Dillon, a hugely engaging Mancunian, is not only the public face of Ladbrokes, he also helps set their horse-racing odds. And he has a pretty good record in the Gold Cup. Seven years ago, he reckoned that the favourite, Carvill's Hill, was unlikely to win. "He was ridden by Scudamore, trained by Martin Pipe, both all-conquering, and he had won the Welsh National very easy, but I felt he had an Achilles heel, that on an undulating track over fast ground he would be vulnerable."
The odds were set accordingly, with Ladbrokes offering a better price than every other bookmaker. "We were evens when everyone else was odds on. When they were 6-4, we were 2-1. We took fortunes. And when he got beaten by Cool Ground, it was a great result for the firm, or so I thought. About five minutes after the race we found out that an unemployed joiner from Portsmouth or somewhere had had these 10p doubles and trebles, and that the last leg was Cool Ground, a 25-1 shot in the Gold Cup. He won almost pounds 600,000 for about seven quid. That's the magic of the game, you see. We go from euphoria to total despair."
The unemployed joiner was called Dick Mussell, and he has an entire file to himself at Ladbrokes' head office in north-west London. Dillon shows it to me, laughing with the abandon of a man who can afford to be magnanimous. During the three-day Cheltenham Festival, the bookmaking industry expects to take around pounds 100m in bets, an average of pounds 5m per race, and Ladbrokes has a quarter share of the market.
To accommodate the punters, the ever-obliging Ladbrokes are opening their Cheltenham shops at 8am, and even permitting bets in Irish punts. Meanwhile, the company has already pocketed at least pounds 60,000 - one punter placed pounds 40,000 at 4-1 on His Song to win yesterday's Arkle Challenge Trophy (he was unplaced), and had a further pounds 20,000 treble on His Song, Istabraq and Florida Pearl. "All Irish horses," notes Dillon. "So you needn't be Einstein to know where that bet came from."
Similarly, you needn't be Desmond Morris to know whether Dillon is enjoying himself at Cheltenham. I should think that if he's rubbing his hands gleefully, Ladbrokes are quids in. But if the knuckles are white, the punters are winning. Or perhaps just one punter. "A few years ago a big gambler called Noel Furlong had a horse called The Illiad," Dillon recalls. "He ran in the race we sponsor at Leopardstown in January, the Ladbroke, and Furlong backed him from 36-1 down to 6-1. He won about pounds 2m that day, and then The Illiad ran in the Champion Hurdle. Furlong backed him in big multiple bets with another horse of his, who ran in the first race and absolutely doddled it. Luckily The Illiad didn't win at Cheltenham, or he'd have won about pounds 20 million. Noel Furlong took the ring on on his own that day."
In bookmaking jargon, the betting market is "the ring." And the offering of seductive odds, attracting large numbers of bets, is known as "getting a horse beaten". In the Grand National one year, Dillon got Bonanza Boy beaten, big-time. "I just couldn't see him winning. I have a set of rules when I assess a horse, and the number one rule is how well it travels. I don't like horses who have to be hustled and bustled, and Bonanza Boy was one of those. But he was trained by the champion trainer, Martin Pipe, ridden by the champion jockey, Peter Scudamore, so I thought `this is a real chance. All the world wants to back him and he can't win.'"
Dillon is admirably candid about his efforts to, in essence, hoodwink the punter. And that's fair enough, since plenty of punters try to hoodwink the bookie, by foul means as well as fair. Ladbrokes shop managers, particularly in horsey areas like Newmarket, are expected to hold a particularly tight rein. "If there's a selling hurdle at Plumpton on a Monday, and someone comes in off the street, someone you've never seen before, and puts on pounds 10,000, the manager would want locking up if he didn't think the fella might know more about the race than we do."
The fixing of football matches by nobbling the floodlights is only the latest of many betting scams. Dillon recalls Ladbrokes offering odds on the results of seven-frame matches in a snooker tournament in Derby about 15 years ago. "And a fella came into one of our shops wanting to bet pounds 2,000 at 7-1 on a particular game finishing 5-2. The manager told him the price had gone down to evens. He said `well, I'll have two grand at evens, then.' It was obviously a hooky game. The manager had a ledger of all the bets and there was nothing in the 7-0 or the 6-1 or 4-3 columns, but rows and rows of bets under 5-2."
