Eric Wilson, a giant in many ways 13 May 2014
He strode the betting ring like a lion looking for his next Christian.
So tall that 1960s footballers looked of average size beside him.
Bald but hairy if you can say such a thing. The naked pate surrounded by wiry chestnut hair, his round face covered in beard with only nose, eyes and forehead clearly visible.
An eccentric man playing the hardest game of all – bookmaking in a rapidly changing world. Where once it had been easy and mugs handed over fistfuls of pounds on horses that even the less skilled of professionals knew would not win, the advent of dollars, though in no way related to the change, seemed to alter things. The punter became better informed, better trained, more professional themselves.
The son of a famous bookie, our man scoffed at the suggestion that his father was considered “lucky.”
“You make your own luck,” he said.
He cut his teeth catching the horse train from a siding outside Ascot racecourse so he could attend country race tracks in the Avon Valley.
The family home was in Rivervale, in between Goodwood (later Belmont Park) and headquarters at Ascot. A near neighbour was champion jockey Eric Treffone, a family friend and rider of the idolised Raconteur, one of WA’s all-time greats. These were exciting times to be so close to the action for a young race fan.
When eventually he too became a bookie it was beside his father, Arthur, at the trots in the days when this betting medium was at least the equal of the races. These were referred to as ‘the gallops’ by the jealous pacing people who sought to distinguish their sport with its hoppled horses which paced while pulling a slim chariot known as a spider.
Later he joined the ring at the races where upwards of 40 men plied their trade every Saturday and public holiday. Men with names like Botica, O’Malley, Gray, Saunders, O’Reilly, Wells, Lee, Jordan, Nixon, Mack paid for the right to be Perth bookmakers, a licence to print money. The biggest – Evans – was ‘warned off’, found guilty of rorting a jackpot at the trots, the disqualification carried over to the races.
Our man joined this group and played the game. Big car and expensively dressed though my father used to say no matter how much these clothes cost they never looked good on him. Even allowing for vanity, while on a racecourse, it would have been the last thing on Eric Wilson’s mind.
As racing changed and his face became more synonymous with it, the big man had to adapt and he did, doing the form in a way peculiarly his own. His forecasts knew no shade of grey. His tip was white, the rest were black and no one got in the way of it, unless he found for some reason that ‘white’ wasn’t meant to win. And don’t pretend these things didn’t happen, even if not as often to do with skullduggery as the layman would have you believe.
Usually he stuck solid with his own selection and kept laying odds to the punters that the rest of the field couldn’t win. One hapless rival, when asked how his day was going, pointed to Eric’s neighbouring stand and said: “How do you think I’m going? Drawn here next to the ‘human tote’.”
To accelerate his winnings, Eric invented – or at least was the greatest exemplar of – ‘Going to Norway’. This involved betting heavily on your own selection and laying the rest of the field for a kicking if you were wrong. If he was wrong, there was no outburst, no demonstrative anger, just a cloud forming over the wooly-headed frame and a steely focus on the upcoming race. There was no fear.
He was the first man I knew to have $20,000 on a horse – his own two-year-old Artandi (it won) – but was the first to panic when a game of American Two-Up got out of hand on the balcony of Matilda Bay Restaurant one Monday after settling.
In that far-off time, bookmakers and their punting clients would gather at Perth Tattersall’s Club every Monday at noon to settle up the outcome of the previous week’s credit betting transactions. Tens of thousands of dollars would change hands in a room with no security and access from at least five doors.
On one of these Mondays in the late 1970s, a group of 10 followed settling with lunch at the foreshore restaurant in Crawley. With no inside table available, they accepted seating at a small balcony near the front door. Most of the table was heavily cashed up for punters and bookmakers knew no such fear as robbery and carried their cash in massive rolls or squared bundles. Notes arranged by tens in every denomination, held together by rubber bands.
