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A trainer, a bookie and a ‘drunk’: the Waterhouse saga simply screams Sydney

The Gai Waterhouse-John Singleton horse racing imbroglio has the feel of fiction. Its cast of characters could easily spring from the treatment for a new Underbelly series or the pages of a Peter Corris…

Gai Waterhouse and John Singleton in happier times: their acrimonious split and subsequent stewards' inquiry has typified the culture of Sydney. AAP/Paul Miller

The Gai Waterhouse-John Singleton horse racing imbroglio has the feel of fiction. Its cast of characters could easily spring from the treatment for a new Underbelly series or the pages of a Peter Corris novel. News and narrative have here aligned with rare precision.

The Racing NSW stewards hearing has provided rich material for imaginative play, generating multiple walk-on parts for actors described by others in the production as: the “drunk” (John Singleton), the “trumped-up jockey” (Allan Robinson), the “brothel owner” (Eddie Hayson), the “footballer” (Andrew Johns), the “bookie” (Tom Waterhouse), the “snob” and “failed actress” (Gai Waterhouse). Its participants have played to the gallery, feeling “like rock stars” (in Singleton’s words) while competing for nightly news grabs.

Although this is a national story, its context is unmistakeable. The main character of this mediated melodrama is Sydney itself. Should Leviathan, John Birmingham’s rambunctious unauthorised biography of Sydney, deservedly go to a new edition, it would surely contain a vivid portrait of 21st century Sydney as seen through the More Joyous affair.

Birmingham quotes the archetypal Sydney “character”, William Charles Wentworth, who in 1824 held that:

Scandal appears to be a favourite amusement to which idlers resort to kill time and prevent ennui, and, consequently, the same families are eternally changing from friendship to hostility, and from hostility back to friendship again.

Wentworth might have written those same words today for an upmarket magazine or edgy blog in describing the Waterhouse-Singleton daily spectacle of frayed friendships and tentative reconciliations.

What does the current scandal tell us about Sydney past and present, and its place within the national imagination? Despite Melbourne’s own rich history of scandal and transgression, it is Sydney that has assumed and retained the mantle of Australia’s “Sin City”. Sydney is enduringly characterised by a residual freewheeling, colonial, “whatever it takes” lawlessness coupled with a brazen, aggressively unenlightened self-interest.

It is notable that Singleton versus Waterhouse has occurred at a time when another very Sydney matter has been played out in the daily national news. The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry into the awarding of lucrative mining leases - with its daily revelations of long lunches and friends with benefits - has reinforced long-held views that the spirit of the Rum Corps still runs through the city like the Tank Stream (now a drain) below it.

Horse racing has played more than a bit part in this dubious civic reputation. The “sport of kings” has always been a confusing mixture of establishment respectability, genuine equine affinity, working class “vocabularies of hope”, celebrity attention seeking, and dubious connections.

But the figure of the “colourful racing identity” is essentially a Sydney invention, a defamation-defying euphemism for its roll call of SP bookies, loan sharks, bent politicians, “whale” wagerers and their associates. Its vivid tableau of spivs and mug punters resonates well with an image of place where the odds are seen to be loaded against honest citizens in favour of more worldly rule benders and influence peddlers.

The current controversy over the promotion of sport gambling on television is not mainly about horse racing or focused on Sydney. The terms of reference for the Senate inquiry into “the advertising and promotion of gambling services in sport” are generic, referring only to “in-game promotion and the integration of gambling into commentary and coverage”, “exposure to, and influence on, children”, the “effect on the integrity of, and public attitudes to, sport”, and so on.

Gai Waterhouse’s bookmaker son, the omnipresent Tom, is at the centre of the stewards' inquiry. AAP/Paul Miller

Yet in public debate on the issue, the Waterhouse name – and especially Tom, scion of the bookmaking dynasty - has been much in evidence. It is the omnipresence of Waterhouse’s youthful, smiling visage in and outside sport broadcasts, and his use as a faux television sports commentator to promote gambling on sport, that has given additional impetus to anti-gambling campaigns.

Tom makes much of being “born to bet”, but understandably less of the part of his patrimony that saw his grandfather Bill and father Robbie - both bookmakers - warned off racecourses after the 1984 Fine Cotton affair.

The prominence of Waterhouse in the national controversy about sport and betting inevitably evoked the image of Sydney as a place where “anything goes”. When the Sydney-based Channel Nine and Tom Waterhouse stretched the TV-sport-gambling trifecta to its limit, it was easily read as the national dissemination of this Sydney ethos.

