"Gambling used to be done on a handshake and the whites of the client’s eyes"
With a name like his, Balthazar Fabricius was never destined for a job in IT. Yet despite being brought up on the Goodwood Estate by a father who served as Lord March’s racecourse manager – he named his son after the protagonist in J.P. Donleavy’s novel The Beastly Beatitudes Of Balthazar B – real-life Balthazar says his entry into bookmaking was purely coincidental.
“I graduated from King’s College London with a degree in Spanish and a love of music and sport,” says the 38-year-old. “As one does, I started frantically sending out CVs left, right and centre and managed to secure a place on a graduate scheme run by Ladbrokes.”
Three and a half years later, in 2006, Fabricius approached Zac and Ben Goldsmith, whom he’d met during the Ladbrokes World Spoofing Championships (a pub game in which contestants guess the number of coins held in the hand of another player) with a business proposition.
“I wanted to herald a return to the grassroots principles of betting. I wanted to re-establish the personal relationship that used to exist between punter and bookmaker.” The Goldsmiths bought in and Fitzdares was founded.
What does your experience tell you about why people gamble?
Gambling for many people is an escape from the stresses of everyday life. Bookmaking in its simplest form is a game. You’re trying to win money off me, and I’m trying to win money off you. That’s what it boils down to. It’s a game of knowledge and confidence.
What elements of traditional bookmaking does Fitzdares aim to reinstate?
The romance; the integrity. I love the fact that gambling debts weren’t enforceable by law until very recently. It was all done on a handshake and the whites of the client’s eyes. The relationship that you had with your bookmaker was akin to the one that you’d have with your bank manager, or priest. We aim to restore that personal relationship.
From where did the name Fitzdares derive?
Elizabeth Fitzdare, who was Balthazar B’s love interest in the J.P. Donleavy novel.
How does Fitzdares work?
We have a members’ club philosophy but we’re not snobby about who we take on. We set up an analogue, telephone business. Every member has their own personal telephone number. There’s no password or account number, we know immediately who’s calling. We invented text message betting, which is now very popular. But we also knew we needed to be digital so we’ve spent the last couple of years building our own app. You can now call, text, or place bets through our app.
How many members do you have?
On what events can members bet?
Anything. All kinds of sport, Strictly Come Dancing, anything. Someone asked me for a price on a friend becoming the next England football manager. We put a price on that, and designed a bet certificate that they framed and put in their downstairs loo. It’s those little things that give us our kicks.
In 2012 you fought documentary film-maker Arthur Landon in a white collar boxing match. Why?
I had just found out that my wife and I were having twins. I thought ‘bloody hell, once these lads start running around, for the first time in my life, I might have to be in shape’. I thought, if I’m going to do this, I should probably sign up to something that will scare the living daylights out of me into training. It actually started to feel like a rite of passage, because back in the day, lots of bookmakers were boxers – the two are quite closely aligned. The fight was close; I came second. Arthur has subsequently become a good friend.
Which recent event has proved particularly lucrative to you?
I won’t pretend we took lots of money on the event, but last year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year was a real surprise. Anthony Joshua was 8/1 on and he was beaten by Mo Farah.
How about the Mayweather vs McGregor fight?
That, in truth, was a good result for bookmakers. Mayweather was always a very short price, but as it got closer to the event, there was a lot of support for McGregor. I’m sure most people who backed McGregor did so probably knowing he wasn’t going to win, but they really hoped he would.
What did you make of Leicester City winning the Premier League?
Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. We did actually have someone back Leicester at a very big price. Don’t you think it’s remarkable how quickly people have forgotten how staggering that result was? Truly remarkable.
Tell us about the events that Fitzdares puts on itself...
We try to do one big event each year. Historically, we’ve hosted events at the White Turf races in St Moritz and held Breeders’ Cup nights at the Mandarin Oriental and the Savoy. We also hosted ‘Fighting Futures’, a boxing event at The Ned with 2020 Olympic prospects.
Last year you helped build a cricket pitch in Rwanda…
Yes, that was an amazing project that we played a small part in – to open Rwanda’s first official cricket ground on what had been a killing field during the genocide. It was completely impossible not to buy into that story. It opened to great success. It’s also now a place for people to get HIV tests.
And you were involved with another cricket project in the West Indies?
Yes, with a documentary called Fire in Babylon led Ben Goldsmith. It told the phenomenal story of the West Indies cricket team. Cricket is the only sport that the West Indies compete in together. There’s no West Indies rugby, football or athletics team. In athletics, it’s Jamaica, Barbados etc. But for cricket, this small group of disjointed islands come together to play. For 18 years they were unbeaten at Test level: no-one could touch them – the Clive Lloyd era, with Viv Richards and Brian Lara at the end. We gave away thousands of DVDs to all the schools in the West Indies with the idea that they’d someday win the World Cup again. It’s now on the national curriculum.
How can the bookmaking industry improve its own game?
By focusing on the customer. Customer service can be a very unsexy thing to talk about, but it’s crucial – it’s why we choose one newsagent or coffee shop over another. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we’re in the service and entertainment industry. Our raison d’être has got to be having the best interests of our customers at heart. If you don’t look after your customers, then you have no business.
To apply to Fitzdares, see www.fitzdares.com