English bookies.

THE DAY THE BOOKIES CRIED

Author: Jörgen Nilsson Photo: Mirrorpix, Trevor Jones/thoroughbredphoto.com

When Milan-born jockey Lanfranco Dettori arrived at Ascot racecourse on 28 September 1996, he was quite well known in the British domestic racing scene and had been Anglicized to the more familiar ‘Frankie.’ Nevertheless, on the international racing stage he was still merely in consideration for a minor role.
Until that Saturday, that is. By the end of the day, he was making headlines all over the world.

 

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]eanwhile, Pat Epton, a cleaner and a mother of four from Lincolnshire, was a devoted admirer of Frankie Dettori. When she noticed that the object of her admiration was riding in all seven races at Ascot, it was only natural that she bet a half-pound win on each of Dettori’s seven mounts.

Darren Yates from Morecambe was far more than a devoted admirer of Dettori—he was obsessed. He was also a compulsive gambler who backed all of Dettori’s runners. This passion was not shared by his wife, especially since her husband’s gambling strategy was going as badly as his cabinet-making business. Yates had reassured his wife more than once there would be no more gambling on his part, and on this particular Saturday, he made the same promise as he left home for a football game. But on the way, he took a detour to the local betting-shop, William Hill, and invested a large amount of the household money on his Italian idol. It was supposed to be that very last bet every confirmed gambler considers, and he placed a major part of the investment in a half a pound Super Heinz.

A Super Heinz is a wager on seven selections that consists of 120 separate bets: 21 doubles, 35 trebles, 35 fourfolds, 21 fivefolds, seven sixfolds and a sevenfold accumulator. Since the winning odds are multiplied with each other, the final odds can be astronomical on a lucky day. Yates completed his wager with an each-way accumulator, meaning that Dettori’s seven runners should either win, or at least come in second. He wagered a pound and opted for the Early Bird odds, which are fixed odds that do not fluctuate with the market movements on the race-course.

Kevin Nightingale was not in the best of moods when he opened Corals betting-shop in Battersea in south London. He had lost big time on Dettori’s five runners the previous day at Haydock Park. He got a good laugh for himself when a customer wagered a £5 each-way accumulator on Dettori’s five first runners at Ascot.

Fred Done, the owner of a chain of betting-shops in the north of England, made a devastating decision when he gathered the staff for the morning meeting that day. He proclaimed that the customers who wagered on multiple bets should be offered a double bonus.


John and Mary Bolton celebrated
their 19th wedding anniversary in London that weekend. It was decided Mary should do some shopping while John spent the afternoon at Ascot. As a gift, Mary received a bet consisting of her own picks. As they studied the race card together, she chose the easy way out when her husband tormented her with questions. “Take Frankie Dettori,” she said. And to end the questioning session rapidly, she continued, “In all seven races.”

John Bolton strolled down to Ladbrokes betting shop and wagered 21 nine pound doubles and a five pound each-way accumulator on Dettori’s seven rides. He preferred the Early Bird odds and paid £217 for the lot.

As the audience flooded into Ascot that day, Gary Wiltshire arrived in a fairly good mood. Wiltshire was an on-course-bookmaker who managed his business directly on the British racecourses. He was a master in his métier and had earned a minor fortune during his long and industrious carrier.
When Wiltshire left his £500,000 house, he was actually on his way to Worcester Racecourse, but after a second glance at the Ascot race card, he made a fatal decision. The races looked difficult—every bookmakers dream—and he went to Ascot instead. Andy Smith, a colleague of Wiltshire, was of the same opinion and also on his way to Ascot. But the bookie got stuck in a traffic jam and instead headed for Worcester.

