I was sad to hear of his death yesterday, aged 97. He was no saint and never pretended to be. But nor was he the tainted “colourful racing identity” of some ignorant imaginations. His most famous alleged infractions – regarding Big Philou in 1969, whatever really brought on the vague 1971-73 suspension by the AJC and the Fine Cotton affair – were either exaggerated or gossip. It was accepted by authorities, for example, that he didn’t stand to lose if a nobbled Big Philou – the highly regarded favourite – had gone on to win the Melbourne Cup. Notoriously, it was withdrawn 30 minutes before the start of the race.
The lengthy suspension over Fine Cotton was cruel and ridiculous. Neither he nor son Robbie had any involvement in the ring-in. It was enough that he purportedly knew about it. So did hundreds of others. Fine Cotton was such a lousy prospect that day in August 1984 that betting started at 33-1. So much money poured in for the gelding via TABs countrywide that its painted stand-in – Bold Personality – jumped at 7-2. True story: a racing-mad schoolmate of mine told me the following day he’d known about the switch. Waterhouse believed he was frequently targeted out of resentment and I think there is some truth in that – certainly from Melbourne. Travelling south to field in the 1960s, he monstered the satchel-swingers there.
“Dad studied law and became a barrister, he was the largest seller of liquor in the 1940s, he was the leading hotelier in Australia in the 1950s, he was the world’s leading bookmaker for 40 years, he was Australia’s longest-serving diplomat, and he’s written a best-selling book. He was unique.’’
Robbie Waterhouse to Ray Thomas: Against all odds, Bill Waterhouse took on Sydney, and won.
Waterhouse was proud of his family’s long and storied history in Sydney Town. That comes out strongly in his gripping autobiography, What Are The Odds? First Fleet Captain Henry Waterhouse was the founder of a clan that went on to make its mark in racing, hotels and business for the following 230 years. When I read his book, the minor faults that struck me were a somewhat prideful dynastic mentality and an admitted obsession with bookmaking during his peak years. The latter cost him a marriage. That he took seriously his oddball diplomatic post as Honorary Consul-General of Tonga (he went to law school with the young heir to the Tongan throne) was admirable on one level but slightly kooky on another.
Australia will never see a private bookmaker of his ilk ever again – or of Mark Read’s or Bruce McHugh’s. Corporates have moved in and largely taken over the business. As always with corporations, the culture they pretend to be part of is destroyed by their inhuman, dull, greedy presence. The harder they pretend, the more you miss the real thing. Eventually, of course, nobody remembers anything else. Australian governments love the corporate bookies, of course, for their huge (and easily monitored) taxable turnover.
The raucous daring of the betting duels of old – where Waterhouse might take, say, a hundred thousand on a horse and then wind it out to enrage the punter – are long gone. I’m not old enough to remember those glory days but if I went back in time to the Randwick rails, I’d place a bet with Big Bill just to souvenir the ticket. To me, Bill Waterhouse – the tall, manly, fearless patrician gambler – embodied an Australia that is disappearing rapidly before our eyes. Vale, Bill. And vale, that Australia.