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Mark Read: Australia's most innovative bookie on where racing is at, and where it needs to go

The 2016 Melbourne Cup is here. (Getty Images)
Editor
22nd September, 2015
30
4457 Reads

Mark Read became Australia’s largest bookmaker over his career, before selling his corporate bookmaker, IASBet, to Paddy Power back in 2009.

Mark Read was one of Australia’s foremost bookmakers, a legend of the sport of racing, and of wagering in general across his 35-year career. To this day, Read remains involved, and offers a personal proprietary trade business, discussed in more detail later.

Read, named as the ‘Mouth from the South’ by veteran racing journalist Max Presnell, saw wagering move from a track-only basis, to state-based via telephones, to national through online, and now global, with UK bookmakers dominating the local scene.

Read is proud of constantly reinventing himself, and in a two-hour long wide-ranging interview with The Roar, regaled us numerous war stories and innovation concepts.

The man’s passion for racing is unparalleled, and it’s hard to explain just how strongly the fire burns in him around issues he sees as key – both a study of history, and innovation and reinvention to stay relevant.

Read was just the third bookmaker in the world to transact online, and moved to Darwin in 1996 to become licensed to offer bookmaking services on a 24/7 basis, the first corporate bookmaker in Australia.

Read innovated at every level. He was the first to syndicate racehorses in Australia back in 1979 – freely admitting he stole this idea from American influences who were ahead of the game at the time.

He broke a number of turnover records, including being the first bookmaker in Australia to hold $1 million on the four day Melbourne Cup Carnival, and also being the first bookmaker in Australia to turn over more than $1 million per day.

He was the first to pay $100,000 for a racehorse when he was a “young fool”, a horse his mother, Mabel Read – then the most prolific punter in the country – told him was lame soon after he’d purchased it. He later learned this was true after a phone call from Bart Cummings’ brother, Pat.

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He’s done everything in racing that you would want to achieve, and still takes a keen interest in the sport both locally and in Hong Kong, where he offers a hedge fund service, which he sees as the future of wagering.

“The rest of the world have moved to Hong Kong. 20 years ago, we were all telling the Asian authorities they need need to clear up racing. The culture was all wrong.

“But all business and culture evolve, and since corruption and bribery were taken seriously, Hong Kong is now the leading jurisdiction in the world for integrity.

“Hong Kong is truly the only global market, and the Jockey Club has further worked to secure soccer punting, the global leader in sports wagering.”

Reform in Australian racing
Read says Australian racing must look to reform – pointing out that it’s been the same as it was 50 years ago.

Read’s suggestion is for a ‘Premier League’ style of racing, with clear divisions, and promotion and relegation for horses who perform well or poorly.

For example, ‘A-Class’ races would feature the top horses at city meets, while provincial and country races have separate divisions. This would provide more competition, see more clashes between heavyweights and provide more genuine handicaps at the top and bottom end of a Class.

Read calls Victoria racing the most progressive jurisdiction and recalls Ron Casey telling him in the 1980s that “the picture is the product” – noting “Victoria is 100% correct in what they’re trying to achieve with media rights”.

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Read feels the punter is hard done by in this day and age, thanks to ‘greedy, opportunistic’ UK corporates that has seen wagering in Australia stagnate.

Read noted that in his day he’d take on big punters. “If I saw someone had an edge, I’d bet with them as well. I had access to nearly every bookmaker in the country. I could get set with any of them when I needed.”

He told a famous story of backing Saintly in the Melbourne Cup.

“I thought [Saintly] was a good thing in the Melbourne Cup,” Read said.

“I backed him myself and Kerry Packer rang up and said ‘I want a million on Saintly’ five minutes before the race.

“I put it straight on the NSW tote, via the Northern Territory, they’d just arranged an agreement to co-mingle.”

These days, Read says winning punters have their accounts closed or limited noting the very Australian ideal of a ‘fair go’ is being “denied”.

“Is anyone looking out for the punter now? Racing just isn’t looking after their own.”

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Are the right people in charge?
Read is a student of history, fond of pointing out that “history is the window to the future” – something that racing forgets. Every boom has its bust – and while Read says breeders are now in charge, things won’t always be this way.

“Sir Eugene Gorman, one of the most influential racing administrators, famously said that when breeders got on the board of racing jurisdictions, it will be the end of racing.”

“The problem is the modern breeder is not a punter. Instead, they seek taxation relief. They seek exorbitant fees. They’re not in it to support punters and owners.”

Read has further questioned how breeders are managing to handle modern breeding requirements, where up to three mares per day are serviced by stallions, across a 90-day breeding season.

While the rules of breeding are strict in terms of prohibiting artificial insemination, Read says he finds it hard to believe that older stallions are able to perform consistently.

“Are these stallions, which are priced at exorbitant fees, tested for drugs? Should restrictions be placed on performance enhancers in the barn?,” he asked.

“I don’t see how it’s possible and I don’t think anyone is asking the right questions. Physiology tells you that as you get older everything slows down. While the stallion is still required as a physical presence and performance – I don’t believe it!”

Advice for punters – and Mark Read’s hedge fund product
When asked for suggestions and advice for punters in this day and age, Read was clear on the only real advice needed: do the work. The other suggestion was to migrate to Hong Kong racing.

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“Hong Kong is the pinnacle of the racing world. It’s the benchmark for all other racing nations. We bet there and allow others to bet with us via our hedge fund. Our hedge fund has a minimum $50,000 buy-in for a single season.

“A season lasts 10-12 weeks. We had five seasons last year, with four winning and one losing season, returning 80% on our winning seasons and a 20% loss on the last season of the year.

“We think we can return 50% on investment and that’s what we’ll be aiming for as we move ahead. The great thing is our clients receive the tips for the race two seconds before the jump, meaning they can cheer on the selections we have made, via our analysis.”

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