Our main character, Frankie Dettori, had not had one of his best outings at Haydock the previous day, and expressed a bit of worry to his fiancée saying, “I´ve got a bad feeling about Saturday.” But encouraged by a night’s sleep, the Italian estimated a decent each-way chance in the first race and a proper win chance in the highlight of the afternoon, The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

The Cumberland Lodge Stakes is a Group 3 race run over a distance of one mile and four furlongs. In the blue colours of Godolphin, Dettori mounted the 3-year-old filly Wall Street as a favourite. The Italian made no mistakes and fulfilled the crowds’ expectations through a rather comfortable victory. The punters got an immediate advantage from the on-course bookmakers at Ascot.

”But after a second glance at the Ascot race card, he made a fatal decision. The races looked difficult — every book-makers dream — and went for Ascot instead”

Except for Tote, at this time owned by the UK Government (sold to Betfred 2011), the English bookmakers are exposed to liability. Hence it is not the punters’ generated money that determines the odds in a betting pool like in pari-mutuel betting. Both the off-course bookmaker and the on-course bookmaker offer fixed odds, with no economical back up but their own purse. Of course, bookmaking is a far more complicated business, but it is never to the benefit of the bookmakers when the public favourites or national icons triumph.

In the second race of the afternoon, The Diadem Stakes, a Group 2 race run over six furlongs, Dettori was yet again dressed in the Godolphin colors. His mount Diffident faced a dozen contenders, and having not impressed in his previous two races, the Godolphin horse went off at 12/1.

Dettori, who rode Diffident for the first time, got a prominent position early on from stall 10. The race went slowly, and it was just one furlong out that things began to happen. The heavily backed favourite, Lucayan Prince, had been in trouble throughout the whole race but finished quickly. However, it was too late. Dettori had already made his move and held on to a close victory. It was a characteristic jockey win, and the Dettori followers were exultant.

Done, the proprietor of a chain of betting-shops in the north of England, was soon notified of the forthcoming threat. An employee phoned him at his home and made him aware that there was £20,000 riding on Dettori ahead of the third race.

The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, a Group 1 race run over one mile, was undoubtedly the main event of the afternoon. The starting field was all talent.

The 3-year-olds included Bosra Sham, winner of 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket; Ashkalani, winner of Poule d’Essai des Poulains; and Bijou d’Inde, winner of St James’s Palace Stakes. The elder guard wasn’t bad either: First Island, a Sussex Stakes winner; Charnwood, a Queen Anne Stakes winner; and Soviet Line, winner of the Lockage Stakes.

Dettori mounted Godolphin’s 3-year-old Mark of Esteem, who had won the 2,000 Guineas earlier in the year. He was scratched from the Epsom Derby and failed in the St James’s Palace Stakes. Mark of Esteem sweated up in the parade ring, and the on-course punters made him shared second favourite with Bosra Sham. Ashkalani was in a poor shape and turned out to be a bad favourite.

Bijou d’Inde set the early pace together with Bosra Sham, and Mark of Esteem trailed five lengths behind. As Bijou d’Inde tired, Dettori advanced inside the final furlong and the race developed into two-horse contest. As they approached the finishing line, Pat Eddery on Bosra Sham had a slight advantage and felt he couldn´t lose. He was wrong.

From the corner of the eye, Eddery noticed Dettori raising his right hand, claiming victory. Mark of Esteem had a tremendous turn on foot, or as the Italian expressed it, “When I asked him, the response was electric.”

Dettori’s third win alerted the betting companies to the gravity of the situation. Another Dettori win and they would face big payouts on popular betting types such as Yankee and Lucky 15.

Frankie Dettori leaps from Fujiyama Crest, his 7th out of 7 winners Ascot Festival 28th September 1996 © Trevor Jones
Frankie Dettori leaps from Fujiyama Crest, his 7th out of 7 winners Ascot Festival 28th September 1996
© Trevor Jones

A Yankee is a multiple bet consisting of four selections divided into six doubles, four trebles, and finally a fourfold accumulator. Lucky 15 is basically the same but includes four win bets which altogether makes 15 combinations, hence the name. The punters could pick any of Dettori’s seven mounts, but unfortunately, especially from the point of view of the betting companies, most of the money was on the first four races—simply because they were the only races covered by the BBC.

