On this dull, damp Ascot afternoon, Mickey Stuart gesticulates like a demented Roman tribune on his crate in front of the racetrack's grandstand. Flapping his white-gloved hands, punching his knuckles together, whacking his chin, he seems to be fending off a swarm of hornets while guiding a 747 in for a landing. He moves his lips, but no words come out. "No, he's not a raving loony," says racing commentator and betting guru John McCririck. "He's merely ticktacking."
In the eccentric world of British handicapping, ticktack is the term for the secret signals used by bookmakers. Before a race, ticktack men semaphore the odds and price changes from the bookies at the rail of the track to the bookies in the center of the betting ring, between the members' enclosure and the main enclosure, where bettors—called punters in Britain—place their wagers with competing bookmakers. All the ticktack men's frantic gesturing is accompanied by espionage and counterespionage as complicated as the plot in a novel by John le Carré.
Stuart is the George Smiley of ticktackery. He has been sending out coded signals for 69 of his 85 years. "I've ticked from Ascot to Yarmouth," he says, "and I've tacked from Aintree to Brighton. That's south to north and north to south." His eyes are half-mooned in shadow, his lips are cracked and dry, his skin rice-papery. He learned the trade from his old man, a London ice cream impresario who made book under the name Hokey King and espoused the ticktack credo: Eyes open, ears open, mouth shut. "My father was not a great bookmaker," Stuart concedes. "He made money from the ice creams over the summer and lost it [as a bookmaker] over the winter." Stuart fits works the tracks year-round. "I still make about 200 race days a year," he says. "I've ticktacked for the grandfathers of some of the bookies here today."
Odds were first called on an English racetrack by William Ogden at Newmarket in 1790, and betting rings have been around since the 1850s. Starting prices varied wildly until 1926, when the system was unified by the bookmakers' association. "I have no idea who invented ticktacking—probably the Mafia," says Stuart. "When I began in the late '20s, underworld figures more or less controlled racing and bookmaking." That era's seamier side was chronicled in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock. It was while standing around the ring at Brighton's track that the book's doomed antihero, Pinkie, got his neck and hands razored by gangland thugs.
Except for the thugs, everything has stayed pretty much the same. You can still place a bet inside at the tote windows, but the real action is outside in the yard. At Ascot on this particular day, hundreds of punters scramble madly among the ring's 60 bookmakers for the best odds. Each bookie has his own stand, with a "joint" (a blackboard for chalking up prices), a "mush" (umbrella), "briefs" (betting tickets) and a "hod" (a hand-painted Gladstone bag into which banknotes are placed). Assisting the bookies are a clerk, who records wagers in a "captain" (ledger), and a "floor man"—a sort of spy charged with finding out who is putting how much money on what horse and why.
The bookies stand in three neat rows, their position—or "pitch"—determined by seniority. "We're all stepping in dead men's shoes," says third-generation bookie John Burrows. "As layers drop dead, you move up in line." An old-timer called Goldtooth was famous for asking, "Been any good deaths in the ring lately?"
The row nearest the members' rail is considered the most advantageous. The pole position is the one nearest the entrance to the members' enclosure, which is off-limits to bookies. "The closer to the entrance the better," Burrows says. "That's where the bigger punters generally bet."
The bigger the bet, the more likely that a bookie will hedge it by "laying off," or backing the horse himself with other bookies in the ring. The ticktack conducts this flow of cash by acting as a sort of inter-bookie telephone line.
"Ticktacks function as intermediaries," says McCririck. "They broker between one bookmaker wishing to 'stand' a horse that punters nearby won't come for and another trying to put money on it, either at a bigger price than he has just laid or to cut down his liability." To ensure that no result breaks his back, a bookie should constantly balance his books.
Millions of pounds are exchanged through this intricate sign trafficking. "There are no words, no witnesses, no written evidence that a deal ever took place," says McCririck. "Trust and honor constitute the core of racecourse book-making business."