INTERVIEWED BY JIM CREMIN
BEN KEITH, the owner of Star Sports, is 38 years old. At 25 he was standing at Walthamstow dogs and well before then had been the school bookie!
“There were betting disputes even at the age of 13 . . . punters would slip late ‘winning’ bets into my tuck box! You always have to be alert.”
He’s never had a betting dispute himself as a punter “other than my firm finding another bookmaker trying not to honour a price that they’ve laid. There’s a big difference between a proper palp [palpable error] and a price shortening.”
He argues that firms “were silly that they didn’t take the lead over social responsibility and the machines” but suggests “it would be helpful if IBAS was now to do that for the betting industry to ensure that betting disputes are dealt with openly, fairly and explained, ideally on video. Everyone has to be progressive and show the way before you get your bottom smacked.”
He is pleased with the way his new website has settled down. “It’s gone well, better than anticipated. One unexpected problem has been punters who register, then self-exclude, but re-register using slightly different details. You could be left with a situation where they expect to be refunded if they lose but hope to be paid if they win. So far, we’ve been alive to the issue. But other than that, we’re delighted in the take-up, it’s been good - and genuine punters too.”
Keith says the message he tries to impart to his team is to ‘be a good layer and be a good payer’. “The idea is to only knock punters back who prove to be repeat offenders in severe circumstances, what we want is to get the reputation of being a ‘good bookie’.
Asked where the line should be drawn between offering betting responsibly and wrapping punters up in cotton wool he muses, then says: “That’s a good question and I don’t know immediately. But whoever is making the decision should have been both a punter and bookmaker, understanding both sides, that’s why Star Sports argues that Nick Rust of the BHA should be given more power and make decisions on behalf of the betting industry. He is the perfect example of someone who has both worked in the business but also enjoyed a bet.”
What does ‘responsible gambling’ mean to Keith? He replies: “Not accepting bets from people who may be money-laundering. You also must respect the punter who wishes to have a break from betting, or self-excludes.”
The Horserace Bettors Forum is frequently critical of bookmakers. How does he react to this? “I call the HBF out sometimes yet I’m actually a bigger fan of them than they know. I think they are necessary and serve a much-needed space on behalf of punters, but I would ask would they personally lay the style of business that they want to get on themselves?!”
However, Keith also believes that there is a lack of good firms out there who want to be layers and give the punter a real run. “That’s why punters today are turning to independent bookmakers more than ever. That’s because we make a decision, it’s not some computer.”
Keith explains his dislike of the algorithms that are taking over so many systems in different business, especially bookmaking. “These grab the jobs of hard working, experienced people in the game,” he says. “But it’s a people business and about the service and image that you project. Computers can’t engage.”
He always admired the late Tony Morris, a leading independent who used to stand at key London greyhound tracks. “His composure on the joint earned him the respect of both customers and fellow layers. You learn from people like him but of course I’m my own man - more extrovert than Tony. It’s about having your own style and your own ‘way’ that allows you to engage with the betting community.”
Keith says it’s important to remember that nobody is bigger than the game. “Everyone needs to respect each other and also that you only get out of it what you put in. I’m genuine, open about the fact that I do take on punters and want to win their money. Bookies forget that they are bookies. When I retire I’d like it to be said ‘he was a good layer’.”
One of the elements that he is putting back into is the Star Sports Greyhound Derby at Towcester. “It was disappointing when Sky Sports decided not to pick up a deal to broadcast it this year but we all have to move forward from that. That’s exactly what Lord Hesketh and Towcester did in establishing greyhound racing there with the intent of making it the best dog track world in the world. That’s the type of person that I want to do business with.”
He describes the racing there as “superb” but wonders if there is an issue about the outside traps being at an disadvantage. “That’s what people seem to think anyway, it might be helpful to carry out some research and, if there is indeed an issue, then take action.”
But Keith is impressed by the strength of the market there. “Nowhere is stronger than it was on Star Sports Derby final night last year. The average bet was £84. That’s well over double than at Ascot and Cheltenham. It’s real punters wanting to have a gamble and it proved a wonderful night. We ended up winning, Astute Missile was a big help.” The winner of the Derby went off at 28-1, the biggest ever price of a Derby final winner.
“I couldn’t have seen him winning, even during the race. I thought Tyrur Shay [runner-up] was 20-1 on in running but it wasn’t to be.”
When it comes to horseracing he loves serving clients at his Aintree pitch. ”But best of all is Royal Ascot - I feel we’re playing at home there, we lay more horses, the racing is incredibly competitive than say Cheltenham. As I arrive at Ascot and walk in I feel I’m already one-nil up. At Cheltenham, by contrast, I feel like I’m bomb-dodging.”
He makes good use of social media and his food blogs are a legend. “I get more requests to recommend a restaurant than people asking for 7-4 about a 13-8 chance. Of course it goes to say that those latter clients are less profitable!”
But there’s also dining value to be had. “Yasars in Blackhorse Lane, near Walthamstow, has the best kebabs in London.”
Keith is equally at home with Mayfair high society. “That’s where I have my betting shop, behind the Dorchester on Park Lane and run by Matt Davies, it sees plenty of high rollers and has done really well.”
His business is growing at a time when other firms will face pressure from a clamp-down on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.
“It has and will still be a great life.” He says his door is always open to anyone wishing to gain some work experience. “I’ve been lucky, the game has given me so much.”