Saturday, 10 December 2011

My time with Big Jack.

When  J K Waterhouse died back in 1998 the Sydney betting ring lost a giant. Although his later years on the stand were more modest than the halcyon days of the 60's and 70's when he was one of the biggest bookmakers in the world, he still had a booming presence. He worked that stand in the Interstate Ring, sitting on a big swivel chair dressed immaculately in a 3 piece suit, jacket on no matter what the temperature right up until his death, a day that struck me personally as he was my boss at the time. A boss I was proud to have. A boss who changed my life for the better even though I couldn't see it at the time.

Before my first day working as a Bookies Clerk with Jack Waterhouse, I was warned by one of the senior clerks, Frank Norton, that Jack could be a cantankerous, cranky, even nasty character, but not to take any abuse personally as he was really a lovely gentleman once the races are over. Jack runs the book on the Brisbane races and John runs the odds for Melbourne and Adelaide. I was to work the ticket computer for Brisbane, working directly with the boss. Well I discovered early on he was a Jekyll and Hyde type of character. One minute he’d be talking to me about the beauty of Budgerigars, and what breed of chicken makes the best layers, the next he was poking me in the back screaming that I was no good, and would never make a decent clerk! After copping another torrent of abuse from him one day at Rosehill I recall one of the bagmen urged me to "tell him to go jump"(in more colourful terms!), but I thought, this man has been working as a Bookmaker on course for 57 years, who am I to talk back to him? So I learnt to take the abuse quietly and keep working as hard as I could, keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact with the old bloke. I travelled from Newcastle to Sydney, the furthest distance of any staff (by about 150 kms!), I was first there to set up the stand, and last to leave packing it up. Yet despite the hard work and time I put in, the abuse from Jack became so overwhelming that his son John moved me from the ticket computer to the bag on the other side of the stand, allowing me some respite.

Well I thrived on the bag. Standing on that box yelling out “Board Odds here” made me feel like a Satchel Swinger of old. Unfortunately though Jack stopped talking to me altogether. For 6 months the only time he spoke to me was to occasionally berate me for being useless. At that point I thought of giving up and finding another job, but in the end I thought to myself this bastard isn’t going to beat me, I’ll convince him I’m the goods…'Last man standing wins the prize' is the best advice my Uncle had given me, hang in there and He'll eventually like me!

 Then one day out of the blue he called me over in that huge booming voice of his. My heart started racing as I approached him, convinced I was about to be fired. Instead he told me he had been watching me and that I was doing a great job. He told me I was one of the best clerks he’d had in 20 years and that he trained me well.  I thought for sure I was going to get my marching orders so to hear kind words from him was such a huge relief and totally unexpected. I have to agree he did train me well. The next few months were much more relaxed and fun after that moment of praise. My memories of the 1997 Spring Carnival in Melbourne will last forever. With my Uncle's horses winning some big races at Flemington, I won plenty of cash backing them with the neighbouring bookies, and so to did John and a couple of the other fellows who worked with us. I would laugh and smile all day while I swung the bag in the Interstate ring. I remember at the Christmas Eve meeting at Randwick I wore a Santa hat with fake beard. Jack told me I looked stupid all day until the last couple of races when every drunk in the joint wanted to have a bet with Santa!! I had punters lined up 4 deep trying to get on while all the other bagmen down the line stood idle. Our turnover skyrocketed and the old man couldn't praise me enough!! I couldn't wait until Saturday to drive down the F3 and get to the track, whether it be Randwick, Rosehill or Warwick Farm. The good times rolled, between my Saturday job at the races and my job driving for an escort agency my lifestyle was pretty sweet…..

When I was told by his Grandson Matt the old man had died my world came crashing down. Not only had my main source of income suddenly stopped, but a man I had grown to admire and love, and who was a massive influence in my life at that time was gone, and I knew I would miss those times listening to his stories of the past. Not only from him but from the other characters I was in close contact with as there was no going back to the track. He was the Bookmaker, and the licence went with him.  He died on his farm at Silverdale, west of Sydney while feeding his beloved chickens. He lived for his animals and birds, and most of the conversations I had with him were about his birds or horses.  At his funeral, which was attended by well over 500 people, his wife Gwen told me how “Pa used to talk about you all the time”. It was a humbling moment for me. During my time working for Jack I got to meet and mingle with some absolutely legendary characters of the Australian turf. I saw some of the biggest punters and how they operate. I got to meet wonderful people like Father O’Dwyer, the punting Catholic priest warned off all racecourses for life over the Fine Cotton ring-in scandal, and Coral, our runner who was in her 70’s, smoked like a chimney, wore joggers and could run from the Rails to the Ring to warn us of betting moves faster than any of the younger runners. Coral knew every piece of gossip in town.(She was the first person on the racecourse to break the news  of Michael Hutchence death) I was told tales of Coral sitting out the front of trainers houses, hiding in the bushes with listening devices to get all the mail on their horses. Then there was old George, who was a Bondi Iceberg member and former lifeguard who could roll a ciggie in one hand. He was the King of the ledger, with the fastest maths I've ever seen for a man in his late 60's, and Frank, who was a true Eastern Suburbs boy and had played reserves for the mighty Roosters in the 50's. 

I will never forget the lessons learnt and the fun that was had during my time at the track, where all men are equal in the betting ring. Down-and-outers' mingled with well-to-doers, all in the pursuit of that illusive tip that will change their lives forever, or at least until next Saturday! I went on to spend the next several years working in the racing industry, taking me around Australia and to Hong Kong and even Vanuatu to work in a betting shop taking bets over the phone for an illegal bookie, yet working for a man who was a true legend and “Leviathan” of the turf was one of the proudest moments in my life and I am thankful to still have a good relationship with his son John to this day, having worked for him for many years during the construction of the Grand Mercure hotel in Newcastle. 

The atmosphere in the betting ring will never be the same again. Corporate Bookmakers with pretty girls in miniskirts working as clerks may sound appealing but is not the same as seeing giants of men in expensive suits, larger than life working the stand and yelling out the odds while rough-heads like me swinging the bag, another penciling the odds onto a piece of cardboard, yelling the bets to the boss as the ring buzzed with the roar of voices from the hundreds of punters desperate to get on.  I can’t possibly see these little ‘Poppet Clerks’ handle 10 or more punters screaming their bets at once, with every bet recorded and nobody missing out. Then again these days nearly everyone bets at home. Those at the track now are there for the party and the champers more than the horses. Princesses Welcome!

They were grand old days, I count myself very fortunate to have been a part of it all…..

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