If you are the sort of chap who lives in London and keeps chambers in Albany, who patronizes a Savile Row tailor, buys groceries from Fortnum & Mason's, guns from Purdey's and fishing tackle from Hardy's, there is really only one place you can make your bets—Ladbroke's, the Top People's bookie.
In The Ladbroke Story (Pelham Books, London, ¬£2 10s.), Richard Kaye, an ex-director of the firm, tells of the riotous past and multimillion-pound present of the world's largest bookmakers. (William Hill of London also claims to be the largest but will not prove it.) On an average racing day 4,000 or 5,000 bets will be called in to the 200 phones in the betting room; the average daily turnover will be around ¬£200,000, or half a million dollars. A national chain of 450 (legal) betting shops and half a dozen Ladbroke's bookies taking cash at the track add to the general activity.
All telephone calls to Ladbroke's are put through one machine that can record 44 conversations at a time. (It has to be speeded up on Derby Day.) Only occasionally does a client dispute a telephoned bet and have to be invited to the offices at Ganton Street to hear what he said. Monday is the normal settling day for the previous week's transactions, but there was one distinguished client who settled 10 years late and then continued betting as if nothing had happened.
Although Ladbroke's grew up on horserace betting, they are now known as the people who will take bets on anything. ("Except," says Kaye, "on anything involving suffering or tragedy—like whether a new bridge would collapse—or on the papal elections.") Ladbroke's get involved to the tune of millions over the British, French and American elections. Tycoons, who stand to lose in business if Labor gets elected, will back Labor to win, thus coming out on the right side of any result. Maxwell Joseph, the property millionaire, had ¬£32,272 to ¬£50,000 on Labor in 1964 and won. Ladbroke's has also taken bets on moon landings, on cross-channel swims and on who would be elected professor of poetry at Oxford. An Australian father of a baby daughter asked for odds against the child becoming Wimbledon singles champion before she reached 26 years of age. Since no form was known, Ladbroke's laid him ¬£10,000 to ¬£1.
Who, everyone asks, was Mr. Ladbroke, the primeval genius of a gambler who started the whole thing in 1902? There never was one. Arthur Bendir, the founder of the firm, merely saw the name Ladbroke on a signpost and thought it looked sound and, somehow, confidence-inspiring. He seems to have been right.