The betting ring – the former hub of life on a racetrack

April 24, 2019 | By More

The days of the betting ring being an integral part of activities on a metropolitan racetrack are long gone. They are now merely a token gesture on the part of raceclubs to entertain those beholden to the past.

To stand “on the rails” at Sydney racetracks was an honour bestowed only on the best bookmakers, who turn over millions on course annually. Today however, most bets are made online with major global corporations employing thousands of staff. Face-to-face interaction in the betting ring, the ultimate battleground between bookie and punter, is no longer relevant in horse racing.

Pulsating activity in the betting ring

As a child, I loved standing in the betting ring, with a crowd of largely working class blokes, strategising over their bets in the next race.

The comforting smell of cigarette smoke, overflowing beer, standing on a carpet of used betting tickets and crinkled form guides. Strangely, I collected the betting tickets off the ground, thinking I would later go home and run a make-believe betting shop in my bedroom, which I never did. Or thinking that one of these cardboard tickets may still be alive.

I’d listen intently to the bookies, the bagmen, pencillors, runners, and of course the punters. Gobsmacked at the notes passing hands, a lobster ($20) on this horse or a pineapple ($50) on that. I’d see the bookmaker wind down the odds and lengthen a few others, doing complicated maths in his head, performed nowadays only by computers. What in heaven’s name is the payout for a $50 bet at 13/8 ?

I was determined to familiarise myself with the fractions, to be so well versed that I never needed to convert to decimals. To know that 11/4 was a mere fraction longer than 5/2. The bookies knew these numbers like a child counts from 1 to 10. No conversions, you just knew it.

There was no time to think when a punter is putting a few hundred on at 13/8. You need to act quickly and wind it in to 6/4 or you’ll do serious cash.

My job as a bookie’s runner

I took a job as a runner once. For an old friend, who ended up trashing his entire redundancy package on a failed career as a bookmaker. My reputation as a horse racing expert preceded me, but in reality I was a novice in the bookies ring. It’s a different game in there.

I was young, only 14 or so, with a lot on my mind. Can’t even remember where it was? North-west of Melbourne somewhere, Maryborough or Bendigo. My job was to constantly scan the ring for market moves, and report back to our guy as soon as I notice a plunge happening. This was real life in the betting ring, in those days.

I felt out of my league, but it was exciting nonetheless. I saw a few things, reported on them, but I don’t know if I saved anyone’s house. Still, the pay was much appreciated and many lessons learned, I guess.

The betting ring bows to new technology

It’s a pity those days are gone. Most bets are transacted online, via a smart phone in your pocket, or sitting in front of a laptop at your desk next to the ironing board and a bunch of clothes draped across “airers”.

New types of betting rings are proving a hit with on-course punters so there is still hope. These punters have smartphones, check racing tips and best bets, but choose to enjoy the battle in person.

It’s a pity though, that the smells, textures and the ticket-laden ground underfoot will never again be experienced. To stand in the ring, scribbling on the form guide with your own peculiar short-hand, noting the fluctuating odds, listening as the bets are made. How long will I wait? Have I missed it? Surely it will ease. The race is near, some punters done and already leaving. I notice one bookie winding it out. Some remaining punters pounce. It comes back in. 

Patience, the anticipation and the mental fortitude necessary to wait for the drift. Only temporary but time enough to swoop like it was the last chip on Williamstown beach.

Horses in the mounting yard. The price is not moving so I take it and get out.

Not done yet, there is still the joy of seeing your horse backed in on the Totalisator Board. The semaphore announces a betting plunge. Knowing you got in early is almost as good as winning!

The thrill and excitement of betting on horse racing is like no other.

Perhaps not again will we sense such experience on a racetrack. Even in real life. A one-on-one battle, punter against bookie. Man versus himself.

Resilience. Unwavering. Determined. Focused. You learn pain, disappointment, anguish but also real joy. Unadulterated and innermost joy.

The betting ring. It was life, never forgotten.

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Mayor of Thoroughbred Village

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