When allegations (as noted, furiously contested) were made that Tom had conferred with his mother Gai over the health of Singleton’s horse More Joyous, there was more focus on the noisy spat than surprised concern at what had been alleged. Sydney, for many, was just acting the part.

David Williamson’s characterisation of Sydney in Emerald City “as New York without the intellect” is oftencited as a put-down. But there are many in Australia, and some of the city’s own residents, who would award it the status of documentary. As events at Randwick unfold, we are witnessing a very Sydney tale that’s been running far longer than The Mousetrap.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Watson

    Geologist

    Indeed. And apart from the all too symptomatic nature of the setting, who really give a toss about any of these appalling people and their pathetic machinations?

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    1. Trevor McGrath

      uneducated twit

      In reply to Peter Watson

      Hi Peter totally agree, just like the stock market really, a tweet sends the stock market into melt down,here, a drunk, confessed drug taking ex footballer does to same at the track. Are we sure its not the 1st of April. Cheers

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    2. Mark Jablonski

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Watson

      I do, because of the damage it's doing to the children.

      Yep, I'm one of those, "Won't Somebody Think of The Kids(tm)" chanters.

      My nieces - going to a co-ed public school in Hobart's suburbia - tell me that the boys can quote the odds for each game and use them to argue whose the best team, right alongside their favourite player.

      Tom Waterhouse is spending a huge amount of resources in normalising gambling. He wants it as pervasive - and socially acceptable - as alcohol.

      The problem with that is gambling is far more damaging, particularly to those who DON'T gamble.

      We limit alcohol and tobacco advertising not to protect adults, but to protect children. The same should be done for gambling.

      Expecting parents to protect their kids in the face of the actions of Tom Waterhouse is nonsensical and Tom knows it. He is simply swamping us, barrage style.

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    3. Peter Watson

      Geologist

      In reply to Mark Jablonski

      Mark, don't get me wrong, I do in fact agree with you regarding the ridiculous importance we grant these appalling people and the moral vacuity they espouse.

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    4. Terry Mills

      lawyer retired

      In reply to Peter Watson

      Peter, I agree but, while multi-millions of taxpayer money is going into the racing industry - I'm assuming that NSW is the same as Queensland on this - we must give a toss. If this industry and its appalling minions cannot survive without taxpayer support (and I'm sure it can) then we should just let it die.

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    5. Steve Birdsall

      Retired

      In reply to Mark Jablonski

      Fair go Mark . . . when the TABs really got rolling the real "mug money" dried up, leaving the bookies with the professionals and the money-launderers. Their numbers diminished dramatically.

      Tom Waterhouse has found a way to bring some of that mug money back into the coffers.

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  2. Jack Arnold

    Director

    An excellent commentary David that I agree would make a delightful David Williamson play to rival the wonderful Emerald City.

    I seem to remember that grandfather Bill Waterhouse was once reported as disappointed with the quantum of betting at New York race tracks, likening the day's total at New York to a single race at Randwick.

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  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    There's been a film called Dead Man Walking, death row and all that and now we could have Smiling Man Walking or just Smiles Walking for have you ever seen the Waterhouses not smiling ( well maybe Gai when stroppy ), maybe something to do with horses and getting it from the horses mouth.
    We could have a re-invention of Mother and Son and I'm sure a role could be found for Norman too.

    In the wash up, I'm sure that Andrew Johns might just feel a little like being on death row.
    Hopefully John and Gai can patch things up so we can have many more public episodes of entertainment, Singo already indicating he may need to apologise if Johns was just too imbellishing.

    You do have to wonder about Singo though for while More Joyous may have been fit to run, she certainly could not have been overly joyous if she had just a tiny bit of neck stiffiness and would likely have confided in a whisperer that she had a migraine and yet Singo still agrees for her to run.

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  4. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    It's been hard to avoid this story in the media lately. It's been a bit like passive smoking. But even though only loosely following it, I am seized with an upwelling of emotions.

    Chief among these is "Who gives a f**k?"

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  5. Darren Parker

    logged in via Facebook

    I vote for the author of this article to write the next Underbelly series ("Underbelly: Singo"?) He has a nice turn of phrase.

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    1. Peter Watson

      Geologist

      In reply to Darren Parker

      The script would need a touch of John Mortimer, a bit of Dennis Potter and just a dash of Shaun Micallef.

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  6. Zvyozdochka

    logged in via Twitter

    All the mathematically challenged desperados get together through 'horse racing'. They deserve each other.

    Please please please, let there be no public money spent investigating these clowns. Let them lie and steal and cheat each other.

