How much do bookies really know? How good is their grapevine? How come they always seem to know when a well-fancied horse is 'off'? How do they maintain an edge over the punter?

All these questions are asked on a regular basis throughout Australia for the simple reason that even in their years of financial decline the bookmakers still hold a powerful grip on the fortunes of Aussie horseracing. There may be fewer of them these days but betting figures continue to revolve around them, and basically flow from them.

It's the bookmakers' market which still dominates all betting. Tote prices reflect what happens in the betting rings at the major tracks. It's also true to say that bookmakers generate enormous sums of money for the tote, with small and big professionals taking the 'overs' on the machine.

But there are, as we all know, bookmakers and bookmakers. There are leaders and followers. So when we try to answer the question 'how much do bookies really know' we have to look at a small but significant group of bookies for the answer. They are the leaders of the pack.

To take but one example: Laurie Bricknell, the bookmaker who 'leads' the entire ring on Sydney and Melbourne racing at the Cold Coast meetings every Saturday. The Coast ring is one of the strongest in the country. Bricknell is probably the best-informed bookie in Australia.

Punters who bet at the Coast invariably look to Bricknell's board to guide the betting. If Bricknell opens a horse at a slightly shorter quote than its Sydney or Melbourne quote the inference is that he 'fancies' the horse m other words, he has gleaned good information and is not prepared to risk the horse too much.

In contrast, if Bricknell tends to offer a well-fancied horse at slightly bigger odds than it is being offered interstate, the warning bells ring. Why is he offering it at a generous price? The conclusion many punters draw is that Bricknell's amazing grapevine has informed him that there's a query on the horse.

Usually, this may reflect the fact that the horse has not galloped well, or simply that on form he is being overrated, or perhaps that he is not well-weighted. Whatever the reasons, the Bricknell prices are a good guide. He is an informed bookmaker.

How do bookies like Bricknell become so informed? It's all part of the great racing life. Contacts! Men you've been in the bookmaking business for decades you get to know a lot of people, well-informed people, and over the years a network builds up of information, whereby gossip and 'mail' is passed on.

The informed bookies do their homework by assiduously studying form, often with the help of sophisticated computers, or they get other informed people to do the studying for them, and present them with the fruits of that study.

Not all bookies are in the Bricknell mould. The smaller bookies will rely usually on their own 'home study' and they will catch the flow-on effect from those bookmakers who are in the 'informed' group. Everyone benefits.

The bookie's overall task is relatively simple. He sets his odds so that no matter which horse wins he will make a certain percentage profit. Of course, it's not as easy as it sounds anymore, especially in these days of small oncourse crowds, when often only a few horses are really bet by the punters, and where one big bet can crash your book for the day.

My pal Martin Dowling was at the Cold Coast recently when a friend of his had $5,000 on an 11 / 8 winner on the local races. That one bet made the bookie a loser on the day. The bookie just didn't have the losing bets to cover that one whopper.

I know a chap who used to clock the gallops at Flemington. He operated as a 'solo' agent and had nothing to do with the media. His clients included several of Melbourne and Sydney's biggest bookies.

"My job was not to pass on the actual times but just to inform them of the best trackworkers, those horses that were most likely to win and those most likely to lose," he told me. "I did it for years, and they used to pay me $100, sometimes $200, for each report, which I phoned through to them."

This man, back in the late 70s and early 80s, made more than a thousand dollars a week from providing this specialised information. Eventually, he gave it away when his health became so poor that he could no longer cope with the freezing Melbourne mornings!

But he was just one man among many who were a part of the bookies' information grapevine. Then there are the stable insiders, even trainers, who will inform certain bookmakers that horses can, or cannot, win. Each can benefit from passing on information like this.

Small-time punters with access to stable secrets can receive 'tips' from the bookies, or be given credit facilities to bet with them, and be offered small ‘overs'. Often, stablehands can be 'bought' with a dozen cans of beer.

The racing world is full of intrigue and gossip. Racing journalists are perhaps the worst gossipers. Many have friendships with bookmakers. The journalists have little compunction about revealing what they know about various horses - not that the majority of writers can lay claim to much inside information.

If there are rumours, they'll be the last to hear them. But they'll be the first to pass them on!

