Bookmakers have always been synonymous with horse racing. They are as old as the industry itself. Their importance to the horse racing product of this country cannot be understated.

In monetary terms they provide substantial commercial turnover, and in a wagering environment that is predominantly man versus machine, they provide the human element to the betting industry.

Bookmakers, particularly in terms of on course attendance, contribute an undeniable degree of attractiveness and personality to racing. Recent times, however, have seen many bookmakers fall on hard times, there has been a serious decline in national numbers, the emergence of Internet, exchange betting and a changing preference from wagering customers has placed the bookmaking fraternity under enormous competitive pressures.

It would seem that for bookmakers to remain a viable entity in racing’s future may be largely contingent on the ability to reinvent themselves and simply provide the nation’s punters with a better product.

Melbourne bookmaker Graeme Sampieri has been setting the odds for punters for more than 40 years. He is one of the nation’s leading bookmakers and in 2003 formed Victoria’s first corporate bookmaking partnership with his son Mark, enabling a broader service of products to punters.

I asked Graeme a number of questions in regards to the current status and future direction of bookmakers in this country. To add a balance to the interview I have also engaged long time friend and regular PPM contributor Roman Kozlovski who has been trying to lighten bookmakers’ satchels for the same number of years to give a punter’s perspective to the questions asked.

Nationally, there has been a serious decline in bookmaking numbers over the years. Do you think that many bookmakers have contributed to their own demise by being too slow to react to technological and commercial challenge?

?G. SAMP: Probably, but I think most bookmakers of today still have the sole trader mentality which has worked well for them in the past. We still operate basically the same way as we did 40-50 years ago – get up on a stand and auction odds.

We do now have decimal computer boards which is only cosmetic and telephones which have been successful. Internet betting is in the pipeline. I feel a reduction in numbers was inevitable due more than anything else to the social direction racing has taken – attendance has diminished dramatically; the betting ring used to be a popular place to be? and now the betting ring is deserted and the few patrons who go seem content to just eat and drink.
Bookmakers’ odds today are really only a secondary market as the totes hold more money. The commercial challenge is interesting but you must remember that bookmakers have never had a level playing field in the products they can offer, e.g. it took years to get telephone betting and then with restrictions.

Only now are we being allowed to get Internet betting up when others, like corporates, have many years’ start. A bookmaker like myself is only licensed to bet at meetings I attend and consequently can’t possibly compete with 24/7 betting allowed to my competitors. To keep pace with today’s and future customers we will need the best available technology, changes to legislation and cross-state advertising restrictions lifted.

R. KOZ: Bookmakers,    generally, have only themselves to blame for their current demise. As a punter who was serious about getting the best odds in the late 1970’s early 80’s many times there was difficulty with “getting on” when there was a mad rush at a bookmaker’s stand.

As a low level $20-$40 punter I was often overlooked or even told “The price is gone” even though long term the extra payout to the book from say 5/2 to 9/4 really only amounted to cents. Even though I would say to the bookmaker “I was here in time” the gruff bad luck type answer eventually had me decide the time and effort wasn’t worth it as the bigger punters who bet in credit seemed to have precedence over myself as a cash paying customer.

I suspect many bookmakers went belly up because of amounts owed yet they never would have from me as I had cash. If you multiply myself many times over you have many punters also feeling what is the point of betting with bookmakers.

Bookmakers will cite many reasons of which some are quite valid but the bottom line is if you do not look after your cash customers your business will wither on the vine. In relation to the level playing field – they did not have it back then but lost the plot. TAB turnover was always higher but the bookmakers had big crowds on a regular basis. Not enough care was taken to keep them there.

Globally, there is more money wagered on soccer than horse racing. Is today’s bookmaker being forced to diversify into new fields (sports betting) to remain viable?

G. SAMP:? The short answer is yes. Horse racing is obviously not the popular medium it once was and as a consequence is only a minor player in the overall gambling scene.

The world major soccer betting is huge and will only get bigger as will sports betting in general but I fear there will be too many sports bookmakers in Australia and world wide and it will become too competitive and the costs involved with IT and betting 24/7 will affect its viability.

R. KOZ: Bookmakers will not survive betting just on horses, there are not enough punters going to the track these days.

More punters are gravitating to institutions like Betfair and Austote who offer lower percentage takeouts. Can bookmakers match these takeouts and remain viable?

G. SAMP: Bookmaking is a misnomer today. A risk manager is a more accurate description. Bookmakers obviously can’t match the Betfair commissions but the average Betfair player will get burnt.

The layers will give over the odds and unless they are very astute and selective will lose. The backer to be successful will probably have to make a punter’s book with over the odds horses to make a profit.

