Bookmaker Anthony Doughty can be a hard man to pin down, given that he’s at the races almost every day. Around 230 times last year.
We make contact via the phone, now one of the tools of his trade, on various occasions through late June. We speak at some length as he drives to Ballarat on a Thursday where he’ll be just one of maybe half a dozen (bookies) there. Times have changed.
He’s cordial of course but initially there’s almost this sense that he’s thinking….’what do you want to know? I haven’t got much to tell.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. He’s got plenty to tell, drawing on more than 40 years’ experience as a bookmaker. He’s much more engaging than, perhaps, he thinks he is.
He tells sharp, amusing anecdotes which inform, entertain and quickly get to the point. Offers the odd pearl of wisdom.
In medieval times, I fancy he’d have been some mix of soothsayer, mathematician, magician, story teller and wise man.
THE TOUGH, EARLY DAYS
He remembers his first day fielding. It was at Sale in Gippsland with Doughty betting on the Melbourne races only as you’d had to earn the right to bet on the ‘locals’ as well.
“I was excited. Virtually the whole family was there…my mother, my grandmother. But I had a losing day. There was a very popular Gippsland horse called Brandy Balloon who was a prolific winner. The whole town wanted to back him and, of course, he won at Sandown,’ he said.
Things didn’t take an immediate turn for the better. “The following week I was on the other side of the state at Casterton and lost again. Did $200 on the hurdle just for a start.”
To put that in perspective, he’d been earning $60 a week as a clerk for a finance company before securing his licence at 21. “You couldn’t get a licence before 21. I had a full time job and worked Saturday and Saturday night and Monday and Thursday night for other bookies to save up enough to become a bookmaker in my own right,” he said.
He might have been questioning the wisdom of this decision after another early and unsuccessful trek to the races. This time it was Hanging Rock on New Year’s Day. “I was betting on Flemington. Roy Higgins rode five or six winners and every favourite won. I ran out of money and had to pack up and leave before the last. Dad drove and I was laying on the back seat of the car wondering what on earth I was doing,’ he said.
I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was amazing. The noise, the colour – to me it was like a stage show.
Indirectly, it was dad (Les) who’d set him on this path after introducing his son to a bookmaker after Anthony had insisted, following his first trip to the races, that he wanted a part-time job with a bookmaker.
“I was probably 16 and a friend of dad’s took me to Moonee Valley. Saw Crisp win the Hiskens (Steeplechase) and I was hooked from that day onwards. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was amazing. The noise, the colour – to me it was like a stage show. People all dressed up and money being thrown around and the crowd roaring for Crisp from the school,’ he said.
It might have been 1969 or 1970 as the legendary Crisp won the Hiskens in each of those years. It might have also been a shock for father Les. “Dad was in the rag trade and an honorary judge of Fashions on the Field but that was about it, for him, when it came to racing. I think I even had to leave the room when the races came on, on World Of Sport on a Sunday,’ he said. The young man from Glenroy was well and truly smitten.
Doughty concedes he struggled in the ‘first year or so’ of his bookmaking career. “The country (meetings) didn’t prove to be quite as easy as the city where I’d worked for others,’ he said.
A suspension came in 2015. “I was guilty of taking bets outside the bounds of my licence. It was my laziness. I could have applied to work from home… which I since have.” he said.
But he persevered and continues to do so despite the on-course shrinkage. “There might be 20 people in the ring today…I hope,’ he said of the midweek Ballarat fixture, ‘once upon a time they’d be ten deep and sixty of seventy bookies operating. I remember 45 or 50 bookies at the dogs on a Monday night.”
“I STILL ENJOY THE CHALLENGE”
So, what changed and why does he still go?
“I still enjoy the challenge and going to the races keeps me focused and disciplined. I don’t have to be there as these days we are permitted to work from home on the phone but better to be in the action and tuned in. I’d probably just be going to lunch otherwise,’ says Doughty who works, on average, at four to five meetings per week.
“These days only 10% of my hold would come from on-track but the irony is that, now, there’s probably more people than ever before watching the races, from all parts of the globe, even from a track like Ballarat,’ he said.
Doughty has always been an ‘opinion’ bookmakers who does the form. “I love it. It’s like sorting out a giant jigsaw puzzle every day. I do plenty of form but not so much to find the winner, that’s the punter’s job. I’m doing the form to frame a market and finds what’s over and undervalued.
“You’re dealing with so many other factors on both sides of the fence. Emotion, greed, stupidity, desperation and panic. It’s always volatile because of people’s behaviour. The important thing is keep the emotion out of it as much as you can.
“Overall, yes I’d say bookmaking’s been kind to me because I put the work in; not because I’m particularly clever. Input equal results,’ he said.
He also sees the value in having the right clients. “Bad debts themselves are not a problem as bookie’s say, it’s the size of them. Nobody wants a client who gets themselves into great financial difficulties,’ he said.
I recently found a copy of The Age from 1989 where I was quoted saying ‘one day nobody will come’. I didn’t want to be right but I was.
BETFAIR AND THE ON COURSE BOOKIE
Doughty says the advent of corporate bookmakers and Betfair have both been positive for the industry.
“The corporates highlighted the advantages of the fixed odds product which is what bookies like me have offered all our lives but without great recognition. Even the TAB offers fixed odds now.
“Betfair has been the most dramatic change in my time in the business. It is now the central market place and has harnessed a huge number of people together, many of whom would have once been in the racetrack market-place.
“The introduction of seven days a week racing and the advent of Sky Channel spelled doom for on-course activity. Now we simply have to accept the reality of dwindling crowds. I recently found a copy of The Age from 1989 where I was quoted saying ‘one day nobody will come’. I didn’t want to be right but I was.
“You had to go to the races in the old days. No television, no internet and no phone betting but the world has changed. The punter can stay at home and probably learn more about what’s going than being at the races.
“Now the hive of activity is Betfair. I suppose it’s the technological market place. I still want to go to the races, make my own assessments and trade accordingly. Buying long, selling short. We’re buying and selling money based on the outcome of a race. We are, in essence, turning over money and not people. There’s liquidity now via Betfair that allows me to hold a decent bet that allows me to arbitrage.
Doughty has seen it all, well quite a lot anyhow and hopes he/we haven’t seen the last of bookmakers.
There is some element of lament that, once, 80% of turnover was on track and that, nowadays, having an on-course ‘spot’ on the rails is not the big deal it once was. He’s also somewhat bemused that the so-called official prices now take no account of the on-course bookie’s prices. “Basically they’re an average of the corporates’ prices,’ he said.
But he maintains there’s a place for the on-course bookmaker based on his own business motto: “Service should be expected not hoped for.”
And his last word – perhaps more appropriate than ever in the era of Betfair. “The key to successful trading is not to maximise your profits, it is to minimise your losses.”