Real Life Bookies - Lennie Service

Do bookies ever fail? How do bookies go out of business? Today on the blog Stephen tells us the story of Lennie Service, a bookie who bit off far more than he could chew and paid the consequences.

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This profile is must reading for anyone who believes the age old adage that you never see a poor bookmaker or that the layer always wins. It simply is not true, many fall by the wayside and go bust leaving behind a trail of anger and disappointment.

A Golden Era On-Course

When I first met LS in the 1990s he was a fairly big player at a dog track in the South, making a book on the end of the line of eight layers, but where often all the action in the betting ring was focussed on. He had a reputation for standing fairly big bets and being willing to take the entire track on if he was "holding" at the time.

LS spent no time studying videos or pricing up the card, rather he relied on the jaundiced views of a a few staff and punters who he chatted to at the bar. The amount he "stood" dogs for largely depended on what got thrown at him, there was no great strategy or thought of trying to make a book, just a willingness to stand individual runners for far too much proportionate to his pocket, or the position of the book.

This was effectively gambling, albeit with around 130% on the board so you could argue that the odds were in his favour. However, very often in dog racing the outsiders are vastly under-priced, and the clued up regulars who frequent the sport on a freezing winter's evening are usually far more knowledgeable of the form than the lazy layers who stood in front of them.

Even at a time when turnover was huge on-course this was a disastrous long term strategy. The successful bookmakers were more patient, balanced their books each race and never had too large a liability on any one race. They ground out a profit month after month by playing to figures and occasionally standing a dog when they felt the terms were in their favour. LS on the other hand blasted away race after race, craving action and big bets, knocking out the price of fancied runners until he was accommodated by a deluge of cash.

That he lasted around a decade doing this is testament to how good the business used to be in the pre-internet, cash betting age on-course. He also had a range of different partners down the years "putting in" and frequently borrowed from fellow layers. Also strategies to get cash in each night were not unusual. Frequently he would offer a big price on a Tuesday about the odds-on favourite for the big match at the weekend i.e Arsenal at Evens to beat Reading at home (true price perhaps 1-2) and fill the hod up with the locals cash seizing on the value. He could then operate for the entire Tuesday, Thursday meetings and hope to win to be able to pay the punters on Saturday night should Arsenal oblige. In a way the whole idea was a giant "Ponzi" scheme destined to fail.

The Slide and Decline

Looking back it was obvious that this method of being a bookmaker was destined to fail, and as turnover began to plummet in the late 1990s it caused a rapid crash. Basically when recession bit, the spare cash floating around in the economy dried up and the money bet on course was no longer "mug money" betting for an interest, but warm shrewd cash placed by regular winners.

It was no longer possible to field thousands on every race, but only when the public "knew" something and the price offered was far too big. The theoretical 130 per cent margin that the layers operated too became largely redundant as they were often only able to lay one runner a race. LS began to get further and further behind with his creditors and got involved with the "wrong" people away from the track itself as he attempted to sustain the business that he loved doing (he was in no way a conman and away from betting a genuinely nice person). A downward spiral began which ended messily on the biggest night of the year.

A Messy Ending

The Reading Masters was a massive competition, second only to the Greyhound Derby in terms of value and attracted big crowds and hefty bets on the best open-race dogs in the country. LS smashed away on all the heats, but the results were poor that year and come final night he was deeply in trouble with a bookmaker from another track that he had borrowed the money off.

This layer turned up on the final night and seized the pitch that LS operated from in a bid to try and win back what he was owed....and LS was effectively removed from the stadium (but not before he had tapped the fish and eel man for £400 quid on the way out! "see you at the next meeting".)

It was an inevitable ending but a dramatic one nonetheless, played out in front of a packed grandstand of punters (many of whom wanted paying out on ante-post bets they had placed with LS on the Reading Masters itself). The fellow stadium layers honoured all the outstanding bets amongst themselves and peace was eventually restored to the betting ring.

Concluding Thoughts

The notion that you never see a poor bookmaker may have been true in the golden age when there was plenty of mug cash flying about on-course, but the truth is often very different. Lives have often been ruined by failed layers, who often drag down many others with them when they finally go pop. Very often this demise is caused by an "action junkie" mentality where the bookmaker needs to stand big bets to get a buzz.

The long standing, profit-making layers that have stood the test of time, tend to have a calm laid back approach, running a tight disciplined business. They stand bets that suit them,not what is dictated to them by the crowd, and pick their punches with judgement as to when the odds are in their favour. A theoretical margin of 130% is no guarantee at all of making a profit,and the best judges are those that have done the work and formed an opinion of the real prices/chances of the runners they are betting on.

In the modern age where these "margins" are usually much smaller, the lot of the turnover starved on-course bookmaker is a much harder one, with ever rising expenses causing the massive recent decline in their numbers.