The dominating betting companies at this time, William Hill, Coral and Ladbrokes, were heavily exposed by the fact they were laying a major part of the multiple bets. Most of the multiple bets were premised on starting price, which is the average odds offered by the on-course bookmakers who operate on the racecourses.

In contrast to the fixed Early Bird odds, the starting price odds fluctuate until the race begins—a fact that the off-course bookmakers could utilize by having representatives at the racetrack who shorten the starting price odds if necessary as a kind of assurance.

For example, Dettori’s next mount, John Gosden’s Decorated Hero was available early on at 12/1 but went off at 7/1 through a collective endeavor by the exposed off-course bookmakers.

The Tote Festival Handicap rounded up 26 runners. Decorated Hero carried top weight and had a bothersome draw in stall 22. Dettori was in no way optimistic, but the race turned out perfectly for the pair.

Decorated Hero ran wide and gradually worked his way into the field. With one furlong to go, Dettori headed front and kept on well, winning easily by 3.5 lengths. The jockey, who had already pleased the crowd with his spectacular flying dismount after his victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, celebrated with restriction after his fourth win: raising his fist, hiding his thumb and spreading four fingers apart.

The accumulated odds after Dettori’s fourth win were up to 1351/1. The major betting companies knew that it could easily go from bad to worse. In the upcoming race there were potential betting payouts for the Super Yankee, which consists of five selections combined in a total of 26 bets. This would be extremely bad and could get even worse if Dettori was victorious in the sixth and seventh race, considering the enormous payouts on Heinz (six selections) and Super Heinz (seven selections).

The BBC was only scheduled to transmit the first four races. But instead of ending the transmission as usual, it decided to linger for a few more races, hopeful of a continuation of Dettori’s one-man show.

This bewildered Yates when he entered the local pub just in time for the fifth race. He was a bit crestfallen after a disappointing four-nil defeat in the afternoon’s football game, and later on he knew he had to face his wife with an acceptable explanation about the missing household money. When he became aware of what was going on at Ascot, it was not a matter of drowning his sorrows. His initial £67,58 wager had produced a net profit of £700 and it was far from over.

The 3-year-old Godolphin filly Fatefully was available at 9/2 as fixed odds that morning. When the bell rang and the gates opened in the Rosemary Rated Stakes, Fatefully’s odds had crashed to seven to four. The message was obvious from the off-course bookmakers: Salvage what you can, at the expense of the on-course bookmakers.

The Rosemary Rated Stakes is a handicap race run over a mile. Fatefully broke well and Dettori placed the filly neatly high up in the field. With two and half furlong to go, Dettori advanced and squeezed through to lead one furlong out. The filly barely held on to a close victory and managed to survive a stewards´ enquiry.

There was no need for Dettori to fold in his thumb this time. He raised his right hand and demonstrated that he was born without flaws, spreading five fingers apart.

In the north of England, Done the book maker knew he was in trouble. He was at his office calculating the losses up to the fifth race. It was a disaster already, and it was going to get worse—a lot worse.

In London, Mary Bolton had returned to the hotel after some serious shopping. She decided to watch the races on TV while waiting for her husband. After the fourth race she calculated that she had already won £15,000. When Dettori won the fifth race she couldn’t bear to watch anymore and left the hotel pacing the streets nervously.

The sixth race, the Blue Seal Conditions Stakes, attracted a quintet runners. Under normal circumstances, Dettori’s mount, Ian Balding’s Lochangel, would be considered the second or third choice behind the odds-on favorite, Henry Cecil’s Corsini.

However, ’normal’ was not the correct word to describe the events at Ascot that day. Coral, Ladbrokes and William Hill poured tons of money on Lochangel in order to keep the starting price as short as possible. The professional gamblers utilized the overgenerous odds on Corsini, and when the gates opened, Lochangel and Corsini were five to four joint favourites.

