How did they manage bets at the track way back when?

100 years ago how did they manage bets at the track? Today it’s so easy with computers. In fact, how did they do it 50 years ago? Did it take forever between races while hand written tickets were drawn up?

Since this is a question about betting, the answer is probably a little bit different, but for many other places where bulk transactions need to be made and tracked, the answer was probably lots of women. Until recently, this has been the backbone for Japanese banks, at least.

Since you’re talking about race tracks, lots of young, male clerks serving the same role is probably the answer. Sheer brute force and coordination is a pretty decent solution to the time problem. Once you add mechanical computers, the number of employees who are necessary drops.

In the UK on-track bookies still do it by hand.


That’s how they pass the odds from one ring to another.

When I was a “penciller” for a rails bookmaker in Sydney I recorded all the bets he wrote each day. They were written in a huge ledger (with carbon copies) with about 10 columns across the page - each one for the bets against one horse. Each horse’s column was broken into 5 columns and as each bet was called out I recorded the win portion of the bet, the win stake, the place portion of the bet, the place stake, the total payout for the horse up to that bet, the total holdings for that horse up to that point, the ticket number of the bet and the total held on all the runners. Pencillers were highly thought of because big bookies would write thousands of bets each meeting and few people could keep up with the mental arithmetic required. It would get so fast that I wouldn’t be conscious of adding the numbers, I’d just seem to be writing them effortlessly. In fact a stray moment of thinking could stuff up the whole flow of it.

So at any point my boss could ask what his liability would be on any runner and I could tell him.

After the race the ledger was handed to the payout clerk who paid the bets according to what I had recorded while I pencilled the next race in another ledger. Copies of all the betting sheets went to the race club and the Treasury.

Surely the oldest method was dealing face-to-face with someone personally taking the other side of your bet.

It’s a short step from that to bet specialists willing - for a price typically expressed as differential odds and/or a rake on the payout - to take either side of a proposed bet. When more than one such specialist is operating, they have a natural interest in sharing bid and offer information, which leads to schemes such as the one mentioned by Szlater.

AIUI, a company called National Tote made toteboards, a primitive sort of analogue computer to do this sort of thing.

But what about the actual bet? It’s 1880 and I walk up to the betting window to place $2 on Skumbag what did I get back? A hand written ticket? A split ticket like one gets now days during a raffle? And if there are 300 other patrons at the track how was all the betting done in a reasonable time between races?

Prior to parimutuel betting, the bookies had an area alongside the track. You’d go up to them and check their current odds (possibly on a chalkboard, but more likely, by asking the bookie). Once you placed a bet, the bookie would hand you a slip with your bet and the odds. If you won, you’d bring the slip to the bookie you got it from and get your payoff. The slips were such that the bookie could identify their own; also they learned to remember who bet on the winner.

Eventually, this type of betting was banned and parimutuel betting was introduced. Tote boards kept track of the bets mechanically, like an adding machine.

In the UK, the type of betting you describe is still alive and well. If you go to a racetrack you can either bet on the Tote (short for totalisator, i.e. the parimutuel), or you can go to an on-course bookmaker, who might be a representative of a bookmaking chain or might be totally independent. He’ll have his odds either chalked up on a blackboard, if he’s old-school, or on an electronic board. In the old days, he’d give you a hand-written betting slip. Nowadays it’ll be printed off like a till receipt, from a machine which (I presume) also keeps track of the current state of his book, making it easier for him to tell whether he needs to adjust his odds. But the theory was no different before computers, he just needed to enter the bets in a physical book and use his maths eye to keep track.

After the race, if you’ve got a winner, you go back to the bookie and he will hand over the readies. The number of on-course bookies at a racecourse is usually such that each one will not have an overwhelming number of bets on a given race, so I can’t imagine it’s really that tough to keep track of.

As has already been mentioned, 50 years ago (even as far back as the 1930s, I think), the American Totalisator company made totalisator, or “tote”, boards for horse race tracks - they are, in fact, giant mechanical calculators. (Do a search on something called a “bingo pinball machine” and you will discover some amazing things that could be accomplished electronically without things like diodes or semiconductors.)

These had to be “hard-wired” - this is why, back before computers became involved, $2 win bets, $2 place bets, $5 win bets, and exacta bets all had separate sets of windows, and there couldn’t be horses with numbers higher than a certain number (usually 12) in a race - or, if there were, all horses numbered 13 and higher were treated as if they numbered 12A, 12B, and so on, so a bet on #12 was considered a bet on all horses numbered 12 and higher. Also, the only “exotic” bets had to involve just two numbers, so there were no Pick-Sixes or even Trifectas - just Daily Doubles and Exactas (and since those used the same betting windows, they couldn’t overlap).

The automatic totalisator was an Australian invention. They were staggeringly ingenious pieces of steampunk machinery.

The first full scale automatic totalisator was installed at Ellersie racetrack in Auckland in 1913. Earlier totes were operated by individual bookmakers, but the Ellerslie tote, manufactured by Sir George Julius’ Automatic Totalisator Limited had thirty windows operating simultaneously and could cope with up to thirty horses in each race. On it’s first day the tote handled 83,000 bets and a maximum of about 10,000 bets on any one race without any problems. It was fully mechanical and only in use for five years before being replaced with an improved electro-mechanical system.

Julius continued to improve his designs and by 1920 he boasted he could build machines capable of dealing with 4,000 bets per second. In 1928 ATL installed a tote at Longchamps that could:

Each ticket came with a printed slip, indicating the stake, horse and race numbers. For a huge and detailed look at ATL, and its history have a look at this site.