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    1. Ben Neill

      Mobile/Web Applications Developer

      In reply to Zvyozdochka

      Cheating and swindling each other is just an intermission from cheating and swindling the greater populace.

      They are just legitimised mobsters and should be treated as such.

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    2. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Zvyozdochka

      Or , Zvyozdochka, even public money spent on writing about them. Is this what we pay our taxes for? Is this the 'new way for education'? I find it hard enough making ends meet without thinking my money goes into paying someone to write this drivel.
      I am disappointed it has appeared on 'The Conversation'.
      Authors must have academic qualifications. Pity about content, are there no standards?
      I suppose...never mind...
      Sorry, Mike, but after all you are a Professor of Cultural Research. Goodness me.
      I have written to Sir Les for an opinion. I understand he is to receive an honorary degree on his retirement.

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    3. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Roger Crook

      I would defend, Roger, the public money devoted to this and to the other 266 comments to date that you have posted at The Conversation, which is mainly funded by the public organizations that enable your posts to reach a potentially wide audience.

      I’m not concerned about your characteristic incivility, but in the interests of journalistic accuracy feel compelled to correct you. My name isn’t ‘Mike’.

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    4. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to David Rowe

      Sorry David. A slip of the pen.
      What on earth how many times I have posted on The Conversation has got to do with the subject matter eludes me, why you have bothered to do the count or whatever you did is also baffling, to me at least.
      Your point is?
      That The Conversation is supported by various academies, including the University of Western Sydney, your place of employment, is laudable and has my total support. The more balance those who have chosen an academic career, including your good self…

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    5. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Roger Crook

      I’m simply giving you feedback on your feedback, Roger. Detailed information about me is clearly displayed on The Conversation’s and my University’s websites. I was just interested to know something about the person who described my article as a waste of public money, ‘drivel’, that I lack “academic qualifications”, and am somehow disqualified by being a Professor of Cultural Research.

      You have put nothing in your profile on The Conversation website, but it describes you as a ‘Retired agribusiness…

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    6. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to David Rowe

      David,
      I have never put letters after my name, never. It was not unusual in my era, especially among those of us who chose to be 'commercial'. It was often interesting to observe the responses we got from those who chose the other option. They were almost always in research.
      Perhaps we can leave it, David, with a quote from the great English essayist and poet Mathew Arnold?
      'The men of culture are the true apostles of equality.'
      'Culture and Anarchy' (1869) Ch 1. I, in return, commend it to you.
      Perhaps that gives you a clue?

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    7. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Roger Crook

      Indeed, Roger, as you would expect a cultural research academic would know Arnold’s work well. He is a key figure in debates about how culture can be understood and analysed, and about the inherently political nature of the position outlined in the sentence following your quotation from him:

      “The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have…

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    8. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to David Rowe

      Indeed, indeed. If you don't mind Lord Melvyn, and it hasn't come to your notice, this is a fascinating series : http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01phf4c

      Unlike you, I find the the great men of history and culture an inspiration. Including Sir Les.

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  7. christopher gow

    gainfully employed

    I was born and bred in the inner west of Sydney, my dad was an inveterate gambler and I worked as a bookies clerk in my youth, I wisely gave up 'the punt' many years ago but I still have some affection for the old world of Randwick and Rosehill - the betting ring was always great theatre.
    Any person connected with racing who had any nouse knew to steer well clear of the Waterhouses, nothing good would ever come of it.
    It is indeed a very Sydney tale, but those 'in the know' would be laughing; it's all for the mug punter!
    A horse being allowed to run when the connections knew it had no prospects - well blow me down!
    Bookies and connections laying off with a dead runner - first time for everything I suppose!

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  8. Margaret Henry

    logged in via Facebook

    Brilliant article David ! What about turning your incisive attention on your old alma mater, Newcastle - The Church, the Council and the Property Industry would be a great sequel .

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  9. Yolanda Newman

    Learning support coordinator

    Totally agree about the care factor being at minus zero. However it has been fun to watch and a bit of a relief from the innumerate world and local troubles in media. I am glad of the comment about the children and am furious about the normalising of gambling. As a child and teenager I knew nothing about gambling and neither did my children but my grandchildren not only know and understand the language and the culture but they indulge in it. I am anxious for their future and would argue against such blatant advertising of it.

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  10. Lynne Newington
    Lynne Newington is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Researcher

    For anyone who has seen the the consequences of gambling, and the effect on families, my wish would be they would wake up to the fruitlessnes of it all.
    Joe Giacobbe the punting priest with his bigtime interests in not only horses but poker machines, it's a bit of a worry, we who are told, not to be a stumbling block for others.

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