According to Balding, Dettori was supposed to drop the horse in the field and go for a late run. However, in a split second Dettori reappraised the situation and decided to do the running in front. Eddery soon accompanied him on Corsini and the two of them drew clear of the field.

The home stretch at Ascot was a marvelous display of Dettori’s extraordinary riding skills. Whenever Eddery and Corsini seemed to approach, Dettori extracted another length of Lochangel and proved his change of game plan to be a stroke of genius.

Dettori had use of both his hands in the winners’ enclosure—the raised left hand, five fingers spread apart, joined with the right fists, thumb out, and an almost surprised smile demonstrating the sixth victory. He had equaled the record set by legends like Willie Carson, Gordon Richards and Alec Russell. The crowd at Ascot praised him as a hero.

Yates had plenty of reasons for grinning—specifically 27,000—for each sterling pound his multiple bet had generated, with one race to go.

Done the bookie did not grin that broadly. Through a quick but rather depressing arithmetic exercise, he established that Dettori’s six victories had escalated to 8,365/1 based on starting price odds. He dug out his chequebook and prepared for the day of reckoning.

Fujiyama Crest was title defender in the upcoming Gordon Carter Handicap. Nevertheless, the horse had presented poor form since and in addition, had been off for three months. He was also burdened with more weight this year and had been offered at double-figure Early Bird odds.

The general belief was that Dettori stood little chance going through the race card on board Fujiyama Crest. The Early Bird odds offering prices from 12/1 up to 20/1 were a correct estimation under normal circumstances.

However, at Ascot on this afternoon, the betting ring (the area where the British on-course bookmakers charge their business) had developed into a war zone. The three major off-course bookmakers were forced to shorten the starting price odds on Fujiyama Crest as a security measure. Despite their combined efforts the odds refused to drop below 2/1.

Afterward it was appreciated that the turnover in the betting ring on Fujiyama Crest reached a staggering £600,000. The on-course bookmakers had lost a fortune in the previous races to the representatives of the big betting companies and spotted an opportunity. Since they were completely convinced that Fujiyama Crest couldn’t win, they kept the pot boiling by refusing to lower the starting price odds below 2/1. They had stumbled into their own trap: instead of working the percentage, they had become gamblers.

”However, ’normal’ was not the correct word to describe the events at Ascot that day. Coral, Ladbrokes and William Hill poured tons of money on Lochangel in order to keep the starting price as short as possible”

Unaware of the events in the betting ring, Dettori approached the starting gate on board Fujiyama Crest wearing the blue and pink silks of Japanese owner Seisuke Hata.

Shooting Light, a long shot contender partly owned by a certain J M Brown, manager of the bookies of William Hill, was heading in the same direction. The riding instructions communicated to jockey Tim Sprake by Brown were intended as a joke but to be taken seriously: “If you get anywhere near Frankie, stick him over the rails—I´ll pay your fine.”

The Gordon Carter Handicap stretches over two miles, and when top weighted Fujiyama Crest headed for lead, the atmosphere was tangible. Dettori kept a moderate pace unchallenged, and as the acknowledged judge of pace, he made no mistakes and got his mount into a nice rhythm.

Ray Cochrane noticed something he never experienced at Ascot before when he passed the grand stand on Pike Creek—a sustained roar. It was a noise that accompanied Dettori as he left the stands downhill towards Swinley Bottom (a turn at Ascot Race Course). Still no one challenged with five furlongs to go, and Fujiyama Crest showed no signs of fatigue.

In front when the field entered the home stretch, Fujiyama Crest was burdened by the top weight. Eddery on Northern Fleet closed in with the rest of the field. Dettori looked back, worried by the approaching sound of Northern Fleet’s clumping hooves. He pumped vigorously and Fujiyama Crest responded.

