A betting shop is a license to manufacture money," said the man with long orange hair, red face and bright blue eyes. "There is no way for anyone but the professionals and the government to make money betting on horses."
You might expect such a statement from a Baptist minister or an official of Gamblers Anonymous, the betting equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous, but in fact it came from John Banks, a young Scot who is one of the biggest individual bookmakers in England and easily the most controversial.
He was sitting in the living room of his new $150,000 home in Sunningdale, a town southwest of London in the brokers' belt. The seven-bedroom house came with four acres of manicured English gardens, heated swimming pool, tennis court and nine-hole putting green.
"Aye, lad, I mean that," Banks went on, looking around the big room, which is furnished in antique splendor. "You don't think I bought this place by diggin' ditches, do you? It's the punters who have bought it for me and I tell them so. They like for a bookmaker to be honest with them. I keep telling the public this and there's no harm in telling them. They love me for it and I have become the most popular book ever in the history of gambling."
November 29, 1971
Modesty is not one of Banks' more notable virtues.
"I wouldn't want you to think me immodest," he went on. "I think of myself as realistic. Bookmaking is show business and that's how I play it. You have to put yourself in the public eye and I do that."
He paused to answer the telephone and listened briefly.
"Come up in the morning," he said. "My man will meet you at the Sunningdale station. You will recognize him because he will be driving a gold Rolls-Royce." John Banks also owns a blue Mercedes and his own airplane. He put down the phone and took a sip of black coffee.
"Last night, for instance, I was at the track working in Tattersalls, and the other books had the favorite in a race odds on and I went even. I was taking in money hand over fist and all the time I was saying to the public, 'You're mad, that horse can't win. I've got a pipeline from my satchel to the bank in Sunningdale. Let's keep it flowing." And when the horse got beat, they were not mad at me. They liked me for being honest with them. They don't like it when the book pulls a long face and bewails the fact that he's losing money because they know it is not true. A bookmaker who does not make money should be certified. He must be daft."
Whatever he is, John Banks is not daft. He was raised in the tenement district of Glasgow, where his father was a painter and sprayer and, of course, a punter. Banks' home was not an impoverished one, but he was not raised in the lap of luxury either. He developed his interest in betting early on.
"I was 11 at the time," he said, "and it was on a Saturday. I was on my way to the football ground and my father stopped me. 'John, my boy,' he said, 'will you lay this seven bob for me with my bookie?' I didn't mind, because there was a bookie who worked the corner across the way, but Dad did not want me to lay the bet with him. This was in the old days, before the bookmakers were licensed; they operated illegally, the way they do in the States."
His wife came in, bringing him a tray with his breakfast. Anne-Marie is a dark, attractive woman. His 27 racehorses are registered in her name.
"Thank you, dear," he said, then went on with his story.
"I grumbled a bit when Dad told me not to take the bet to the book on the corner nor to the book on the next corner, either. In those days, if the book had a bad day, he would disappear and lay low until he was able to move his operation to another part of the city. Dad had been doing business with a bookie who was about a mile away and I had to take the bet to him because he was known to be honest.
"Every Saturday after that, I'd take my father's few bob to the bookmaker, and the book would give me two bob as an incentive to bring him more bets. From then on I'd remind Dad if he didn't make his bet, saying, 'Come on, Dad, what's your bet?' and I decided after a while that any business that had as much money as that flying about, I wanted to be in."
Banks quit school at 15 and became a messenger boy for a Glasgow bookie, but after two months on the job he told his employer he wanted to be more than a runner. Thereafter, he worked as a clerk in a shop, learning the business, and at 26 he went on his own with $250 in capital.
"I was always a great backer of horses myself," Banks said. "So I traveled all over England and Scotland for a year, betting horses, and at the end of the year I had accumulated $55,000 and I opened a credit book." A credit book is just what it sounds like—a betting shop which offers credit to its customers.
"When I started, I could not understand why some books would not offer certain bets, so I offered them myself and in a year I had lost the $55,000. I couldn't understand how I had lost so much money so fast, so I sat down and went over the year and sorted out the mistakes I had made. I have never made them since."