It's a fact in the 90s that many bookies to survive, have to become gambling bookmakers. This type of bookie make his book according to the chance h gives each horse in a race, rather than what the punters give it. It's a risky business but those who don't go bankrupt usually make a great deal more than the straight 'percentage' bookie.

Gambling bookies handle enormous sums of money. A couple of well-known ones back in the mid-70s were turning over $25 million to $30 million a year. If they got away with just 10 per cent profit that made them millionaires in a year's punting. There are bookies today who turn over vast sums of money.

A bookmaker who operates on a relatively small basis told me recently: "You have to learn to live by your wits, that's what it's all about. I do my form study and I go to the track as armed as I can be, but I'm the first to admit it's easy to get it wrong.

"These days, you not only have to be a brainy bookie, you have to be constantly on the alert for the cluey punters who use their computer software to come up with horses that your usual form study can't bring into contention.

"There are some punters who are well-known to me, and I am very wary when they get stuck into a certain horse. You have to take remedial action in these instances, just to cover your losses.

"The bookie game isn't what it used to be. It's getting harder and harder to make any real money. You have your good days but there are many days when all you do is cover costs. In the old days, the punters weren't so informed as they are today, and you got plenty of mug money.

"It's different these days. Quite often I won't lay a single bet against some of the outsiders in a race. All the money is concentrated on three or four horses, and it's difficult to lay them so that you can come out with a decent profit."

This particular bookmaker socialises with other bookmakers, so he does pick up the usual round of gossip and news. His friends also include stablehands, jockeys and trainers, as well as owners.

" It's amazing some of the rubbish you hear," he admits. "If I were to take notice of every bit of gossip I'd go broke, fair dinkum. You hear some extraordinary stories about dead 'uns and doping, and horses that are going to be hooked, all that sort of stuff, and 99 per cent of it is nonsense, but it's that other one per cent you have to try to sort out.

"On race mornings, I usually do a ring around of other bookmakers, just to see what they've come up with. A bookie mate of mine in Sydney sends me a fax with his prices and I compare these with my own, and those of other mates, and by the time I get to the track I have studied all these views, plus read the form guide again, so I'm pretty well clued up by the time the first race arrives."

One of Australia's best and biggest bookmakers spoke to me recently at a social function. I asked him what was the secret of his success and he replied: "A lot of luck, mate. I fly by the seat of my pants, I always have, and I just hope that I'm right and they're wrong.

"You use your racing knowledge, about horses and people, and you try to second-guess those trainers and owners you know you need to be wary of, and you look at the form, and you think about it, and then you go to work.

"I'd say 10 per cent of what I rely on is information from other sources, the other 90 per cent is my own opinion, it's what I am willing to risk my money on. In the end, that's what it all comes down to, your opinion against someone elses.

"You have to be right more times than you're wrong."

In summary, then, we have four types of bookmakers:

  1. The 'inside info' bookmaker, the leader of the ring, who pays for and receives the best information. His prices reflect his information. He bets fearlessly. He generally wins, and wins big.
  2. The 'gambling' bookie. He is much in the mould of the 'inside info' bookie - often they are one and the same - and he will risk heavily if he thinks a well-fancied horse cannot win. He also bets heavily with other bookies, and on the tote.
  3. The 'opinion' bookie. He bets according to his opinion but doesn't stray as far from the percentage man's approach to bookmaking as does the gambling bookmaker.
  4. The 'board' bookies. They open a book on a metropolitan race and adjust their odds on the basis of the price fluctuations in the capital city. They are the followers in the ring. You'll see them looking across at the 'big boys' when they frame their opening markets, looking for the lead as to what prices to post. They closely follow all fluctuations from interstate, or locally, and take few risks.

Do our bookies have a future? It's an issue we at PPM have written about for years and years, and each year that passes the future seems to become bleaker for bookmakers. Their fate lies with State governments. If the various governments are intent on eventually having an all-tote system, then bookies are doomed, no matter what.

But, fortunately, there has been a growing tide of pro-bookie sentiment stirring in the last 12 months and we are certain to see the bookies entering the political fray in a big way in future years in a last bid to reshape their future.

By Jon Hudson