There are other people at Ladbrokes to look after small fry like snooker, however. Dillon's overriding concern is horse racing, which represents 70 per cent of the company's pounds 1.7bn turnover, with dog racing amounting to 20 per cent. And his daily challenge is to get a horse beaten, a challenge which on occasion, I venture, must go badly wrong.
"Oh yeah, I've made some catastrophic mistakes," he admits brightly. "At Cheltenham a few years ago I didn't think a horse called Kribensis had what it took to win the Champion Hurdle. I underestimated the trainer, Michael Stoute. He was a flat trainer with only one jumper, and I thought he was playing at it. So we laid 5-1 when everyone else offered 4-1, and of course he won. I was sick as a pig." The extra unit lost Ladbrokes about a million pounds, says Dillon, blanching even now at the memory. But the chief executive of the racing division, Peter George, who now runs the whole company, was supportive. "He just told me to stick to my principles."
Sometimes, losses are borne not only stoically but cheerfully, in the knowledge that they add up to an investment in the company's future. "Every time Red Rum won, we lost," says Dillon. "But we didn't mind paying out, because it increased the profile of betting. He took us off the sports pages and put us on the news pages. The same with Desert Orchid, and with Dettori's Seven, which cost the industry pounds 40 million. I know pounds 40m is a bit of a steep advertising budget, but in the long run Dettori's Seven was fantastic for the industry."
Knowing this, it is hard to overlook the old saw that bookies never lose. Moreover, I tell Dillon that I was at Leopardstown earlier this year to interview the champion jump jockey Tony McCoy. I backed McCoy's rides in three races, all of which lost, and when I met him he said they never had a prayer of winning anyway. "Betting is a mug's game," McCoy told me. At this, Dillon's cheerful countenance clouds over. "Don't tell Dick Mussell it's a mug's game," he says. "Besides, we run the on-course betting shop at Leopardstown, and we ran out of both money and cheques that day. We had to tell the punters to come back for their winnings the next day, which pleased them, actually. They would rather go to the pub and say Ladbrokes couldn't afford to pay them than have the money to buy a round."
Dillon is a betting man himself. He bets very selectively, and with slightly more prudence than the man who wrote to Ladbrokes asking what price they would give on him being abducted by aliens and returned to earth as a giant yellow teapot. "I have very good discipline," says Dillon. "I can go weeks without, then have two in half an hour." He knows, of course, who most of the high rollers are. "But sometimes people come out of the ground," he says. "Like the guy who put pounds 80,000 in cash on Shergar to win the Derby, or the fella who came in with a Halifax Building Society draft for 50 grand, and put it on Carvill's Hill to win the Gold Cup. That was the original placing your house on one."
The biggest single bet he can recall had nothing to do with sheepskin nosebands. "We took a credit bet of pounds 2 million at evens on Brazil to win the 1994 World Cup in 90 minutes of normal time. They didn't, although there was a worrying moment when the ball came off the post and into the Italian goalie's hands." Meanwhile, Dillon must be the only Manchester United supporter hoping that United leave Milan with nothing better than a 0-0 draw tonight. "That would suit us great. We want United in the semi- final but punters don't bet on nil-nils. The last game was the worst possible result for us, because Dwight Yorke scoring the first goal and a score of 2-0 was the most popular double. We lost about pounds 250,000 on that match."
Ladbrokes will also lose a significant amount of money if a female jockey wins next month's Grand National. In 1989, a punter bet pounds 400 in doubles and trebles on Cliff Richard being knighted (4-1), a Brit becoming world heavyweight boxing champion (10-1), and a female jockey winning the National (33-1), all by the year 2000. He has already won pounds 11,000 and stands to win a further pounds 128,000 if the third leg of his treble comes off. Indeed, he has offered certain trainers pounds 50,000 of his winnings to give a woman a top ride. "Luckily he has no possible chance in the world," says Dillon. He pauses, as if to reassure himself. "No, no, no. No possible chance in the world."Reuse content