Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Lonely Pokémon

For some time now, one of the best reads on my blogroll is Don Butler's Cubone - The Gambling Historian! The author is currently away for a 'serious procedure', for which we wish him the best, and I found this article about Don posted on the Betfair Forum by a Buzzer. Not sure where it came from, but it might be of interest to some of you who are familiar with Don and his tales. At the very least check out his Golden Rules at the end - four of the five make for good advice. Don recently lost his son, named Rhett no less, and by all accounts a much respected teacher, to pancreatic cancer at the young age of 38. Read this post here next time you think that losing a bet is important.

Don Butler had a colourful life in bookmaking - a parade of dolly birds, celebrities and PR stunts made him a legend of the racecourses. Here, he recounts his best tales to Dave Fowler, and explains why he now looks to the internet to make his fortune.

Don Butler was born to be a bookie. His earliest memory, from the late 1930s, was his father, a tic-tac in a successful Midland bookmaking team, emptying the 'odd' (the cash box) on to the lounge floor after a day's racing. Young Don would then sort through knee-high piles of banknotes and coins, revelling in the sheer delight of hard cash.

If that wasn't enough to instill a love of bookie's booty, he also knew his father kept a £37,000 float on top of the wardrobe. In an age when the average house cost a few hundred quid, that was like having a couple of million in your sock drawer.

You might conclude that Don was a lucky kid. You'd be right. Up to a point, that is, because after the war, the Butler family money started to slip away, and not just the fiver Don lost on his first wager, Logh Conn at 33/1 in the 1947 Grand National.

Down and out

Massive financial problems kicked in when Butler senior graduated from tic-tac to bookmaker and, granting unrestrained credit to all, allowed the business to slide so fast that by Christmas 1948 Don couldn't have that shiny, new bicycle. What he got instead was an enforced relocation to Birmingham's red-light district, where the family lived in a basement with an aunt while Dad drank himself into the ground. It was Year Zero, Butler style.

'Well, on the bright side, there were plenty of birds down there and some of them were really lovely!' laughs the ever-optimistic Don during our meeting in Birmingham's Albany Hotel. 'But those were dark days. I eventually got a Subbuteo kit with Birmingham and Villa for Christmas, but my Mum couldn't afford a ball. Imagine how I felt with every match ending in a draw!'

Don soon got his first job, running illegal bets, or 'nuggets', between pubs, and avoiding the law. Next, the Bookmakers' Association suspended his father for 'snowballing' (not having the funds to pay out and offering extended odds on the next race) at Warwick. Don then endured National Service, where at least running the camp's book was a temporary distraction. Back on civvy street, he hooked up with family friend and local bookmaking legend Sammy Nixon, who fast became a surrogate father.

'Sam tried to instill in me the importance of saving for a house and family,' laughs Don, 'but this was the 1960s and I was up for having the time of my life. As well as working for Sam, I was putting on bets for pro punters. They paid me 2% for getting the bet on and I got up to 10% commission from the bookies. I was Sam's eyes and ears on the course and got a feel for where the smart money was going.'

Girls and big tips

Don was now one of the snappiest dressers on the racing circuit, renowned for his endless supply of dolly birds, patter and hot tips. He was a regular at Birmingham's Cedar club, on first name terms with Mandy Rice Davies, Christine Keeler and George Best, and even rubbed shoulders with the Beatles. London bookie bigshots Neville Berry and Ted Binns were so impressed with his female coterie they invited him and some of his 'hairdressing lady-friends' for a champagne party at Chester's prestigious Plantation Club. Neville and Ted came out smiling, and so did Don. Never mind the sideline in pimping - he'd tasted the good life, and it was irresistibly delicious.

'People always ask if I've met stars, and I have,' laughs dapper Don. 'I met three racing stars in particular: Gordon Richards, Freddie Winter and Lester Piggott. I was a skint 18 year-old at Leicester races queuing up with my last two bob for fish and chips when Richards drives up in his Rolls and asks for hake. I bought it for him, and he didn't even give me the money.

'I was at Wolverhampton when Winter fell at the last on a 6/4 chance. As he walked past the silver ring, I said, "Hard luck, Freddie!" He said "Bollocks!"

