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Bill Waterhouse: the Story of a Legendary Australian Bookmaker

When it comes to bookies, it is impossible to raise a more influential name than Bill Waterhouse. His career spanned decades and generations, as his son Robbie Waterhouse and later, grandson Tom Waterhouse, all thrived on the excitement and uncertainty that is Australian Thoroughbred racing. Here is his story

Outside the ring, the marriage of Robbie Waterhouse to Thoroughbred trainer Gai Waterhouse, daughter of legendary trainer T.J. Smith, gave the family a racing presence that has never been surpassed.


The association between the name Waterhouse and racing punting predates Bill Waterhouse by some 30 years.

Bill Waterhouse was born 22 November 1922 (died 22 November 2019, aged 97) in Sydney. He attended North Sydney Boys High School, and then the University of Sydney. He eventually got a law degree and began a career as a barrister, but we will leave out any comparisons between the trade of lawyers and bookies.

“Big Bill,” as he would eventually become known, clerked for his father, who had obtained a bookmaker license in 1898. That arrangement began in 1938, when he was around the age of 16.

Early Professional Career

Bill Waterhouse worked closely with family members and practiced law until the 1954 death of his brother and partner Charles. It was one of those reflective moments of life examination that many have experienced; in the case of Bill Waterhouse, just hitting his early 30s, this life crisis led him to walk away from lawyering and focus on bookmaking.

He established a foothold at the Sydney courses and worked, and we assumed profited, from his fielding in the paddocks. His success led him to a spot on the rails.

Other Interests

While it may be true that there is always demand for bookies, Bill Waterhouse, perhaps from his earlier business experiences, felt a need for diversification.

He ran a racing newspaper titled “The Referee,” and was a frequent contributing columnist to The Daily Telegraph, the Sun and the Sunday Telegraph.

Waterhouse also had commercial and residential real estate interests, where he developed houses in New South Wales. At one point, he could have listed the job title “Hotelier” on his curriculum vitae.

He also seized the opportunity to get involved in regional politics. Through his college friendship with the heir to Tonga’s throne, he would eventually fill the role of Honorary Consul-General to Tonga, a role that would eventually be filled by Bill Waterhouse’s daughter, Louise Waterhouse.

King of the Bookies

Bill Waterhouse gained prominence in the 60s as the bookie who was willing to take on big punters who plunged lavishly, with wagers equal to and surpassing the annual incomes of most people.

While some bookies shuttered the windows, barred the doors and pretended not to be home when the likes of Ray Hopkins, Fred Duval and Felipe Ysmael made appearances, Bill Waterhouse rolled out the welcome mat, accepted that punter boots often dropped mud and other mud-like substances, and then proceeded to battle the big punters head on.

There was a day in 1968 when Bill Waterhouse was said to have lost over $1 million on one day’s racing.

Losing a million in one day might be a deathblow to many bookies, but Bill Waterhouse took it in stride. It is entirely possible there could well have been not one, but many days, where he took in over $1 million.

Bookmaking is a business like most others. All that matters is how much is kept after all expenses are subtracted. Bill Waterhouse was firmly steeped in this business tactic, both from the perspective of a bookie and that of a successfully profitable businessman in realms outside of bookmaking.

Everyone in Thoroughbred racing has some influence from the emotional side of the equation. Successful rails bookmakers like Bill Waterhouse are perhaps better at managing theirs and playing on others’ and so never fail to focus on the long-term picture.

True, epic battles of wits and will between Bill Waterhouse and those who would seek to empty his bag make for a compelling narrative, but Bill Waterhouse would gladly build his empire on the foundation, not of outwitting the big punter for millions, but on outwitting millions of smaller punters.

The Clash of Bill Waterhouse and Felipe Ysmael

Felipe Ysmael was one of the big punters who did battle with Bill Waterhouse. Known as ‘The Babe’ and the Filipino Fireball, Ysmael had vast resources at his disposal as the result of his business efforts in the realms of industry.

He was fond of making huge plunges and was said to have at times gone down by astonishing amounts during the course of a meeting.

His legend was built on the basis that while he may have lost vast sums on early races, he was able to battle back and leaves the course with a profit.

Ysmael and Waterhouse’s most famous and most remembered contest involved not one of the big races, but the Toorak Handicap at Caulfield.

The Toorak Handicap was considered a principal race at the time. It would be another decade before it was designated as a Group 1 race, but even then, the race occupied the strata that would have had it just below races such as the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate.

With the spot it holds on the Australian Thoroughbred racing calendar, the Toorak Handicap (1600 m, open handicap) has attracted quality runners for its entire history, more so for the fact that the winner is automatically exempt from ballot for the Caulfield Cup.

The race was first run in 1881 and although it was the route many good horses took to get into the field for the Caulfield Cup, the Caulfield Cup winner has not come out of the Toorak Handicap since 1974 (Leilani) and only a few have won the race and backed with a Caulfield Cup win.

One of those few, Tobin Bronze, was at the heart of the famous duel between Bill Waterhouse and Filipe Ysmael.

For context, in 1967, Tobin Bronze was the 1967 rough equivalent of 2018 Winx.

Tobin Bronze, from the start of the season that spanned 1966/1967, was at the front on so many occasions that he had few peers and more importantly, from the standpoint of Big Bill Waterhouse and Felipe Ysmael, would not have offered the sort of prices that would make Tobin Bronze a lucrative bet for either man.

