'Bigmouth' sets sights on end of the road
After 40 years as a bookie, Barry Dennis is ready for someone else to shout the odds, writes Greg Wood
The most conspicuous larynx in racing was struggling with a virus last week, but it takes more than a dose of 'flu to silence 'Bigmouth' Barry Dennis. As he hoarsely confirmed on Tuesday, however, the betting ring will be hearing a lot less from Dennis when he passes his 70th birthday later this month. After 40 years on the track, Dennis has had enough, and the noble art of shouting the odds may never be quite as noisy again.
Well, nearly enough. There will be the odd outing to a minor track to help out his son Patrick, who is taking over the business, but not the 300-days-a-year routine of the past. His regular slot on Channel 4's Morning Line programme, picking 'Barry's Bismarck', a favourite he expects to sink without trace, will also retire with him.
"I tried to retire when I was 65, so we'll have to see how it pans out," Dennis said, "but now I want to take the back seat. I've been doing the Morning Line for 15 years, but it had become a bit of a chore. I'm one of the grumpy old men now, I don't want to go somewhere if it involves heavy traffic, parking, getting out afterwards and all that nonsense so I certainly won't miss Royal Ascot or Glorious Goodwood.
"I'm approaching 50 years in the game, I've done two and a half million miles in the car and I've not had one accident, but I find the driving the hardest part of the game now. I once told someone that if I hadn't been a bookie, I'd have been a long-distance lorry driver, and I meant it because I loved driving. I used to do 300 meetings a year and 50,000 miles in the car. But one day in December I had to drive three hours to get to a racecourse in the snow on the M25, and when I got there the racing was off so it was another three hours back. I suddenly thought, 'do I need this?'"
Most of the famous racecourse bookmakers of recent decades have been fearless operators laying bets to high-rollers, men like Victor Chandler, Stephen Little -- who wore a full-length fur coat to prove that he had the money to settle winners -- and Freddie Williams, whose punting duels with JP McManus at Cheltenham were the stuff of legend.
Dennis, though, started out on the back rows of the betting ring, aiming for high turnover with minimal margins, before using a loan from the prominent racehorse owner David Johnson to buy his way on to the front row just under a decade ago.
While that moved seemed to mark the start of a new era for Dennis's business, though, in hindsight it looks more like the beginning of the end.
"This business peaked for me about seven or eight years ago just after I borrowed a quarter of a million from David Johnson," Dennis says. "I was on 40 different tracks with top (pitch) numbers, and turnover jumped from about £2m a year in the back row to £15m in the front rows.
"I was turning over an average of £50,000 a day, 300 days a year. With a gross profit margin of about five per cent, that's proper money. But now I might turn over 10 grand a day. If you make six per cent, that's 600 quid, and the staff and the rest of it come to over £400.
"When I started out in the game, you could go racing with £100 and come home with £120 and you'd made £20 on the day. Now there's so much admin involved, there's the Gambling Commission, the Inland Revenue and the rest. There's a working profit in it, but it's not what it was eight years ago."
Dennis was rarely absent from a meeting at Lingfield, and says he will miss the Surrey track more than most, while the Guineas meeting is another that may prompt a little hankering for the old days. Even Newmarket, though, has lost some of its appeal.
"It was always one of my favourites because it was at the start of the Flat season and it was local," he says, "but the M11 is almost as bad as the M25 these days. The Guineas was a bang-out meeting, with big crowds, but even that doesn't seem to be as well attended any more. At the peak of the racecourse business, we'd have signs up saying '£20 minimum (bet)', then it went down to £10. Now if I said I'd take 50p each-way, then people would have 50p each-way, even though it's just not viable to take those bets.
"We've got two pitches at Lingfield, so I'll still be turning out there, but now it's time to step back and let Patrick do the hard work."
Sunday Indo Sport