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Kerry Packer: Gambling’s Big Man

Following on from our article about Racetrack King Bill Benter, today we continue our series looking at the great figures of professional gambling with a look at Kerry Packer – Gambling’s Big Man. 

Australian Kerry Packer had an up and down life. He was born into one of Australia’s most wealthy and influential families, the scion of media barons. Yet he had severe problems with health, starting with polio and an iron lung in his youth and extending up to multiple heart attacks in later life. His relatively poor health was given as one reason for his relative estrangement from his father, who derided him for his poor health and anointed his brother the heir to the family media enterprise. When he died in 2006, though, Kerry Packer had certainly earned public respect. Australia held a state funeral at the Sydney Opera House.

Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer was among the world’s richest people. In 2004, his net worth equaled roughly $5.5 billion. Some of it he was born to. But much of it he earned through his own enterprise. At his death, notes the British newspaper The Guardian, he had “transformed a magazine and television business worth millions into a diversified enterprise worth billions, (and) became his country’s richest person.” He was instrumental in founding World Series Cricket, for example, broadcasting it to people worldwide. This financial interest was fueled by his love of sport. Packer was an avid sportsman, participating in cricket, rugby, and golf, among other games.

Packer’s up and down life wasn’t confined to oscillations between poor health and a wealthy family, however. His gambling wins and losses were legendary. At the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas, for example, Packer at one point could count nearly A$33 million in winnings. Yet during another Las Vegas trip, he lost more than $27 million. Packer visited Britain on a nearly annual basis to play in professional gambling events, where he often won approximately $7 million. (Most of these winnings went to charities.)

And the up and down nature wasn’t confined to the U.S. or the U.K., certainly. He was an equally exuberant bettor on his home turf. According to one observer, Packer suffered huge losses in the late 1980s. During one race, the Golden Slipper at Rosehill, Packer bet $2 million on Christmas Tree, one of his horses. Christmas Tree lost, and so did Packer—a loss not confined to one horse, as his total losses equaled $7 million. But he won big as well. In the same period, he picked three winners in a row after betting $10 million.

Kerry Packer’s total bets on races are estimated to have sometimes neared $60 million. Over 3 days in the early 1990s, for example, he is rumored to have lost $55 million on races. It should be noted that these losses were amounts he could afford to lose given his vast wealth. Indeed, The Guardian characterised his investment behaviour as “like the many successful sportsmen he admired, he had a developed sense of timing, and knew when to get in and out of investments to maximise his return.”

The size of the bets affected not only his winnings but activities at the tracks themselves. He traveled with a large entourage, and they in turn were followed by many at the track, wanting some information or rumor of where Packer was placing his wagers. In the words of one observer, “Packer’s bets were so large that they would immediately make a horse unbackable, as the odds dropped steeply as the bookies attempted to balance their books.”

Stories of Packer’s outsize horse racing behavior abound. In one, he had his own horse, Major Drive in a 1980s race, yet bet another horse, Myocard. Myocard lost Packer $7 million—yet he still invited Major Drive’s jockey, Greg Hall, to his Australian home and shook his hand for winning.  In another, he paid a bookmaker $5 million rather than the $5.3 million owed, growling that he only dealt in round figures.

Though Australian television featured interviews with many of Packer’s business associates, friends and family on the complicated nature of the man, there are indications that he liked speed and racing in all things. His one-time daughter-in-law Johdi Meares, for example, is quoted as saying “Kerry and I were both revheads and we shared a passion for fast cars. Kerry liked everything fast, you know and he liked to take risk, I think he enjoyed the adrenaline.” Similarly, his friend Phillip Adams noted “Kerry had to have the fastest car in Australia. He had to have the biggest, the loudest, the longest, whatever, of anything. And he’d take me for these terrifying drives around Sydney, shouting joyously over the engine like Mr Toad.”



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