He had finished his breakfast and he put aside the tray, stood up and glanced at his watch. "Eleven-thirty," he said. "We had better be off." He stopped in a closet on his way to the door and came out carrying a six-inch-thick packet of 10- and 20-pound notes, holding them as casually as if they were a pack of cigarettes. "I'll take the Mercedes," he said to Anne-Marie.
He was going to Brighton on this cold, gray day, for a race meeting there. Brighton is an hour and a half drive from Sunningdale, but Gordon, Banks' graying chauffeur, would probably have made it in a good deal less without the bank stop, which required some 30 minutes since the clerk had to count the thick wad of bills.
"I've only been driving for Mr. Banks for a year," Gordon said while waiting for his employer outside the small National Westminster branch bank in Sunningdale. "He does cut things a bit fine, you know, likes to go very fast because he has so many places to go. Had my first speeding ticket in 36 years as a chauffeur driving for Mr. Banks. And my first ride in an airplane when he had me fly up to Glasgow to drive back one of the cars."
Banks has covered as many as three meetings in one day, flying to them in his private plane. "I'm glad we have the Mercedes today," Gordon said. "We have to make time and the Rolls is a bit dicey if the going is wet. This one is a marvel in any weather."
After Banks returned, Gordon set off for Brighton as if entered in a Grand Prix; he had once been chauffeur for a racing driver, and the background showed. Somehow he managed to avoid getting his second speeding ticket in 36 years and arrived at the track well before the 2 p.m. first race.
"I couldn't get a place in Tattersalls here," Banks said. "I'm on the rail, which I don't like nearly so well."
The bookies at tracks in England operate in a line of small stands, many of them in a section called Tattersalls. The transactions are in cash, the bookie paying money out of a leather satchel hanging from the stand that supports the blackboard where he chalks the odds he offers. The odds can vary considerably from bookie to bookie, so that the punters wander up and down the line, shopping for the best odds on their choice.
At Brighton, Banks' stand was alongside a fence that separates public and private enclosures; with him were the giants of British bookmaking—Ladbroke's, Hill's and several others. These are credit books, and they usually handle much larger bets than the individual bookies in Tattersalls.
Banks was dressed conservatively, as befits a book on the rail, wearing a dark suit, white shirt with lace insets on the front, a black tie and black shoes. Incongruously, he had jammed a crumpled black hat on his head. The hat seemed at least two sizes too small, and the bookie's shoulder-length, orange-red hair and red face, turning a bit blue in the dank cold, made him look like a small coal fire smoldering under a little black pot.
He chatted amicably with his confreres while one of his employees took wagers. Now and then Banks would walk off to the side with a customer and discuss a large bet at some length, no money changing hands when the odds had been struck. Just before post time four or five men stood on stands made by stacking little wooden boxes one atop the other, three or four high. It made for a precarious perch, but the men atop them were wigwagging vigorously toward the bookies in Tattersalls, each one looking for all the world like a third-base coach putting on a double steal.
"Those are the tic-tac men," Banks explained. "They're giving the other books the odds they're laying here on the rail and taking what action the individual books want to lay off. It operates something like semaphore."
When the horses broke from the starting gate for the first race, Banks clambered up by the rail and watched them through binoculars, his face emotionless. The track at Brighton is laid out in a huge crescent, unlike the customary American oval, and the horses started at the far tip of the crescent, finishing with a long run up a hill in front of the grandstand. Without binoculars, they seemed the size of ants, growing quickly as they pounded to the finish line, hoofbeats curiously muffled on the thick grass of the track.
During the course of the afternoon Banks watched six races—the customary number at an English track—all of them with the same enigmatic composure. When the day ended, he had quite a few pounds in hand and Gordon drove him home to Sunningdale; on other, busier days, he might have flown off to work at a night meeting. "He's very good about coming home, though," Anne-Marie had said. "Sometimes he does not get here till the wee hours, but he always comes."
On this afternoon, given the late fall of night in England in the summer, he had time for a set of tennis on his court. He plays tennis industriously and well enough, the same way he plays the baby-grand piano in the big living room.
On the music rack of the piano were "Beringer's School of Easy Classics," "The 100 Best Short Classics" and "Classic and Romantic Selections for the Piano."
