Bookmaker Barry Cook is just on the wrong side of 70. Old enough to have seen extraordinary changes in the way we bet.
But not so old in his thinking to have shunned new betting technology. Not too old to have embraced Betfair despite conceding a degree of ‘computer illiteracy’.
Amazing really for someone who first worked at the races before his teenage years. Before the Beatles had recorded their first song; before Tulloch had begun his illustrious racing career and 35 years before the advent of the World Wide Web.
A time when a five bob (50 cents) bet was the equivalent of at least ten dollars now on any general inflation index. About $50 if you equate it to the price of cigarettes.
The Changing Face of Technology
He’s lived through the two eras of horse racing and punting which might be loosely classed as pre and post portable computer age. There’s arguably been few industries revolutionised as much by the electronic, digital, internet age and in Barry’s case it was adapt or perish.
You know the stories of pre-computer punting. No videos; no official placings beyond the first three; no accurate margins; scant form guides. Good heavens, even the newspapers recorded the form by hand writing on A4 cardboard. Holy heck, jockeys could be declared (read switched) half an hour or less before a race.
Mind you, we were still bitten by the bug. More so if family was involved.
“My old man Rod and Uncle Laurie were bookmakers and I grew up knocking around racetracks,” Cook said.
And back then, the sophistication of punting, let alone dissemination of the form, was so far removed from the intricacy of Betfair it is almost unimaginable. Not for Cook, though. Like me, I hasten to add a little later, he lived it and remembers it well.
“There weren’t even bookmakers’ betting boards. Most bookies called the odds or some may have had the old chalk boards, like you saw in England. Scribbling the odds in chalk and wiping them off with a duster,” he said
This wasn’t at Royal Randwick but around Northern New South Wales – coastal and inland – from major meetings at Newcastle or the Grafton carnival or from Inverell to Glen Innes to the once-a-year Walcha Cup meeting which is where it really began for Cook.
He was 11 years old, good at arithmetic and dad had him taught to ‘pencil’. Cook senior’s clerk was ill and what else was there to do but drag young Barry out of school and have him record the bets, after being granted permission by the gruff old, bush stipe Norm McFarlane.
Having done some pencilling in my time, I’d have thought this would be quite a daunting task for an 11-year-old. It’s one thing to record 30 to 20 in the ledger; another to quickly figure out $2.50 each way the 15-4 chance (you probably bet them 4/1) and yet another to be on top of the total hold and the liability of each horse.
“I was bloody nervous but got through and I remember dad had a good winning day,’ he said. The die was cast – especially as his father managed to survive working Saturdays only apart from the odd midweek Cup meeting. “I recall that he seemed to play a lot of golf or bowls or go duck shooting quite often,” Cook said.
Another of young Cook’s tasks was, on a Monday, to cut out the local area race results which were published in the Northern Daily Leader and paste them in a book.
“That was about all the form you had and that wasn’t much. Often it would show first, second and third and just list the rest as others. No finishing order for the unplaced horses. There was no form in the race books which just listed the runners. A sharp memory was your greatest asset in knowing the form.
“It was hard to frame a market on local races, you just put up a market at a high percentage, hoped you weren’t too wrong with the likely favourite and felt your way,’ he said.
Working Up The Ladder
His first gig at Royal Randwick was on Boxing Day 1968, on the flat – the least desirable enclosure in the middle of the course. As an aside, there was quite a kerfuffle in the early 1900’s when a local councillor pushed for free admission to the flat.
The then AJC secretary Thomas Strettel Clibborn responded by saying he was happy to keep the ‘riffraff’ out. “There are only two classes of people who have any right on a racecourse; professional men, who are making their living, and those who are enjoying the sport and can pay for it. If a man cannot afford to pay a shilling he cannot afford the luxury of racing, and he would be much better employed earning money…’ Clibborn told the press.
Plenty of people went to the races on the ‘flat’ in all states. It was a time, through to the 1970’s when big crowds attended run-of-the-mill meetings which provided a great atmosphere and the opportunity for bookmakers to do exactly that – make a book, lay every horse with a percentage in their favour.
“I can’t recall how many were there that Boxing Day but at that time you might have had 30,000 plus at the races; 15,000 at the trots and eight to 10,000 at the dogs. I thought it was huge and it was but the older bookies were telling me ‘you got here too late, son, the games gone,’ he said.
That call was not wrong, just premature. “The game wasn’t quite gone then. Going to the trots on a Friday night was like going to the Easter Show. Flashing lights and big crowds,’ he said.
Cook recalls that the trots would have a winter recess and that the punters would be flocking to the gates when the racing resumed. Sounds like Hong Kong racing today. Might be a less-is-more lesson there for racing administrators
“I was there early enough to enjoy some good days. My staff were my mates and it was still that way through to the 80’s. The crowds were good and you could make a book but you still had to have your wits about you. There’s always clever punters and you had to know which punters to take on, which to avoid and which to sometimes follow,” he said.
At 28, Cook had managed to find his way to a coveted rails position in town. “I was the youngest bookie to get on to the rails,” he said, “but Terry Page was the one who got all the publicity.
“I gave Dominic Beirne his first job. He was pencilling for me at 18 before Page pinched him off me. Dominic was a mathematical whizz, his father Keith was a bookie and his brothers Paul and Greg were smart too. Greg worked for me as well.”
They were heady days with racetracks abuzz with punters. “I remember winning $4,000 in one day at Tamworth back in 1967 and that would have bought you a house in the country then.”
So, what went wrong? As the candidly risk averse Cook, who survived by making a traditional book and who’s still fielding, concedes he could well have given it away but for the advent of Betfair.
“There were several factors although the advent of the TAB wasn’t really one of them as the on-course tote was never that strong. Computerised betting boards were no advantage for bookies like me who had an arithmetic advantage. But really the end of it was TV coverage, Sky Channel…the punters, even the smarter ones, didn’t have to go any more. The smaller the crowd the fewer horses you’re going to lay,” he said.
So, what’s changed since? The answer is Betfair.
“Obviously the most important advantage with Betfair, for me, was that I could now lay horses which I couldn’t lay on track. Even though I had no idea about computers, it’s become my most important tool.
“Look it’s probably had one downside as well given that bookies now often have to push out to Betfair prices and in some cases, we might barely have a margin betting down to 102 or 103 percent but I wouldn’t go to the races without it (Betfair),” he said.
Cook says Betfair allows him to have more control over his business. “I can afford to take a bigger bet now, most of which you’d never get off at the races these days. You can bet overs the place, laying a short priced favourite to place at small risk and, as I said, you can lay the horses you can’t lay on course and 99 per cent of those you’re left with don’t win,” he said.
Cook says he’s a lousy punter but has one piece of advice for those taking him on. “Money finds the winners. I couldn’t pick a winner in a pink fit but good judges aren’t necessarily good bookies,’ he said.
On-course bookmakers remain an integral part of the racing experience according to Cook and Betfair has played a part in maintaining their viability. “I wouldn’t want to go the races without bookies. Bookies really add some atmosphere and are important part of that exciting race day experience which you hope encourages the next generation of punters,” he said.
Cook has loved his time in the game, from competing with SP bookmakers when their hold was so huge it depleted on-course turnover, to taking on smart punters like various members of the so-called Legal Eagles which included Don Scott, Michael McHugh (later a High Court Judge), Bob Charley (AJC Chairman) and Clive Evatt (barrister and NSW member of parliament).
“They (the Legal Eagles) were very smart. They’d price up a market to 80 per cent and bet strongly on the overs but I think the biggest bookies eventually figured them out,’ Cook said.