The Cheltenham Festival season starts with preview evenings. This is where a room full of 200 men drink pints of Guinness. There are rarely more than 3 women in the place. It’s a free fart zone.
Four or five ‘celebrity’ panelists try to make themselves heard above the general pandemonium. They’re discussing their fancies. One always tries to tip something which isn’t trained by Lord Mullins. Met by large guffaws from the punters. They’re not daft. The beer runs out and the evening ends with most people none the wiser.
Tuesday rolls along. First into the car parks are the bookies. They look nervous with good reason. Moaning hour typically starts at 11am. Griping is a kind of sport with Bookies. It’s cheaper than actually doing anything about it. Whilst I respect my colleagues for their fortitude, their inability to accept the basic premise that cutting each other’s throat is a clear character fault. The worst Betfair price merchants in the ring, typically the first to whine if someone else is seen to take more tickets.
For by that, a racecourse without bookmakers ‘would be a very odd place.’ This in the view of a Judge I had occasion to meet of late. I hope racecourses fully appreciate that. They seem hell bent on racking up the charges, this strikes me as foolish. Bookmakers bring colour and atmosphere. Imagine Kempton on a drab winter’s afternoon without Bookmakers in the ring? Of course you can’t.
Supreme Novice. Here the specials start. Horse falls? – Free Bet. Non starter? Free Bet. Beaten into 2nd? Free Bet. Brown horse? Free Bet. In fact it’s safe to say you’re a complete idiot if you have a bet which doesn’t contain an offer of one kind or another. And of course Non runner no bet remains the daftest offer from any self respecting bookmaker.
Major betting firms set their stalls out to lose at Cheltenham these days. Engorged marketing departments assure executives they can secure increased market share. All you have to do is offer 10/1 Douvan to win the Arkle. Which seems a fair rate to me. William Hill offer the best deal, to match all their major competitors odds, all morning, on every horse, and then guarantee the same against SP. I won’t bore you with the maths, but the odds of prevailing with such a scheme don’t have a recognisable number. Were I the notional head of British Racing I would long ago have structured a deal wth betting that didn’t involve my sport being used as the tool to sell other products. But the BHA aren’t as bright as me it appears. The Bookmakers continue to treat the costly racing product as a weapon. A racing right that ignores it’s customers have to be seen to benefit from that product long term can only fail. That may mean a cheaper deal than 7.5%, but more benefits.
Douvan wins the Arkle.
The Centaur is a huge arena. My firm joins five others in the annual struggle. Not a free bet in sight. No quarter given. I employ three very pretty girls to take the money. It’s sexist in the extreme. If the arena was warm enough I’d ask them to bet in their lingerie. I know this would upset the gambling commission, but they expect me to know the rules before they do anything about anything. My rules.
Day one starts with a seven race card. Mullins wins everything worth winning and leaves the handicaps to trainers who don’t complain about how much prize money Rich Ricci deserves. Ruby Walsh rides the odd winner and waves his pointing stick at the crowd as he rides in, pursued by Alice Plunkett and her pointing stick.
In the Centaur we struggle to keep up with payouts. I don’t remember it being like this when I was a nipper at the track. In those days the festival comprised three days. The Ryanair didn’t take from the Gold Cup. Nobody had heard of grade one animals running in the Mares Hurdle. Michael Dickinson would saddle five in the Gold Cup, as opposed to his modern day equivalent saddling one and sending the other four elsewhere.
Worst result of the day isn’t actually Annie Power for us, who flukes the Champion. I wonder at Faugheen’s prospects against this wonder mare. A question echoed from racing’s anchorman- Nick Luck to Ruby Walsh. ‘It’s never going to happen,’ declares Walsh honestly. The legacy of individual horses rather second place to podium visits from the owner, coupled with daft excuses for the defection of Vautour. Poor show.
