On this dull, damp Ascot afternoon, Mickey Stuart gesticulates
like a demented Roman tribune on his crate in front of the
racetrack's grandstand. Flapping his white-gloved hands,
punching his knuckles together, whacking his chin, he seems to
be fending off a swarm of hornets while guiding a 747 in for a
landing. He moves his lips, but no words come out. "No, he's not
a raving loony," says racing commentator and betting guru John
McCririck. "He's merely ticktacking."
In the eccentric world of British handicapping, ticktack is the
term for the secret signals used by bookmakers. Before a race,
ticktack men semaphore the odds and price changes from the
bookies at the rail of the track to the bookies in the center of
the betting ring, between the members' enclosure and the main
enclosure, where bettors--called punters in Britain--place their
wagers with competing bookmakers. All the ticktack men's frantic
gesturing is accompanied by espionage and counterespionage as
complicated as the plot in a novel by John le Carre.
Stuart is the George Smiley of ticktackery. He has been sending
out coded signals for 69 of his 85 years. "I've ticked from
Ascot to Yarmouth," he says, "and I've tacked from Aintree to
Brighton. That's south to north and north to south." His eyes
are half-mooned in shadow, his lips are cracked and dry, his
skin rice-papery. He learned the trade from his old man, a
London ice cream impresario who made book under the name Hokey
King and espoused the ticktack credo: Eyes open, ears open,
mouth shut. "My father was not a great bookmaker," Stuart
concedes. "He made money from the ice creams over the summer and
lost it [as a bookmaker] over the winter." Stuart fils works the
tracks year-round. "I still make about 200 race days a year," he
says. "I've ticktacked for the grandfathers of some of the
bookies here today."
Odds were first called on an English racetrack by William Ogden
at Newmarket in 1790, and betting rings have been around since
the 1850s. Starting prices varied wildly until 1926, when the
system was unified by the bookmakers' association. "I have no
idea who invented ticktacking--probably the Mafia," says Stuart.
"When I began in the late '20s, underworld figures more or less
controlled racing and bookmaking." That era's seamier side was
chronicled in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock. It was
while standing around the ring at Brighton's track that the
book's doomed antihero, Pinkie, got his neck and hands razored
by gangland thugs.
August 24, 1997
Except for the thugs, everything has stayed pretty much the
same. You can still place a bet inside at the tote windows, but
the real action is outside in the yard. At Ascot on this
particular day, hundreds of punters scramble madly among the
ring's 60 bookmakers for the best odds. Each bookie has his own
stand, with a "joint" (a blackboard for chalking up prices), a
"mush" (umbrella), "briefs" (betting tickets) and a "hod" (a
hand-painted Gladstone bag into which banknotes are placed).
Assisting the bookies are a clerk, who records wagers in a
"captain" (ledger), and a "floor man"--a sort of spy charged
with finding out who is putting how much money on what horse and
The bookies stand in three neat rows, their position--or
"pitch"--determined by seniority. "We're all stepping in dead
men's shoes," says third-generation bookie John Burrows. "As
layers drop dead, you move up in line." An old-timer called
Goldtooth was famous for asking, "Been any good deaths in the
The row nearest the members' rail is considered the most
advantageous. The pole position is the one nearest the entrance
to the members' enclosure, which is off-limits to bookies. "The
closer to the entrance the better," Burrows says. "That's where
the bigger punters generally bet."
The bigger the bet, the more likely that a bookie will hedge it
by "laying off," or backing the horse himself with other bookies
in the ring. The ticktack conducts this flow of cash by acting
as a sort of interbookie telephone line.
"Ticktacks function as intermediaries," says McCririck. "They
broker between one bookmaker wishing to 'stand' a horse that
punters nearby won't come for and another trying to put money on
it, either at a bigger price than he has just laid or to cut
down his liability." To ensure that no result breaks his back, a
bookie should constantly balance his books.
Millions of pounds are exchanged through this intricate sign
trafficking. "There are no words, no witnesses, no written
evidence that a deal ever took place," says McCririck. "Trust
and honor constitute the core of racecourse bookmaking business."
