Men in White Gloves: The Rise and Demise of The Tic-Tac Man
If you are under the age of 35 it is odds-on that you have never seen a Tic-Tac man in action.
Conversely, if you are over 40 and went watch horse racing from the age you could legally smoke a cigarette, it is inevitable you would have marvelled at men wearing white gloves, often acting with the urgency of a Formula 1 mechanic during a wheel change, frantically relaying prices from one set of bookmakers to another.
That’s right, until the end of the 1990s, Tic-Tac men were an integral part of any on-course bookmaker’s armoury. As important as the chalk, satchel and wooden box to stand on. But this was the decade where the profession died a slow death as traditionalists clung on to something precious to them and technology did what it does best – it took over.
The slow demise was in stark contrast to the London Stock Exchange which, on October 27, 1986, witnessed the ‘Big Bang’. This was the day the entire shooting gallery went computerised meaning open-outcry and signal trading came to an immediate end and electronic screen-based trading took over. “My word is my bond” remains the motto of the London Stock Exchange but with a computerised system deemed infallible, the phrase bears no worth or relevance.
A 60’s Innovation That Should Have Changed The Genre
The fact that Tic-Tacs were such a vital part of on-course bookmaking for so long is actually remarkable. They probably felt like dinosaurs waiting for an asteroid to land on them from the evening of April 6th 1964.
This was the day a British Movietone newsreel reported, using footage from Southend greyhound stadium, “New tactics for Tic-Tac men - their old established semaphore system has now become transistorised, thanks to the initiative of the bookmaking firm of Henry Graham of Leigh-on-Sea.
“They've just been given licences to use walkie-talkie radio to pass on the betting information. A radio link-up minimizes the risk of mistakes which can occur in a crowded betting ring. The wavelength they use prevents outsiders picking up information or jamming the sets. The two-way sets cost a hundred pounds each.”
Maybe it was the cost – at the time a brand new car cost £500 – but this first, and what should have been firmest nail in the Tic-Tac’s coffin, failed to close the lid on Tic-Tacs and they remained an on-course commodity for at least another 25 years.
What appear to be such an obvious closed case, like email replacing the fax-machine or CDs substituting cassette tapes, was not clear cut at all. That’s because on-course Tic-Tacs did a lot more than simply communicate the odds available between one betting ring and another. As veteran bookmaker and former BBC Horse Racing betting guru Gary Wiltshire explains:
“The Tic-Tacs would normally be positioned near the rails because the rails bookmakers, despite not being allowed to display their odds, were the biggest players. The big punters and owners used to bet exclusively with the rails bookmakers. That’s how it worked, then there were the Tattersalls Ring and finally the Silver Ring. It got its name because originally bookmakers had to pay just a piece of silver to get in,” the larger-than-life Wiltshire explains.
To clarify this, the ‘rails’ would separate the Members Enclosure from the Tattersalls Ring (which Stateside might be referred to as the ‘clubhouse’) while the Silver Ring would be the English equivalent of the U.S. ‘grandstand’.
“In my day all bookmakers could read Tic-Tac, you had to,” says Wiltshire. “It was the first thing I taught my son, aged 14, when he came to help me at the racecourse. On course bookmaking was a hand-me-down profession and Tic-Tac was also handed down from generation to generation. It was a fantastic thing, like a secret code.”
So, away from a complex type of coding akin to sign-language, how did Tic-Tacs work and why were they so important?
“They were the beating heart of the ring, vital, something all bookmakers needed and we all paid a Tic-Tac,” says Wiltshire. “At the start of the meeting we would all pay one of the three or so Tic-Tacs for a ‘twist card’ – this was a coloured piece of cardboard which would have race-card numbers in ‘twisted code’ on it. Thereafter we would know which numbered horse our Tic-Tac was referring to when relaying odds. When they appeared to signal odds on the one horse it was actually the current price on number three for example, and Tic-Tac’ed odds on the racecard’s number two might actually refer to horse number 9.
“This way there was room for more than one Tic-Tac and each one would have their own client bookies and no one could read their betting prices for free during a meeting. That said, their services only cost us a fiver apiece. This would give you a complete picture of the odds elsewhere on the racecourse. But where they came into their own was by letting the books know if one of the big firms, Ladbrokes or Hills say, were firming up the favourite, vital information.”
A Licenced Profession?
In May 2015 the government’s Regulatory Policy Committee, ‘given the disappearance of Tic-Tacs from racecourses’, agreed with the Gambling Commission that licence requirements for Tic-Tacs ‘no longer served any regulatory purpose’. It will surprise many that Tic-Tacs ever were or ever needed to be licenced but, as the associated document, something of an obituary, explained it was for good reason. It stated:
"Tic-tacs is a term used to describe self-employed on-course bet brokers who facilitate the negotiation and agreement of bets between on-course bookmakers. Tic-Tacs were required to hold a betting intermediary operating licence. These licence conditions prevented Tic-Tacs from acting as a bookmaker or facilitating betting between members of the public.
"With the developing use of technology at racecourses (principally online betting exchanges and electronic points of sale), online bookmakers are now able to make and accept bets between themselves by automated means without the use of Tic-Tacs.
"At the time of the removal of the licence requirement, the Commission was not aware of any active non-remote betting intermediaries acting as Tic-Tacs on racecourses. Consequently, no businesses were assessed to be directly affected by the change."
Fully licenced betting intermediary operating bet brokers, really?
“Oh yeah, Tic-Tacs were really bookmakers, bookies who had the best pitches,” says Wiltshire. “If one of the layers had a big position and needed to lay some off or hedge the Tic-Tac was man to do it for them.”