"I don't play those," Banks said. "My daughter does. She is a very fine pianist. Me, I can only play by ear. I picked it up as a lad when my brother was taking lessons."
He was pleased with his take at the track and knew that the 27 betting shops he owns in Glasgow probably had a good day, too. "The betting shops make money relentlessly," he said. "The other bookies do not like it when I say things like that. The first time I said that a betting shop was a license to manufacture money, they all fell on me in a rage and declared that it was absolute rubbish. But it is true."
A bookie like Banks makes money, not by the built-in advantage of the vigorish which an American bookie has, but by skill and the ability to balance his books in the continuing hurly-burly of the betting ring. "To be a good bookmaker and a successful one," Banks said, "you must know the business from A to Zed. Me, I know it from A to Zed and from Zed to A. I know it well enough to make money betting with other bookies. I should say that I clear well over $50,000 a year just by betting myself."
Since betting winnings are not liable to income tax in Britain, that represents a great deal of money. But Banks' income is much vaster; he pays some $200,000 in personal income tax.
"The bets I make, I make personally," he said with relish, his blue eyes bright and happy. "It's my split-second judgment against the professionals. And I have a great deal more information than the punter at the track. I have two telephones here in the house, one for my regular business and the other I'll not tell you about, but I get information from all over England. My telephone bill for the house—not for my office in Glasgow, mind you, but here in Sunningdale—was $1,125 for the first three months of this year. I know what I'm doing when I lay a few bob."
If he feels that the race is such an open one that everyone knows as much about it as he does, he does not bet. "I have myself a cup of coffee," he said.
In the last 10 years Banks has built an enormous following among the inveterate punters of England; certainly, although he is a pygmy among the giants of English bookmaking, he is easily the best-known bookie in the land. "I make news," he said comfortably. "I am one of the small group in racing, people like Lester Piggott [England's Willie Shoemaker] who make news each time they sneeze. And I like to give reporters a story when they're casting about for something to write. Yesterday one of them asked me about odds on the Epsom Derby and I told him I was making book on which horse would finish last. Now that will be splashed about in the papers today and I'll have more than a few quid on the books on last place." He did have considerable money wagered on last place; it helped defray the bad day he had at Epsom when the overwhelming favorite, Mill Reef, won the race, contributing to a rare losing afternoon for Banks.
Banks does not make money as an owner, although his sizable stable probably comes close to breaking even. Once, after one of his horses had lost, he told the sporting press that he was going to sell his string. He laughed thinking of the stir that had caused. "It was a bit of a lark to make news," he said. "The horses are in Anne-Marie's name for the most part, but I never meant to sell the lot. It was just a way to get some publicity. Like the time I bought Hill House."
The Hill House affair caused a monumental flap in British racing circles. "It was the greatest story in the history of turf," said Banks expansively. "Hill House was not a very good horse. He would win now and then between very modest performances. Then he won the Schweppes Gold Trophy race, a good jumping handicap, after three really terrible performances. He won by 15 lengths and the public started booing when he cleared the last jump, he was so far ahead. "They tested the animal and found he had been injected with cortisone, but the trainer said that the horse manufactured his own cortisone in the excitement of the race. So the stewards sent the horse to Newmarket for two weeks and ran him every day and he did, indeed, produce cortisone, so they let off everybody involved."
When Hill House was offered for sale a little later, Banks bought him for $32,000. "The racing authorities were shocked," he said laughing. "Here was a self-doping horse, owned by a bookmaker. They came to me and said, 'John Banks, this cannot be.' And I said to them, 'Well, then, I have paid $32,000 for this horse and if it cannot be, then I will sell him to you for $50,000.' And they said no." Banks kept the remarkable Hill House and ran him 10 times.
"He never won a race for me," Banks said, "nor came close to doing so. But eight times, after he had finished down the track, they brought him in and tested him for cortisone. He never produced a drop. Finally I sold him for $3,750, but if another horse like him was to come up tomorrow, I'd buy him. He was worth a great deal to me. I got packets of publicity. I was on the telly six times and I don't know how many times on the radio. Someone at the time said I should be tested, not the horse. Now, about what happened at Newmarket, when he did produce cortisone, I know nothing. I did not own the horse. But I suspect there must have been some villainy. I cannot say that, but the horse never produced any cortisone for me."
