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Racing Stories

Classic Racing Stories – #1: Bookie’s desperate last stand

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Losing on a weekly basis or having a bad trot is not the exclusive domain of punters – in fact, their old foe the bookmaker has had his share of down times.

Over the past fifty years, bookmakers, like so many punters, have found the going too tough and that the economics of their profession denied them a living. We had one extraordinary situation in the mid-1970s after the last race at Seymour when an enterprising young bookmaker climbed the stairs to the broadcast box. While a commentator was going through the results of the day, the young man interrupted and said:

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‘I’m a little bit short on my payout, you wouldn’t have some folding to get me through?’ It made unusual radio – the bookmaker hadn’t believed that the commentator was on air at the time.

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But one bookmaker in the late 1970s devised a plan that basically evolved around a boom-or-bust theory.

He had endured a tough run during the autumn of that year and it seemed the spate of favourites was never going to end. As the markets went up for the final race at Caulfield – a three-year-old fillies event – the favourite was put at 4–6. The bookmaker immediately went to 4–5 and then he went to even money, and the crowd around him was four and five deep, wanting to back the favourite.

The word spread around the course that the bookmaker was offering good odds on the favourite, and the crowd around the stand grew. With just five minutes of betting to go, the bookie turned the horse into 1–3 and then gathered his staff around him for a conference.

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‘Look, just pack up the sheets and the bags and we’ll get moving before the race,’ he told them. ‘It’s pretty simple – we’ve laid the favourite for a fortune. If it wins we’re stuffed, and if it gets beaten we’ve got the lot.’

So, the team made their way over to Caulfield station and, from platform four, nervously watched the outcome of the final event.

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The bookie again told his staff that he’d deliberately taken on the favourite, believing she was vulnerable.

‘I’ve targeted this filly – I think she’s a bit of a squib but, just in case she does win, there’s an express train due to arrive from the city about five minutes after the race and we’d better be on it,’ he said.

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As the field swung for home, the chestnut filly that the bookie had labelled as ‘heartless’ defied that reputation. At the 200-metre mark, she went from two to six lengths in front – much to the cheering of the punters in the ring.

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A bookmaker who had been fielding next to him recalled the scenes that took place after the race.

‘It was the strangest thing I’ve seen on a racecourse – the queue on the bookie’s stand seemed to stretch for miles. At first, the mood was one of jubilation that they’d snared even money on a horse that should have been 5–1 on. But the giggling and laughing soon gave way to shouting and yelling when they realised that the bookmaker and his staff had disappeared. The bookmaker’s supervisor came up and they harassed him and it turned pretty nasty,’ he said.

Eventually, the bookmakers’ association repaid all of the bets; the bookmaker in question had left on an express train out of town, never to be seen again.

And just for the record, the three-year-old filly was the brilliant Mistress Anne, who went on to win the Oakleigh Plate two weeks later.

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Although batteries were widely used on Australian racetracks, it was rare that they were actually detected on race day. On 11 May 1955 at Morphettville, South Australian Jockey Club stewards were alerted to the poorly performed Thundering Legion shortening from 33/1 ($34) into 5/1 ($6) for the First Clarendon Transition Handicap.


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Thundering Legion’s rider, Bill Attrill, had weighed out and returned to the riders’ quarters when the chief steward, Fred Everest, requested that updated betting information be provided, querying the shortness in the market of Thundering Legion. When it was confirmed that Thundering Legion was trading at 5/1, Mr Everest then went to the rider, seeking an explanation from him as to whether he was aware of the betting plunge.


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Attrill advised the steward that he wasn’t that surprised, as he believed Thundering Legion had an each-way chance in the race. At this point the steward requested Attrill’s whip for examination and when it was handed over to him the steward got an unexpected shock. Electricity from a battery in the whip surged through the instrument to the top, where the stewards’ hand gripped it!


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The stewards ordered that Attrill’s saddle be taken off the horse for further examination. They then substituted jockey Des Coleman as the new rider, and minutes later Thundering Legion was taken to front at the top of the straight, and won in a close finish.



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Thundering Legion’s owner Mr H Irvine, who said that he raced purely for the sport, had also approached the stewards before the race, uneasy about the strange betting move for his runner, a horse that had no form.


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Later that afternoon, Bill Attrill was disqualified for 10 years and, in a subsequent inquiry, the trainer, NW Conway, received a lifetime ban from the sport.


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Over the years, many dodgy jockeys and trainers have owed a lot to Alessandro Volta—not that they’d have any idea who the heck he was. It was Volta who, in 1800, invented the battery: a device used in racing circles for decades to encourage a horse to try that little bit harder, or simply just try. The battery device is also known as a jigger, a jack or a harp. To put it simply, it’s a dishonest device used by dishonest people on dishonest horses.


