Friday, May 10, 2013

You bet - lamenting the death of the hand-scrawled bookie's ticket

As I mentioned in an earlier post this month I had a day at the races last week. Like just about every other industry you can name, technology has changed the experience.

Yes, there are still horses ridden by jockeys, but consider the humble betting ticket.

I like to bet with bookies. You know exactly what you are going to receive should your horse win. A sudden plunge on Grey Shrdlu may see his price come in from 6/1 to 3/1, but if you've bet with Bill Bloggs and not the tote (totalisator) at 6/1, 6/1 is what you'll get.

Not that 6/1 is mentioned any more. Nope, the elegant litany of the bookies rails has been decimalised. No longer do their boards show lovely and ancient odds such as 5/2 or 7/4, they show the dollar value of what you'll get should you wager a dollar and your neddy be first past the post. Just like the tote.

I think this is to make it easier for people to compare bookies' prices with tote prices. The tote has always shown dollar values, at least in my memory. (Which can be unreliable!!)

The bookies' boards, at least in Sydney, are now computerised, too. No more dramatic twiddling of the knobs to set the odds; the bookies' clerk taps into a computer and the odds change with no frill or fanfare.

Which means the tickets are now computerised, too. This is an example of a bookies' ticket in 2013:

It's very clear. You can see which horse, which race, what you bet and how much you get. Only Paximadia was an also ran and I got nothing :-).

But this is the bookie's ticket that I love and remember from racing days in the past:

Delighfully incomprehensible, isn't it? I have no idea of the date, which horse and which race. It's scrawled in crayon and it appears I got 17/1, I think - I'm not good at deciphering the bookie code. I suspect this dates back to the 1990s; I found it stuck in the leather racebook cover I bought in about 1991.

Just like a mother sheep and her lamb recognise each other in a field full of sheep, the bookie could look at this ticket and know exactly how much to pay you. (Tip: it's numbered. The bookie has a clerk with a ledger that has every bet in it.) Most of the time the bookie didn't even ask the clerk however - he just told you the amount from looking at this scrawl. It was rather mystical.

The advent of huge TV screens has changed the experience too. I think I was the only person at Hawkesbury with a pair of binoculars! There was a massive screen set bang in the middle of the infield behind the old winning post.
However, I do like to watch the actual horses myself. If I want to see a race on a TV screen I'll stay at home.

We all take our mobile phones for granted - and we take them everywhere! Phones used to be banned on racecourses until recent years. There wasn't even a public phone on a racecourse. This was to combat the evil scourge of the SP (starting price) bookie, another colourful part of Australia's wonderful horse racing past that has gone forever. SP bookies would operate illegally off course, in backyards and pubs, offering starting price (i.e. tote) odds. For the uninitiated, starting price odds are the odds payable when the gates open and the horses are racing, at which time bets are no longer accepted.

Some of these operations were huge and sophisticated, and linked to major crime syndicates - not a good thing. The small operations run by a bloke in the corner of the pub have a friendly feel about them though; one bloke operating outside the law and making a bit on the side, as well as providing a service to people who couldn't get to the course to place a bet. 

The advent of the NSW Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) off course betting shops in 1964 slowly killed off the SP bookie in NSW, and internet betting saw it well dead and buried. 

These days at the races you'll see people checking their laptops, tablets and phones for odds or placing a bet online (online, when you're at a racecourse. Go figure.). My, how things have changed.

I suspect that at country races the old-fashioned bookie's ticket still exists; next time I'm in a country town and it's race day, I'm going to find out.

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