Everyone, these days knows Mark Read as the bookmaker who changed the bookmaking landscape in this country.
He took his thriving on course service into the realm of online gambling and because of the antiquated legislation he moved this business to the Northern Territory.
But this story is how Mark Read moved from being one of the top performing bookmakers in Melbourne to becoming a bigger force in the bookmaking ranks than any of his predecessors.
Mark Read had bookmaking in his blood. His grand father Sid Hill, his father Jack and his uncle also known as Sid Hill, were all well known bookmakers in Melbourne. Mark also had the fortune of being the stepson of a noted Flemington track watcher, in Lal Reed, in fact Mark has always said that Lal was his real mentor in detecting a quality racehorse from a galloper who might of had talent, but not the other prerequisites for track success, determination, stamina and the ability to run through injury.
Mark was able to get into a science course at Melbourne Uni, but by the age of 19 his punting was taking up a lot of his time, and so he decided to take a different path and he quit the science degree and took up a business course at Footscray Technical College. This would see him learn the ropes of the way to run his punting business as a business, rather than a hobby.
While at college he was able to save a bank of $50,000, but by the time he changed courses he had lost that and had to start from scratch.
While he was studying the business course at Footscray, he applied for a bookmaking license and due to his connections he was granted a license by the VRC. He had a good bank to start him off on but his luck turned sour. Before he began his bookmaking life he had gambled away his bank and so on his first day of standing on the perch, he only had a small mount to bet with, however he found his guardian angel and the first 9 meetings he made a book at, he won.
About the time he started bookmaking, the VRC had just changed the way a bookmaker was promoted from the outer to the rails and it was now through your holdings, and not through seniority. Mark had chanced his arm and he was now eligible to be promoted to the rails, a move that would cause some jealousy within the Melbourne bookmaking ranks, especially from those more senior bookmakers who he had jumped over to grab a spot on the rails.
Soon he was the talk of the courses. In 1977 he lost his first $100,000 on one race when he gambled heavily against Desirable in the Newmarket. In 1978 he was the first bookmaker to hold $1 million during the four day VRC spring carnival. And then in 1980 he was the first bookmaker in Australia to hold $1million on one day at the Newmarket Hcp meeting.
Mark Read was innovative and forward thinking way before it was fashionable in the bookmaking industry, and his ideas and actions were so radical that even some are still, today in 2012, thought of as radical and outside the square.
By this time Mark had become a member of the Toolern Syndicate who had racing and breeding interests through Toolern Vale Park stud. The best horse to race through their ownership was probably the smart galloper Toolern High who was the runner up to Manikato in his Blue Diamond of 1978.
By 1980 Mark had outgrown the Toolern partnership and so he formed his own racing and breeding entity using first Glenfern Park and then Middle Park properties as the foundation of his stud and spelling operations. He acquired the sires Plush and Hauberk and he was well on the way to becoming as big an influence as Sol Green or any other bookmaker had been.
He did not want to place his horses in stables which had other owners in so he formed a partnership with the then Brisbane leader in the trainer premiership in the form of Henry Davis who Mick Dittman had a lot of success for) and the stable jockey was Henry’s son in law Greg Hall.
Both Davis and Hall had a deadly reputation as big betting and accurate horsemen. Whenever one of their’s was backed 90% of the time it won. This triumvirate would become responsible for some of the biggest successful plunges in Australian turf history.
Around this same time Mark decided that the Sydney ring was the place where all the action was happening so on hearing the impending departure of the then equal ring leader in Terry Page (Page and Bill Waterhouse were the standout bookmakers in Sydney at the time), he applied for a licence with both race clubs.
Read was warned by friends in Sydney to watch out for the sharks who would come circling the new boy and for the first few months they were right, in fact Robbie Waterhouse, and the then flourishing George Freeman group, were regular big winners that took large amounts off the newcomer, but with Davis and Hall in his corner, and his employment of track regulars to keep him up to date with he big players and the agent to look out for, he would get his own back, and by the early part of 1982, the whole country would know who exactly Mark Read was, and Davis and Hall would become spotlight players themselves.
