Friday, 4 June 2010

The Oaks

So here we are, then - back to where it all started. Our actual anniversary may be 9th June, but philosophically, it will always be Oaks Day, because Oaks Day 2000 it was, and the Oaks was our first ever market. Love Divine won it. From memory, I think about £3,400 was matched.

I can well remember the thrill of the first few bets being matched - compounded, perhaps, by the technical difficulties we had had on the three occasions we had showed off the product in the days before launch. Two of those were launch parties, and rather public; the other was in the privacy of my parents' house in Datchet, to the Times' racing correspondent, Alan Lee.

I forget now why it was that I had called Alan. I suspect it would have been that he had formerly been the Times' cricket correspondent, and the previous year I had got myself a gig working in the Press Office for the Cricket World Cup, based at Lord's. I think - although neither of us can remember for sure - that we must have met there; and that, just under a year on, with us both having moved jobs, his was the only name in the racing press that resonated. Whatever the reason, and however cold the call, Alan responded with great interest. He'd be fascinated to see it, he told me. A date was set. Bert and I rocked up to my folks' place, which was a happy half-way house between our Putney office and Alan's Cheltenham home.

We talked him through the product. Bert, in his customary shorts, wilder-haired than he is today (there was a touch more of it then), extolling the virtues of his baby - this exceptional product that had gone from drawing board to launch pad over a period of many months. Alan was wide-eyed at the explanation. Come on then, let's see the real thing. Here it is! Look! Oh no... Sorry... The system's crashed...

The first of our launch parties was in Covent Garden, targeted at (I think) 24 people who we had chanced upon through friends and friends-of-friends as potential clients or potential investors. We went to a small bar which was bizarrely lit in blue, on Shelton Street, I think it was. I can't remember if there were really fish tanks there or whether my memory has now just imagined them, but the whole place had a feel of being under water. It was an unfortunate metaphor, given that before we had even started, we were.

There they were, the High Rollers (as we thought of them then); gathered together in hushed expectation, enticed by news of a ground-breaking product which they were going to be first in the outside world to see. Twenty-four computers set up around the room; state-of-the-art not-quite-flat screens (it was ten years ago); the eerie blue light adding just a frisson of excitement. "Gentlemen, thanks for coming. What you're about to see is going to change the world of gambling. Err... Sorry. The system's crashed."

A day later, we were at the Sports Cafe on Haymarket, showing a rather larger crowd. Anyone we knew from the City was asked along to an evening which we had decided would best generate interest if we staged a mock demonstration outside.

Many people remember our mock funeral which made the front page of the business section of the Sunday Times, when we paraded a coffin around Finsbury Circus and its environs proclaiming, "the bookie is dead - make your own market!". Far fewer remember the demo we arranged outside the Sports Cafe, where a rag-tag-and-bobtail group of actors donned mackintoshes and flat caps, and held up placards saying "stop the launch".

The irony was two-fold: first, some who were invited that night never made it, turning away as they approached and telling us later that there seemed to be some kind of a demonstration going on, and they thought they should keep clear. The second, of course, is all too obvious: at the time, the idea of traditional bookies protesting our existence was all tongue-in-cheek. Little did we realise just how much the bookmaking industry would genuinely line up against us in the years ahead in protest at how competitive we were.

The Sports Cafe launch was the 'official' launch, but it wasn't a whole lot more successful than the private one. Most of my former brokers who came along were baffled by what I'd left JPMorgan for: despite their deep understanding of markets, they didn't see what the demand would be for our product, and told me it would never be more popular than the spreads that they loved (Sprouty, Stokesy - hang your heads in shame!). The system that night was up and down - more up than down admittedly, but it still felt hairy. We were heading towards D-Day with some trepidation.

But D-Day went like a dream. Alan wrote a back-page piece for the Times heralding the start of a new dawn which, he advised in words that went entirely unheeded, people in racing would be wise to notice. The market was posted, and prices went up, in fivers and tenners. We all stood around the computer screen as they appeared and disappeared, placed and matched with slightly more of a delay than they are today. By the time Love Divine was in the winner's enclosure, we were all jumping around in glee. Betfair was up and running!

Funny to think, really.

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