Real Life Bookies - Johnny "Lights" Herndall

What is the life of a bookie like? Today on the blog we begin the with the first post in a new series, as Stephen shares with us the lives of bookies both past and present.

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During my time as an on-course bookmaker I met many different types of bookmaker, with different tactics, attitudes and personalities. Their lives were completely reliant on the success of their business and a profile of them can certainly help any punter with an understanding of the mindset of the "old enemy".

Johnny "Lights" Herndall - Punter and Bookmaker

Johnny "Lights" was something of a legend in the ranks and is still remembered very fondly by those still in the bookmaking industry. He has now retired down to the coast near Whitstable in Kent, but still fights a daily battle on Betfair from home.

Lights in his prime was always a very formidable punter as well as being a massive player on the "rails" at British racecourses in the South. He was never any fantastic judge of the formbook, but built up a formidable network of contacts in the right places and in a pre-Betfair age, was fearless in his backing and laying. Often Lights would be well ahead of the market, and in a time where all the action took place on-course, he could secure himself fantastic value pre-race.

The Edge.

With maidens in particular, Lights had leads into several of the big yards and also connections within the big off-course firms and often knew how strongly fancied an unexposed runner may be from one of the main yards.

Often he would be out early in the ring, securing odds against in substantive size about a runner he knew the "offices" would smash into near the off to shorten up the SP. For instance he might back £10,000 at 6-4 about the favourite...only to lay back an Even £10,000 later on the rails near the off as the firms played. This gave him a "risk free" £5,000 should the favourite oblige.

Very often John would simply hold his position and this is what set him apart from his rivals and colleagues. He had an acute sense of when to be a punter or a bookmaker that very few people have ever managed to repeat. So often they gamble at the wrong time, related only to how they are going on the day rather than the strength of the information itself. Knowing when to "stick" and when to "twist" was Light's supreme skill.

Lights started out, like so many bookmakers of that age, in a market stall where he learnt early on the value of price and doing business at the correct levels. He was no mathematician but had an excellent head for figures, and a feel for the business that none of the automated exchange-led layers of today could possibly comprehend. It was an era where living off your wits was still possible, without any guidance of the "right" price provided by the "machine".

I first met John when he came on from Goodwood one evening to the dogs at Reading where I had just started out with my own pitch. I knew of John through a mutual friend and he introduced himself and said he would be "playing" for an interest for the night.

John was no judge of greyhound form in anyway, but he was an amazing judge of a market and managed to win over the evening, simply by talking to people and following in the right moves. This was a time in the 1990s when the ring was still a vibrant place, full of very knowledgeable people with a love of the sport. From this point on Lights and I became friends and spoke most days about the days sport.

He also played very heavily on football, again very much with the odds in his favour at a time when team news was far harder to come across than today (particularly on the lower leagues). Again when Lights played he was always "ahead" of the price, playing only when he had an edge, however slight that may be, and grinding out a profit year in year out, despite the hazards of account closure and limiting that so many encounter today.

A pre-Betfair age

John had a great feel of when to play big and small at the right time and often had many people trailing him round the betting ring to find out his business and try and be "on" as well. Alongside Dudley Roberts (with whom he fought a daily battle on friendly terms), he came from another era that the arrival of betting exchanges effectively ended.

The "edge" that Lights had over others is now shopped on Betfair, with cards marked for the entire industry and very few of these precious "secrets" not in the public domain. Many will argue that this is a good thing in general, but there is little doubt that the betting rings of today are now a completely soulless (and empty place away from the festivals or weekends).

The action now takes place in a virtual, faceless world where very often the only winners are the commission scraping exchanges themselves.