Cheltenham – The Bookies Eye
The National Hunt Festival is the one event in Racing’s calendar which means the same to the Bookie as it does to the Punter. It’s about the gambling, pure and simple. Of course there are a few folk running around in tweed, they can’t wear anywhere but Cheltenham. You know the type, they drift out to watch Sprintre Sacre defeat a field that doesn’t include Simonsig and think it’s splendid. To the real afficianado, fed a diet of odds on chances for months, they couldn’t care less. If it’s not a race they can bet in, it’s a procession.
I first started working for my Dad at Cheltenham, when I was 16. Taking bets over the rail, as you do when you think you know it all. Too late to take his license off him for that little offence! In those days the main betting ring was rammed with bettors, tic-tac men and Bookies. He refused to price up until a half hour before the first, despite the fact many of his peers had been at it for two hours. He wanted them to tear it up first, before entering the fray to more serious wagers. For an fledgling Bookie, it was a serious buzz. The bets came thick and fast, averaged £50 or more. The Old Man was adjacent to the likes of Colin Webster, Stephen Little, and in his later years the Gentleman likes of David and Willy Power. Wagers to lose ten thousand or more were routine. Unremarkable.
It might surprise you to learn, that whilst he had an opinion, John Banks made little study of form. He built a legend out of being braver than most of those in the ring about him. If something represented ‘value’ to lay, he wasn’t afraid to lay it lumpy. Sometimes stepping back into the market to lay it again, if he felt its contracting price improved his overall lay odds and gut feel. He was more of a gambler than his opponents, challenging them to match his opinion of odds over their convictions and wallets! Hedge bets were never recorded, although he might wager for himself, he never reduced his risk by backing a horse back. And I do mean never.
Of course, even with his great skill in ‘reading’ the market, he probably wouldn’t have survived the nonsense of modern exchange driven fare. Exchanges are the ultimate number cruncher. There are no false favourites, and everyone is betting to a hundred percent book, and creating tiny margins from backing horses back. A cycle in futility. The ultimate fiddle. He’d have got bored of the flashing boards with the same odds and the weakness of the modern ring a long time ago.
Rails Bookies, in those days, didn’t have LED boards. Prices were off his card. Cardboard tickets sufficed for the punters. Clerks were highly skilled, and disputes were very rare. It was an exciting place to be. So, there I stood, green as the grass, looking into ‘members’ whilst my Father looked into the main ring, where the vast majority of hefty trade action was to be found. I knew precious little, other than what he had schooled me on. Coupled odds, and such. A novice, having a ball, wearing his trilby and stealing his bins. Son of the Father 🙂
So this day, a slightly built Irish fellah appears through the throng at the rail and asks me what price the favourite was. Peering at my card, ‘9/2’ I says.
‘Twenty’ he says.
‘Ninety pounds to twenty’ I call to the clerk, readying the ticket. The man smiles, no antipathy, a pleasant and patient type. ‘No Son, twenty Grand’
‘Oh’ Panicked, I turn to the Old Man, surrounded by a throng of tic-tacs and workmen. ‘Dad, this guy wants 20 grand on !?’
He turns round, smiles, not at me – ‘Hi JP. Yeah you got that.’ JP, doffs and walks on to Webby. The Old Man casts me a baleful look.
An education or what? It got beat – I avoided a bollocking.
You’d expect as a Son, for me to say my Father was a good man, and he was. To many of his customers he was the kind of Bookie they respected. Everyone called him John. They got their bets every time. He never cussed when he lost. These are the facts, and I make no bones in telling you these truths about the man. To me though, in business, he could be brutal in advice. The game was tough. If I was to take over one day, something he was fervently against, I had to learn the hard way. So getting it in the neck was a fairly common occurrence, and he didn’t mind who heard him! It worked though, because I’m still around, and it’s no longer exactly a license to print money.
Cheltenham was more than just a series of races, a betting cauldron. The whole event was a gambling emporium. Nightly poker games supplanted racing. I remember when I was older, had started betting for myself. I found myself less of a genius than when I was sixteen.. We stayed in a hotel in Tewkesbury, and a game of 7 card stud poker was the standard order of business on the Monday before the festival. I remember the characters in the game, fearsome gamblers. Jimmy Caldwell from Scotland, a long time pal of my Father’s. Dudley Roberts, Johnny Lights. A hefty punter who went by the pseudonym of ‘Chinese Dave’. who didn’t last long in the Webster-Little-Power-Banks era.
