Real Life Bookies - Ken Campbell
What's it like to be an on-course greyhound bookmaker? Today on the blog Stephen tells us of the career of Ken Campbell, one of the longest serving on-course bookmakers in the business.
On December 29th 2012 a curtain came down on one of the longest careers in on-course bookmaking, as Oxford greyhound stadium closed and Ken Campbell stood down from his stool for the last time.
Well into his eighties now, Ken has been a stalwart of the greyhound scene since after the war, holding a license for over 50 years and plying his unique trade in all weathers in front of ever-dwindling crowds. Ken has bet at Reading, Aldershot, Slough and lastly Oxford stadium's in all this time, rarely missing a single meeting and building up a large clientele of regulars. He has never had another job and has managed to live off his wits and survive, even as the modern age has rather overtaken him.
The early years of bookmaking
I first met Ken when he stood in a line of around ten bookmakers at Reading dogs. Three times a week he would be there taking on the public with his very opinionated prices. He would very often not offer a price about the dog he wanted to keep on his side, and would play every race as a personal challenge with the large and knowledgeable public that went racing in those days. If he thought someone had got the better of him, he had a fiery temper and could explode at any moment.
Indeed I remember distinctly a brawl with a punter who had tried to claim he had backed a winner, when witnesses and a tape recording said otherwise. Ken was not someone afraid to stand their ground if he felt he was in the right, but was also extremely fair in dealing with his fellow colleagues and punters.
This was a time of high turnover, in a largely cash rich society where people were paid each week in cash in a brown envelope. The working man who went dog racing every night did not have to worry about direct debits, the taxman, or handing his wages over to his wife or girlfriend. It was a far more hedonistic society, no mobile phones or internet, and the shrewd bookmaker had a fairly captive audience to play into terms that he directly controlled.
The betting "market" was little more than a cartel, a club of fairly similar men who decided to limit competition and offer broadly similar prices to a public who had nowhere else to place their bets. This was a time of very high percentages in favour of the bookie, with frequently an overound of well over 130% and even the most limited of layers "played the game" and was capable of earning a decent living.
However, where Ken is different to the usual "old school" bookie is his total dedication to the game and his longevity over several decades of relying on his craft as a sole means of earning a living.
Ken has never lived the stereotypical life that people imagine a "wealthy" bookmaker leads. He still lives in the same tiny house in Reading where he grew up, has never had a flash car or gone on exotic holidays. His pleasure is very much in plying his craft, the craic and stories with the punters and staff who he has made lifelong friends with.
In more recent years, the rapid decline in turnover has hit the profitability of the on-course business very hard, with a massive drop in the numbers still licensed as on-course layers. Ever increasing costs of running the business at the same time has meant that for many of the older generation, the game itself has become little more than a hobby, a habit of being out the house and racing three or four times a week. There is very little money to be made at a deserted stadium midweek, or at the moribund BAGS fixtures that supply entertainment to the off-course betting industry, and the viability of being a pitch-holder has become non-existent.
Nonetheless, even as he has hit an age where most are reaching for a pipe and slippers, Ken is still out stood on the stool, calling the odds, cursing his luck and berating staff or punters who may cross him.
Betting next door to Ken was something of an experience for a young, inexperienced bookie setting out on a fast learning curve. Basically he had seen it all, the here today-gone tomorrow merchants who had failed to stay the trip.
His pet hate was bookmakers pulling on the prices - thus eroding the theoretical profit margin that everyone bet to. If I was to "pull" a favourite out to say 7-4 from Evens, he would loudly be muttering "Don't Push" under his breath, and if this dog would dare to win, there was liable to be something of a showdown after the race. "You got a wife and a mortgage sonny?" was a particular favourite (I hadn't at the time). "Well, when you (expletive) do, you will realise why you don't need to (expletive) rip the market to shreds every (expletive) race."
By the end of the meeting there were rarely any hard feelings, and Ken did have an excellent sense of humour, especially in his younger days when he used to be a regular at the bar between the races with his colleague and fellow old school bookmaker Derek Adey. Both were keen on a Scotch or six, and their banter could become x-rated towards the end of each night, especially if things were going well for both of them.
Another time when Ken's fiery Scottish temper did get the better of him was one of the strangest nights I have ever seen at the dogs. Basically there was an almighty gamble on the favourite for a middle grade six bend race, with one person going around the ring taking any price down from 2-1 into around 4-7. The dog in question was fully exposed, and while looking to hold decent claims, hardly looked the sort to be smashed into the ground with a welter of cash that must have been well over £10,000 in total (a lot of money on a wet Thursday on a lowly graded race). Anyway the dog stumbled at the start and immediately trailed the field by around 10 lengths with no chance of winning.
However,going into the fifth bend the hare stopped abruptly and the race was declared VOID and all bets returned (under the rules of racing). It was announced that an equipment malfunction had taken place, but obviously things looked very bad as it appeared some sort of conspiracy or collusion had taken place.
Ken, who had been stuck laying the favourite for much much more than his usual comfort zone, saw red straight away and stormed into the racing office basically swinging for anyone. Meanwhile the trainer who's dog was leading and seemed sure to win, had the hare driver by the throat up against a wall. All hell was let loose!
A few races later it had all calmed down and everyone reassured that it had been a mechanical failure and innocence was proved on all concerned, although the punter in question at the heart of the plunge was never seen at the track again and, looking back, it does seem very likely that a "risk free" gamble took place.
As well as being quite a hardened man, Ken was also very fair and was never slow to help out if any of his fellow bookmakers were in trouble. In the early days of starting out as a bookmaker, fresh from university into a world of hard nosed and experienced wily operators, he was always willing to offer advice of how to deal with an often hostile public and would leap to anyone’s defence if physical trouble ever looked likely.
This was one of the main reasons he has stayed the trip for so long, punters saw him very much as one of them, and had a grudging respect and affection for the old-boy. The closure of Oxford dogs after Christmas was truly see the end of an era.