HE LOOKED every inch the South African multi-millionaire: a big man, at least 17 stone, with a paunch that bulged over the waistband of his expensive lightweight suit; heavy tan, heavy spectacles, heavy gold rings. The staff at Europe's biggest betting shop, Ladbrokes Arena in Birmingham, sniffed money. Big money. They had been tipped off that he was in town and liked a flutter.

The minute he walked in the joint, he was ushered into the room set aside for high rollers. For two hours he studied the racing pages and the screens with starting prices at Kempton and Haydock. Then he made his bet. 'Ten pounds each way,' Tony Brimmell, the general manager, recalled, shaking his head as if to rid it of a nasty memory. 'We'd been expecting at least a grand, just to start the ball rolling.'

More often than not, though, Mr Brimmell and his front-of-house manager, Leila Keogh, can spot the high rollers early. If their dress and their manner don't give them away, then their betting patterns will.

Those betting patterns are becoming increasingly important to Ladbroke as its traditional customers get older and poorer. Where possible, the strategy for attracting affluent punters is to pamper them by offering them their own special room. And there is a general move to woo those who enjoy gambling but who find the traditionally down-at-heel bookie's as appealing as a strip joint.

The company's main competitors, William Hill and Coral, are also upgrading their shops. But in the Birmingham Arena, Ladbroke has brought niche marketing to bookmaking - 'horses for courses' as Steve Clare, the regional controller, fittingly put it. At one end is 'a good old days' betting shop, where starting prices and results are chalked up on a board the way they were before the advent of television screens in the mid-Eighties.

'Many older customers feel more comfortable with this,' Mr Clare assured me, while furtive figures with turned-up collars studied Sporting Life. 'We take more slips here than any other section of the shop, but the turnover is lower.'

Beyond the Chez Ladbroke alcohol-free cafe is the area known as the Theatre. Punters were sitting in rows on padded red seats watching the dog racing from Brough Park on a giant screen. Minimum stake here is pounds 5.

Bets in the high rollers' room tend to run into hundreds. This is tucked away at the far end, reached by a separate stairway, and favoured clients are issued with a computer card to open the door. The decor is a pastiche of a gentleman's club: comfortable armchairs, mock wood panelling, trophy cabinets. Only the overhead television screens and the absence of whisky and soda remind you that this is a bookmaker's.

More than 300 have made free use of the room since it opened in July, 1990. 'That's a small percentage of our total bets,' said Mr Clare, 'but a high contribution to our turnover.'

The bookie's in the high street has long suffered from an image problem, which stems from its illicit origins. Off-course betting has only been legal in this country for 30 years. This summer, for the first time, betting shops will be allowed to stay open until 10pm, for those who want to bet on evening race meetings. The first is at Taunton on 16 April, but shops may extend their hours from today.

Why has evening opening taken so long to arrive? Perhaps because an air of disapproval still lingers over high- street gambling. Bookies' windows are usually opaque, like sex shops, as if there were something to hide.

The clientele is predominantly middle-aged and male, though those who take the bets are almost exclusively female. You sometimes have to grope your way to the counter through a fog of cigarette smoke, across a floor littered with crumpled slips. Now all three leading companies have started to invest heavily in air-conditioning. You can hear it hum over the commentary at Coral's new flagship in London's Bishopsgate.

Below pavement level it may be, but this is no dingy basement: spotlights gleam on spotless white walls. A mottled blue carpet is cleaned regularly throughout the afternoon. Women in smart blazers and white blouses sit like receptionists behind a semi-circular counter.

Female punters are noticeable by their absence. It is the same story at the revamped William Hill 50 yards up the street and at Ladbrokes Arena in Birmingham. But Mr Clare is confident that more female flutters will be forthcoming for big meetings, such as the Grand National on Saturday. 'Women tend not to be the largest- staking customers,' said Mr Clare, 'but they are a significant section of the potential market to be tapped.'

If more women went to the bookie's, Lindsey might feel slightly less isolated. She is usually the only female punter in any of the three betting shops within striking distance of her office in Coventry. Lindsey is not her real name: desire for anonymity is a measure of the stigma that still clings to gambling, particularly for a professional woman in her mid-thirties. 'On a job application, I'd probably put down my hobbies as walking and photography.'

Yet picking winners has provided her with far more excitement. Last year she won pounds 1,000 from a pounds 1 bet in which she predicted first, second and third in the same race. Most days she places about pounds 1.

We were in a William Hill branch not yet equipped with effective air-

conditioning. 'Nobody has ever harassed me,' said Lindsey. 'The men are quite friendly, and give me tips now and again. One or two get bad tempered and swear at the screen when their horses go down, but they don't bother me.'

Her selection for the 2.30 at Ludlow was pulled out of the race just before the start and, after reclaiming her stake, Lindsey went back to work. I stayed to see what would happen to the tip she'd given me. It came in fifth - out of five. Thankfully, my stake was even lower than that of a South African multi-millionaire posing as a high roller.

(Photograph omitted)