So were mistakes ever made? In a chain that saw you ask a Tic-Tac, by coded message, to place a credit bet on your behalf with another bookmaker, who is now a third party, there is surely plenty that could go wrong. Wrong price, wrong horse or greyhound, wrong stake? You were, after all, using a coded system that involved twisted numbers and frantic gesturing of seemingly every body part other than the hips, knees and feet.
“Firstly, mistakes happened next to never, I cannot recall a major incident of a mistaken bet ever. And any discrepancy of any kind would happen, what, once every thousand or so races. In Tic-Tacs you were dealing with the most honourable people imaginable. Don’t forget in these times there were no printed betting tickets, your receipt was a cardboard ticket with just a few identification numbers on it.
“But the chain stopped with the Tic-Tac. You would ask him the price, he would reply 4’s, you would ask for a ‘monkey’ at that price and, with folded arms, that was the transaction complete. You would have no idea who that bet had been placed with and, in turn, they had no idea from which bookie that bet had originated.”
And the surprises keep on coming.
Wiltshire adds: “At the end of the meeting you would meet-up with your Tic-Tac and agree on your closing figure. If the bets you had sent out all lost you would owe him. If they showed a profit you would be owed and the weigh-in would normally take place the following day once those that owed the Tic-Tac had settled-up. Like I say, they were very honourable people and the fivers they collected pre-racing was a pittance compared to the sum of money that went through their hands during most meetings.
“They were great times,” reflects Wiltshire, who still enjoys the moniker ‘the Belly from the Telly’ due to his time on the BBC Racing and SKY Greyhounds. “But the radios (those using radios to relay prices and hedge also had to be licenced – and users were instructed which frequencies and channels they could use) slowly caught up. Then there were the computers, then the betting exchanges landed and now there is no need or place for Tic-Tacs on a racecourse.
Loathed to ask about ‘Dettori Day’ at Ascot when his determination to lay a massively under-priced Fujiyama Crest cost him the guts of £1 million – something which is covered in his book Winning it Back – I enquire if Tic-Tacs were still an integral part of on-course bookmaking at the time, September 1996. He replies: “Indeed they were, in fact that day at the close of play I had to settle-up my Tic-Tac, Rocky Roberto, with thirty-five grand!”
Roberto would go on to become a traditional bookmaker trading on course as ‘Kelross’ but he does not entirely blame computerisation for the loss of his first profession. In a 2017 interview for Star Sports he said: “The Tic-Tac finished up with the buying and selling of pitches when the NJPC (The National Joint Pitch Council) came in – all the new bookmakers that bought the pitches near enough to the man never took a Tic-Tac card, they didn’t really understand it or how it worked. Most of our old customers were the ones that sold.”
Whatever circumstance was the biggest contributory factor to the downfall of the Tic-Tac men and the language they spoke, the fact remains this magical signalling mechanism is dying out like the giant tortoises on the Galápagos Islands.
The late John McCririck would use some very straight forward Tic-Tac when reporting from the betting ring for Channel 4 Racing. This kept people intrigued and the art-form in a state of bradycardia. But the channel dropped the pundit in 2012 and apart from the odd curiosity piece, the televisual airwaves no longer feature any form of Tic-Tac. It means the extinction of this decades-old language is all but inevitable.
But a lasting legacy does remain with gambling slang, a close associate of Tic-Tac, still making up a small part of modern-day culture. The two were inexorably linked after all, and here’s how and why.
In Tic-Tac even-money is represented by the index finger on each hand being moved up and down vertically and alternately. It actually represents the motion of conventional balancing scales levelling out evenly.
Its corresponding betting phrase is ‘levels’ (you devils) and that’s a phrase which many use in common language. Of course terms such as ‘pony’, ‘monkey’, ‘beeswax’ and ‘ton’ can often be heard at poker tables. They all originated in betting rings. A ‘bag’ (of sand) is more common in everyday language. It may be attributed to cockney rhyming slang, but it too could be primarily derived from on-course bookmaking.
It might not be nostalgia keeping old-fashioned betting slang alive. Individuality, self-expression, membership of an ‘in group’ are probably the main factors but should reformers get their way idioms rooted in betting may well no longer be used in, well, betting.
For over ten years reform groups, such as Racing for Change, a relatively short-lived initiative-cum-project led by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) designed to make horse racing more attractive to a younger audience, have called for the scrapping of traditional betting fractions having them replaced with a decimal system.
It would mean odds of 10/11, which Tic-Tacs would once describe as “tips-on”, could be re-branded as a bland 1.91.
The Slow Disappearance, An Industry Genesis
Thankfully this is now looking unlikely. When the Covid pandemic forced ‘Industry Starting Prices’ upon punters in June 2020, the time when racing was first staged behind closed doors, SP’s such as 9/5 and 13/5 suddenly became a familiar sight. These ‘new prices’ allow bookmakers to manipulate the SP returns to a second decimal point which for them is as good as decimalisation itself.
Naturally, old school Tic-Tacs would struggle to convey these wacky prices across a betting ring, it could require some adjustments to their ‘code’. However none of it may matter in time as on-course bookmakers, even before the Covid shutdown, were drastically thinning in numbers and the latest reports indicate the 150-year-old system of starting prices (SP’s) being derived from the odds on bookmaker’s boards is about to be scrapped.
A second asteroid, one on a trajectory to land on on-course bookmakers, may not yet be visible but history suggests it is on its way.
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