At 4pm exactly, one of my betting babes, Vicky, broke a nail. It happened so suddenly nobody was expecting it. People stood around looking shocked. The betting, the excitement of the horse, the flying finishes all seemed so unimportant now. It felt like another Annie Power flops the last moment.
Wednesday was Queen Mum day. Results were bookie friendly with four skinny favourites getting turned over. Fear touched punters faces that day. Sprinter Sacre took the main prize, besting Un De Slow up Cheltenham’s formidable hill. The roof on the Centaur took a bashing that day. Perhaps as big a roar as when Dawn Run took her Gold Cup. As I watched Sprintre Sacre’s substantial arse amble away from a joyous winning enclosure, I rather hoped this would be his last hurrah in Racing. It would be fitting. This would be the first time I’ve ever actually made money from the Bigun’s victories.
I thought Hendo was taking far too long getting Sacre back in front of his fans, but I think a giant slice of humble pie is justified given his performances this year.
Then we have Zabana. Let’s examine this briefly. Here we have another starter, promoted from within Racing, as usual. He’s on his own tryng to judge if all of his horses are standing ready to go. He has no apparant assistance, is clearly inadequately trained, and the procedures are manifestly at fault. Connections prepare a horse for months – and lose out. Punters invest their money – and lose out. Bookmakers make ex gratia payments – and lose out. And Jamie Stier, the man in charge of the whole shambles at the BHA, says ‘it’s untidy, but we’re satisfied we did nothing wrong.’
Now of course this type of thing parallels the Speculative Bid case in many respects. I was called to Chambers by a rather sharp QC this week. Jonathan Harvie. He told me that the case was a ‘Supreme court case wrapped up in a £260 case.’ It could cost £100,000 in fees to the losing side, and going to press I stand alone in what i feel is the right thing to do. A horse denied a chance to run by another thoroughly incompetent official and by poor procedures. Connections who lose out. Punters who backed the horse denied a fair run under the rules, who lost their money. Betting firms who made yet another ex gratia payment. For how long will this archaic, old pals act of regulation continue as supportable, whilst the authority, in the words of the Judge ‘want to govern Racing, yet not be held accountable for its failures.’
Are their individuals out there, betting firms, connections and punters, tired as I am of these appalling failures, whilst they deny their role? Get in touch with me and take this opportunity to establish, the Authority’s clear duty of care to all of us.
I drive home to the sight of a large man in a pink tutu being propped up by his companion on the way home. I stopped to ask if he could spare me some change.
Victories from Thistle Crack at a silly price, Vautour in the also rans at a silly price and Limini in one of those silly mares races won by Grade one performers, ensure the bookies take a further battering. To be fair though, it’s mostly self inflicted. Bookies are frantically borrowing money from each other to pay the bills. I’m hosed down good and proper by a large treble on the three skinny favourites. I console myself that evening with an equally large double. I receive a missed call from the bank manager.
My car breaks down on the way back to the hotel. I ring Ladbrokes who confirm that qualifies me for a free bet, provided I gamble it responsibly.
I felt pretty confident about the last day. I’ve never been to a festival that’s been completely one sided- I play the odds. It’s a grey day, we’re likely very busy in the Centaur. Crowds are typically huge. From the moment we kick off to final whistle we never stop taking bets…and paying out. The bookie Okey Cokey as three well fancied runners hose up. One bettor thrusts £4000 in my hand for Cue Card at 7/2. The book isn’t as balanced as it once was. I guess I got lucky, and unlucky as Don Cossack stayed past absent friends.
In the end it was a loss to bookmaking of circa 100 million, and before you start whooping and cheering, a consequential loss to racing totaling around ten million in Levy. It behoves the bookmakers to bet better and racing to consider how to best deal with top horses defecting from the best races for cheap gain.
Victoria Pendleton called to commiserate, and doubtless to tell me I’m too pretty to be a man. She reversed the charges. I couldn’t afford to pick up. Another loser I’ve backed..