FANCY yourself as a high-roller? Frustrated that your high street betting shop is too scared to take your five-figure wagers? Do you relish rubbing your bookie’s face in it, verbally speaking, after taking him to the cleaners? Then meet Ben Keith.
From his office on the Sussex coast Keith runs Star Sports, which he calls the Gentleman’s Bookmaker. He prides himself on taking the big bets others shy away from, and has the figures to back up that claim. Most weeks he will lay more than £1.5m of bets and take at least one £50,000 wager, while a typical day sees at least one punter stake £30,000 on one race or match.
While he revels in the large sums flying about, Keith, 30, also clearly enjoys pitting his wits against his 2,500 customers, which he and his team deal with entirely over the phone. Account holders comprise billionaires and Premier League footballers, including one very well-known star, but he likes nothing better than doing battle with big cheeses with big egos from the Square Mile.
“We specialise in being here for the big boys,” he explains. “I’m not interested in grannies betting 50p – I want arrogant City boys who want to stand toe-to-toe with the bookmaker. They often like to have bravado. I like to take them on.”
Perhaps Keith’s love of betting banter stems from dog tracks. It was while going to the greyhound races as a 12-year-old that he first realised his vocation, and has had pitches at tracks since going into business nine years later.
His rapport with bettors is good-natured and he says he is on first-name terms with 95 per cent of them. He sends them shoes and wine and takes them to Ascot, and they reciprocate – one customer won £70,000 at Cheltenham so had a case of champagne sent to Keith’s Hove office.
“Customers like the fact they are betting with a real person,” he says. “It’s more brutal for them. If they win £50,000 off Ladbrokes then what does it mean? Each punter is different. Some require a cuddle, some like to have a fist fight.”
Star Sports man the phones seven days a week, from 9am until 9:30pm, and Keith is thinking of extending the hours. Business is booming; he says the number of bets he has taken has trebled in 18 months, while in five years his workforce has swelled from three to 16. “I think there are more and more big punters out there who can’t find the service they require from other bookies.”
No matter how big your bonus was, some of the figures he deals with are eye-watering. A good Saturday means a profit of around £150,000, a bad one could inflict a £50,000 loss. One City-based punter scooped a whopping £162,500 when Tiger Woods won one of his many majors; the same client staked £120,000 on one match at the 2002 World Cup.
Craftier clients keep their gambling under wraps by talking in code in front of their spouses. “One punter, when he’s with his wife, says ‘£10 each way for the wife, and one for me’. She thinks he means £100; we know he means a grand.”
He has had some downs as well as ups, though. An ill-fated foray into betting shops cost him £1m – “It was impossible to compete with the big-brand firms and it was hard to control staff with the cash” – while one client ran up debts of £600,000 and then went bankrupt. Now, Keith says, “I am careful who I play with. I don’t open up and say ‘do what you want to me’. There is method to my madness.”
Keith describes Star Sports as a “traditional bookmaker”, in that most wagers are either football or horse racing. “Silly bets” are not on the menu, while he also has a spread betting branch arm which operates out of Dublin. The racing-football betting split is 75-25, but he says punters bet larger stakes on the beautiful game, and is licking his lips at the World Cup, which he anticipates being “the biggest betting event ever”.
Yet despite seeming otherwise unaffected by the romance of sport – “I’m a maths man,” he insists – he rates the first day of Cheltenham as his favourite date in the calendar. “That’s when I’m in my element. It’s like the first match of the World Cup for a footballer. I don’t have opinions on sport; my kick is to find a big punter.”
TRENDSPOTTING | A BOOKIE’S NOTES
Race for fourth place
Keith has taken more money this year on who will finish fourth in the Premier League than who will win the trophy. Very little of it was on Tottenham.
Patriotism on the wane
Star Sports punters have been slow to back England at this summer’s World Cup, despite Fabio Capello’s men being third favourites.