Two days later Banks was at Kempton Park, a track not far from London. This time he was in Tattersalls, standing on a stack of boxes near his own board, chaffing the punters and chalking up the odds on each race. Banks was a much different man in Tattersalls now that he was in direct contact with ordinary punters. He laughed and joked with them and attracted by far the biggest crowd around his stand, which was located at the end of the line.
In keeping with his somewhat more plebeian station, Banks was dressed flashily, wearing a light gray, checked suit, the same lace-front-type shirt with a blue tie and, again, the disreputable small black hat, which sat rather timidly atop his head.
A William Hill employee came over to the stand. He was a handsome man, prematurely gray, who looked something like Gregory Peck, impeccably tailored and enormously self-assured.
"Here, here," said Banks, peering down from his pile of boxes. "Who is this we have here? Danny LaRue? [LaRue is London's most famous female impersonator.] Back off there, lad. Back off, William Hill. We want no disreputable characters about here. Move right to the back, lad."
"Now, John," said the William Hill man. "Now, John. You had best watch your odds carefully, not chivy me. You have the favorite even, he should be odds on."
"He'll be even when the race starts," said John, loudly enough for the small crowd to hear him.
"Would you bet on that?"
"Not with a man from William Hill," said Banks, and the crowd laughed.
For the next 10 or 15 minutes, Banks was busy booking bets, adjusting the odds on his blackboard every few moments. The bets were all cash, and Banks made change from the leather satchel hanging from his stand. On a big race day he may have as much as $60,000 stuffed in the satchel.
An elderly lady, neatly dressed and dignified, approached him before the start of the second race, before Banks had chalked up his starting odds. She fumbled in a large bag, then produced two pounds. "Two pounds on Richboy to win," she said, almost inaudibly. Banks took the money and looked at her affectionately.
"I haven't posted the odds," he said. "Would you take 5 to 1, madam?"
"Yes," she said, "if you think it fair."
"Then it will be 6 to 1," said Banks. He took a small card from a stack on his stand and handed it to her, and a clerk, with a large ruled pad, listed the bet and the odds and the number of the card. When Banks chalked up the odds later Richboy was 9 to 2, and by the time the race went off he was 7 to 2. Richboy lost to a long shot, so the lady did not cash her ticket. Payoffs take place after a race is declared official.
"In my shops in Glasgow I pay on first past the post," Banks explained. "I don't take inquiries into account. That is the off-course way. But here, we must pay on the official order of finish."
One bettor collected over 200 pounds on the winner, which Banks paid out quickly, counting the pound notes almost faster than the eye could follow. "Aye, that's a large packet of money for a punter," he said, giving the man his winnings. "That's too thick for a punter, man."
"Twill come back to you, John," the man said. "It always does, in time."
"Aye," said Banks. "The notes know where to find a cozy home."
A shabbily dressed man with cheeks gone red from frost and chilblains sidled up to the front of the stand and watched as Banks chalked odds. "Have you had a winner yet?" Banks inquired, and the man shook his head.
"That I have not, John," he said. "But I will do. I will do." He put 10 bob on the favorite, and Banks took the bet as seriously as he had a wager of 100 pounds a few moments earlier.
Later, with the other books quoting the favorite in a race at 7 to 4, Banks had the same price chalked on his board, but offered the horse orally at 2 to 1, bringing a rush of punters. By the time the race had started, he had taken in something over $10,000 on the horse; the other books had considerably less. The favorite ran a bad third.
"It was a good enough day," a judicious Banks said after the final race. "But then most days are. I have had better; last year in three days at Cheltenham, I handled over a quarter of a million dollars, and I profited by about $35,000. But then I have had very bad days, too. Haven't we all?"
Ironically, his worst day came on the heels of one of the best bits of inside information.
"I'll never forget that," said Banks. "Not that I brood over my losses. But there was a horse called Persian War who had been champion hurdler for four years. Or he had been for three years and it was coming up the fourth."
