Encouraging The Return Of The SP Bookie

There are some who can remember when you could walk up to a bookie and claim him for $500 to $100 about number 6 – and he would let you have it. Well, he had no choice really, as that was a condition of his license. In fact, some of them enjoyed the tussle with punters as they pitted their knowledge against yours.

Sometimes the bookie lost on the race, sometimes he won. But at the end of the day, or year, the good bookies came out on top. They knew what they were doing, they worked at the form and they understood the thousands of customers thronging the racecourse.

But all that is history, except at the bigger gallops meetings. The 1960s saw the arrival of the off-course TABs so patrons had no need to go to the track to have a bet. TABs became the new way of “providing a service to the industry”, as everybody put it, and so raceclubs and governments reaped the rewards of a new source of funding. Bet types increased in number and the industry flourished. TAB coverage, and then SKY coverage became the way to prosperity. Bookmaker numbers gradually fell, many gave the game away, while eventually a handful were so dismayed at the myriad of restrictions placed on their operations that they found their way to the Northern Territory to shop and deal directly with customers over the internet or phone line.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. To cut to the chase, racing now provides a service to the sector, feeding it events with monotonous regularity so it can make bigger and faster profits. Hence the multi- overseas takeovers of local corporate bookies, the TABs' expansion into the Fixed Odds business, and (in 's case) the establishment of in the NT to compete directly with the newcomers. Overseas-based operators are on the fringes, pinching business here and there but not paying their entrance fees.

In short, the industry has a tiger by the tail but the tiger is not very healthy.

Tote volumes are falling but, for the moment, are being replaced by betting diverted to Fixed Odds. In turn, the Fixed Odds trade has turned into a gigantic rip-off, featuring two major themes; the odds are terrible by comparison with normal tote figures (say books of 130% versus 117% on the tote); and then by manipulating the incoming bets so that successful punters have their bets reduced or refused.

We have quoted before in this column Tabcorp's instructions to its staff to carefully monitor what comes through; all with the apparent objective of ensuring it makes a profit on every race. The old-time bookie could only look on in amazement as they get away with that.

But it has got worse recently. Tabcorp is now telling its agents all over the country that if big punters venture into their offices they risk having their access shut down completely, not just for the big guy but for all punters seeking to use Fixed Odds bets. Over 100 agencies have already been affected. (For more comment on this story, see FairWageringAustralia.com.au).

If you have every wandered into a Tabcorp outlet and inserted a Fixed Odds ticket into the machine, you may have noted that it often takes quite a while for the bet to go through. It's not a slow computer doing that, but a delay while a checking process takes place to ensure that the bet is one that Tabcorp is prepared to accept. $20 may be fine; $500 would be another story.

While all this is going on, the standard tote pools are progressively declining, especially for greyhounds, helped also by the cash being split amongst an increasing number of races. There are no extra customers, just extra races.

So what does a greyhound punter do with a $200 bet? Or a bigger bet? If he puts it on the tote the odds will shorten appreciably – but to some unknown degree. If he tries Fixed Odds, he may well get knocked back and then run out of back to the tote.

Meanwhile, racing authorities are getting less bang for their buck as their cut of the Fixed Odds business is smaller than they would get from the same money on the tote.

The Fixed Odds trade has jumped remarkably from a zero base, although it may have run out of steam now. Still, it's over a quarter of all turnover.

What we are looking at is a wagering story in three parts; first, nearly three decades of continually rising turnover as TABs improved their product line; second, a big jump in the early 1990s as SKY put pictures into social clubs and lounge rooms; and third, a flattening out as the market matured, proportionally more mug punters arrived and betting operators scrambled around trying to get blood out of the stone.

Unfortunately, they are not doing that by skill and racing knowledge but by manhandling the traffic. They are no more than traffic cops on point duty. People who understand that will have gone elsewhere. Those that remain simply do not realise they are on the wrong end of financial skullduggery – at least by comparison with traditional betting principles, such as the one that says both parties should have a chance of winning. Given current Fixed Odds systems, there is no way an ordinary investor could win over time. While overcoming the traditional tote deductions is hard enough, those for Fixed Odds make it impossible unless the operator has made a mistake.

Currently, state governments legislate deductions for tote operations. Otherwise the operator can do pretty much what he likes. The fix is therefore for all states to implement controls over all wagering and to the same way everywhere. Do not leave holes that operators can drive trucks through.

Concurrently, to put some meatiness back into the market, the states should create a so that small meetings (which are the vast majority) offer customers a reasonable product to use.

The do-nothing alternative is to encourage fly-by-nights, overseas operators or SP bookies to increase their influence. That does nobody any good, especially not state Treasuries.

The racing industry survives only on wagering turnover, yet Tabcorp's latest action is specifically intended to reduce that turnover. How crazy can you get? And how unprofessional?

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