Someone suggested a new game. Place a stack of 20 cent pieces on the table and, in sequence moving clockwise, each player was able to bet on the outcome once the top coin was removed. Each player was allowed to bet up to the amount in the centre of the table, first fixed by each of us beginning the game with $20 in the middle.
I am reminded of Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair betting his friend an enormous amount that he can repeat an almost impossible bunker shot. When he fails, he says: “What else are we gonna do on a Saturday?”
Change that to a Monday in Perth and we were off. Within 30 minutes the pot had swelled as small bets became bigger with losses trying to be recovered. At one point when seven tails in a row had arrived, the biggest loser ‘bet the guts’ on heads. Whatever was in the pot he matched. Tails.
With the pot doubled and increased by three more tails in a line, all incorrectly called, another player bet the centre. Tails. The centre had again doubled.
Now Perth is a windy city and the balcony of a riverfront restaurant can feel buffeted at times when the sea breeze – ‘the Fremantle Doctor’ – blows in.
Fortunately this was a calm day and the pot remained unmoved by natural forces. Even if it had, no bank note was going to escape that group of men, seated shoulder-to-shoulder on that small balcony.
As the pot reached $40,000 and other diners leaving the main room of the restaurant threw horrified looks in the bookies’ table direction, Big Eric was first to panic.
“We’ve created a monster,” he said. “We’ll have to buy a block of flats between us using this as a deposit.” This said pointing to the pile of mostly fifties for this was before the advent of ‘the Bradman’, Australia’s $100 note.
A sage voice said let’s bet 2 to 1* the centre and this will break the amount down over time. The idea seemed to ease some concern. However, the closest friend of the bookie who had lost the most said this was unfair. His friend had lost his money betting in big amounts at even money and those who had bet smaller would have the opportunity to increase their bets at twos.
Debate was strong and often heated for an hour as the merits of this idea were discussed. Roman (Galliano) and Irish (Irish whisky) coffees were downed during the discussion period and personalities and long-held grudges were exposed.
The $40,000 remained in situ. The coins remained on the table with no one daring to touch them. A compromise was reached, though still unsatisfactory to some. Odds of 6 to 4 (one and half to one) was agreed as the new dividend for guessing correctly.
Odds eventually became the saviour and the pot reduced.
“Thank God!” said Big Eric. Though he traded three times a week in amounts far greater, this excess and spiral from control among friends could not be accepted.
Such was the contradiction of the man. He drank a less-than-pleasant instant coffee called Pablo because he once bought a job lot of it for a pittance. He drove his car, first a Pontiac, later a Roller, 30kms to buy petrol at a cheaper price. But on a racecourse such careful behaviour with money was never considered.
One old bookmaker said Eric was “only broke twice a year: summer and winter” but, after a particularly bad run of losing days when it was suggested he should sell something to cash up, Eric replied sternly: “Oh, I never sell an asset” and he had plenty of them. The other bookie died broke.
I shared little with him apart from our friendship and a love of racing but he is responsible for my favourite line when it comes to our dislike of watching tennis. When once he told me he was taking the gorgeous Anita, his wife forever, to London in July, I asked if he would attend any sporting events like Wimbledon.
“I wouldn’t go if I was staying across the road and had free tickets,” he replied and I’ve dined out on this description every Australian winter for the past 30 years.
As another winter approaches and most of his former colleagues have moved from the racecourse to new careers, ill-concealed recriminations or the crematorium, Big Eric survives where he belongs.
He still patrols the betting rings of Ascot and Belmont Park, ear-piece in place to take umpteen phone calls a race. Though no longer a bookie, he proffers unwanted advice to those who are. His selections are still white and black is still only ever black but the lion has survived.
Though the teeth are no longer as sharp and the hearing gone, it is a lion very few others in the pride think they will ever beat because thus far, no one has.
*2 to 1 or 2/1 is $3.00 in the digital age. Also mentioned: Even money or 1/1 is $2.00; 6/4 is $2.50