Real Life Bookies - Dudley Roberts
Racing Editor for bettingexpert. Always searching for winners "against the crowd" and trying to find the value.
What was it like being an old-school racecourse bookie? Today on the blog Stephen tells us the story of Dudley Roberts, a long time on track bookmaker who was one of the most respected players in the business.
Dudley Roberts was one of the strongest rails layers in the country throughout the 1980's and 1990's, his name synonymous with integrity and fearlessness. He was a regular at all the Southern courses through the week and had pitches at all the major festivals.
Like his friend and rival Johnny Lights, Dudley was no student of the form book. Rather he relied on an amazing network of clients who's money he frequently handled. These included some of the biggest owners of horses in the business and some of the biggest players. His reputation for fairness and a calm persona made him a instantly recognisable figure at the racecourse. He looked like a policeman patrolling the rails - solid and immovable.
A Respected Player
Dudley was not afraid to exist on both sides of the fence, both as punter and bookmaker. In fact during the late 90s when the on-course business was beginning to decline, he told me that he much preferred to be a punter and not be dictated to by what he could lay on the rails.
With his portfolio of connections he found that he was very frequently ideally placed to take advantage of "inside information", particularly in maiden races where the "form" is largely unknown to the public and his fellow bookmakers. It was often very significant for example if one of the owners of the forecast "paper" favourite in a maiden did NOT want to back his runner. If this was a runner from a big yard, with a big name jockey riding it, Dudley could lay this horse very often in big size to the off-course firms who would see "public mug" money for the tipped up favourite. Obviously this grossly simplifies what went on, but in a pre-Betfair age it shows how building up a network of informed clients could provide a massive edge.
Dudley was very much a straight bookmaker when the turnover dictated to him that this was the right thing to do. He was a massive player year on year at Cheltenham, taking on the biggest punters from both England and Ireland.
One year in the early 1990s the results were extremely favourable, and when the bookmakers settled up at the end of the day, Dudley walked around the ring with a huge dustbin bag full of notes "collecting" all the losing bets hedged with him by the rest of the ring (this was still largely pre-exchange where the ring was vibrant place and the turnover not given away to Betfair/Betdaq). Returning to his hotel later, he emptied the bag on the floor of the room (it is probably true that in cash there was over £100,000 in there).
Another day at Plumpton and Dudley was positioned on the rails on a cold wet Winter's day. He had stood rather reluctantly the odds-on favourite to one of his regular big hitters and had been unable to escape the position as the price had crashed. Anyway, suffice to say that the odds-on favourite never really went a yard and was about two hurdles behind the clear leader as they swung for home. Then disaster struck and the outsider slipped on landing after the last and unseated his rider, leaving the 4-11f to crawl over the line in front and literally legless in the deep ground.
His friend Johnny Lights was aware of what had happened and the usually impassive Dudley had cursed his ill-fortune. He then "put in" around 20 people to phone up Dudley to ask him if he thought the favourite would have won anyway. After about the third call Dudley stopped biting, but the damage had been done.
On quieter days, Dudley and Lights would frequently gamble between themselves to pass the time. Nowadays with the recession biting and money far more scarce, where on-course layers are all fighting over scraps and hedging manically into Betfair if they can eek out a smidge of value, it is hard to believe the scale on which they played purely for recreation.
At the start of the day one would choose odd and the other even. They would play for up to £5000 a race on the dog-racing shown between races on television in the course betting shop i.e Dudley would have traps 1,3 and 5, while Lights got 2,4,6. I can still recall one afternoon where trap 1 won six races in a row and the look on Light's face bemoaning his bad luck and how he could never beat (expletive) Dudley.
A Vibrant Market
Dudley's success on the rails came at a time when plenty of money was flying about and all the action took place on-course amongst a select club of people fortunate enough to be in that position. There was very little movement of pitches as the free-market of buying and selling only arrived later on. Despite this privileged position on the rails, it was still survival of the fittest/shrewdest and the weakest always perished.
Dudley was an expert judge of when to play and in what size. His detached manner hid a very active brain, and he knew exactly when the strength of information dictated to him to have a proper go as a backer, or when to take a more careful approach. He avoided chasing or getting hotted up, and stood the test of time until wisely selling up as the advent of exchanges began to mean the on-course market shrivelled up.
Remember the prices formed in the market were not the result of a price mechanism where supply met demand, but rather the views of a few on-course bookies and what they read in the trade press. Dudley was ideally placed for around 20 years to take advantage of the "edge" he enjoyed over his colleagues.
These days Dudley has retired to Spain, but he still appears at Royal Ascot or Cheltenham to soak in the atmosphere, while his son Simon is still a very active player off-course, where he still handles some of the warmest information in the business.
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This was an excellent article Stephen. Very, very interesting!