January 01 2016
by Nick Tabakoff
The world's biggest punter is Zeljko Ranogajec, and he's an Australian
Unassuming fellow ... punter Zeljko Ranogajec, during a walk around Balmoral
Some call him the "Loch Ness Monster" because of his rare public sightings. Casinos have dubbed him "The Joker". High-profile racing industry figures say he is the biggest punter not only in Australia but in the world.
Meet Australia's most mysterious and elusive gambling figure: Zeljko Ranogajec, the man acknowledged even by sources close to the TAB to be, by some margin, its largest punter.
Those who know him well describe him as just a normal bloke and one relative says: "If you met him on the street, you would never think he's rich." Others describe him similarly as "polite" and "unassuming": descriptions that matched his demeanour when finally caught up with him.
But the size of Mr Ranogajec's betting is far from ordinary. It is believed he accounts for between 6 and 8 per cent of Tabcorp's $10 billion Australian betting turnover - or between $600-800 million - and bets tens of millions more with local bookmakers.
But that is just the start. Once the overseas betting turnover of his 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation is taken into account, his total annual betting spend globally is believed to be well over $1 billion. One of Australia's most senior racing figures says Mr Ranogajec is truly a global punter, adding: "He goes wherever he can get set late with big bets . . . that means countries like Japan, England, Hong Kong, New Zealand and America."
Other sources say he has also been known to bet anywhere from France to Canada and Russia. Intriguingly, part of his operation takes up a large portion of the top floor of the Harris St, Pyrmont, NSW headquarters of Tabcorp, the organisation with which he bets hundreds of millions a year. He is also believed to have office space in the Fox Sports building in Pyrmont and other premises overseas. Industry talk has him employing anything from 30 to more than 100 staff just to analyse form.
The operation has generated plenty of wealth. One relative of Mr Ranogajec from his father's side, who asked not to be named, told us: "I heard just maybe two or three months ago that he's a multi-billionaire.
Yet he has never been mentioned on any Australian rich list - because the secrecy around his operations means no one is able to estimate his exact wealth. But the man himself says the talk about the magnitude of his betting and wealth is all just a big exaggeration.
When The Daily Telegraph finally found him in Mosman after a three-day search spanning Sydney and the Central Coast this week, the well-spoken Mr Ranogajec was asked if he was the world's biggest punter. The reply was succinct: "I believe that's absolutely untrue."
But in Australia and overseas, any number of racing websites, industry analysts and books indicate he is indeed a global betting giant. The betting website PuntingAce.com, for example, nominates him as "most likely" the world's biggest punter. One book, Living And Learning With The World's Biggest Punters, goes further, dubbing Mr Ranogajec "the biggest punter the world has ever seen or (is) likely to see".
The Daily Telegraph's racing editor Ray Thomas says:
"In my opinion, he has no challengers as the world's biggest punter."
One thing is clear: the 48-year old has come a long way from his days of being kicked out of Wrest Point Casino in the 1980s as a highly-successful young mathematics whiz-kid legitimately beating the casino at blackjack by keeping track of each card played.
The relative from the side of his late father Mirko claims Mr Ranogajec started to work part-time at Wrest Point while studying for a commerce/law degree. The relative says he met his wife and "first love" Shelley Wilson while she was also working there. But the more successful he became at blackjack, the more his studies started to take a backseat. He first transferred from the University of Tasmania (where he was studying tax, money and banking as part of his degree) to the University of NSW in Sydney, where he has settled permanently.
But with his real career as a punter beckoning, he dropped out of uni studies permanently in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, his skills as a blackjack player saw him feared by casinos around the world. His business was "politely declined" first at Wrest Point, then at Queensland's Jupiters Casino in the mid-1980s.
But he did not give up the casinos, moving to greener pastures overseas. Some Australian sources believe he was successful at many casinos internationally. The relative from his father's side recalls him coming home after being too successful on the blackjack tables in the US, explaining: "He was in Chicago, I think. They stopped him and he had to come back."
He increasingly turned his attention to horse racing and other games like Keno. He once won a then world-record $7.5 million Keno jackpot at North Ryde RSL Club in 1994, reportedly going to the club over several days with million-dollar cheques. Some sources claim he had to bet significantly more than $7.5 million to win it but may still have come out ahead because of the smaller prizes he collected along the way.
But it is in horse racing where Mr Ranogajec has built his fortune, through a combination of betting massive amounts on small margins, generous rebates from many totes (including Tabcorp) and a highly sophisticated betting system. Those in the know say the key to Mr Ranogajec's betting is chasing liquidity. He and his associates look for large betting pools awash with "mug punter" money that makes the pool as big as possible. It is understood Mr Ranogajec accumulated a "bank"of funds from his successful casino playing around the world.
This in turn allowed him to set up a sophisticated operation that allowed him to employ specialists to analyse horse racing in minute detail through computer, video and mathematical analysis. It also allowed him to bet big. His operation in the NSW Tabcorp headquarters is the stuff of legend.
Industry gossip about it is rampant - everything from staff numbers, to questionnaires employees are given to test their skills and, importantly, the secrets of his analysis. Mr Ranogajec jealously guards his secrets and getting those who know him well to talk on the record about him is impossible.
Staff who work for him at his Harris St headquarters sign confidentiality agreements. One high-profile racing figure who knows Mr Ranogajec says: "If he knew I was talking to you about him, he'd never talk to me again."
So private is he that there have even been suggestions he uses a pseudonym incorporating his wife's surname. Records show a John Wilson, born in Hobart with an identical birthdate to Mr Ranogajec and an identical business address, owns a company with assets that include a multi-million dollar Central Coast beachfront property and a Pacific Highway apartment in St Leonards.
Mr Ranogajec and Ms Wilson have been shrewd investors in property, often buying when others are forced to sell, mainly in the Mosman area.
In December 2008, the couple shelled out $19.75 million for a 2000sq m waterfront property on two blocks at Balmoral Beach, after its value had been hit by the global financial crisis. The property is in the name of Ms Wilson. Parts of the property had previously been owned by jailed HIH executives Ray Williams and Brad Cooper. In the aftermath of the HIH collapse in 2001, the couple had bought another Balmoral property for a knockdown $5.96 million, again in Ms Wilson's name. It is now worth many millions more. Another property in the Mosman area is used by Mr Ranogajec largely as a business address. It's all a long way from his humble origins in Hobart as the son of Croatian immigrants - but the Tasmanian connection remains strong.
His main business partner David Walsh still lives in Hobart where he has built a $70 million private museum to house a $100 million art collection. The two were reported to have bid for Tote Tasmania (where Mr Ranogajec used to be a huge punter) last year, but it has since been taken off the market.
When we approached Mr Ranogajec in Mosman about his wins, on who "John Wilson" was and on his betting secrets, there was no sign of him opening up. He said: "I'm not meaning to be rude.
"I'm not interested in talking to a reporter . . . no offence but it doesn't do any good at all."
Nevertheless, the very public interest in the very private life of Mr Ranogajec is likely to continue unabated.