Banks heard from one of his informants, who include trainers, jockeys and grooms, that Persian War had something wrong with his wind.
"I did not try to hide the fact," Banks said. "In fact, I went on the telly with the owner half an hour before the race, and during the program the owner told the man on TV that the horse was well. 'You're not telling the truth,' I said to him. 'That horse's wind is bad and you should tell the public the truth.' He wasn't half mad."
Banks went out on a limb and booked over $100,000 in bets on the horse, at better odds than any other book offered. "Persian War came down the stretch lengths to the good," Banks said. "Then he gave way suddenly 100 yards from the finish, but he still managed to win the race and cost me $100,000. The information was right, but the timing was 100 yards off."
Once Banks stood to lose $320,000 on one race, the Lincoln Handicap. The money had been bet on the favorite, Prince de Galles, ridden by Lester Piggott. Luckily, Prince de Galles hung in the stretch and lost by half a length to a horse named New Chapter.
In last June's Epsom Derby, Mill Reef's victory cost Banks a good deal of money. For this meeting, Banks wore a morning coat and striped trousers, but he was still in Tattersalls and working directly with the punters. He booked $50,000 on the Derby and had a losing day, but it did not disturb him.
"This is the day for the once-a-year punters," he said. "I lost the equivalent of $20,000 on Mill Reef at Epsom and more than that in the shops, but it made a lot of punters happy, didn't it?"
Strangely enough, the pari-mutuel windows at the race meetings where Banks is active are almost deserted. At Brighton, Kempton Park and Epsom, for example, crowds of horseplayers huddled around the bookies in Tattersalls even though the bettor in England has 6% deducted from his winnings with a bookie and only 5% in the tote.
"The pari-mutuels do not offer good enough odds," said Banks. "Most of the time the punter can get a better shade of odds from one of the books than he will in the tote." Banks went down a program from the previous day, citing the odds the pari-mutuels had paid against those offered by the bookies, and in four of the six races the punter did better wagering with the books.
A few days later an advertisement for the tote appeared in a London paper and cited precisely the opposite statistics for last season and for the first three months of this season. But it is unlikely that any amount of advertising will seduce English bettors away from the bookies.
For one thing, they will never get the kind of action a bookie like Banks offers them. He has, at one time or another, made bets on whether or not it would snow on a given Feb. 5, on general elections, on the winners of a dancing contest, on when man would reach the moon, on whether or not Perry Mason would ever lose a case and on how long it would take the London Zoo to recapture an eagle named Goldie.
"I made it evens they would recapture Goldie in three days," said Banks. "I got quite a bit of action, too. They finally got Goldie back toward the end of the second day, so I won the bets. Then he escaped again three weeks later and people said I had cut the wires, but I had not. I have, of course, been accused of all kinds of villainy, but none of it is true." He shook his head in sorrow at the mistrustfulness which seems evident in some of his fellow men.
"They ask me, 'How do you do it, John?' as if I was doing them in somehow but I'm clean, never been booked for anything, because you must be clean to get a betting-shop permit. They all keep guessing who's behind me, who is financing me, but I'm my own man entirely. No stockholders, no board, no nothing. Just John Banks. I'm my own boss."
After Banks had been saved from the $320,000 loss in the Lincoln Handicap by New Chapter's stretch-running heroics, a trainer asked the bookie how he was doing.
"Bad," said Banks. "Not well."
"Aye," said the trainer. "Then I expect we'll have another great train robbery soon, John."
"They even accused me of being the brains behind that" Banks said, apparently taking it as a compliment. "As if I need rob a train to make money."
John Banks is a wealthy man now. How wealthy is hard to say, but his munificent scale of living certainly does not seem to strain his resources. "Sometimes I think I may retire," he said one day after the Derby. He had gone through his usual strenuous routine, up at 7:30, phone calls, breakfast, the papers until about 11, then lightning trips to two tracks and back home by midnight, ready to start over again the next morning. "If I do retire I think that I will set up a betting service for the poor punters. That might be a useful thing to do."
Indeed it might. And it might be the biggest help the tote system could have in putting the freewheeling bookies out of business.