By William Sagar


Internet gambling on horse-racing is growing faster than Malcolm Turnbull’s gallup poll rating. The old fashioned bookmaker epitomised by tweeds and an embossed money satchel  has been replaced by the digital age corporate equivalent. Turf accountants used to be private individuals with an unusual business that sat somewhere between sex work and interior decorating on the social scale. These days bookmakers are part of global gambling corporations like the Swedish giant, Ubet, whose Australian operations were acquired  by Melbourne’s Crown Resorts. The financing and development of this sport was originally made by on-course betting with your old fashioned bookie shouting the odds from his pitch. These days over twenty corporate bookmakers pay product royalties into the prize pool.


Prize money has grown so big, jockey Hugh Bowman earned a hundred thousand dollar purse for two winners on Cox Plate day that included the major prize. An opportunity to earn a celebrity athlete salary has wiped out corruption in the jockey ranks. Meanwhile horse racing is investigating itself over the use of mineral supplements involving the trace element Cobalt.


You know the authorities were getting warm recently when shots were fired into the front door of the chief steward’s house who pursues an occupation unpopular with horse-racing’s fringe criminal element. The gangsters pooped the publicity party for this years Melbourne Cup. Novelist Dick Francis earned a good living writing crime novels in the turf underworld. The recent assault on the family home of the sports chief umpire is living proof that we Melbournians have our own Dick Francis novel, more real than the impish goings-on of a rascally Irish groom called Twisted Paddy.


The truth is that modern biochemistry may have broken at least one doping racket and the criminals involved are reacting with their traditional use of violence.


A growth in prize money has also meant a parallel growth in the enforcement budget. Justice is done and being seen to be done as the media-savvy broadcast their own segment on the new dedicated digital horse-racing channel.


The local bookie has moved into cyberspace attracting a new generation of smart phone gamblers.”


Horse-racing has embraced the digital age. You can watch race replays on the dedicated channel    twenty four hours, seven days a week. A penny punter like myself can watch the days racing after hours without smuggling a transistor radio on my person. Horse-racing is now streamed live and free to mobiles and other devices. Racing has grown bigger, slicker and richer but it still can’t shake off it’s criminal fringe.


This years Melbourne Cup is a reflection of the globalised world we are living in. Depending on the outcome of the heats, over half the twenty four horse field will have commuted here for the occasion. These fly-in and fly-out equine rock stars now compete on a global circuit that crosses continents.


Like soccer; horse-racing attracts a different sized demographic. This is because the sport is   entirely financed by gambling. Off-track betting is illegal in many states of America so the local bookmaker is a low level mafiosa who pays his commission to a crime boss and not a horse racing club. Less revenue from off-track gambling means less prize money and a weaker gene pool of thoroughbreds. It is no coincidence that Japan, Ireland, England and France regularly contest the Melbourne Cup, because these racing industries are supported by chains of legal street corner betting shops. The local bookie has moved into cyberspace attracting a new generation of smart phone gamblers. This digital ring is almost an exact copy of the old odds auction that was once a feature of all race meetings. I remember attending a country race meeting in the seventies. There were so many bookies attending, the biggest betting turnover was the huge poker game in the train on the way home…


This something-for-nothing feeling is the central romantic delusion that fires up all once-a-year Melbourne Cup punters.”


These days the weekday and provincial betting ring has been reduced to a living museum of diehards who scrape a living from what remains of the on-course betting market. Live television and internet bookmaking have permanently altered participation in Australia’s oldest sport. By the time your winnings have reached you, the totalisator or bookmaker has already taken their percentage. This something-for-nothing feeling is the central romantic delusion that fires up all once-a-year Melbourne Cup punters. Harmless as a once a year blow out but deeply addictive for those who live for such feelings and become disconnected from daily life. Getting addicted to horse racing is one of the rarer forms of gambling as a disease but its hideously destructive because it tends educated employed males and their dependant families.


At the racetrack once, I met a former illegal bookie who had an airline pilot as a phone client. The pilot was a hundred thousand in debt before the bookie put him out of his misery and cut off his credit. Such people are addicted to winning and don’t care about making a profit. Come cup day, the likes of me will betting on your inexperience. You will take a place bet on a short priced favourite artificially lengthening the place odds on a less well known runner.


In making a careful place bet I am betting against the public rather than on a horse. This cynical interpretation of the Melbourne Cup makes a profit two years out of three. This year I may have already had my feast because my Caulfield Cup horse paid eight dollars for a place.


Beware of The Idiot Principle… horse racing  maybe  the Sport of Kings but its also the downfall of  peasants.



William Sagar is nobody. Second child of mister and missus nobody, a miserable and married couple, as any who tied the knot in the fifties and made a bargain based on the exchange of sex for food, shelter and a place in the world.

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