Odds, of course, are determined by volume of money. Big money
shortens them. The biggest usually comes in from offtrack
bookies. When word comes that the offtrack betting chains like
Ladbrokes are shoveling cash into a race, ticktacks draw circles
over their heads to alert on-track bookies. McCririck calls this
the magic sign. "Immediately," he says, "most bookies wipe the
going prices off their joints in anticipation of a lower price."
In his deerstalker, Inverness cape and muttonchop sideburns,
McCririck looks positively Sherlock Holmesian. But ticktacking,
he says, is anything but elementary. "In my days as a ticktack I
often felt the way I do when I try to speak French," he says
between puffs on a cigar the size of a baguette. "I can say, 'La
plume de ma tante.' But you hear a French person enunciate the
phrase, and you know I'm a fraud. I would have made a terrible
Spying is of great concern to ticktacks. Nobody wants a rival
bookie picking off his signals. Sign-stealing among ticktacks
was once so fierce that six systems were used. Now there's one
universal language, which is why Stuart and the rest of the
public ticktacks take extra precautions. "I give each of my
bookies a card printed with my own numbering of the horses for
each race," Stuart says. "Unless you've got my twist card, you
can't tell which signs go with which horse."
To the uninitiated, the parlance of ticktack is as
indecipherable as Cockney. It's hard enough to unravel a phrase
such as "it's a cockle with the fiddlers" (translation: The odds
are 10-1 with bookies prepared to make only small bets). But
even McCririck has a hard time explaining "the splonk is tips
with the thumb, execs bar."
Understanding the slang for various odds almost requires a
Captain Midnight decoder ring. Odds of 3-1 are a "carpet," 33-1
a "double carpet." An "ear 'ole" is 6-4; 13-8 is "bits on the
ear 'ole." "Macaroni" is 25-1. Stuart frames the signal for 6-4
by raising the back of his right hand left across his face. He
indicates 11-10 by pressing his fingertips together. Shaping a
circle with both hands means 500[pounds], also known as a monkey.
"Before the war all the signs were around the head," says
Stuart. "These days, the 50 or so signs that are used go all
around the shoulder area."
Mickey may be the last of British racing's House of Stuart. He
discouraged his daughter, Irene, from following him into the
ring. "I'd rather send her down the coal mines," he says.
"There's no living in ticktack anymore." His bookies each pay
him a day rate of about eight dollars--a tidy sum at the Derby
or the Grand National, where he works for many bookies, but
horse feed at smaller meetings, where there is less betting
action. "Ticktacks, you could say, are a dying breed," Stuart
Technology--in the form of cell phones and
walkie-talkies--threatens them with extinction. In five years,
Stuart predicts, there may not be a ticktack left in England.
"The new people working in the ring have all these gadgets," he
says dismissively. "I think if I had a radio, I'd be listening
to Bing Crosby."
On this brisk February afternoon the dominant sound is the
bellowing of bookies: "Two and a half on Sound Man.... Ten on
Strong Promise...." A bulky sheepskin coat shields Stuart from
the chill. He's reluctant to rub his hands together for warmth,
lest one of his bookies think that he's relaying a signal. "At
least it's not raining," he says. "There's nothing worse than
trying to hold on to twist cards when you're wet. They go limp,
and you can't write on them."
Clouds gather in the tin-gray sky as Stuart watches the horses
jump a gorse-packed fence in the featured steeplechase. A
9-year-old gelding named One Man is the 4-7 favorite. The older
the horse, the better the jumper, says one of Stuart's fellow
ticktacks. The old campaigner, he says, will make up two or
three lengths on the jump.
This turns out not to be such a sage observation: 6-year-old
long shot Strong Promise wins comfortably. Stuart sniggers at
the result. He places an occasional wager with bookies but has
never been much of a tout. "Want to know the winner in the final
race?" he asks. "I'll tell you at five o'clock."
The final race goes off at 4:35.