Odds on, Joseph Romanos

Two Over Three on Goodtime Sugar: The New Zealand TAB turns 50
David Grant
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864734018

David Grant’s history of the Totalisator Agency Board should come with a warning: it is not to be approached by the faint-hearted. This is no once-over-lightly effort, with a few statistics, some quirky anecdotes and a smattering of photos. Grant, a Wellington historian, has explored the TAB from every aspect imaginable. There is a chapter on life before the TAB, a detailed description of how the TAB began and then successive chapters on the TAB through the decades of its existence.

Not satisfied with what would already have been a comprehensive account, Grant then devotes chapters to many areas of life touched by the TAB – industrial issues, bookmakers, technology, broadcasting, robbers, the Internet. Then there are chapters that deal with sports betting and greyhound racing, Sunday racing and bet types, Thursday openings and profit distribution.

But wait … there’s more! There’s the TAB and other gaming operations, the TAB and fixed-odds betting, the TAB and overseas. Not sated yet? There’s the TAB and fraud. A chapter devoted to the curious question of who actually owns the TAB. The TAB and its premises, the TAB and its agencies.

There are many outstanding aspects of Two Over Three on Goodtime Sugar. Grant has a clear, crisp writing style and has done a mountain of research, but let me say first that this book would have benefited from more humour. The history of the TAB is inextricably linked with gambling and gamblers, and with bookies. There must have been some unusual and notable characters whose lives have intersected with the TAB, and whose stories would have provided light relief from the relentless statistics. But Grant has chosen to keep this account fairly dry.

There are two exceptions. The publicity notes accompanying this book’s release mention that Grant is now completing a cartoon history of horse racing in New Zealand. I’m not surprised. There are dozens of cartoons scattered through Two Over Three on Goodtime Sugar, and they give it a huge lift. Neville Lodge, for so many years the Evening Post and Sports Post cartoonist, proves particularly insightful on the subject.

Then there is the story about greyhound trainers Lois and Peter Henley. They had prepared Digger Diamond, who was the favourite, for the Auckland Cup on 20 December 1998; but this was also the day of their daughter’s wedding in Sydney. A quandary for committed greyhound racing folk. The solution: Peter went to the wedding, and Lois stayed home to look after the dog. Grant adds wryly that Digger Diamond ran second. More of these types of stories peppered through the book might have made it more accessible. Grant can do it, too, as he showed when writing On a Roll: A History of Gambling and Lotteries in New Zealand.

2

Nevertheless, Two Over Three on Goodtime Sugar is a fine book, and readers certainly get the picture of how the TAB has had to continually change its service to meet new demands and to keep up with expectations of bettors and with overseas trends. The TAB was created by the state, apparently to cut off at the knees the hundreds, maybe thousands, of illegal bookies who operated throughout New Zealand. It has never quite done that, but it has still become an integral part of the New Zealand sports landscape.

It is amusing to read how, in the 1950s, TABs had to be hidden. They had to be apart from other shops and outside signage was not permitted. Not only that, but the TAB gave punters no reason to linger on its premises – no broadcasting of races or up-to-date information. Betting was regarded as a rather seedy pastime, and one gets the impression that the TAB was formed grudgingly only to eradicate an even bigger evil: the bookie. It is ironic that within two or three decades various town and borough councils were actively lobbying and even presenting petitions to have a TAB placed in their midst. The stigma had long since vanished, and officials felt a TAB would add to their town’s appeal.

Grant outlines in some detail how the TAB tried to keep up with modern trends, moving gradually to computerisation and offering punters an ever-increasing choice of bets, rather than just the standard win and place and doubles. Initially, governments thought they could reap a handsome financial harvest by taking a portion, through tax, of every bet. Back in the 1950s, there weren’t many gambling avenues so the TAB was focused entirely on horses. Greyhound betting arrived a couple of decades later. But more recently the TAB has had to contend with Lotto and its cousins, and also the proliferation of gaming machines, some in casinos but most in pubs. How the TAB has met this challenge is the essence of Grant’s book.

I found the chapter on the TAB and sports betting particularly interesting. By the mid-1990s, committed punters and sports lovers had accounts with overseas agencies and were able to bet on everything, from the Bledisloe Cup to Wimbledon. The TAB (and the Government) obviously wanted a piece of that pie. So sports betting in New Zealand arrived.

The attitude of various sports to betting has been instructive. Some, sensing a financial windfall, were immediately enthusiastic. Others, such as netball, found the whole concept distasteful, at least for a while. Then they saw the money that could be made and joined in.

Grant deals briefly with the dedicated band of experts who set the odds on various sports for the TAB, and also with some celebrity punters, such as the infamous Steel Balls. I could have done with more information in this area, especially on some of the more eccentric bets that have been laid. This book was completed just before David Tua took on Lennox Lewis for the world heavyweight boxing crown. That’s a pity because the fight apparently generated record amounts in bets and was a windfall for the TAB, since so many punters voted with their hearts rather than their heads.

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A couple of final observations. First, the book is relatively objective, but because so much information has been gleaned from TAB archives or officials, it does tend to look at things from a TAB perspective. Generally, however, when the TAB is seen to be locking horns with another group, such as the Government, it is the TAB that is acting logically.

Secondly, from 1995-98 I was executive director of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame. In that time we videoed long interviews with more than 80 of our Honoured Members – Edmund Hillary, Susan Devoy, Peter Snell, Colin Meads and the rest of them. Those interviews were funded by the TAB, which provided the camera crew and venue for the interviews. The TAB retains a copy of all the interviews, making them an invaluable historical collection. I mention this because the TAB officials at that time, particularly chief executive George Hickton, seemed to grasp fully the evolving role of the TAB and how it had moved from purely racing to general sport. They were keen for the TAB to become more involved in the New Zealand sports landscape. I’m surprised Two Over Three on Goodtime Sugar does not mention the TAB’s involvement in this project.

But these are small points. David Grant is to be congratulated for the meticulous job he has done of de-scribing the formation and growth of the TAB.

 

Joseph Romanos writes a sports column for the New Zealand Listener.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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