He will have to be very selective on events he decides to invest on because playing a continuous product will beat him. Bookmakers on course will still be able to offer competitive odds to serious punters. I don’t know enough about Austote to comment but I feel the traditional totes will in future have to reduce their percentage takes to maintain a market share. Now that Betfair is here to stay it may bring new money into the gaming cake. Integrity was never the issue; it was all about funding.

R. KOZ:? Bookmakers have no long term hope of matching Betfair and the like. Bookmakers can only offer competition to Betfair at the favourite’s end of the market. Anything longer than the 2nd favourite is longer on Betfair most times.

The punters of today who are serious with an ache to win know their percentages. If I were a bookmaker today the only way I would lay horses is to match Betfair or just a fraction under.

Do you think today’s punters are better placed to make a fist of it than their counterparts of 15-20 years ago?

G. SAMP: Yes. Past punters were more cavalier but the advancement of computer technology has given the serious horse player a huge advantage over their former counterparts.

Those who stay at home or in an office with every database at their fingertips will realise that sound horses are very predictable and by pooling resources with other punters are able to have state of the art info via replay comments, track bias, speed maps, expected race pace, weight and speed ratings, access stable info, jockey ability and tactics in real time. Synchronised betting on their fancies with bookmakers and totes will give them better margins for big bets.

R. KOZ: Today’s punters are streets ahead of past punters. The amount of information available is staggering and the knowledge is able to be tapped by the beginner via Internet forum groups where discussion on chances in a race is unparalleled.

Any punter who loses more than 2 or 3 per cent on their turnover is a dead set dill who has not utilised available resources. Sadly, for bookmakers the uninformed do not go to the racetrack to bet – they go to socialise. Those that bet are every bit as smart as bookmakers in doing the form if not smarter.

The only real advantage a racetrack bookie has is the availability of inside information and the ability to have someone look at the horses physically and try to assess any unusual behaviour of the horse.

Are bookmakers in tune with the modern punters’ needs? Many of today’s punters prefer to sit in front of PCs to assess betting options. Is enough being done to service this area?

G. SAMP:? Probably not. Punters in future will be influenced by new wagering technology platforms. Bookmakers will have access to these options or they will soon become a museum piece. The advancement in technology is fast making phone betting obsolete and we will probably only survive by moving into Internet activity and new products.

It will be only the bigger operators with critical financial mass who will be able to take advantage of this technology and then have the ability to make it a viable business.

R. KOZ:? Most bookmakers these days at city tracks are all too aware of the need to incorporate technology into their business but it is as Graeme says: “Only the bigger operators will be able to take advantage…” The rest will just fade as their on track expenses will not be compensated by profit.

One only has to remember the furore over using decimal odds. The bookmakers with vision saw the writing on the wall as the new punter was decimalised from birth yet the old fuddy duddys living in the past still wanted odds like 13/8 or 11/8 which was meaningless to younger punters. Its all too late now.

With the advent of internet betting and betting exchanges, what are bookmakers doing to ensure they receive adequate share of the gambling dollar?

G. SAMP: Victoria is launching Internet betting at the present time but I feel the model is light years behind the corporate models which have been offering this service for some time. Keeping up with IT is very expensive.

Our own markets are too small so you will have to be competing in the world market to prosper. There is a move to take wagering on Australian racing to the world but there must be some reservations that our product or sheer volume of it will be successful. The perfect model for this is Hong Kong and apart from our big carnivals you would have to agree that our racing is ordinary.

R. KOZ: As Graeme says, with the exception of carnivals our racing has become extremely mundane, repetitive and just plain old boring. Sunday Cups racing has breathed life into country venues but that is about all. 

What products could bookmakers be offering punters in say 10 years time?

G. SAMP: 10 years! I am not sure there will be any bookmakers. Racing in its present form may be dead in the water.

Technology based casino horse racing products will have advanced to the point that there will be sophisticated horse racing gaming products on a screen that may become the preferred option to the 2016 punter.

There has been a natural decline in attendance and betting at dogs, trots, country racing, metro midweek racing, metro Sunday and night racing meetings. Finally, it is affecting Saturday meetings. We could even have wagering off track. Racing could be run under stewards’ supervision with no public attendance.

I’m sure some meetings would be cost effective run in this manner today. I believe the racing product we see today is lacking quality at the top end, with too many non-competitive small fields. It susceptible to an overkill of the product. It has too much of everything, horses, tracks, administration, trainers, jockeys, bookmakers, etc, etc.

Also, the cost of horses and training is prohibitive and there is an inequality with clubs and a disparity with stake money in different states. Funding the industry will eventually become a huge problem, particularly in Victoria which has a huge reliance on poker machine money. Where is the punter of the future coming from…?

When I look about me today our regular course patrons are 60 years plus. Bookmakers will not survive with the products we are allowed to use today. The totes have already moved into fixed odds betting. It seems to me that punters are complacent when shopping for odds. I am amazed that tote punters will take even money a horse that bookmakers are offering 2/1 or take 5/1 when bookmakers are offering 8/1.