'I also presented Piggott with his retirement trophy at Nottingham. He never said a word and went on to retire another three times! That's celebrities for you!'

Don broke into the newly legalised high-street bookmaking game in the early 1960s. Like many others, he saw this as a licence to print money, and for a time it was. Working initially with his brother, he made so much cash, so fast, that when racing ground to a halt in the big freeze of 1963, Don temporarily relocated to the Canaries for three months - in the days before package holidays.

Always ahead of the curve, Butler was also one of the first bookmakers to realise the value of PR. 'I knew I needed to get my business noticed, so I set up the "Welcome Home Cup",' he explains. 'I gave odds on Lord Lucan, Ronnie Biggs and a black country MP called Whitehouse who had run off with public money. Whitehouse got nabbed first and The Sun invited me down to give him the cup as he was repatriated at Heathrow.

'Next, I gave odds on streakers at the Liverpool versus Newcastle United 1973 FA Cup Final, but covered myself by alerting the coppers to the fact that students would be trying it on. There were more police at that match than at Saltley Gas Works during the miners' strike and as much coverage as when I advertised for a psychic in The Times to help me on my ante-post betting. I offered five grand - big money in those days - and the press was enormous!'

Despite his astute PR, Butler's shops were suffering from a decline in business, and one that was directly related to the near collapse of the British steel industry at the time. With soaring overheads, a vicious assault in one of his shops and a vertiginous drop in his customer base, Don shut up shop and headed back to the track. One of his first assignments was helping out old mate Sammy Nixon.

'I drove Sammy to the 1977 Derby,' explains Don, with a wry smile. 'Sam was the sole bookmaker to the Guards on their annual day out. I held the 'cake' (float) for the next day and was happy buying drinks for any soldier that wanted one. I was getting a few funny looks with regards to the money by the end of the night, so I decided to hit my bunk bed in the marquee. Needless to say, by this time I was so smashed I could hardly walk. Anyway, I was woken in the middle of the night by these two SAS types in combat gear with their faces blacked out. They were frisking me for the cake, but I had stuck it down by pants. A good thing they weren't Ghurkas, or the buggers would have slit my balls off with the money!'

Butler finally reconsolidated his trackside position in 1979, when one of the 'away' bookies died and he finally joined the 'away mafia'. A further boost came in 1987 when Chancellor Nigel Lawson gave the racing industry a leg-up by abolishing on-course betting tax. This gave the 'away' bookies a huge advantage over high-street competitors, who still had to pay tax. The 'away' turnover went through the roof and Don went stellar. It was a time of fat cigars, lobster and champagne.

By the 1990s, however, Don's world was changing. The 1998 National Joint Pitch Committee finally put an end to the 'aways' and allowed the buying and selling of pitches for the first time. The betting exchanges were soon to make their presence felt. However, Don was no Luddite. He pulled out of on-course bookmaking and has since dedicated his time looking for opportunity on the exchanges with his son, Aidan.

Big money

'I sold all my remaining pitches in 1998 and decided to focus on the future,' explains Don. 'And the future is the exchanges. Sure, you don't get the characters and the hustle and noise of the racecourse, but you get great action. During the US election, the price on Bush flip-flopped from 5/1 against to 5/1 on within 30 minutes. If you're organised and a thinker, you can make serious money by taking a position and trading. Sure, there's no noise, only people talking to their computers, but that's just the way things have gone, isn't it? You can't fight the future - you can only adapt.'

Don is right, of course. And the exchanges have made bookmakers of us all. Only not quite so interesting, perhaps, as the ageing Brummie with the camel coat and endless racetrack tales who's just shaken our hands and headed out the hotel door


1. If you win, sit back and enjoy it. Go home and tell the missus. Make her happy.

2. Never go on the chase. Remember, there's always another day.

3. Don't bet on every race - you're only diminishing your chances of winning.

4. Bet on the exchanges. Trade on the exchanges. Smart people can make big money here.

5. Don't be greedy. Bet what you can afford to, not what the next person is betting.

No comments: