Shouting The Odds, A Day With an On-Course Bookie

Shouting The Odds, A Day With an On-Course Bookie

It’s a bright but cool April Tuesday at Southwell racecourse. The track is hosting an all weather flat card where the best race of the day is a Class 5 handicap worth just over £2,500 to the winner. An unremarkable day’s racing in every sense and very much another day at the office for on course bookmakers. But what does an on course bookie do on an average day? I joined the Barry Johnson firm for the day to find out.

The Barry Johnson name is represented at large numbers of race meeting all across the South and the Midlands. Today, Johnson senior is taking the day off and son Ben Johnson is in charge of their joint which sits in the number one position on Southwell racecourse.

Ben is joined by Mandy, his partner as well as workmate and herself a relative newcomer to the business, and by Karl whose years of experience are obvious from the dapper duds to the deadpan demeanour.

A happy team, Ben Johnson and partner Mandy at Southwell

They’re a happy workforce, despite the nip in the air and the uncertain prospects for the day’s trading. Ben is effusive and enthusiastic, talking ten to the dozen about every aspect of the activity in the ring. He clearly relishes his role at the heart of the pricing and trading activities where quick thinking and decision making are crucial. Karl has the calm unflappable air of a man who’s seen it all before but is also patient and helpful with it and Mandy is bright, friendly and charming.

With a bit of time before the first race begins, I ask Ben what it costs for his outfit to stand at Southwell today. It breaks down as an entry fee of £10 each for the three person team, plus of course the travel costs of arriving there; maybe another £50 or £60 on this particular occasion. There’s a permission to bet fee of five times the entry plus £20 admin, so another £70. There’s a further £15 daily sub payable to RDT, who provide the on course technology that links the bookies to each other and to the SP returning system. There’s wages for the daily workers, which are generally in the region of £100 per day per head. Ben’s own wages are taken care of as a salaried PAYE employee of the Johnson brand. All in all the expense of being there is in the region of £500 before a bet is struck.

In capital expenditure terms you need to also bear in mind the cost of the equipment, which works out at the thick end of ten grand per joint and the cost of buying the pitch in the first place, which at some courses would have been a substantial six figure investment. Having checked out the crowd, I have to say I’m not hopeful of the firm recouping too much of its outlay today. The energetic Ben is more upbeat though.

‘This is a typical Southwell Tuesday. It’s our absolute bread and butter a meeting like this. We might win, we might not. I’d be happy if we end the day a grand up. That would be a good day. It’s a nice course. There’s always a good atmosphere and lots of good banter. Some courses the bookies hardly say two words to each other but here we all know each other and there’s some good banter and good fun.’

So, down to business and with still fully twenty minutes to go before the first race, one of the bookies a few boards down is going up with prices. Karl shakes his head ruefully. Like many an experienced layer he knows that going up early leaves you vulnerable and also dilutes the period of action around the boards where bets are struck.

‘The longer you bet, the worse you bet’ agrees Ben but he sets to pricing up too as he doesn’t want to lose business to a rival. The pricing up process is the first lesson of the day for me. ‘You basically price up off the exchange’ explains Ben as he starts tapping in prices to the laptop which links to his board but also, crucially, links his book to the online betting exchange Betdaq.

I express some surprise that there’s no element of his own judgement involved in assessing the prices, that he’s content to go with the view of the exchange market. ‘I couldn’t tell you the name of a horse running here today. It’s not about that for me. It’s maths. Some people like to take a view. My old man thinks that‘s what it’s all about, having a view and being willing to take a risk and to gamble. He loves that. I look at the bottom line though and that way doesn’t make sense.

Ben Johnson, in ever present shades, crunches the numbers on course

‘I would love to bet to 3% per runner and play the game the old way but you can’t do it anymore. You can’t bet to two or three percent per runner and take money. You’re basically going as close to the exchange price as you can, without putting yourself out of business. In the old days, we’d bet with each other on course and the money would filter down. That doesn’t happen anymore, it’s very rare for us to bet with each other on course. This (Betdaq) is the backstop.’

It’s a backstop that creates a strangely level playing field on course and means that almost any bookie standing can lay almost any horse for any amount, provided he can get rid of as much of the bet as he likes on Betdaq. The days when what you stood depended on what kind of bankroll you had behind you are largely gone. The old ‘food chain’ from the rails, through the top positions, to the back rows, no longer works in the way it used to. It’s every man for himself out there and it’s about getting the money in. ‘I want to take every bet here today’ says Ben hungrily.

The influence of the exchange becomes clear almost as soon as the prices are up. Ben, bent over the laptop, is busy even though Mandy and Karl manning the front of the joint, are still currently idle and are yet to take a pound. Ben’s tweaking prices, keeping his book as competitive as possible (he’s betting to only around 115% on an 11 runner race) but also making sure he’s able to accommodate not just the £2 and £5 punters but those bigger players who might want a few hundred each way or a thousand to win. ‘We’re not like the high street, where they might say you can have fifty pounds sir. I want to take all those bets. I don’t ever want to turn away the five hundred pound or the thousand pound punter so you have to put up prices you’re happy to lay. That’s what we do.’

By now there’s only fifteen minutes to the scheduled off time and the first punters are beginning to filter out into the betting ring. It’s at that point that the on course wireless technology linking up all the bookmakers to each other, to the SP returner and of course the mother ship that is Betdaq, goes down.

Ben is totally unfazed but chuckles as he relates how such outages can send panic through some parts of the betting ring. ‘I heard a very funny story of a bookie at Cheltenham on Gold Cup day. He was betting in the Best Mate enclosure and it was packed. Anyway, his system packed up and he couldn’t link up to Betdaq, so he went home!’ Ben’s cracked up by the hapless bookie’s willingness to pass up what turned out to be one of the big earning days of the entire year, for want of an exchange facility. Karl, who is still very much part of that generation that knows how to make a book and lay a bet, looks properly disgusted at the tale.

No sooner has the anecdote been recounted though than the link is back up and running and we’re in business. Will we cover the day’s expenses? Will we show a profit on the day or will the punters clean us out? Find out in part two.

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