Meet the bookie who lost £2m at Cheltenham last year ... but didn’t watch a race
It sounds remarkable, but the bookmaker who will lay the biggest bets at next week’s Cheltenham Festival has not watched a race all season.
Ben Keith, owner of Star Sports, says that when he stands on his pitch in the frenetic festival betting ring on tuesday, he will need his clerk to point out which horse is which as they charge into the home turn.
He believes he has no need to know how far 4-11 Champion Hurdle favourite Constitution Hill won his last race by, nor what sort of form trainer Nicky Henderson is in. It is not the way the man who says ‘my favourite fish are careless billionaires’ operates.
‘I bet to figures and faces, I don’t bet to races,’ says 43-year- old Keith. ‘Five minutes before the off at Cheltenham, if you want to try to prove to me that you know better than the market, I am willing to let anyone in the world try to find that out. I am playing the man.
‘I will lay what you want to bet. It is not my job to have opinions. I run my race. three minutes before the off, if you want to back the favourite or second favourite, rock on baby.’
When Willie Mullins- trained Energumene won last season’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, Keith had taken a £150,000 bet at 100-30 which cost his firm £500,000. But Keith is not interested in individual results.
In the build-up Energumene, who is owned by tony Bloom, the acclaimed gambler who owns Brighton & Hove Albion football club, had been beaten at Ascot when Keith laid another bet to an unnamed client of £360,000.
And a big-staking punter placed £725,000 on the gelding when it could only finish third on Cheltenham trials day this January. Keith did not watch the race, but was texted the result.
the next chapter of this intriguing sideshow to Energumene’s bid to retain his title will be played out on Wednesday.
Keith is unfazed. He says his edge comes from studying his human adversaries, learning their habits, strength and weaknesses. He draws a parallel with how the late Shane Warne, his sporting hero, watched Ashes rivals to elevate his game.
Keith, who employs 300 people and is about to open his 24th betting shop in Mayfair, says: ‘Shane worked out how he would bowl at batsmen, how he would set them up to get them out as well as how he could best make them get themselves out.
‘Every single punter is different and I do a Shane Warne on them. the moment they are predictable and I can predict them I have beaten them.
‘I’ve won tens of millions of pounds off some punters. But you would love to be as big a mug as them because they’ve made billions doing something else. Because they are used to getting what they want in business they think they can make what they want to happen in gambling.
‘they are used to saying to bookmakers I want £50,000 and being told they can have £5,000 on. I go, that’s a bet, do you want it again?
‘A wealthy man takes longer to beat but when the fruit machine goes, it goes big.’
Sparring with big hitters sparks another sporting analogy, as Keith recalls the tactics Muhammad Ali employed to fool George Foreman into punching himself out before launching a devastating counter attack in the famous 1974 Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.
‘ When taking on enormous gamblers it’s rope-a- dope. I let them hit me, hit me and hit me thinking they are winning, but it’s sprats to catch a mackerel. As a bookmaker, when you are taking on big punchers you have to stay with them and wait for the day when the nuclear bomb goes off.’
Keith is a million miles from the stereotype of a bookmaker. He quotes Socrates and refers to Ikigai, the Japanese ideology associated with the nation’s long life expectancy.
He fell in love with bookmaking when his solicitor father took him to Hove greyhound stadium aged 12. He has been captivated by the betting ring ever since. He says the only jockey he has ever feared was Sir Anthony McCoy, the patron saint of all punters and rescuer of lost causes. Significantly, he bemoans the continued erosion of competition at the Cheltenham Festival, with fewer stables able to threaten the domination of trainers such as Mullins and Gordon Elliott. Keith says: ‘Cheltenham is very hard to win at now. I don’t like it. I would much rather be at Royal Ascot. It’s far more competitive. ‘the bookies had it their own way for a long time at Cheltenham but it has changed in the last five or six years.
‘I need it to go wrong and a couple of those short ones to get beaten, with the steering going wrong up Cheltenham hill! It’s a showcase. It’s not a place to be a bookie now.
‘I lost £2.2million at Cheltenham last year. In the Racing Post, they had a good laugh and said Ben Keith left early after the Gold Cup! But I only lent them £2.2m. My game is the end of the year. If I have won five or six per cent I have done it. ‘Punters are good at singing when they are winning. I love the silence of the betting ring when a 40-1 shot wins. It’s beautiful.’ For Keith, Cheltenham will be paradise next week if the famous Festival roar becomes a whimper.