Back in the day, that is the days before Betfair, electronic boards and the Internet, the betting ring was bustling. The bookmakers, depending on the size of their firm would often be mob-handed. The ‘staff’ would mainly be family members, the bookmaking father with sons and sometimes daughters learning the ropes.
If there were paid members of staff, they’d be the clerk who wrote down all the bets. The boss aside who made the decisions, the clerk was the most important member of the team, his accuracy paramount to the success of the day’s racing. Then there was the trusted bag man who’d pay out and give change and finally the floorman.
The floorman was the ‘entry level’ job for anyone from outside of the family and the industry that want to get into the game. The floorman had many jobs. His main one was to be the eyes and ears of the bookmaker. His role to watch everything that was going on in the ring. He’d relay price movements, keep a look out for ‘faces’ having bets that might be significant and for those sharp-suit reps coming in for bets off the rails. Whatever they backed would certainly shorten so warning the boss was imperative, he might decide if it as the favourite, he’d be happy to get it in the book or alternatively chose to duck it and try and get it in the book shorter. The part the floorman would enjoy the most would be having ‘back bets’ but more on them later.
Then there were the important parts of the floorman’s job. One was lugging the gear in. People that work on course these days would laugh, but the floorman would often have a moan about ‘all the kit’ which would consist of a tripod, ‘mush’ slang for umbrella and the headboard, the boss would usually carry the hod ‘slang for the bookmaker’s satchel’ and readies.
Other duties would include getting the teas, that is in the assumption that your boss was generous enough to buy teas or cold drinks for the firm. This would usually come from the ‘smash’, the slang for the small change contained in a tray at the bottom of the board. One casual floorman that worked on the same day as me with front row book ‘Jack Bevan and Co’ at Newbury shortened his working span with that firm to that solitary day. His chances of future employment evaporated when he told Ian the boss of the firm that a previous bookmaker he worked for had been too tight to supply refreshments. Generous to a fault Ian’s look of sympathy turned to horror when the guy added, as he fondly fingered the change, ‘It was OK though, I got a drink and a pasty anyway, I just nicked it from the smash!’
Honesty and a certain degree of mathematical ability were the main qualifications for the job, honesty the absolute prerequisite. It was a long time before I was allowed to tidy the hod between races. This meant putting the notes into hundreds and slotting them into the bag in an organised manner. Back in those halcyon days the hod would often be brimming with notes after each race, keeping everything tidy was important to a lot of bookmakers. Plenty liked to be able to tally up their money and cross check with the ledger before leaving the course, just in case there was a discrepancy.
I was chuffed the first day I was allowed the privilege of tidying the bag. I hadn’t yet worked out that in doing so I forfeited the chance of watching a complete race or nipping to the loo during one, ever again. I was just about to get to work when Jack the boss barked ‘Roll your sleeves up.’ This was in order to ensure I wasn’t replicating something that may or may not have happened in the past but was repeated so often down the years it was considered gospel regardless. A dishonest and devious floorman had put elastic bands on his forearms in such a way they when he plunged into the hod to tidy the money he’d ‘fish’ some notes trapped under the bands under his sleeves. The money would be salted away from their precarious ensnarement to somewhere much safer when the opportunity arose. Sleeves rolled up it was until I could be suitably trusted.
Getting the bag ready for work before racing was another floorman’s job. The change, chalk and latterly pens would be stored there between race meetings. There was one bookmaker that I worked for that would leave ‘bait’ in the hod as a test. A stray £10 or £20 note tucked away from the previous meeting for the floorman to ‘find’. If he gave it up he was OK, if he stuck it in his pocket, that was the end of his career with that bookie.
The back bets mentioned earlier is where a floorman made his wages for the boss. He was the one who would dart around the ring having back-bets with other bookmakers. This was when his bookie had a laid a bet which left him with a liability bigger than he wanted. He’d ‘hedge’ his bet with another layer to level up his book. This was the most important, and fun, of the floorman’s jobs. His first and foremost aim was the get the bet on, ‘Don’t come back with nothing’ was the cry you’d hear from the bookies, the second priority was to try and beat the price. Of course, in trying to beat the price, there was a danger of missing it all together.
The biggest nightmare for the floorman was the ‘bluff’. Not all bookmakers wanted to lay a back bet. Depending on who the floorman worked for it could be extremely lively money for a horse almost certain to run very well, not to mention shorten in price. It was generally accepted that if a price was on a board the bookmaker would be obliged to lay you something. That’s where the bluff came in. Floormen would call the bets into the bookie, no need for cash, as he was with the ring it was ‘cash after’. This was handy when it was busy and punter were queuing to get on. In some cases, if you called in a relatively small bet, the bookmaker would make a big thing of accepting it then shorten the price for the very annoyed punters. That was OK for the floorman, the other scenario was the bookie ‘Copping a deaf ‘un’. Some were very skilled at this. As the floorman called the bet in, the bookie would remove the price while gazing around the ring not acknowledging the punter at all. If, during this gazing, he noticed there was a move for the horse he’d look at the frantic floorman, feign surprise and say, ‘What was that?’, when the floorman repeated the bet, the bookmaker would look even more surprised, stare where the price had been and exclaim ‘But it’s gone, nothing done!’
A lot of that was done in devilment, back bets were mutually beneficial to all so were generally accommodated to some degree. Fractions were universally accepted too. These ‘fraction’ prices harked back to days when bets were settled 100 to something. A bookmaker’s floorman when asked to back a 6/1 chance back to win £100 could ask for £100 – £16 as opposed to a £96 – £16 thus giving a small earn on the bet. Fractions can still be obtained with traditional bookmakers on-course, if you learn them and ask, you’ll probably get laid. They are as follows.
11/2 £100 – £18
6/1 £100 – £16
13/2 £100 – £15
7/1 £100 – £14
15/2 £100 – £13
8/1 £100 – £12
9/1 £100 – £11
11/1 £100 – £9
12/1 £100 – £8
14/1 £100 – £7
16/1 £100 – £6
33/1 £100 – £3
The final part of the floorman’s job, was the biggest of them all. He was to take the blame for everything. Whatever went wrong, the food chain of bollockings ended with the floorman, it was his fault. From missing a price, even though he’d told his boss over and over it was going, to all the favourites winning on the day, the ‘result’ getting beaten a short head, to the weather it was the floorman’s fault and he accepted it so with a smile.
Often maligned as miserable, the sight of floormen hammering around calling in bets now gone has lessened the atmosphere of the ring. The demise of the floorman was the most immediate effect of bookmakers using the betting exchanges on-course back in the 2000’s and the racecourse is all that poorer for it. It’s a shame but if you learn your fractions and put them into action on course when you go racing, you’ll be keeping a little part of floorman legacy alive. Aye Aye.