Zeljko Ranogajec

Zeljko Ranogajec is the Billion Dollar Man of betting. He is most certainly Australia's and probably the worlds biggest gambler and strikes fear into the heart of every bookmaker. He is said to be a normal unassuming bloke, 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.

He first set out to be a lawyer but soon realised he could cash in on his memory and intellect.But his talent for counting cards soon had him banned from casinos including Wrest Point in Tasmania and Jupiters on the Gold Coast.

In 1998 his betting activity was restricted at Sydney's Star Casino; card-counters like him increase their stakes as the odds improve. Being blacklisted meant he had to diversify, turning to racing and lotteries around the globe. And what a gamble that proved: of the $11.7bn bet on racing in Australia with totes in 2003, he was responsible for up to $500m - 5 per cent.

Ranogajec is one of the gambling world's most secretive characters and a sure thing to come away from any race meeting in the money. Ranogajec, and his army of contracted researchers have been analysing races throughout the country for months in preparation for the Melbourne carnival, including the big race, which is expected to attract $100 million in bets. Having crunched the data from thousands of races, he will put big bucks on the horse statistics say should finish first.

Contemporaries say no one else in Australia - maybe the world -has reduced the odds so successfully. Mr Ranogajec, of Balmoral on the North Shore, boasts a gambling turnover of about $1 billion a year. "That's one thousand million dollars," IASBet bookmakers owner Mark Read said. "A profit margin of just 1 per cent would net $10m. "He has agents betting for him with the bookmakers but he basically controls the totes. "Zeljko claims he's the world's biggest punter; I think he's right."

An estimated $200m of that $1bn is bet on horse races in Australia.The rest is gambled on casinos, other sports and overseas races. When The Daily Telegraph visited his home yesterday , a neighbour said he was rarely there. "He owns it but he doesn't live here," the neighbour said. For Mr Ranogajec, home is the former residence of failed entrepreneur Brad Cooper. Mr Ranogajec's partner Shelley Wilson is listed on the property transfer, which shows Cooper's Coronation Ave home was bought in July 2001 for $5.96m.

It's a long way from Hobart, where Mr Ranogajec was born in 1961 to Croatian immigrants.