One furlong out, Northern Fleet was still cutting the margin, but the roar of the crowd carried Dettori and Fujiyama Crest to a narrow victory. The Italian defined his place in the history books by adding one more finger to his victory gesture and completed his achievement with his trademark—the spectacular flying dismount.

Simultaneously as the champagne flooded the winners’ enclosure at Ascot, Dettori’s feat reached front-pages throughout the world. Sporting Life changed the front page the whole afternoon due to Dettori’s tour de force. And when they were ready to print, the headline proclaimed “The Magnificent Seven,” the very wording their rival Racing Post chose.

The bookies in the betting ring were not likely to participate in the champagne party. As an on-course bookmaker put it, “If a bookmaker hasn´t lost a fortune this afternoon, then they just don´t lay horses properly.”

Bookie Wiltshire, the one who was originally was heading for Worcester that day, had lost about £800,000 at Ascot and was facing ruin. He was forced to sell his expensive and hard earned house. When he laid his first one-pound bet later that evening at Milton Keynes dog track, he thought, “It´s going to be a long way back from there.”

In north England, bookmaker Done was done calculating. He had lost £1,500,000—a figure that could have been so much less if he had kept his mouth shut during that morning meeting. He got use of a full chequebook and handled the situation in good spirit, screening Reward, Dead or Alive: Good Looking Italian Kid, Last seen In Ascot Area from the front of his betting shops.

”Reward, Dead or Alive: Good Looking Italian Kid, Last seen In Ascot Area”

Jockey Frankie Dettori November 2006
Jockey Frankie Dettori November 2006

John Bolton had experienced a depressing day at Ascot, constantly backing the wrong horses. That fact did not bother him in the least as he tore apart his bet tickets. He was mainly concerned with two other things: How much money had his wife won on his wedding day gift and was the betting slip in safekeeping?

Ahead of the seventh race, he had heard rumours of a customer at Ladbrokes that had £29,000 rolling on Fujiyama Crest at 20/1. It could only be his wife, he figured. When he returned to the hotel, he found his wife slightly awed but firmly holding the betting slip.

The next day, he got the answer to his first concern: Mary Bolton had technically won a shocking £900,000. However, she had to settle with £500,000 since that was the amount of Ladbrokes pay-out-limit. Still, it was a decent wedding day gift under any circumstances.

Epton, the cleaner who wagered a half a pound win ticket on Dettori’s seven runners, collected a total of £19. If she had bet another half-pound in an accumulator on all Dettori’s mounts, she would have increased her winning by roughly £120,000. She was quite pragmatic about it stating, “What you haven’t got, you don’t miss.”

Yates knew that the invested household money had yielded well, but not to the exact amount. He had forgotten he opted the Early Birds odds and was euphoric when he learnt his multiple bet had exceeded William Hill’s pay-out-limit by £50,000—making a total win of £550,823. And presumably, for once, his wife was rather pleased her husband had ignored her advice.

The following Sunday, Yates got an offer he could not refuse. He was to be paid the full amount by William Hill if he went public, and additionally, his Italian idol, Frankie Dettori, would personally hand out the winning cheque. He didn´t hesitate for one second.

William Hill and Ladbrokes paid out £8,000,000 each, while Coral got away with only paying out £4,000,000. In the end, the bookmaking industry lost almost £40 million on Dettori’s seven winners that Saturday afternoon, September 28, 1996.

Dettori’s consecutive seven winners added up to £384,992 in earnings for the owners. Dettori kept about £16,000 in basic pay. But of course winning the entire race card at Ascot, which means beating not only the very best of Thoroughbreds but the most able riders as well, was worth far more than that.

According to an interview some years later, Dettori claimed that a prominent recollection of his record-breaking day was that he went to bed in an extremely bad mood due to a quarrel with his fiancée.

What did they argue about?

That trifle had slipped his mind.

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