There was no more fabulous place to be in Sydney yesterday than at Tattersall’s Club for the launch of colourful bookmaker Bill Waterhouse’s autobiography, What are the Odds? The Bill Waterhouse Story.

Politicians, judges, jockeys, footballers and punters packed the room to hear from the 87-year-old head of a racing dynasty, which has generated more headlines and lawyers’ fees than almost any other tribe in history. It’s all there in the book — the Fine Cotton affair and the 10-year lawsuit that tore the family apart, together with Bill’s dealings with people such as  Kerry Packer, George Freeman and Bob Trimbole.

In his introduction, Neville Wran described meeting “Watery””on the first day of term at Sydney Uni law school in 1944. Later, they played poker marathons with Lionel “The Sword” Murphy, so-called due to his large nose. Murphy died in 1986 but his “little mate”, solicitor Morgan Ryan, was there, rounding out the posse of “colourful racing identities”.

Ryan, now a sprightly 90 years young, said that Murphy had called him “China” (as in china plate; mate) and that he had christened Wran “Nifty”.

“I used to say, that man is Niftier than Neville Selwood. He was a jockey who knew how to get an inside run.”

Ryan is famous, of course, for being the subject of a 1982 conversation between Murphy, then a High Court judge, and the then Chief Magistrate of NSW, Clarrie Briese. Ryan was up on conspiracy charges and Murphy had uttered the fateful words, “and now what about my little mate?” The judge was convicted of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but the conviction was quashed and he was acquitted at the retrial.

Asked about it yesterday, Ryan said that “… if I saw him (Briese) on the street today, I’d tell him to go to buggery.”

Many family members were there, including Bill’s wife, Suzanne, children Louise and Robbie, Robbie’s wife, trainer Gai Waterhouse and their children Tom and Kate, who came with her boyfriend, footballer Luke Ricketson. Louise told me that the gob-stopping South Sea pearls she and Gai were wearing had been bought for them by Robbie when he returned to the track in 1998.

NSW Minister for Fair Trading Virginia Judge and former federal cabinet minister Helen Coonan turned up along with a bevy of lawyers, including Chester Porter, QC, and Tom Hughes, QC.

In her speech, Gai said that she had rung Bill in 1978 asking him to go on a “racing variety” television show she was doing with John Singleton called Television’s New Faces.

“He said, ‘I can’t, but I have a very handsome son, why don’t you ask him?’ So I did, and two years later I married him!” Robbie, of course, is famous for his (disputed) involvement in the 1984 Fine Cotton affair, in which a successful racehorse called Bold Personality was painted with Clairol hair dye and substituted for a weaker horse called Fine Cotton, triggering a betting plunge.

Bill and Robbie were warned off Australian racetracks for having had prior knowledge of the scam — something they have always denied — and placing bets. In 1998 they were allowed back on; although Bill still works as a bookie the family business has mainly passed to Robbie’s 27-year-old son, Tom, who has set up in Victoria.

In the book, Bill says that Robbie unknowingly took the bet on Fine Cotton to help out a friend. “I’ve often said that if Rob had been a girl, he’s always be pregnant because he couldn’t say no.”

Asked about it yesterday, Bill said that these issues didn’t trouble him. “I have a thick skin, all gamblers are accused of everything.”

He said he had no regrets. “I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I’ve had my ups and downs and I’m very pleased with what has happened.” About the infamous $1million he was still owed by Kerry Packer, he said that the chances of that being repaid (by the family) were “1,000,000–1.”

The real star of the show, however, was Bill’s wife, Suzanne, who married him the first time in 1953. The book describes how she left Bill in 1968 and married a doctor; after about a decade, however, Suzanne had left him and returned to the family home. At the launch, she said that “… after I got the divorce, Bill told me, get back there and change your name back to Waterhouse!”

In 1980, they remarried, although Bill says in the book that he explained to Suzy that he would “… maintain his friendship with Yuko Fujita, whom I had been close to over the previous decade”. She is, Bill says, a “wonderful person and I usually catch up with her twice a week. My relationship with Yuko was never a secret from Suzanne, and I talk well of each of them to the other.”

Asked about Fine Cotton, Suzanne said “… it did worry us terribly, it’s never really gone away, it’s so unjust. But never once did Bill say, ‘Robbie what have you done?’ And if we had had anything to do with it, we would have painted the horse much better, wouldn’t we — (after all) I am an artist!

“The trouble is, people want to believe bad things. It’s been very sad for Robbie, Gai said, if everyone knew what a lovely man he was, they would not believe it (the accusation).”

But at least now we know why it’s called the sport of kings.

As Bill says in the book, “Racing is a really hard, tough business — tougher than any other. But there’s more money in racing than in any other business. It’s bigger than BHP, and that’s why I’m involved in it.”

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.