On the buses
Regulars on the Betfair football forum may recognise my name. It can be very lonely sitting on the computer all day, especially midweek, and I really enjoy the forum and the good banter you get there. I have also made some very good friends through the forum. One of the interesting things about the forum for me is the fact that behind every username there is someone with a story to tell, but for the vast majority, the story remains untold. I am pleased to take this opportunity to share my story with anyone who is interested – I hope that you enjoy it.
I am 56 years of age, married for 27 years with 2 daughters. One a lawyer the other an accountant - they take their brains from their mother. My interest in betting began at school where I started betting on the horses. Like most punters I lost more than I won, mostly because I took no interest in studying form, my technique for picking winners was betting on short priced favourites and following newspaper tipsters. Sad eh?
I left school at 16 and started as a civil servant in 1965 in Glasgow. In those days, you had to finish high up in the exam or else you were off to London. Fortunately, I got to stay in Scotland so maybe the girls did take their brains from me after all! After three years in the civil service, I met a friend of mine who was earning twice as much as me as a bus conductor. To my mother's dismay, I promptly left the Civil Service and became a bus conductor.
Part of the reason for my career change was I believed that if I could get hold of enough cash I could make a living from gambling. Being a bus conductor gave me the chance to earn decent money quickly. Six months later I had £800 in the kitty and the newly christened ‘Sporty' left for a new life as a professional gambler. Surprise, surprise eight weeks later I was back on the buses having blown the lot. Looking back I was very naïve, the poor value offered by the bookies combined with the 40% (yes 40%!) tax on football winnings left me no chance. Add to this the fact that the only football singles you could bet were on cup ties, and you will realise how exchange bettors today have never had it so good.
Sporty Bookmakers part 1
Undeterred, a year later in 1970 I had saved up an even bigger bank and I was ready to try again. This time, there was to be no return to the buses and I have never since worked for anyone else. I soon found out that a massive black economy existed in the bookmaking industry, and that it was possible to place football singles and more importantly tax-free bets if you struck up relationships with the right bookmaker. Also at this time, a good friend of mine suggested I get a bookmakers permit and become a bookie at the local greyhound flapping tracks. This was the start of Sporty Bookmakers – a trading name that was to last until I sold my betting shop in East Kilbride in 1986. My first stint at this flapping track lasted just a week, I had come out on top, but wasn't convinced it was for me.
However, six months later Falkirk dog track opened and I was there as a bookie from the start, combining this with my football punting. Was I successful as a bookmaker? To be truthful in the early days at the track I was happy on far too many occasions to lay the outsiders and keep the favourites to myself. I was a gambling bookmaker. I survived, but it really was a roller coaster experience. One week I would have £5,000 the next week I would have nothing.
Mount Vernon Flapping Track
It was around this time that an interesting opportunity arose. I was offered the chance to take on the lease of a local flapping track at Mount Vernon. It was very run down but the rent was cheap and the costs were low especially with my family helping out. A flapping track offers the lowest grade of greyhound racing. Most races were handicaps, with fancied dogs giving a head start to the others. A typical race would see traps 1 and 2 going off scratch with the other dogs getting between a 1-yard head start in trap 3 and an 8-yard head start in trap 6. The responsibility of handicapping fell on the shoulders of my staff and I and we had to contend with all sorts of scams from dodgy owners. It was common practise to enter the dogs at different tracks under different names. Other tricks included feeding the dogs before the race and giving them pills to stop them running well, either so the owners could bet on other dogs, or to get them a better handicap in a subsequent race, enabling them to pull off a coup.
We knew the owners who were most likely to try it on and did our best to counter them. We always made sure that untried dogs were not placed off a good mark. As handicappers, it was our role to make the races as competitive as possible and to do our best to prevent the owners from taking the bookies for a ride. After all, if the bookies were losing their money they might have chucked it in and without bookies we had no business.
We made some decent money from Mount Vernon, but at the end of two years worried by its increasingly dilapidated state, we walked away from it, leaving the landlords to run it, as nobody else wanted to.
Sporty Bookmakers part 2
Half way through the Mount Vernon adventure I bought my first betting shop in Glasgow. I gave this my best shot, but there were problems, notably its high rent and rates but also the fact that it needed a lot of work doing to bring it up to scratch. However, investing this money was out of the question as the shop was in a part of Glasgow which was the subject of ongoing talks for it to be demolished to make way for a new shopping centre and car park. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea. When the opportunity arose I was pleased to sell the shop to Mecca. I was, however, happy to hold on to a number of works pitches which had come with the shop. This worked on the basis that a bookie would have a number of agents collecting bets for him in each factory in exchange for a commission. Despite being perfectly legal, these pitches were in many ways a throwback to the old days of illegal bookmaking with every customer having an alias. Lisbon Lion, Lucky Jim, The Scout, Joe 67 and Paradise are some of the names that stick in my mind to this day.
It did become more difficult though when I sold the betting shop as I had no way of finding out the results without ringing up some bookie friends and asking them, but I couldn't do that too often without making a nuisance of myself. Eventually, Ceefax came along and solved the problem. The other issue was recording the bets, which came through by telephone – as many as 600 a day. When the first answerphone was invented it was a godsend, but you couldn't just buy one you had to hire it at a cost of £600 a year and take out a two-year contract! Despite all this the works pitches were very lucrative, particularly due to the number of doubles and trebles I used to take.
