Given the year’s long love affair betwixt Australian punters and wagering of any kind, we felt that it would be a serious omission is a sports website that includes sports administrators, online bookmaker owners and the managers of athletes are chronicled, if ostensibly the most famous bookmaker of all time were not mentioned prominently.
With that as our premise, we intend to relate a bit of the history of William Stanley “Big Bill” Waterhouse (22 January 1922). His influence on racing punting is indisputable and it would be a major disservice to Big Bill if we did not recognise his contributions to sport wagering in general through his interest in the affairs of his grandson Robbie Waterhouse, who took the Waterhouse operation into the 20th and 21st centuries when he established the online wagering platform that bears his name, Tom Waterhouse.
It was actually Bill Waterhouse’s father that got things started back in 1898. His son, William however, deservedly gets most of the credit for the position the Waterhouse name enjoys today, as he was the most prominent bookmaker on the rails for many decades. His understanding of equine and human psychology was so formidable that whilst he had the reputation for paying punters promptly, his bag generally took in far more than he paid out.
His remarkable longevity and willingness to adopt and adapt to new wagering trends down through the years meant that he was always on the leading edge as racing grew and changed. Bill Waterhouse was already working for his dad’s publishing business in Sydney by the time he was 16 years of age. He assumed the helm of that business when his father died three years later, even though he was the youngest member of the family.
He learned to manage family real estate holdings as the property owner of commercial and residential rental properties. Concurrently, he earned a law degree in 1948 and joined the legal practice established by his older brothers. He chose an alternate path in 1954 when he saw his older brother Charlie die, apparently from the stresses of a law practice, deciding to concentrate on the bookmaking end of the family empire.
His first role as the principal behind that enterprise was Epson Day in 1954. Seeing what life had done to his older brother, whom Bill Waterhouse idolised, along with nearly losing his life in a car accident in England in 1950, caused him to evaluate where his life was taking him. Those experiences would exert a profound influence on his future, especially as they regarded his approach to bookmaking.
Bill gradually established himself with rails punters and he took a very aggressive approach to some of the largest, such as Ray Hopkins, Filipe Ismael and Fred Duval. He seemingly had such a high tolerance for risk that he seemingly was able to take losing $1 million in one day in 1968 with a level of nonchalance hard to perceive. His reputation at the time was such that in many circles, he was considered the biggest gambler in the world. That notoriety was not without cost. Big Bill, it seemed at times, was the de facto target for every conceivable ill that plagued racing. Accusations of rigging races, substituting horses and scratching runners at the last moment seemed to be a daily part of his existence.
Of course, one of these that will forever have a place in history is the time someone slipped the mickey to Big Philou on the night before the Melbourne Cup after Big Philou had been awarded the Caulfield Cup after a successful protest by jockey Roy Higgins. When Big Philou was made a prohibitive favourite to win the Cups Double, threatening Waterhouse with a huge loss, furious accusations were leveled at Waterhouse when Big Philou was scratched less than an hour before the jump of the Melbourne Cup.
It turned out that Waterhouse had no stake in the race, so it was all for naught, but the fact that he had no stake in the biggest race of the year served to arouse additional suspicion. The Fine Cotton Affair is another incident in which Bill Waterhouse’s name figured prominently. That story is well known and will not be detailed here, but the sheer audacity or stupidity of the attempt was so comical that it will never be forgotten.
Bill Waterhouse was warned off until 2002, but was re-instated after 18 years when it was determined that the evidence against him was too flimsy. It would have to be said that in all probability, the ban did not eliminate his influence. He was 80 years of age when he returned to the betting ring in 2002, but he quickly served notice that he was still the biggest and boldest rails bookmaker on any course.
So rapidly did he earn absolution that, the Sydney Turf Club declared him the Most Improved Bookmaker in 2004, so it would appear that he stopped taking money from widows and orphans. To this day, Bill Waterhouse still maintains his involvement in the family business. He was instrumental as a backer and mentor to his grandson Tom as that fourth generation member of the Waterhouse clan combined Big Bill’s savvy with modern technology.
He also has a role in the real estate end of the operation, along with the mining interests. He also was instrumental in moving the wagering operation beyond Australia. He even served in a mostly ceremonial capacity as the ambassador to the island of Tonga through an association he had cultivated with the heir to that country’s throne during his university days. In 2009, Bill Waterhouse published his autobiography, “What Are the Odds.” It is the sort of book that anyone who enjoys reading about a triumph against adversity combined with a guide to success in general will appreciate.
Today, at the age of 93, just a few months ahead of his 94th birthday, it would not be surprising to see Big Bill Waterhouse himself offering markets of all kinds regarding the year of his death, age, etc. Just be aware that if you take one of those wagers, William Waterhouse will go on living indefinitely to enjoy your money.