All bets are "off"

U 16.1274-81: While the other was reading it on page two Boom (to give him for the nonce his new misnomer) whiled away a few odd leisure moments in fits and starts with the account of the third event at Ascot on page three, […] Betting 5 to 4 on Zinfandel, 20 to 1 Throwaway (off).

Only four horses competed in the Ascot Gold Cup of 16 June 1904: the favourite Zinfandel, Sceptre, Maximum II, and the outsider Throwaway. The advance notice of the race in the Freeman’s Journal of the same day showed that twelve horses had originally been entered. Throwaway confounded the odds by winning the race, followed by the favourite Zinfandel, then Sceptre, and finally Maximum II. Joyce scholars are well aware that the description cited above is abridged from the report published in the Dublin Evening Telegraph (page 3) that evening:

Betting – 5 to 4 on Zinfandel, 7 to 4 agst Sceptre, 10 to 1 agst Maximum II, 20 to 1 agst Throwaway (off).

Some words do not attract comment, and it seems that the tiny “(off)” appearing at the end of the betting details is just such a word.1 Perhaps it means that these were the prices at the “off”, or at the beginning of the race; or that these are the “off[icial]” starting prices. But an examination of the format of betting odds in the newspapers of the time shows that neither of these is the correct interpretation.

The Freeman’s Journal for Bloomsday 1904 reports on the previous day’s racing. Here is the betting on the 2 o’clock race (p. 7):

Betting – Evens Andover, 7 to 2 agst Golden Saint, 4 to 1 agst Sweeper, 100 to 8 bar three (off.)

“Off” here is spelt with a full-stop, suggesting it is an abbreviation. If this is the case, we might expect to find the extended version in other contemporary racing reports.

Evidence is not hard to find. The Freeman’s of Bloomsday 1904 gives the betting for the 5 pm Fifty-Second Triennial Stakes on the previous day at Ascot (p. 7: “Evens Polymelus, [...] 20 to 1 bar four (offered)”).2 Earlier, on 25 June 1902 (under “London Betting”) the paper comments on the Northumberland Plate:

In what took place yesterday upon the Northumberland Plate, Osbech was in best demand, 3 to 1 being taken, but again offered.[…]

3 to 1 agst Osbech (t and o).

5 to 1 agst Champagne (t)

5 to 1 agst Servitor (t) […]

12 to 1 agst Candelaria (t and o)

12 to 1 agst Queen Catherine (off).

There is no doubt that the abbreviation “Off”, or “Off.”, is short for “offered”. Bookmakers would both take bets at specific odds, and also offer odds on the horses. Stephen Regan, the editor of George Moore’s Esther Waters annotates a comparable passage in Moore’s novel:3

Thirty to one taken and hoffered [sic]: a price of thirty to one 'taken and offered' (a popular bookmaker’s term for receiving bets and setting prices). The suggestion is that bookmakers are prepared themselves to 'take' a bet on the stated price, as well as offering it to punters. Bookmakers would sometimes 'hedge' their bets by offsetting some of the liability in secondary betting.

The terminology predates the Telegraph report by many years. The Irish Times of 12 April, 1859, for example, reports “Tattersall’s Betting” on the Great Northern Handicap:

3 to 1 agst. Newcastle (taken) 3 to 1 agst. Harraton (taken and offered); 3 to 1 agst. Gladiolus (offered); [etc.].

And on 17 May, 1867:

Tattersall’s Betting – Yesterday. […] Derby – 5 to 2 agst Vauban, t and off; 3 to 1 agst Rake, t freely; 13 to 2 agst Van Amburgh, t and off; 100 to 6 agst Marksman, t and off; 90 to 1 agst Julius, off; [etc.].

The Dublin Evening Telegraph which Bloom reads states clearly that Throwaway was “on offer at twenties”:

After his display in the Coronation Cup at Epsom it was not surprising to see Zinfandel a better favourite than Sceptre; last year’s winner being quoted at tens, and Throwaway on offer at twenties.

Bloom was “nettled not a little” about the misprint “Boom” in the funeral report. We might note in turn that the Evening Telegraph once misspells Throwaway’s name in the main race commentary:


Thowawey set a fair pace to Sceptre, with Maximum II, last, till fairly in the line for home, when Sceptre slightly headed Throwaway, and Zinfandel took close order with him. Throwaway, however, stayed on, and won cleverly at the finish by a length.

John Simpson


1 Translators, however, involuntarily document their misreadings of this term: Morel: 20 contre 1 Prospectus (pris) = "taken"; Goyert: "off" not translated; Wollschläger: 20:1 Weggeworfen (durch) = “through”; Giulio de Angelis: 20 a 1 Buttavia (Fuori) = "out".

2 I am grateful to John Wyse Jackson for this reference.

3 George Moore, Esther Waters (2012: Oxford, Oxford University Press), ed. Stephen Regan, p. 330. The annotated text appears on p. 97 (chapter 13) of the original London edition of 1894.

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