SYDNEY -- Saturday was an ordinary day at Rosehill Race Course, with no important stakes race or special attractions on the program. But by U.S. standards, it was extraordinary.

A crowd of slightly less than 12,000 at the track bet $8.5 million -- $6 million with the legal on-course bookmakers and $2.5 million through the tote machines. Per capita wagering exceeded $700, a stunning figure. In addition, the off-track betting system in the state of New South Wales generated $6 million in wagers on the Rosehill card. And, at the same time, statewide off-track betting on other tracks in Australia added up to another $12 million. These totals dwarf anything ever seen in U.S. racing.

A facile explanation for this huge level of betting, in a country with a small population beset with serious economic problems, is that Australians are manic gamblers. Indeed, horse racing here has the kind of widespread popularity that pro football does in the United States, and there are few social stigmas attached to betting.

But the man who was once the biggest bookmaker in Australia -- and, indeed, the world -- says that the national character doesn't account for these spectacular wagering totals. "You always hear that Australians or Chinese are big gamblers, but people over the world are all the same," insisted Bill Waterhouse. "The difference is just a question of access and opportunity."

What Australia has done is to create the best betting opportunities on earth -- and the result has been massive wagering that has in turn created an extraordinarily prosperous racing industry. The system here springs out of century-old betting traditions, so it is probably not copyable anywhere, but there is one sharp contrast between Australia and the United States that U.S. political leaders and racing officials might heed.

In the United States, just about anyone who admits he is a chronic horseplayer will be regarded as a loser -- and for good reason. When states and tracks extract from 17 to 25 percent of every dollar wagered, it takes an astute full-time student of the game just to break even.

But in Australia, rational people study the form and bet seriously because they know there is an excellent chance of making money -- sometimes very big money. A bookmaker said: "The racecourses here are full of people who would be very upset if they have a losing year. In fact, they'd feel that it was a disgrace to lose."

It was a man named Robert Sevier who was responsible for the virtues of the Australian betting system. Bookmakers had operated throughout the world long before he was born, but they generally served as private agents for owners and wealthy gamblers who wanted to bet a particular horse.

In 1882 at Randwick Race Course, Sevier stood in the middle of a crowd and shouted the odds he would offer for every horse in a field. Modern-day bookmaking was born. Racecourses here were soon filled with bookies who posted odds on boards for every horse in a race.

The early days of legal bookmaking were wild and woolly; one bookie was stomped to death by an angry crowd when he couldn't pay all his customers after a race. Some bookmakers attempted to fix races. But the industry eventually was put under tight supervision, and it flourished.

The nature of the competition was put on view in Melbourne recently, at an annual rite known as the "Calling of the Card." This was the first official posting of odds for the Melbourne Cup, and eight bookmakers were to quote their odds on the entrants, horse by horse. Whoever offered the best price would take the bets.

When the name horse called Flying Luskin was called, seven bookmakers offered 12 to 1, but then Ron Cain drew attention by announcing: "Fourteen to one." Immediately, somebody rose to take him up on the offer: "Flying Luskin, $70,000 to $5,000," and other wagers followed. But the price of the horse was set at a generous 14 to 1 because bookmakers were vying for the action.

This happens every day for every race. Because of the competition among bookmakers, bettors can get odds that make playing the horses a fair gamble. In the United States, the tote machines automatically take a big slice out of every dollar that is wagered. Bookmakers here typically will wind up with a 5 percent edge over their customers (of which 2 percent goes for taxes and 1 percent goes for overhead).

The margin of profit is so small and the business is so tough that there are numerous professional gamblers in Australia who used to be bookies and quit -- because they concluded that the game was easier on the other side of the fence.

The bookmaking system fosters betting in ways that couldn't happen in the United States. A gambler who makes huge bets into the tote machines will be destroying his own odds. But here, the media baron Kerry Packer will bet as much as $1 million on a race -- yes, $1 million -- because bookmakers offer fixed odds.

Other gamblers will bet simply because they know that looking for values with bookmakers is smart business. Waterhouse said: "There's not a market in the world -- the stock market or the commodities market -- as accurate as the starting price {i.e., the final odds} of bookmakers. If you get a bet above that starting price, you'll beat the bookmaker. If the favorite is 2 to 1, but you get 9 to 4 on him and you do that regularly, you've got a good shot at finishing ahead at the end of the year."

There is one drawback to this system, at least from the standpoint of politicians and racing officials, and that is that a tote system takes a much higher percentage of the betting dollar and yields more revenue. That is why the United States, and most countries, abolished bookies and went to the tote.

And that's what some leaders of the Australian racing industry wanted to do in 1960. Instead, the country developed a dual system, keeping the bookmakers while creating a tote betting network called the Totalizator Authority Board, or TAB. It is a system that makes a visiting horseplayer think that perhaps he has died and gone to heaven. Tomorrow: The TAB