In the mid-1960s, bookmakers large and small, conservative and colourful, were reminded that their market share of the betting dollar was under attack. A major shift in the gambling world occurred when the TAB was formed and two mediums of gambling became very much alive in Australia.
One bookmaker who was very aware that he and others were under siege from the TAB was the late Brian McGrath. The one-time clerk had risen quickly through the ranks of bookmakers, from outback greyhound meetings to the rails at Flemington in November. McGrath considered that a bookmaker who was unable to meet his debts was guilty of a most serious crime and it is said that, on Easter Sunday in 1967, he drove to Albury to financially assist a bookie who was struggling to pay out on the final race of the day before. And he urged his colleagues to accept a $2 each-way wager in the same manner that they accepted a $1000 bet from a professional.
But McGrath’s good grace and genuine belief in bookmakers maintaining their presence came at a cost on occasions. On Cox Plate day in 1968 he was introduced to a visitor to Australia who, according to the middle man, was a French diplomat.
McGrath shook the man’s hand and agreed that he could have credit when he liked. After backing the first three winners with amounts snowballing from $100 up to $800, his overseas client was on a roll. But McGrath reckoned he had one card up his sleeve in the last race, believing that a 10–1 chance was the horse to beat. His plans to get out on the last were thrown into turmoil, however, when his new French client wanted $7000 to $700 each way on this very horse.
Naturally, the 10–1 chance squeezed through a narrow opening in the closing stages to win narrowly. As McGrath stood on his stand reflecting on the financial pain of the previous five hours, his client was quick to join the payout queue in front of him, and, with his English very much improved, demanded to be paid his day’s winnings of $24 000 in cash.
McGrath explained politely that it was the custom in Australia for bookmakers and punters to settle on a week-to-week basis. But the punter would not hear of it – he demanded his money in cash, so McGrath, sticking to his principles, handed it over.
The following Saturday – Derby day – the Frenchman was first into the ring. However, his luck had deserted him and he lost $20 000 during the day. McGrath was pleased that he had recouped his losses, but was concerned at when the settling would take place.
The Frenchman didn’t appear on the next three days of the Flemington carnival and when McGrath contacted the committeeman who had introduced the punter, the words were those that every bookie has nightmares about: ‘I didn’t really know him that well; he said he was in the French diplomatic corps so I considered he’d be pretty good for any money he lost.’
McGrath had heard it all before. As he always maintained throughout his career as a bookie: ‘Never bet on a human being.’