Book is rapidly closing on the pulse of the racetrack

“The Australian bookmaker is not extinct, yet, but the vultures hover attracted by the portents of a dying race,” Harry Robinson wrote in the The Bookie Book in 1984.

These days the vultures have flown looking for easier pickings than the dried up bones of the diehards who remain.

Bygone era: Eric Conlon will be one of five bookmakers honoured at Rosehill on Saturday.Credit:Louise Kennerley

Bookmakers, the vibrant pulse of what was once a day at the races, are following tick-tackers – who with hand signals telegraphed prices to different enclosures – and emus, bottom feeders making a living out of lost betting tickets, into extinction.

Strength to the computer fingers to those who remain at Rosehill Gardens today where the rails betting ring, still a source of over-the-odds, is a ghost town compared to the once-vibrant marketplace.

However, on-course bookmakers past and present will be honoured in the Australian Turf Club’s inaugural Bookmaker Recognition Day, because of their contribution to the thoroughbred industry in New South Wales.

Five bookmakers with a combined experience of more than 260 years will be featured and races named after them. Eric Conlon, Maurice “Mick” Rolfe, Roger Hawke and Richard Hutt will be special guests.

Alas, there is an early scratching: 93-year-old Doug Carroll, the world’s oldest bookmaker, who has work commitments fielding out west.

Operating for 63 years Carroll, a former circulation manager of the Barrier Daily Truth after starting as a paper boy, will be the only bookmaker at Broken Hill trots for an attendance of between 400 and 500 depending on the weather.

Carroll is hardly just a home-town operator, travelling far and wide even extending to Darwin.

Longevity is linked with bookmakers. Bill Waterhouse, one of the biggest and certainly most controversial, being a January 22, 1922 foal, turns 97 on Tuesday when a statue will be unveiled.

Despite stints on the outer Waterhouse stood tall, betting on Sydney and Melbourne events, over the Australian turf for decades when the punting action was at the races.

Sure, there was a tad of SP, illegal off-course, in which he also dabbled.

But he had rivals matching in colour if not turnover. For instance Arthur Sing, who was first up with the prices to the chant and appearance resembling Hollywood’s Edward G Robinson (see Key Largo and The Cincinnati Kid): ‘‘Now punters, shoot me down.”

As Sing was operating until into his 80s we know was the casualty.

Mark Read, from Melbourne, was also verbose with great entertainment value but changed the face of fielding when he moved a corporate operation to the Northern Territory.

Perhaps Jack Shaw, going out when I was coming in, was regarded as “one of the last side show spruikers”, a scene stealer with his wit and panache yet maintained his attraction was “offering the top odds”.

“Digger” Lobb came from Queensland and uniformed his staff in long white coats. For the stand out effect? No, they didn’t have pockets.

Consider too the bookmaker contribution to racing revenue with turnover tax. When he retired Bruce McHugh, after a tilt with Kerry Packer, received a call from the Australian Jockey Club.

McHugh figured it would be an invite to a committee lunch. Hardly. He was asked when he was going to pay the turnover tax from the previous week of more than $1 million.

On-course bookmakers have been allowed to wither on a vine polluted by the corporates who offer losers everything but cyanide pills.

Yes, sit at home and play the horses by remote control but it just doesn’t match a day at the races for this dinosaur, and they are always enhanced by bookmakers.

Shopping for the best price and watching the fluctuations has been replaced by boozers in the betting ring. There was a time when they would have been bowled over by the traffic.

After studying the species Robinson in The Bookie Book was left with a vision: “…a day at the races looks remarkably like a religious ceremony, reaching for faith, rising emotion as the service begins, a pause for chant and music, rising until the climax comes with a sacrifice or a consecration.”

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