Bet Your Life.
Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland); 7/21/2002
Byline: GREG GORDON
HE HAS been a hotel manager, a Justice of the Peace and an agent to the stars. But to Scotland's gambling fraternity, Henry Spurway is the friendly giant making a mint from the current wave of betting mania.
It was just over four years ago that the 57-year-old staked his future on bookmaking and he's now reaping the dividends as the formerly illicit world of gambling is undergoing a mainstream makeover. Quoting odds on everything from the Tour de France, the Open and the Commonwealth Games to when Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles will marry and which Pop Idols will still be the nation's favourite at Christmas, there are now over 80 betting firms advertising prices in shops, by phone and on the internet. Henry Spurway's Larkspur Racing chain, with an annual turnover of more than $9m, is one of the most influential arrivistes in a sector that, until recently, was almost exclusively controlled by Ladbrokes, William Hill, Coral and Stanley.
Last month's sale of Larkspur Racing in "a multi-million-pound deal" is proof, as Spurway puts it, that "there has never been a better time to be involved in Britain's betting industry". This month also saw the oversubscribed William Hill flotation value the bookmakers at $1.45bn. Quite simply, since the launch of the National Lottery seven years ago, Britain has gone gambling mad. A Mintel report estimates that 16% of men in the 25-34 age group have placed a bet in the last six months. One per cent of the adult population bets regularly over the telephone and Mintel predicts gambling expenditure will have increased by 21% between 1999 and 2004. On the eve of the World Cup, William Hill chief executive David Harding revealed the firm had turned a loss of $8m on internet betting in 2000 into a profit of $9.2m last year. It is Gordon Brown, Spurway says, who must take the credit for driving the betting boom and saving hundreds of jobs and hundreds of family-run bookmakers. With the House of Commons home to some notorious punters - Alex Salmond and Robin Cook amongst them - it was no surprise when, last October, the punters' Chancellor relaxed his iron-grip and ended betting tax.
The unpopular levy had driven some of the industry's biggest players offshore to form phone and online betting divisions, and thousands of jobs were at risk as punters opened tax-free accounts overseas. For Brown, equally importantly, $50m of his $430m a year in betting duty was not going into the Treasury coffers. Former Treasury adviser Sir Alan Budd intervened, publishing his 21st-century overhaul of Britain's gambling laws. Although bookies now have to pay a tax on their gross profits, the boost to takings, both through recycling of winnings and through people simply betting more, backs what the industry has always maintained: that removing betting tax would produce a betting bonanza to the benefit of punters, bookies and the Treasury. Fettes-
educated Spurway says, "It is one of those rare examples of legislation promoting positive cultural change." The figures are there for all to see. "Every major sporting event this year - the Grand National, the Derby, Royal Ascot, tennis, golf - have all smashed previous records for betting turnover. The World Cup was a betting bonanza with over $250m worth of bets placed on the tournament, making it the biggest sports betting event ever.
"For punters, bookies and politicians it's a genuine win-win situation. Last year it was costing $100,000 a year to open a small betting shop. Then I would pay $46,000 a month in tax. It was the same for all the small bookies and it was forcing us to close down. Now we are thriving."
But risk and speculation have never fazed this self-confessed gambling addict, and they are two constant themes in his life story. Spurway's notorious passion for punting was honed at an early age. On leaving school, he trained as a hotel manager before returning to work on his family's 3,000-acre West Calder farm.
Spurway bought the Rainbow Room casino in Edinburgh, where he experimented with having singers and entertainers as well as gambling. The business thrived until the 1968 Gaming Act came into force, banning betting and live entertainment under the same roof.
Out of the casino game, Spurway bought the Elm Tree Inn in Bellsquarry, promoting cabaret and folk acts, and booking comedians such as Bruce Forsyth and Ken Dodd. By 1973 he found himself managing Sydney Devine. He promoted Billy Connolly's first tour - 44 dates with an 18-piece big band which Spurway still manages. "Billy had just left the Humblebums when I first met him, and he didn't have an act. I took him from day one, he'd never done cabaret but he had no choice - it was the only way he could get a fee. We toured all over but his big break came when I got him on STV's Hogmanay show with Moira Anderson and the Alexander Brothers."
As Devine recorded Scotland's 1974 World Cup song, Spurway negotiated a deal with Scotland manager Willie Ormond. "I was the first manager's manager," he laughs. From an office in Bothwell Street in Glasgow, he managed the affairs of radio celebrities like Tiger Tim, Tom Ferry and Steve Jones. "I didn't have any real qualifications other than a desire to give it a go, but it seemed to work."
Spurway moved to London, where he worked with Max Clifford. They promoted a band called Bilbo Baggins who appeared on Top of the Tops and promptly split up, allowing singers Chisholm and Spence to sign a $1m deal in America where they wrote hits for Dusty Springfield. He bought a studio in Denmark Street, where the Rolling Stones recorded their first LP, and Eurovision winner Johnny Logan recorded his number one megahit 'Hold Me Now'. Loud-mouthed country singer Rosemarie from Northern Ireland also cut a platinum album there and Spurway continued to promote artists as diverse as Alan Stewart, Lena Zavaroni and Bucks Fizz.
