SPECIAL GUEST: Laurie Bricknell will be at the Barrier Draw Luncheon.
SPECIAL GUEST: Laurie Bricknell will be at the Barrier Draw Luncheon. Grant Peters

First out of the bookmaker's barrier

When racing identity Laurie Bricknell arrives in town for the July Carnival's famous Barrier Luncheon, it will be a golden moment for the special guest.

"This will be my 50th meeting of going to the Grafton carnival. I started going there in 1970 as a bookmaker and finished up in the early '90s before becoming a punter there,” Gold Coast based Bricknell said as he pondered the history that lead up to this milestone occasion.

"It was a massive ring in those days, the '70s and '80s. I remember Grafton when there were 76 bookmakers on the locals and 25 to 30 on the interstate.”

Being good with numbers is something the 76-year-old has built his career around.

He held his own when it came to mathematics at school, which lead to his first job as a bank teller in his homeland of Tasmania, but it wasn't long before the fascination with figures and odds took him to the track.

"My father loved betting on horses and I wanted to become a bookmaker. I started as a bookmaker's clerk, every Saturday while I worked at the bank, but a vacancy came up in a betting shop in a little town called Railton. I applied got the job. I was only 23 so I became the youngest bookmaker ever appointed in state.”

That was the late 1960s when Tasmania had betting shops "in every nook and cranny”.

"It was unique to the state. I think there were about 115 of them across the place, every hydroelectric town had one. Wherever there were workers. I'd put up fixed odds 10am on a Saturday. It was the best gambling service to a punter. You could win quite a lot of money.”

After Bricknell married in 1969 he honeymooned on the Gold Coast and the newlyweds fell in love with the place, making the move there a permanent one six months later.

Bricknell said his early exposure to the process of bookmaking and punting set him up for a life-long mix of the two, lessons the professional punter has carried with him his whole career.

"When you are punting you have to look at it from a value point of view. You can't just turn a blind eye to the odds that are given. If you think a horse will win it and you don't think they (bookies) will back you, you don't back it,” Bricknell said.

"The art of punting has been lost to certain extent. There was no Keno then. You had to go to a racecourse. People went there with cash in their pockets. It was the type of thing where the bricklayer, the butcher, the baker, everyone had cash. It was very prevalent in those days. We did give credit sometimes and a lot of bookies were left with bad debts including myself but we took that as part of the industry.”

Bricknell recalls one of the more notorious characters of the racecourses, a punter called the Fireman. "He used to frequent the tracks and have $50,000 on horses at $1.20 or 5 to 1 on, bets like that. He used to come up to me with bank cheques payable to me and want $50,000 to win $10,000 and $40,000 to win $20,000. He was a mad odds-on punter. He only died four or five years ago but he terrorised bookies in Sydney and he'd come to the Gold Coast. We were known as the strongest in Australia in those days.”

Bricknell's reputation was formidale during the racing heydays of the '70s and '80s attracting punters from interstate, and as it transpires, the highest office in the country.

"I began to get recognised as one of the biggest (bookmakers) in Australia. I'd have punters flying up from Sydney and Melbourne just to have a bet with me. You'd take them on and you'd have some big winning days and little losing days. I never stressed out about it, it was part of the game. You look forward to the challenge.”

One of Bricknell's longest friendships was with Robert J Hawke, the former prime minister of Australia who loved a punt.

"We met in Sydney at a racing event and he grabbed me as I was walking past and said 'hey Laurie would you mind if I give you a ring and get a tip off ya'. 'Sure no worries Bob.' So he rang me religiously every Saturday and Wednesday wherever he was. I'd ask him where he was calling from and he's say oh, the New Guinea highlands or somewhere overseas. We became good friends over the years. He invited me to his book launch in Sydney and we'd always catch up whenever he was on the Gold Coast.”

Bricknell's own punting habits also reached the heights very few fear to tread but like everything he has learned over his career, "you just take the good and bad it in your stride”.

"I've had a few big bets. I put $50,000 on one of my own horses at Grafton, and it got beaten. It was a horse called High Teak and it ran second to a horse I've never heard of since.”

As you would imagine, Bricknell has seen a lot during his decades on the track, but overall he said the industry had been good to him.

"I've met some wonderful people and some scoundrels. A forged ticket that I paid out, I've had security threats, I've even had the head of the underworld call me up and ask for a favour. I've got a lot of interesting stories to tell. I'm sure they'll try and get to the bottom of a few more at the luncheon.” - Lesley Apps

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