Bookmaking’s image has changed. Alongside the arrival of the betting exchanges, the evolution of the big names like Hills, Coral, Betfred and Ladbrokes into gaming operators rather than old-style bookmakers has seen the decline of the family firms where clients could be sure of the personal touch, total discretion and often half a point or so above the generally quoted odds. Most of the big firms have decided too that telephone betting is not for them, which is how I have (part accidentally) become — to Mrs Oakley’s surprise and potential alarm — a client of Fitzdares, a bespoke operation catering mostly for high-rollers and happy to be described as ‘the Annabel’s of bookmaking’.
I had an account with the Tote, which passed to Betfred when it purchased the nationwide pool-betting organisation promising a better service. That ‘better service’ included an abrupt declaration one morning when I called in with my mostly £5 and £10 wagers that it no longer accepted telephone bets. I then followed the shrewdest punter I know to Sunderlands, a Croydon-based family firm that had in 1998 acquired Laurie Wallis and in 1982 taken over T. Guntrip, whose 1882 foundation made it probably the oldest-established bookmakers in the country. Guntrips started by posting prices on trees in Hyde Park and sent the Derby results by pigeon.
Recently Sunderlands itself has been acquired by Fitzdares and with some old-fashioned companies on board Fitzdares seems to believe in some old-fashioned values too. Balthazar Fabricius, whose brainchild the company is, was brought up at Goodwood where father Rod was the longtime manager of the course for the Earl of March and his family. A coffee-time chat there with Balthazar and Simon Wallis, grandson of Laurie, offered welcome reminders of the bookmaking days when a gentleman’s word was his bond and personal service saw give and take on either side.
Laurie Wallis, who had started in his father’s gunsmith shop and who dressed like a country gentleman at the races, built a betting empire and had credit offices in a number of towns before betting shops were legalised. One client, Frank ‘Potato’ Dennis, was a Lincolnshire farmer. Because he spent all day out on his tractor he was allowed by Wallis to phone in his often hefty bets after racing was over. Such was the mutual trust that one day Potato Dennis came on the phone to say that he couldn’t have a bet that day because his trainer Jack Fawcus had already sent him a telegram congratulating him on their winner. He had been planning £1,000 each way at 10-1. When Dennis landed a long-priced Spring Double on the Lincoln and Grand National worth more than £500,000 in today’s money, he knew it would break Laurie Wallis if he insisted on instant payment. Instead he told him, ‘Pay me when you can.’
Then there was Joe Sunlight, a Manchester-based architect and developer who had left Novogrudok, Belarus, as the son of one Israel Schimschlavitch and who went on to become Liberal MP for Shrewsbury. Another high roller, at one stage he owed the bookmaker £20,000. Rather than a cheque he volunteered to send over the deeds of properties in London’s Brompton Road to be held until he paid.
At the other end of the scale, Simon recalls standing on the rails one day and being approached by a Chelsea Pensioner. ‘What price is the favourite?’ he asked. ‘It’s at 2–1,’ Simon replied. ‘But for you I’ll do 4–1.’ The uniformed veteran whipped out a £1,000 cash bundle and took the price on what proved to be a winner. There was one regular client who came on during Royal Ascot and inquired at considerable length about the prices of horses at Bangor-on-Dee. Eventually the odds-maker asked her: ‘Why on earth are you bothering with Bangor?’, only to be verbally floored by the response, ‘Young man, I own Bangor.’
Financially backed by Ben and Zac Goldsmith, Fitzdares has developed all the bells and whistles of a modern betting operation but Balthazar talks with conviction about the ‘pastoral care’ of clients. With an equally old-fashioned touch in days when betting odds are so desperately uniform he is happy to adopt the motto: ‘The turtle only makes progress when he sticks out his neck.’ That I like, and a head office on the Mayfair/Soho boundary seems appropriate for an outfit where both the romance of gambling and a pleasure in racing’s historic mix of clever operators on the make and discerning top-drawer punters seem to be reflected.
In his time Sir James Goldsmith, whose greatest contribution to racing was the breeding of Montjeu, used to bet with Sunderlands and nowadays my annual betting budget is roughly equal to the small section of my pension deriving from my time as assistant editor of his Now! magazine. It will be fun to see if I can take a little more off the family but I doubt if Balthazar will be allowing me to bet after races have been run.