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Not only have ‘jiggers’ have been applied to horses in track work but in races as well. Sometimes it was the saddle that was wired, sometimes the whip and sometimes even the jockey himself. Indeed jiggers were so prevalent in racing in the ‘old days’ that they were sold out of car boots on race days.


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Over the years there have been a number of expert battery-makers in Australia. In the 1950s a jumping jockey who was also an electrician supplied all the batteries on request in South Australia, and was known as the ‘Electric Arm’.


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And operating out of the front bar of the Racecourse Hotel in Caulfield, only a stone’s throw from the gates of the course, was a character known as ‘Battery Jack’. Jack supplied jockeys and trainers from near and far with equipment that included spurs, saddles and hand-held batteries capable of giving horses a significant surge of electricity. These were to aid connections looking for an improved performance so they could set up a betting coup. It was said that when Battery Jack died, there was a distinct lack of volunteers to carry the coffin for fear of being electrocuted!


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In New South Wales during the 1930s ‘Battery King’ was a master electrical craftsman who produced masterpieces of his own. His jiggers were reliable, intensely potent and, above all, remarkably compact. The Truth newspaper gave insight into how he operated:

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Sitting in his workshop surrounded by live and dead wires at a bench littered with cones, insulated leads, porcelain protectors, and all the materials and tools of the electrician, the expert toils away steadily at his pursuit of making munitions for malefactors.

One day a jockey approached him to have a battery attached to his riding saddle. The King examined it and fitted a miniature jigger snugly under the pommel.

From the buzzer, wires were laid down each flap of the saddle, terminating in points protruding from inside. All the jockey had to do, was press his knees firmly on the flaps of the saddle.


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The Battery King explained that jockeys preferred the hand-held type of apparatus because they can easily be thrown away should the need arise, unlike the equipment attached to a saddle.


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RACING YARNS: Dittman takes the Plunge


Dittman takes the Plunge

Mick Dittman was one of Australia’s most successful jockeys during his career, but the Queenslander always had a secret urge to be a part of a well-executed plunge. This was easier said than done, as Dittman had hundreds of thousands of followers around Australia and rode for the nation’s leading trainer, Tommy Smith.

One day, standing alongside Smith at the trainer’s Tulloch Lodge at Randwick, they watched a float full of two-year-old fillies being unloaded. One filly took Dittman’s eye to such an extent that he arrived the following morning at 4.30 to ride her in slow work – a rare occurrence for the stable jockey of such a powerful outfit.

‘Every day, I’d get there and ride her,’ Dittman recalled. ‘We never went fast because I knew she had what it took, and I didn’t want all the clockers at Randwick to get any hint of her ability. I’d either work her at 4.30 or 10.00 in the morning, when no one was around. Perhaps on the odd morning I’d let her sprint the odd furlong, but that’d be up the back where no one could see her. I’d learned from a very early age that bookies and their spies miss very little of a morning and, if they do, they pay through the nose that afternoon.’

After the filly had been in work for six weeks, Smith announced that he was going to Europe for a month and his brother Ernie would run the stable.

‘This was a bit of luck,’ said Dittman. ‘Tommy was the best trainer in Australia, but if he’d known how good this filly was he would’ve told all of Sydney and she would’ve started 1–5 wherever we took her. So I said to Ernie: “There’s a quid to be made here. Only you and I know how good she’s going, no one else has been on her back and I galloped her the other morning at about 10.30 when no one could see her, and her work was sensational.” ’

Both Dittman and Ernie agreed that a two-year-old race at Warwick Farm the following week was ideal for a plunge. ‘Just a couple of hours before acceptances, I rang Ernie and said: “Look, put Mark De Montfort on her and I’ll ride the stablemate.” He said: “But Mick, you’ve done months of work on her and you’re giving up the ride.” And I replied: “Let’s hope the bookies are just as confused as you are! Ring De Montfort and tell him he’s got the ride. Tell him that the filly is fairly backward and will need more time before she shows her best and give me the same instructions for the one I’m riding. And when we get into the mounting yard, repeat these instructions and I’ll handle the rest.”

‘When we got behind the gates, I trotted up to De Montfort and said: “I’ve got a message from Ernie for you. Forget those instructions, kick up on her early – don’t worry if you’re caught six wide as she’s capable of breaking the track record.” He said to me: “Are you for real, Mick?” I said, “I’ve never been more serious in my life – just do as you’re told.” ’

The filly strolled away to win easily and was backed from 3–1 into 4–7. Tommy Smith arrived back two days later and declared the filly the best two year old in Australia – a statement that Dittman was glad the trainer released post-race.

Her name was Speedcheck and she finished second behind Rory’s Jester in the 1985 Golden Slipper. Of course, Dittman, who was known as ‘The Enforcer’, had the last word on her success: ‘You do understand that it’s against the rules of racing for jockeys to bet.’

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