I declared myself ‘in’. Stuck my £50 ante in and waited on the first hand. 7 of clubs, 3 of diamonds, jack of hearts. What to do? Could hope for three more jacks?
Cut a long story short, the first ‘pot’ was six and a half grand. My eyes were like saucers. The Old Man was trying to chase a few away with a pair of 6’s. Sometimes you can bully the pot, but not this mob. Desperadoes. He turns to me and asks if I really want to be in the game. ‘ehm, no’ My bravado only extended so far, and everything I had was for gambling the horses. ‘I’ll have a dollar in the pound with you Dad.’ (25%). I took myself to bed. I was all chat in those days.
Gets up in the morning and as I close the bedroom door, Jimmy Caldwell emerges from an adjacent room, eyes on the shag pile. ‘What happened last night Jimmy, how did Dad do?’
‘I dinnae Ken’ Jimmy says. Odd, he was in the game? He’s got a mark on his shoe methinks.
I head down to the breakfast room. All the suspects are at breakfast, but nobody looks at me. I’m the best looking by miles- what’s the game? I sit down and wait for the Ayatollah to come down.
He walks in, sees me sitting there and grins. Genuine mirth.
‘Obviously you lost, cos nobody will speak to me – what was the damage?’
‘Ten’ he says, still smiling.
‘What? You can’t have lost ten grand??’
‘No, that’s what YOU lost.’ The rest of the table bursts out laughing. An education. Nobody seemed to care I’d managed to do my tank in whilst asleep in my bed
As a postscript to this tale of pre-Cheltenham tradition, I will, in my defense, say that I learnt my lesson and only took a dime in the pound the following night. (10%)
That cost me 3 grand.
Business at the Festival has dropped off significantly from the days of John Banks. But the impact of the meeting never really diminishes. In years past, when I was sent from the Rails to the nearest Tatts firm, it was a labour of Hercules, the Ring was a crush of punters. Unlike most major racing festivals, it remains the one almost pure betting event, despite racetracks unfortunately appealing more to boozers than bettors. The atmosphere is created by the nature of the course, the size and pace of the fields and because people are there predominately to beat the Bookie. Punters still haven’t worked out things that bolt up at Kempton flop at Cheltenham. I bet in the new Centaur arena. They sell a lot of Guiness in there. People come to bet, fart and leave. I never turn down a bet, I could do without the smell though. The wagers are a lot smaller these days. Of course I’m there for the crack, as are my punters, I’m going to give them some stick if I can and stand every favourite for its nuts. Most punters I find deeply honourable. They press crumpled cash from their pockets, stinking of chip fat, into your hand in a sea of bettors. Some must be tempted to leave you a tenner short, but they don’t. There’s the odd villain in the pack, but I take a rather sympathetic view of such souls. Need to get one over on me for £10? You enjoy yourself. The majority of customers are good natured, they don’t expect to win, but they will enjoy their day out. And I will put the fun into betting along with my betting girlies!
These days the Festival is a vehicle for high street and internet ‘casino’ operators to poach clients from each other. Outdoing themselves, and their own bottom line, with unsustainable money back offers. Unsustainable that is, if we are only talking about their Racing profits. But of course we’re not. Other products erode Racing’s share of the products to such an extent they’re fully prepared to throw to the wolves what used to be a premium betting week. For firms like my own, leading very much on service and a fair bet at all times, it pressurises the organisation. You can’t ignore their prices and keep your clients happy too. The good news – many customers still prefer service over ‘free bet’ offers. Most of which are a cheap sham. Take for instance one firm who last year offered their first 10000 customers even money Sprinter Sacre for £10. Punters are bamboozled by such deals, forgetting they’re walking round the corner to save themselves 6 quid (if it wins!) – subjected to a lifetime of invasive e- mails and texts. Other firms run FOBT promotions through the week, encouraging their staff to flow customers to their addictive product. Who can blame them with profits of £960 a machine- and 4 to a shop? Fortunately for me, most of my customers want more than a fiver on, and we discount their payments when they lose. That’s cold hard cash. It’s not a here today – gone tomorrow offer. More’s the point, we don’t make our clients feel like they’re literally ‘begging a bet’. Know what I’m talking about?
