March 07 2011
A great staple of Hollywood cinema is the moment when a character walks into a bar announcing that he’s the new man in town and he’s looking for a high-stakes game of poker or pool. In the British racing and gambling fraternity in 2011, Ben Keith is that man.
The 31-year-old solicitor’s son is the owner of Star Sports, a bespoke bookmaking business based in Hove on the south coast of England. Keith, who started the company 10 years ago, has rapidly emerged as a man who likes to bet big – and he’s not afraid to go toe to toe with confident City boys who fancy their chances. Many of the latter will have been clearing their diaries to make room for their annual trip to the Cheltenham Festival, which begins on March 15, and, as far as Keith is concerned, the first race cannot come soon enough.
The daily trades of most professional oddsmakers are dominated by the prices available on the betting exchanges. But if you are a punter looking to place a thick bet on a fancied horse, you may find that liquidity is a problem. It’s all very well being offered 10-1 on Kauto Star for the Gold Cup when the general price is 8-1, but if the exchange layer will only accept £10 at those odds it’s not much use. Keith may not offer you 10-1 but he will accept a wager of up to £100,000 at not far short of that price and, in the intoxicating whirl of the Festival, that places him right up there with the established high rollers.
Keith classifies Star Sports as the “gentleman’s bookmaker”. It’s a distinctive niche market, once dominated by Victor Chandler and now also contested by Balthazar Fabricius and his smart Mayfair operation Fitzdares. In keeping with his upmarket rivals, Keith began gambling while he was still a schoolboy at Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex. He started making a book there at the age of 12 and, far from incurring the wrath of the authorities, recalls that “half the staff” used to bet with him. But the most influential moment in his career was when he met the late Tony Morris, a legendary bookmaker in the greyhound-racing world who died 12 months ago. Always impeccably dressed, Morris displayed nerves of steel in his dealings with both punters and his fellow bookies. When he died he left two pairs of cuff links and two Crombie overcoats to Keith, who wears them whenever possible.
When asked to stand his first six-figure wager, Keith remembers feeling almost every nerve in his body telling him to decline. “But then a voice in the back of your mind says, ‘If you want to be the man you’ve always wanted to be, another Victor Chandler or Tony Morris, you have to take this bet.’ You then watch the race almost as a third-party observer to the little voice. Your comfort zone has been broken and, whatever happens, you will never turn back.”
Keith brings a formidably sharp mathematical brain to his calculations but one possible way to beat him is to draw on the deep well of statistical information that tends to underpin so many outcomes at Cheltenham. The Irish ace Hurricane Fly has never even run, let alone won, at Prestbury Park and yet he’s as short as 4-1 for the Champion Hurdle. By contrast, the fourth favourite Peddlers Cross was a most impressive winner at last year’s Festival meeting, and he’s my nap this March at 6-1 with Star Sports.