He's owned pubs and working men's clubs - putting on the likes of Bernard Manning - and he published the Edinburgh Tatler, a society magazine dating back to 1705 which Spurway describes as "the Hello of its day". He sold it to Tatler's publisher, Conde Nast, in 1983. He's also been a Justice of the Peace and an independent parliamentary candidate for, of course, the Common Sense Party. "I've never really paused for thought in my life. When I hear about people planning their careers it just makes me laugh. I've just ended off doing the things I wanted to do - and got paid for them."
Spurway's biggest coup with Clifford was turning the disappearance of Hercules the bear into a media sensation. Owned by wrestler Andy Robins, Hercules escaped from captivity during the filming of a TV commercial in 1980. He spent 22 days on the run on South Uist before being captured and returned to a hero's welcome from the world's media, who had become entranced by the bear's exploits. A stack of offers followed, including the cover of Time magazine, a cameo in Octopussy, Kleenex commercials and appearances at Miss World as Clifford and Spurway went to town. In 18 months, Hercules earned his handlers $2.5m (and his agent Spurway a pretty penny) and won a coveted Joker of the Year showbiz award.
"Working with Max Clifford taught me that where there's a hit there's a writ. I ended up in court with Johnny Logan and Sydney Devine, suing them for breach of contract."
He explains his current business venture as the logical extension of his risk-taking mentality. "Showbiz is much like gambling, there are no certainties. Sometimes I was rubbing my hands over a sold-out tour one day, and then wondering how I would cover the costs of a cancellation the next." It's no coincidence, he says, that most showbiz managers are heavy gamblers. "Both worlds are all about bucking the odds. Moulding raw talent is just as difficult as grooming a talented thoroughbred but everybody who loves a gamble wants to try."
In the last year, Spurway has offered gamblers the chance to wager on 38,000 sporting events while betting on novelty markets such as the number of days it would take to catch a gang of local robbers or the imminent demise of Henry McLeish generated both trade and headlines. Indeed, the First Minister's 'Officegate' scandal led to Spurway appearing on ITN's News at Ten. Larkspur also boasts the biggest bookies in Britain - a 3,500sq ft former electrical store in Airdrie - and a customer-focused philosophy that includes loyalty cards, free bet offers, all day refreshments and pavement cafe-style furniture outside Larkspur's Grassmarket office.
"When I was on the other side of the counter, I wanted a good deal and to be paid out with a smile - I never forget that. I think it is disgraceful that if you place a $1,000 bet with a high street bookmakers they'll still charge you 50p for a chocolate biscuit or a cup of tea."
Eight years ago the bachelor who had haemorrhaged thousands of pounds in casinos and at the track feared he was reaching rock bottom. He recalls, "I was a very extreme gambler. I still wanted the gambling life but I couldn't afford to combine it with actual gambling any more. It might seem odd to people but I thought the only way to safeguard my well-being without relinquishing my passion was to become a bookmaker." He rejects the charges that as a gambling addict himself he is profiting from the misery of others in the same boat. "As someone with an addictive personality, I treat gambling with the greatest respect. Rather than exploit people's weaknesses I've always tried to help customers with a problem. I am an authority on the self-delusion of addiction. It takes an addict to spot another and my instinct is to help people from my position of understanding rather than take advantage of them."
There are many newcomers to the market; football in particular has introduced a new generation to betting. The National Lottery, Bingo's resurgence, online odds, interactive TV and female attendance at football matches have all promoted gambling as a leisure pursuit that is no longer a sole male preserve. Having challenged some of the biggest names in bookmaking, the outspoken businessman from West Lothian is now planning an assault on the lucrative internet market - he has allocated his Larkspur profits for an online 'Virtual Casino' and sports betting portal called Easibet. It places the online consumer right at the tables of a real-time casino where, thanks to a camera-eye view, they can place their bets live from the comfort of their homes. "There is a huge potential market and I can't wait to get going. I have been working seven days a week for the past four years and it has been pretty tiring. In some cases I work 100 hours a week, so it is time for a change and a new challenge."
Until August, when Larkspur changes ownership, Spurway will combine pricing up betting markets with promoting his latest prodigies. "I'm back into showbiz with a new band, called Kane. They're a bit like The Stones, really dynamic. They've been on Radio 1, played King Tuts and did T in the Park."
As he returns to casinos - albeit of a virtual kind - where his love of gambling and showbiz first merged, Spurway has been forced to consider the nature of his double life. "I'm a classic Gemini and I reckon my involvement with showbiz and betting have represented the dual facets of my personality. They're not so different really, in the end it's all about backing my hunches." If his past form is anything to go by, odds on, he'll succeed.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Scotsman Publications Ltd.
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