I’ve watched, disappointed, as this National Hunt season wilted in a sea of poor fields and avoidance tactics amongst major players. This despite racing taking place pretty much throughout the winter on ground more often than not, good to soft. Three trainers carve up the sport. Ireland’s top man, for example, doing his best to present his leading charge, Hurricane Fly, with an open goal in the Champion Hurdle, likely placing his better horses in other events and feeding us, and presumably his owners, a diet of lame excuses. The likes of Un De Sceaux (who couldn’t take on any other target) the brilliant Annie Power, or Quevega, a mare never allowed to dine at the top table – taking the selling plate every year. Nicky Henderson adopts similar policies, to the detriment of owners, who seem unwilling to challenge his authority. To be fair, Paul Nicholls often opposes his charges, and I feel understands his responsibility to Racing. The Festival last year suffered from small fields in Championship events, 7 in the Arkle, 9 in the Champion, 7 in the Queen Mum, 8 in the Ryanair and only 9 in the Blue Riband event. You know, it really doesn’t matter if Bobs Worth does, or does not end up winning the Gold Cup, – if we don’t see him for months. Somebody will win, and it will always make headlines for the right reasons. Arkle ran 9 times in 1963. He survived.
If you don’t see this situation as unhealthy for the sport, you must gorge on apathy. This situation is wrong. Further, I can’t see it a positive for Racing if we are treated to a daily diet of sycophantic reports or interviews with these trainers. Where are the dogs beating down the doors of the BHA demanding results, rather than sound-bytes? An organisation with a race planning department that year-on-year subjects us to the same races, at the same meetings every year. Blinding stuff. The gravy tastes too good for some Hacks. In fairness – and probably in no small part to folk like me having a go, I’ve seen some great articles from Muscat, Mottershead, and the entire Guardian crew of late. Boyce, Chapman, Yates, Hislop, Cunningham all deserve a positive mention, and whilst Luck strikes some as ‘stiff’ – he remains one of the best anchorman in sport.
Less so for Simon Mapletoft, reporting for ATR, with a thoroughly inept interview with the trainer, John Butler, unloading Stand Guard, who that morning had pronounced Racing ‘crooked’. Did he ask for clarification of his remarks, as any self respecting journalist would? Did he hell. Two minutes later the ‘match at Southwell’ degenerated into another head banging farce.
Channel 4 pull few punches, despite the carping about its format. I enjoyed an excellent interview with David Walsh discussing the Fenton case and describing Racing as condoning integrity breaches routinely. Credit to the programme for letting the segment run over. What’s wrong with facing the truth? Questioning the authorities?
Less so from the embarrassing Millington, the champion of FOBT’s. ‘what’s the point in re-examining the Zarooni affair?’. A Racing Post editor who sees the biggest doping case in the history of the sport as something to be tidied away. Yikes.
Back to 1990, I recall Victor Chandler’s men coming down to back a horse with my Father, New Halen, 66/1, in the Midmay Of Flete, last race on day two of three in those days. The bet? £50,000/£750 each way. Total liability £62,500. Chandler was a hefty punter in those days – fighting a long running, if mutually respectful battle with my Father. I remember his expressionless face as it won. Losing the best part of sixty grand in 4 minutes. He talked normally and almost casually in the car on the way back to the hotel. We were now behind at the meeting
By the fourth race on the Friday, and from a hefty losing position at the meeting, he’d won the fifty grand back, and more. Bolstered particularly by standing what was, in his view, a non stayer – Desert Orchid, in the Gold Cup, for nearly 40 grand, when he was losing 50. The man had balls the size of grapefruits.
My worst moment at the Festival? Whilst by no means the most expensive –fairly light at a £40,000 swing, it was the ‘victory’ of Salsify in the Foxhunters. Beat like a rabbit over the last, and with my rep in my ear telling me we were safe from his challenge, we watched in horror as Jane Mangan’s mount jinked at a tape rail and deposited the exhausted pilot on the deck. I hanged the rep for opening his mouth too early. It seemed the right thing to do. He’ll get over it.
To a Bookie, – that’s the National Hunt Festival. Buy a ticket. Have a bet.