Likewise, of course, when bookmakers have a horse at 33/1 why would they take that when the tote is offering 50/1. For example, I worked a midweek meet at Sandown recently and in three races, I had 60 – 70 per cent of my displayed market over the official market call or tote odds and held exactly zero dollars on the three races. Soul destroying.

R. KOZ: ? In 10 years I predict there will just be half a dozen on course bookmakers on Saturdays who will be corporate based thus with many dollars behind them and you will have to search to find them.

They will bet only at significant meetings and when not at the track display their odds via the Internet. The punter of the future will sit at home or in a TAB and use hand held computers to place bets with whoever is offering the best odds which most times will be betting exchanges.

You already have websites that list several services (exchanges, bookmakers) and their odds on one screen. Only the really smart will survive as bookmakers.

How extensively do bookmakers do form? Do they employ teams of analysts and use databases and all available tools at their disposal?

G. SAMP: I would guess most bookmakers don’t do much form. Most have other business interests which occupy most of their time. 10 per cent would probably do form seriously for Victorian metro meetings.

With seven day racing the sheer volume of work involved makes form a Herculean task. For a sole trader or small partnership, the cost of employing analysts and updating databases is prohibitive in relation to the money held.

I would suggest that some of the corporates with large holdings and betting on multi venue meetings would be using all available information to their advantage when trading. On the other hand, I have no doubt that the serious punters are pooling their resources, refining their betting methods and are able to alter their raceday betting to suit on track conditions, i.e., track bias, fitness etc as horses are presented in the yard. They have a distinct advantage over the modern day bookmaker.

R. KOZ: Bookmakers will only survive if they do the form properly which is as the punters do that are serious with their betting.

They will make money if they only bet at selected meetings as they will have time to do form for the more exposed better class runners. If I were a bookmaker in Victoria I would only operate ON TRACK from mid January to mid March and mid August to the end of November: the rest of the time is a waste of both time and money.

Naturally bookmakers in other states would have different dates but the key is to only work in your state when the carnivals are on. If they allow race clubs to dictate that they must bet all year round only a few will survive.
What type of punter strikes fear into the heart of the bookmaker?

G. SAMP:? Obviously, it would be the bigger punters but only if you know they are well-mailed, inclined to bet late and up the ante as the day goes on. It makes the bookmaker’s job a lot easier if you establish a ceiling with the size of the bet and their bets are level staked.

A punter having a large bet in Brisbane, for example when the bookmaker is working in Victoria and concentrating on Melbourne events, can be a nightmare as in most cases it may be the only bet he takes on in the interstate race. If a bookmaker allows the big punter to control his business, it may be a recipe for disaster. Late telephone betting is usually on the right horse.

What advice could you give to the average punter that would enhance their chances of winning?

G. SAMP: Don’t bet on every race or try to be too selective. They should pick out value races (wider betting) and back 1,2 or 3 horses straight out. Perhaps saving on the shorter priced runners and consequently having a good win on the longer priced runner when successful. Each way betting can be a trap as it destroys the odds when the horses win. They should look for the obvious, particularly on pace runners.

With limited banks, the social and casual punter should entertain the quinella, daily double and quadrella only as exotic bets. Forget trifectas, pick fours and mystery type bets – you get close but rarely win and they will drive you mad! Of course, bet only what you can afford, bet up when you are winning and don’t chase your losses at the other end of the scale.

Some days you will be out of form – walk away until next week. Concentrate on good and heavy tracks as anything in between can be a nightmare. Always be prepared to forgive a horse one run and respect trainers who can put a picket fence on their horse’s form. With the sheer volume of races these days, don’t be frightened to take advice from respected form analysts.

R. KOZ: These days I prefer to bet in front of the computer as opposed to going to the track. With Internet betting I know in most cases I am getting better odds than at the track.? My son is 24 and punts on Betfair.

?It suits him and he realises the difference in odds at 105 per cent against 115 per cent at the racetrack, this seems to illustrate a direction that most young punters are heading these days. I find our racing product these days is suffering from overkill and apart from certain times has become mundane and boring.

To overcome this I am now concentrating on Perth racing and carnivals only. Perth provides a manageable pool of horses while the carnival horses are usually well known and are also manageable. Outside the carnivals in the eastern states I say forget it!!

Summing up the comments from Graeme and Roman: Hopefully the bookmaking fraternity will endure the hard times and remain an integral part of our racing industry. The industry would certainly be much poorer should they ever disappear from our tracks. Their future viability looks entirely contingent on their capacity to adapt to change and be receptive to provision of competitive products and punters’ needs.

As punters in a tough environment we certainly need all the wagering platforms available to facilitate our betting needs.

By Ken Blake