Sporty Bookmakers part 3
However, this side of the business went into decline as the factories in which they operated started to close down. The outlook was starting to look bleak, when I got a lucky break, a phone call out of the blue asking me if I would like to run a betting shop in East Kilbride. This was to be for a three month period due to the owners' illness but it eventually stretched out to four years. Unlike my previous betting shop, this one had prospects. It was struggling because the owner had alienated most of his customers due to his abrasive attitude and his open hostility to anyone who dared win. I set about trying to win these customers back and attracting new ones. I particularly targeted the Chinese community who were well known as big gamblers. It was possible to make great money from these guys but you also had to take big risks, as they had a habit of placing their large bets at the last minute giving you no chance to lay off your liabilities. One time one of my Chinese customers won the impressive sum of £2,500 when one of his accumulators came good at a competitor's shop. My staff thought I would be delighted to have escaped this loss. On the contrary, I was gutted that he had gone to the competition at all!
Having been happy to take a back seat, the owner of the shop took a keen interest again when Ladbrokes appeared on the scene offering big money for the shop. I had done very well out of it but I had concerns about the future of the business. I struggled to see where the future punters would come from, the next generation didn't seem to be coming through and I couldn't imagine who would be in the shop in ten years time. I and the shop owner came to an arrangement, Ladbrokes took over in January 1986 and I moved on. This was the end of the brief history of Sporty Bookmakers.
Sporty Race Nights
Fortunately, while I had been running the betting shop another string to my bow developed. My brother was organising a race night to raise funds for a charity he was involved in and he asked me to organise the betting side for him. The evening was a great success and I immediately saw a business opportunity. I made enquiries with the English company behind the event and in 1981 they made me their agent for Scotland, resulting in the launch of Sporty Race Nights.
The way a race night works is that you hire a set of films, normally eight horse races, each with eight runners. You bet on runners based on their number – there is no skill, it's just a bit of fun. It works on the basis of a tote, with half the money going to the organisers to pay their expenses and normally make a profit for charity. The rest of the money gets shared out between those people with a ticket for the winning horse. In addition, people could become a horse owner by buying a horse and a sponsor would put up a prize for the winner.
These events were excellent fund raisers and substantial sums could be made. As a business, it was slow to start, in 1982 we had 23 orders, but this gradually increased until by 1985 we were over the 400 mark despite the fact that I was only working on the project part-time. This was around the time that Ladbrokes bought the shop, so I decided to go full time.
To maximise the opportunity I needed my own films. I knew Jim McGrath the race commentator and was lucky enough to have his help with this surprisingly tricky task. I started by getting some races from Australia, then a few British races and then the New York Tracks sold us 80 races. We were flying. In 1989 we bought the English Company that I had been an agent for and the business went from strength to strength. In our best year throughout England and Scotland, we did over 5,000 events.
When I came out of the betting shop I started to go football matches again. As a young man, I had followed Celtic all over Scotland but this time, I started to go to lower division games as well. I would have a few quid on and then go to the match. This led me into a period of time where I became very hot indeed at Scottish football.
That wraps up the first part of my story – I hope you have enjoyed reading it. If you ever fancy a chat you can always find me on Betfair's soccer forum.
Next month. Sporty tells of the year that Forfar won the Scottish 3rd Division and he won £300,000.
Click to read Part 2
In memory of Jim who passes away in 2015. Thanks to Chris Miller a good friend of Jim's. Condolences to family and friends.
The gist of part 3
Sadly, there never was a part 3 - at least not in print.
The phone call took place as usual but Mike, who used to ghost-write the articles, started a new job down in London, I was finishing my degree at university, and the web server for the p2pbetting site changed hands leaving the site down for a while, so the newsletter didn't happen for the next six months and never really returned in the same depth afterwards.
However, I'm told part 3 was basically about Sporty making easy money on Betfair for a good few years until he eventually got stung by the Tottenham 3-4 Man City game in the FA Cup. Spurs were 3-0 up at half-time and the market obviously reflected that, but Sporty reacted quicker than anyone else to Joey Barton being sent off as the teams walked off at half time, which most people seemed unaware of until they came out of the second half.
By that time, Sporty had basically emptied his bank, both laying City and backing Tottenham, and the market soon enough reflected the fact he was sitting on cracking value, albeit backing at 1.01 or laying three-figure prices! As we know, City came back to win 4-3 and I have a hazy recollection of Sporty ringing me straight after the game.
I was pissed up in the pub and obviously over the moon, so I don't think I did much to help his state of mind at the time! I had no idea how much he had lost, it was only a few weeks later I realised it wasn't your average once-a-year kick in the bollocks - it was pretty severe!
Anyway, last I heard, he was working for Tony Bloom, passing on info about the Scottish footy and being paid a decent retainer that meant he could settle down, relax and take things easy a bit more. I remember him laughing and saying "I'm too old for all this now" when telling me about it, I'm not sure how soon afterwards it was but I think the Spurs-City thing certainly had a big impact and made him take stock.
I know he spent a lot of time in Tenerife after that as well, so I really hope he had some good times out there, sat back and enjoyed whatever he had built up over the years. He was a real gent, an absolute pleasure to have known, even though I only really knew him for about 4-5 years during the Betfair days.