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Bookmaking - A Journey Through Time

by Noel Hayes |  Published: Jul 01, 2008


Horse racing first originated as a leisure pursuit of royalty, through which local earls and lords could pass away their time; long, sunny afternoons on the heath, the best horse blood the respective lords had to offer, pitched against each other in a head-to-head battle for the bragging rights of a district.

For many years, horse racing as the leisure pursuit of royalty was the sport's primary driver. However, in recent years, the additional industries of bookmaking and bloodstock have soared to the point at which horse racing is now considered by many to be but a means to an end for the associated industries.

It is uncertain when exactly on-course bookmaking first developed. It is suggested that it has been around in some form since the get-go, with neighboring earls wagering livestock, peasants, and servants on the outcome of a horse race.

Over time, on-course bookmaking has become formalised and regulated by the levy board to take it where it is today -- a fully regulated ring in which full information is available to punters. Bookmakers must stand atop a pitch and display their prices to the punter, and they must also display their maximum liability, and the betting ring is monitored by a representative from the governing body.

Bookmaking takes place in an area of the racecourse colloquially and rather confusingly called "the ring." I say confusing, as it is in general a rectangular shape. There are two main types of bookmakers. There are rails bookies, who are known as the ones who will lay the big bets and stand to larger liabilities. These are the guys whom punters like JP McManus need to contact when they are looking to have a bet. Aside from the rails bookies, there are the front- and second-line bookmakers, who play a smaller yet still very important role in the activity of the ring.

Act of Change
In 1960, the Betting and Gaming Act in the UK legalised off-course bookmaking, and this act brought with it a most valuable add-on to the industry. Now, for the first time, punting on horse racing was available to people on the high street. Without doubt, this event has been marked down as the most significant step forward for the industry.

Of course, it's one thing to have a bookmaker shop on the high street, but it got even better when, in 1986, live television feeds were piped to the bookies' shops. Another major milestone had been reached, and punters were yet another step closer to enjoying the overall experience.

Over the course of time, evening racing also became mainstream in the summer months, and in 1993, when the government granted permission for bookie shops to open late into the evenings, it afforded bookmakers more time with which to wrestle a punter for his disposable income.

During all of this time, bookmaking and bookies' shops were developing from a dark and dingy back-street business to a highly reputable high-street trade, and quickly, some of the major bookmaking brands were becoming familiar sights alongside high-end fashion retailers. Comfy chairs, coffee machines, and luxurious comfort are now the standard for a high-street betting shop.

Old-school resistance to Sunday racing was the last bastion to outright infiltration of the sport into everyday society. When it was finally introduced, it was done with the absence of bookmakers. However, it was remarked that one could still place a bet were he willing to enter the gents toilets at the racecourse, where a not too discernable bookmaker would be plying his trade. Now that the Lord's day of rest has succumbed to the sport, it assures that racing will be available year-round, but for the scant exceptions of Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, and Good Friday. With all things, there is change, and this again looks certain in the future with the introduction of racing on Good Friday.

Tic Tac Doh!
Aside from the mechanisms used by bookmakers to carry out their trade (which was covered in a previous article; search the archives on for "The Art of Bookmaking"), one of the other most intriguing things about bookmaking is the activity seen in the on-course betting ring, and more specifically, the interaction between the bookmaker, his runners, and tic tac men.

If you were to stand in the middle of a racecourse betting ring and observe the flurry of activity around you and feel somewhat confused, you could certainly be forgiven. From the outside, a betting ring appears something of a cult circle, protected by secret code and hidden language. There is a sense of mystery about the communication between the bookmakers and their assistants that can leave even the less inquisitive among us scratching our heads.

There is the man standing atop an orange box, wearing pristine white gloves, and making loud movements with his hand; he is scratching his nose and tapping his shoulders. Is he swatting flies? No, he is sending messages to the bookmakers across the ring as to the latest prices on offer. He is known as the tic tac man, and his secret sign language is known colloquially as tic tac.

TV racing pundit John McCririck is the best-known user of tic tac, flamboyantly waving his hands like a maniac, while facing the camera and viewers for show. Each gesture of his hand sends another silent message to the bookmaker. For those who were once as confused as I was, the glossary below should help you along your way.

Aside from the tic tac men, we also have the louder constituents of the ring, the bookies' runners. In stark contrast to the silent gestures of the tic tac men, the runners will shout prices loudly in rhyming slang, their roar adding all the while to the increased sense of activity in the ring. They will also be seen running frantically around the ring, hedging liabilities with other bookmakers.

In addition to the above slang, there are also certain add-ons that are used to denote the exact price. Whilst bottle denotes 2/1, if a runner relays a price as being "bottle on," he means that the horse is 1/2. "On" denotes that a horse is trading at odd on and that the slang needs to be inverted.

Like every profession, the trade secrets are built in. Whilst this reference guide may never lead to you flapping your arms at the racecourse, it will hopefully have served to demystify the secret code of the art of bookmaking. Who knows? Maybe you will be one step closer to understanding John McCririck, however much others might suggest that this is an impossibility!