Bookmakers have been an integral part of Australian horse racing almost since its inception. In the early years of Australian racing, on course bookmakers were the only legal form of gambling on racing.
The bookmaker frames a market by giving odds on every horse in the race. Gamblers then bet on their selection to win or place. In many instances, the aim of the bookmaker is to frame a market and take wagers that ensure that they will win irrespective of the result of the race. This is achieved by “laying off” which is a term for a bookmaker betting on a horse with another bookmaker, or the TAB, to reduce his liability should it win.
A Government licence is required for a bookmaker to field on a racetrack. Often punters who could not get to a horse race meeting would bet with illegal bookmakers, known as SP bookmakers. SP stood for starting price, and they would offer the official starting odds of a runner. Because these were often not known until well after the race meeting was finished, SP bookmakers would usually have a settling day, when all punters would come and settle their bets and the winning ones receive their payouts.
During the 1950’s, the Australian governments were losing their battle against illegal bookmakers, and the introduction of live radio coverage of horse racing was making it easier for the SP’s. The totalisator was introduced at this time to combat the Government’s loss of taxation and licensing revenue. It had an immediate impact on turnover, and was the one of many challenges facing modern bookmakers.
Technology has played a large role in the development of the bookmaker. Just as the introduction of live radio coverage was critical in the rise of SP bookmakers, so too have other innovations impacted their trade. The development of computer technology allowing for the growth of the TAB has been a major challenge to the bookmaker. The advent of mobile telephones led to on course bookmakers being allowed to take telephone bets which have become a critical part of their business. Similarly, the growth of the internet has created another challenge. Centrebet, in 1993, became the first Australian company to gain a sports betting licence, and later became the first to create an online presence.
The Waterhouse family is synonymous with bookmaking in Australia. Patriarch, Bill Waterhouse is legendary for his duels with some of the biggest gamblers of the Australian turf. His son Robbie became a renowned bookmaker in his own right, before suffering the ignominy of being tied up with the Fine Cotton ring in, and being barred from racetracks for some time. In turn, his son Tom has taken up the mantle and he is now one of the leading on track bookmakers in the country, and a fourth generation bookmaker from this family.
In 2009, a total of $702 million was wagered on course with bookmakers. A little over $718 million bet with on course bookmakers over the telephone. A total of $3.8 billion was wagered with off course bookmakers in the same period. In comparison, a total of almost $10 billion was bet on the TAB for 2008/09. Bookmakers in Australia will continue to face challenges. Their presence on our racetracks though is part of our racing culture, and the profession is intertwined with the wonderful history of the sport.