There aren’t many house rules at the new Fitzdares Club in London’s Mayfair, but one of them is non-negotiable. Aspiring members – male or female, young or old – should have a passionate love of sport. In the time of Covid, the communal pleasure of being one of thousands of spectators at a major sporting event has been curtailed, but most competitions are continuing to take place behind closed doors. For punters who want to watch in more convivial surroundings, Fitzdares, which is situated a short canter from Claridge’s, is hoping to become the place to be. 

The club’s discreet entrance 
The club’s discreet entrance  © Astrid Templier

A warren of rooms above the old Running Horse pub on Davies Street, Fitzdares is a cross between a sports bar, a members’ club and a country estate. But it’s not just a bar and £600-a-year club (capped at 2,000 members). It’s also a bookmaking firm, the world’s most high-end, with an image far removed from its scores of online competitors. The firm was founded in 2006 by Balthazar Fabricius (whose father, Rod, used to be the managing director and honorary chairman of Goodwood racecourse), with financial backing from, among others, Ben and Zac Goldsmith. Other founder members included the late Teddy Goldsmith, elder brother of Sir James, and James Osborne, uncle of George. More recently, the company has acquired a number of famous but faded old bookmaking names, such as Sunderlands and Guntrips, which had been in the business of taking bets since 1882. Time was when Mayfair had numerous rich gentlemen bookmakers laying wagers to louche characters by telephone and telegram. By contrast, The Fitzdares Club feels like an artful attempt to reposition the reputation of the bookies for a more censorious age.

The UK gambling industry is worth £15bn, yet while “online betting has turbocharged the industry, it has also caused horrendous damage in terms of addictions and debt,” acknowledges Fitzdares CEO William Woodhams of the challenge on his hands. “A lot of bookmakers have joined a race to the bottom, but we decided to head in the opposite direction. Fewer clients. More care, and more knowledgeable intervention.”

Fitzdares CEO William Woodhams at the club
Fitzdares CEO William Woodhams at the club © Astrid Templier
Bill Butcher’s sporting prints displayed in the stairwell
Bill Butcher’s sporting prints displayed in the stairwell  © Astrid Templier

Britain’s big bookmaking chains, whose activities are expected to be heavily criticised in the forthcoming government report on the Gambling Act, need huge volumes of bets to make their business model work. Most have discovered that if they can’t beat their punters on the horses, they can in the online casino. They shun personal relationships with sharper sports fans in favour of wooing larger numbers of losing clients with a bombardment of special offers, free £50 bet enticements or money back if their horse finishes second. Notwithstanding the severe social problems that have ensued, the downward trend has left a gap at the top end of the market, which Fitzdares has sought to fill.

People who love sport “appreciate Fitzdares’ personal service”, says Woodhams, and know the firm will “pit its judgement against the punter’s”, just as traditional bookmakers such as Sunderlands and Guntrips did 50 years ago. Among the 5,000 private account holders are actors, sporting personalities and the kind of languid young aristocrats shrewd bookies have always loved. The betting moves of the more well-connected clients also help Fitzdares to get an edge on their market rivals and set more attractive odds. But, he insists, “it’s not an exercise in elitism”.

The Games Room 
The Games Room  © Astrid Templier

Woodhams, 42, who was appointed in 2018 after six years working for LVMH and a further six with the independent consulting agency Mission, had only a layman’s knowledge of bookmaking when he moved to Fitzdares. Fabricius and his board were impressed by his luxury-goods pedigree and the aplomb with which he’d advised and marketed a range of businesses, including Belvedere Vodka, Christian Dior and the launch of the new Annabel’s.

Within a month of arriving at the Fitzdares offices in London’s Holland Park, Woodhams decided that the bookmaker needed “not just another box at Cheltenham but a physical presence” that could be used for entertaining clients and cultivating new ones. “Balthazar said ‘yes’ immediately”, and in short order dinners at The Savoy and the Mandarin Oriental were superseded by rooftop pop-ups at Robin Birley’s 5 Hertford Street, and on top of the Charlton Stand at Glorious Goodwood where “400 people watched the racing, gambled, drank, ate amazing food” and were entertained afterwards by DJs Pablo:Rita and the Orca Sound Project. A sedate afternoon in the Duke of Richmond’s box it was not.

The Racing Room
The Racing Room © Astrid Templier

Meanwhile, a search for permanent premises alighted on the upstairs rooms at The Running Horse, the oldest pub in Mayfair. From the outset, Woodhams was determined to avoid comparisons with 1970s gambling cliches and their clubs complete with gaudy chandeliers, oak panelling and florid-faced chaps in black tie nursing giant brandy balloons. Interiors are geared towards a male and female membership, with designs by Rosanna Bossom in a style that evokes a blend of colourful maximalism and country-house chic. The private-dining Games Room has elegantly floral upholstered walls by Hepzabeth Evans from The Textile Wall Company; the Racing Room finds low-slung vintage armchairs positioned by the fire – all that’s missing are a couple of black Labradors. Fifty of Bill Butcher’s sporting prints line the staircase and landings, and the walls are adorned with black-and-white photos of iconic gambling figures, including Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole. There’s also a portrait of the author JP Donleavy, whose wonderfully ribald novel The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B inspired Fabricius, himself named after the protagonist, to go on to name his bookmaking business after Balthazar B’s lover, Miss Elizabeth Fitzdare.

It would be unthinkable for an old-school Mayfair or St James’s club to have a television set on in the bar or dining room, but Davies Street boasts nine ultra-modern 4K HD screens streaming live sport throughout the day and evening. The sound is muted in the bar and dining room, but headphones are provided so that guests tucking into the club’s lobster croissants, chicken with black garlic and truffle aioli or poached hake with mussel and bacon chowder can follow the action as they eat.

The Tent Room for private dining
The Tent Room for private dining © Astrid Templier

No money changes hands in the club – rather, bets are texted on the Fitzdares app, which is the fastest in the racing market but covers every sport. “We also have live chat,” explains Woodhams, “so clients can talk to a highly trained broker who will respond within 30 seconds. They’re not call-centre employees. We recruit the best mathematical brains from the top universities, and most of ours have been in the business for at least six years.” These brokers are open to discussions with a client about obtaining a better price for a horse or team. Woodhams also asserts that they offer cautionary advice if the punter is already on a losing run. It’s in their interests, he argues, to nurture long-term relationships. 

If the experiment takes off, there’s the possibility of rolling out similar spaces from Manchester to Mumbai. The firm has a number of London-based Asian clients, and Lakshmi Mittal’s son-in-law Amit Bhatia was an investor. Then there’s the tantalising prospect of breaking into the $49bn American market. Sports betting was prohibited in the US for decades, and bookmakers regarded as little more than gangsters, but a Supreme Court ruling has paved the way for legalisation across the states. At present there is what Woodhams calls a “Klondike Gold Rush for licences. We definitely think there are opportunities. We are going to wait and see how it unfolds, but you’d like to think Boulder or Aspen would be an ideal location for us.”

Woodhams is not the first man to recognise that stylish settings and luxurious customer service are a great way to court wealthy punters. John Aspinall perfected the recipe when he opened the Clermont Club in Berkeley Square in 1962. The food and drink were delicious and most of the guests were rich and titled. The Fitzdares Club is a more evolved business but, regardless of the chintzy surroundings, it will stand or fall depending on its takings – be they from the members’ appetite for lobster croissants or the number of losing bets they lay.

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