Visitors to almost any Australian racetrack will be struck by this phenomenon: The track's large, comfortable grandstand seating area almost always will be deserted. Horseplayers here rarely sit down.
The reason is that there is no time to kill between races; indeed, there is no time to waste as bettors consult odds on television monitors, compare bookmakers' prices and scurry to make wagers. This was the schedule at the Warwick Farm races here Tuesday: The first race was run at 12:40. At 12:55 there was a simulcast from Melbourne. At 1:05 there was a simulcast from Brisbane. At 1:10 came a simulcast from Adelaide. Post time for the second live race from at Warwick Farm was 1:15. Breathless bettors had the opportunity to watch and play 34 races (all with quinella and trifecta wagering) during the course of the afternoon.
Moreover, citizens in virtually every part of this country had similar opportunities, because outlets for the Totalizator Agency Board, the country's off-track betting network, are ubiquitous. The TAB is the most efficient, extensive off-track betting system in the world.
When technology made such systems possible, racing leaders in virtually every country sought the best way to implement it. America's first venture into this area was horribly botched by New York City's Off-Track Betting Corp., which produced a bloated bureaucracy and wrecked attendance at the tracks. England fared even worse, with a system that not only killed attendance but drained money from the sport and resulted in pitifully low purses.
Australia did it right.
The scope of illegal, off-track wagering here used to be massive; the neighborhood bookie was as much of a fixture in any community as the neighborhood cop. While legal, on-track bookmakers were taxed, the illegal operators were siphoning potential revenue from the states and the tracks. So in 1960 the legislature in the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, passed a bill creating the TAB to operate off-track betting shops, telephone betting and on-course tote betting. It was so successful that each of Australia's six states created its own TAB (each with its own management and its own betting pools). They revitalized horse racing in the country.
Victoria's TAB was created as a quasi-public authority with two missions: to raise money for the state and for the racing industry. The "take" from wagers is about 16 percent, of which about 5 percent goes to the tracks. In the past year, the TAB handled $1.4 billion in wagers and generated more than $80 million for purses and track development in this one state alone. "The contribution the TAB has made to racing is massively greater than anything the tracks could generate themselves," said Victoria TAB General Manager Neil Walker. Because of this contribution, a race like the Melbourne Cup could offer a $1.6 million purse this year.
Of course, the TAB has reduced attendance at the track, a fact of life that tracks accept. "We know you can't have your cake and eat it too," said Pat Parker, chief executive of the Sydney Turf Club. But the tracks here still attract healthy crowds and retain an air of vitality, because on-course bookmakers remain legal.
Rather than viewing them as rivals for the betting dollar, TAB and track officials know the bookies are an essential part of the game. "They bring people to the racecourse," said Parker. "They offer fixed odds and they give big players the opportunity to play. And they add a lot of atmosphere."
He pointed out that the bookies' existence creates business for the tote because of arbitrage situations. If one horse is 2 to 1 with the bookmakers and 5 to 1 on the tote, while the odds on another horse are the reverse, sharpies will be betting heavily to exploit the opportunity.
But if the arrival of the TAB was a bonanza for tracks and state governments, it was also a boon for bettors. When smart handicappers had to do battle with the bookies, it was a duel of wise guys vs. wise guys. But now billions of dollars of unsophisticated money -- they call it "mug money" here -- were flowing into the tote pools. "Our dual betting system makes this the best place in the world for a punter (horseplayer)," said Shane Templeton, a journalist and professional punter in Melbourne.
Robbie Waterhouse, the son of the man who used to be Australia's biggest bookmaker, was breaking into the business and was operating one frigid night at a little harness track at the foot of the Blue Mountains. In the middle of the betting ring was a large drum filled with burning coals where the gamblers could huddle to keep warm when they weren't betting. This was, in short, a hard-core crowd. One night the tote manager approached Waterhouse and said: "We've run out of money. Could you loan us a few thousand dollars?" Waterhouse initially wondered if he was being conned, but track officials took him to their office and explained that the track always wound up with less money than it started with. The on-track wise guys were showing a net profit that was being financed by TAB bettors throughout the state.
Australia would be a wonderful enough place to play the horses just because it offers nonstop action, the chance to watch and bet more than 30 races in an afternoon. But where else on earth does the game offer the wondrous possibility that the crowd could win all of the track's money?