Davis and Hall were very well known within the industry they were smart, talented and had the horseman gift, they knew when one was ready and they knew what grade to try and set one up for, they also had plenty of tricks up the sleeve. One of Henry’s favourite ploys when he was getting one for a killing, was to at track work gallop the working horse away from the gaze of the track watchers (this usually meant working the horse at full gallop down the back straight and so the horse would be out of gas when he came around to the front straight where all the track watchers were)it was an old ploy like working your horse in the dark of the early morning so no one could actually see which horse was working.
These ploys worked a treat and this is how the Getting Closer plunge came around in early 1982.
Getting Closer had been beaten and quite soundly beaten in midweek maidens at Ballarat and Sandown in Melbourne. Then one morning in a jump out at Flemington with the good open class stablemate Our Prestige, Getting Closer went so well (in fact it is reported he defeated Our Prestige by about 4 lengths hard held) Read told Davis to not worry about Victoria and get the horse up to Sydney as soon as possible, so that afternoon on the float he came.
His arrival was under the cloak of darkness and no fanfare but he would prove his worth soon enough and Henry got into his old routine of working the horse at full speed well wary from the gathering at the track and then having the horse look ordinary when he arrived at the spectator section of the track. Having not had a start or trial in Sydney no one took any notice of the maiden. However this present made would become a dual group 1 winner and he would push Kingston Town in his last race the Western Mail Classic in Perth over 1800m. He was to say the least a class act at his best.
During his track work Davis had used is the foreman Michael Fraser (the now form analyst used by Sky Channel), when Fraser told Henry the galloper was set he told Read and the date was set.
At Canterbury on January 9th 1982, the bookmakers turned up, with no inkling of what was to come.
Despite Davis’s ploys on the track n the early morning Read expected his fellow bookmakers to have the horse short because of his ownership and Davis being the trainer. When betting opened Read got the biggest shock of his life when he saw 100/1 freely being offered with a few of the bookmakers on course offering 200/1. Read could see a fortune before his eyes, it was the one time in his life that Read admitted he wanted to get set for as much as he could, but he had to stick to the plan.
The bookmaker had imported agents from Melbourne who the Sydney bookmakers did not know, and he had agents around the country to place bets at other venues, so everything was in place.
Mark allowed betting to settle down and after about 15 minute he gave the agents on course to start betting. First one hit was ‘Digger’ Lobb at 200/1. Ray Hopkins down the line was taken at 160/1 and Dominic Beirne was taken for $100,000 alone. Robbie Waterhouse lost the same amount in the first two bets and then shut up shop bringing the horse into a miserly 2/1. Robbie’s dad Bill was a little more circumspect and only got claimed for $40,000, while Jack Muir was claimed for $80,000. Len Burke had good track scouters who had told him to be wary of the “visitor”, and he only had him at 50/1, but he was still being claimed for 11/2 with the horses doing their preliminaries.
The agents around the country were told to bet before the first updated markets from Canterbury got announced at the local courses and as much as 200/1 was also taken in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.
The actual race was a very timid affair compared to the frantic scene in the ring at Canterbury, where just about every punter followed the money and just about every punter on course had a stake in Getting Closer’s performance. Malcolm Johnston rode Getting Closer that day, and he began perfectly sat fourth in a field of 15 and powered away to win by a widening two lengths from Star Power and Shahada.
While there had been no illegality in the plunge or the form of Getting Closer, the Sydney bookmakers were crying foul, as only the previous spring the Mr Digby plunge was raw in their minds. The then Chief Steward John Mahoney was asked whether there would be an inquiry and he said no, as the horses form was not great and besides the two previous runs had been in Victoria so if there was a cause for concern it would be in the jurisdiction where the horses form was substandard.
While Mark Read would have other great days on the racecourse both as a bookie and punter he would never reach that level of success.
The Getting Closer plunge has become one of the most told tales and most popular tales for punters from the Australian Turf.
The cold hard stats tell us just how big this plunge was. In 1980 the average weekly wage was about $250. The current average wage is about $750 so the $1 million reportedly ripped from bookmakers around the country in 1982 would equate to about 3 times that amount today,
$3 million at least.