ring, where the clientele consisted of the upper class and where the highest profile bookmakers such as Bill Waterhouse, later followed by son Robbie, and Dominic Beirne locked horns with big time players such as “Hong Kong Tiger” Frank Duval, “The Filipino Fireball” Filipe Ismael, Ray Hopkins and famously Kerry Packer. These iconic bookmakers were treated around town with Rockstar status and afforded the respect of other celebrities of their time.
In a burgeoning ring, those who weren’t afforded a rails position found themselves fielding bets from the middle and lower class punters that would make their way to the Outer or fill The Flat, or inside of the track.
The Sydney betting ring for over two decades was considered the biggest in Australia but, in a repeated theme, eventually the stench of money laundering and criminal activity once again saw the eyes of the law firmly planted on wagering in the ring and the slow dwindling of turnover began.
The challenges of Modern Bookmaking
In the lasts two decades the Australian betting landscape has changed significantly, with on course bookmakers quickly taking a back seat to other betting services and have faced it increasingly difficult to continue to ply their craft. The slow decline of the size of the betting ring soon became compounded by the insistence on race clubs to promote thoroughbred race days as party events, instead of the promotion and education of wagering on racing, has seen overall crowd sizes in a constant decline.
The growth of the TAB has seen it take a monopoly on off course wagering, with terminals now in almost all licenced premises around the country as well as open betting shops has seen the need for punters to bet with on course bookmakers almost entirely disappear.
In the late 1990s Mark Read led change across Australia by setting up off course betting based off shore and out of the Northern Territory, providing phone and online betting options to anyone willing to look.
In 2008, Sportsbet won a historic High Court case which allowed it to advertise in populous areas, they were able to take a significant further share of the wagering pie and opened the door for other corporate bookmaker giants from the UK such as Ladbrokes and Bet365 to follow suit.
Another online UK behemoth also arrived in Australia in 2003 with the Betfair exchange finally given the green light, a move which changed the entire thoroughbred betting scene. Punters could now bet directly against each other via the online exchange and smart operators could themselves profit from being their own bookmaker. Betfair is now a fixture of every on course bookmaker’s set up, with the almost pure market providing for many the “true” marketplace and forcing bookmakers to follow suit with much tighter market percentage. This has meant it often takes a very brave bookmaker to take on the wider market opinion.
Racefields legislation in NSW now sees an additional fee charged to bookmakers based on their annual turnover, which escalate based on whether certain race meetings are considered “Premium” or “Premier” meetings, usually tied to Autumn or Spring Carnival features or days featuring Million Dollar events such as Kembla Granges’ The Gong or Newcastle’s Hunter feature.
In a marketplace where bookmakers are already setting markets close to 100% and taking on very smart investors, this often sees many on course bookmakers struggle to create a profitable hold on race day and as a result the number of on course bookmakers in Sydney has begun to shrink.
Despite the ongoing challenges faced by the once iconic Australian Bookmaker, a passionate few continue to wave the flag for on course bookmakers. Such ornaments of the game as Gary Clarke, David Dwyer, Sando D’Amore & Warren Woodcock continue to grind away at their craft week in week out within the cut throat Sydney betting ring, providing a service that has been a part of Australian Culture for over two centuries.