For a bookie like Waterhouse, he would have had to toe the line between how much he was holding and for what price. For a punter like Ysmael, it would have been hard to get punts on Tobin Bronze for a price that would make it worthwhile.

Tobin Bronze had major wins in 1966, including the Cox Plate, Turnbull Stakes and Underwood Stakes to mention three. During his remarkable run in 1967, he took a second Cox Plate, the C F Orr and the All Aged Stakes. His win in the Toorak Handicap led to his inclusion in the small group that won the Toorak before going on to win the Caulfield Cup.

On that day in 1967, with Caulfield running its Guinea’s Day carnival and offering, in addition to the Toorak Handicap, the Group 1 Caulfield Guineas, Group 1 Thousand Guineas and Group 1 Caulfield Stakes, it might be forgiven if the Toorak Handicap took on the significance of a BM 68, but that is exactly the sort of opportunity big punters like Ismael were fond of finding.

The day had not gone well for Ysmael, as by the time the Toorak Handicap came along, he was deep in the red. Contemporary accounts from the time place him being down almost $100,000.

Ysmael challenged Waterhouse for a huge bet, the exact figure of which is not precisely known, but was thought to be in the area of $60 to $96 thousand dollars.

Not one to shun risk, Bill Waterhouse accepted the wager and he may even have given Ysmael something over the quote in exchange for the big bet.

Tobin Bronze won, Felipe Ismael filled his pocket for a profit with Waterhouse’s money and Waterhouse was set on a course to even the score.

Waterhouse Extracts Revenge on Ysmael

Big Bill Waterhouse must have felt the sting on taking a wager on Tobin Bronze from Felipe Ysmael. There would have been more than a few people to keep the sting smarting, too, but Waterhouse planned and exacted a dish of revenge and served it at less than optimum temperature.

It was not long coming, either.

The 1967 Melbourne Cup markets went up with two horses priced 4/1, in those days before decimal odds quotes came along to simplify lives. Call the quotes $5 and you understand the beauty of the decimal system.

From a purely racing perspective, a bookie like Bill Waterhouse cared little over which of the two horses, Red Handed and General Command, won the race. In true bookie fashion, the one that delivered him the biggest haul would be the one Waterhouse fancied.

Bill Waterhouse used his wherewithal to wind out Red Handed from 4/1 to 9/2, $5.50. Red Handed was a unique story in and of itself, as it was born with a deformed foot and suffered from nerve damage to its head from being kicked in the head by another horse.

Felipe Ysmael fell for the ploy and plunged a quarter-million dollars on General Command.

General Command ran sixth, while the improbable Red Handed won.

Ysmael’s loss reportedly damaged him psychologically to the extent that he lost his confidence, started punting from fear, and naturally, began to lose.

The same could be said of many punters who tried to get an edge on Bill Waterhouse, whether it was headline-sized punts or $10 each way bets.

Truth is Stanger than Fiction

Bill Waterhouse would achieve a level of notoriety that defies all rules of logic when he was implicated in one of the most famous scandals ever to take place in an endeavour where scandals are not rare.

The Fine Cotton Affair, as it came to be known, was like the plot of a comedy TV show, so ludicrous were its underpinnings.

It came along in 1984 and involved a low-grade race called the Commerce Novice Handicap (1500 m) at Eagle Farm racecourse.

Find Cotton was a mediocre horse and even when running in restricted races against other average horses he could not supply results.

Bloodstock agent John Gillespie purchased a horse resembling Fine Cotton. It was named Dashing Solitaire and Gillespie and his partners planned to ring-in Dashing Solitaire and bet heavily on the $33 quote for a big payday.

The scheme took a detour when Dashing Solitaire was injured and unable to line up. It might have occurred to most to simply run away and wait for another day, but Gillespie and the others of his syndicate purchased another horse, this won Bold Personality that looked nothing like Fine Cotton. Their attempt to disguise the horse to look like Fine Cotton was classic comedy. They used paint and wrappings, but when Bold Personality won easily, after the schemers had firmed the Fine Cotton imposter to $4.50, the stewards’ curiosity was piqued and the scheme unraveled.

The lines connecting Bill Waterhouse and his son Robbie Waterhouse to the scheme have never been convincingly shown, but at the time, Bill and Robbie Waterhouse were warned off.

Bill Waterhouse was readmitted in 2002 at the age of 80 and he used the new start as an opportunity to take his grandson Thomas under his wing, supplying the guidance that would keep the family’s name relevant in the modern era of online bookmaking.

Bill and Tom Waterhouse were back at the top of the game by 2007 and were reputedly once again the top on-course bookmakers, although that distinction no longer carried the significance it did in the days when on-course bookmakers were dominant.

Final Days

Bill Waterhouse seemed at times to be immortal, but he finally passed on in 2019, closing the book on one of the most remarkable bookie careers in the annals of Australian Thoroughbred racing.

He would open a book of a different sort when Random House published an autobiography in 2009 titled “What Are the Odds?” The book was a steady seller and sold out in hardcover and paperback versions.

At 510 pages, the book provides a fascinating insight into a man, who while a controversial public figure, had a tender side when it came family and horses.

Bill Waterhouse was larger-than-life when he was alive and punters who feel nostalgic for the days when punting was far more than an app on a smart phone will fondly recall the exploits of Big Bill Waterhouse and his influence on Thoroughbred racing around the world.

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