23/09/2021

When the fun stops, stop!

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For a number of years I worked for a bookmaker on Saturdays and during school holidays. I earned £2 10s for an afternoon’s work and it presented a magical other world of new challenges and discoveries.

On-course bookies

I worked in a betting shop for a large group (City Tote, later Hensone). It was the practice for shop managers to maintain a spreadsheet of big races. This was nothing like VisiCalc (or Excel) but literally a large sheet of paper where bets were recorded for each horse. This proved essential for Grand Nationals. Details were then phoned into the head office where an individual would consider ‘laying-off’ money. If the group was exposed by a particular outcome, then a bet was placed with other bookies to offset any potential loss.

You should understand that in those days the shop was not allowed to do anything to encourage punters to stay in the building. It was many years before fixed-odds machines and refreshments were considered acceptable. The shop was therefore often a quiet place, and in those days there were no televised races. All we had was an Extel speaker from which a disembodied voice told us of the goings (good to soft…), the current odds on as many of the races as could be crammed in, a commentary on several of the races and of course the results. This regular fare was punctuated with details of non-runners, announcements that there was to be a stewards’ enquiry and when the race had weighed-in, which triggered us to pay out any winners.

Betting office

In 1967 aged eighteen I was working on the counter on Grand National Day. The counter was mobbed as I shovelled in the cash from everyone’s grandma. They were putting 6d each way on horses picked with a pin, or perhaps the name triggered a memory. This happened from the moment we opened until just before race time. Then it was quite eerie when the shop became completely empty as everyone left to watch the race on television at home or elsewhere and we could pause for breath.

Foinavon Grand National incident (Guardian)

We listened to our audio feed. Coming over Becher’s Brook (the 22nd jump) the original forty-four starters had been reduced to twenty-eight through the usual attrition. The commentator was trying to include as many horses’ names as possible as they approached the jump. However, we then heard a loose horse had cannoned into another and the commentator continued listing horses hampered or brought down. At one point he even suggested that they had all fallen or been unseated.

Eventually, he announced that one horse had somehow leapt, or at least passed, over the fence and was now leading the race. He couldn’t make out its number until it had reached the next jump, the Canal Turn. By then he was reporting several horses remounted and taking chase.

Finally, he identified the horse, now thirty lengths clear, as Foinavon. None of the shop team recognised the name. The spreadsheet was consulted to find that just a florin, two shillings, 10 pence, had been wagered on the horse in our shop. Remember this was our biggest day of takings of the year. Both the favourite Honey End, and a subsequent winner Red Alligator, began chasing him. Unseen we cheered Foinavon all the way home to a 100/1 win. We had two winning payouts each receiving £5.05 for their 5p stake (no betting tax back then). What’s not to love about this sort of event? In another shop Jane’s grandma, Addie, had been reminded of ‘Avon Calling’ and had successfully placed her 5p on Foinavon.

I later sought the opportunity to work as a boardman which had the benefit that you were allowed then to bet in your own shop; counter hands and settlers were not allowed to do so. This meant they had to bet in another shop, not that they didn’t bet. It was far too infectious.

As a boardman I had a large chalkboard to present the day’s races. I chalked up the day’s courses, the race times, the going, the runners and their current odds. I loved the task, using different coloured chalks, slightly wetting them so they dried more vividly. A day when there were four race meets going off at the same times was challenging. The data flowed in at a lick and to keep up with it was tough. Today the shops have pre-printed lists that they pin up and felt tip the shows – none of the artistry of my day.

Talking of races going off at the same time, my greatest betting moment was when I was a boardman. I placed a 6d win Yankee, total cost to me was 5s 6d. This involved four horses and eleven bets – six doubles, four trebles and a four-horse accumulator.

My first three horses romped in at great odds – 8-1, 10-1 and 100-8. I remember one was Crystal Rose, another The Perch, but I can’t recall the third, perhaps it was Broadway Melody? The fourth race was a tad late off and my final horse was Pike’s Fancy at 100-6. The shop that day was busy and the other punters were cheering me on.

They pointed out that the notion of across-the-card limits meant races scheduled for the same time would only be paid out to a limited level because they stifled the bookie’s opportunity to lay-off his exposure. They worked out if my fourth came in, even with limits applied, I would win £525 from my 27.5p bet – a small fortune in the mid-60s (as context, later in 1969, my first annual salary was only £506).

That winning feeling

We were still in the audio commentary days. Pike’s Fancy led into the final furlong but was being caught by the favourite. The commentator announced a photo-finish. There was folklore about the sequence in which a photo-finish was called; the first-named horse invariably was later named the winner because the commentator was watching the race and called out first the horse he felt had won – Pike’s Fancy was named first.

The wait for the result of the photo-finish was interminable. It was eventually called that Pike’s Fancy had won but immediately the commentator announced, ‘Stewards’ Enquiry’. Now if you ever wondered about how conspiracy theories start you needed to have been in that shop. One of my fellow punters saw that the favourite, second in the photo-finish, was owned by Viscount Leverhulme and that the Head Steward was his father, Lord Leverhulme. After a further delay no-one in the shop was surprised when my horse was placed second and the toffs got their pay-outs. We all got into a bit of a lather, rather appropriately given they were owners of Lever Brothers – the makers of Sunlight, Lifebuoy, Lux and Vim.

However, for the remaining successful three doubles and a treble I still won. Even after across-the-card limits had been applied, it was a healthy £56. Thrilling stuff.

Most of the punters were betting small amounts. Many stayed in the shop and tried to forecast a winner in every race of the day – no chance! The more regular winners were those who were satisfied with a studied double or treble, or on busy days a Yankee. However, there were some things you learned that did appear to work, if rather dull.

For example, if you backed every third favourite in two-year-old flat races across their season each way you would make money. This is because they are young and mostly untried, so there must be something about the horse to be third favourite; third favourite odds would still be quite good – often 5-to-1 or greater – so even for a place winnings were worthwhile (in these pre-betting tax days). But this denies the basic motivation of a gambler. Who would want to, or could, robotically follow such a dull scheme? It was merely something the tipster papers would mention retrospectively each year.

Another old-punters’- tale was that any horse ever quoted at 9-1 during the betting phase should be backed each way. The theory was that betting usually rose in regular steps 8-1, 10-1, 100-8, 100-6 and so on. If 9-1 odds appeared there was something odd about the book, something upsetting the bookies’ norms. Hence it was worth an each way punt.

The third tip was never to bet on dogs to win. It was all too easy for them to be bumped on a corner, or slipped a jam sandwich before the race. If you must, then the best bet on a dog race was to select three traps, mine were usually 1-3-5, to bet these in three reverse forecasts (a total of six bets each race) and to do this consistently throughout the card. This was the rule and I remember some minor successes but it never proved spectacular.

Going to the dogs

Then there was the technical approach. Study the announced ‘going’ and the horses that seemed to favour the day’s conditions. Has the horse travelled far (Ireland, France…)? That commitment of time and cost must mean they believe they have a good chance – and will be trying. Then study the past times the runners achieved over the course or distance. Consider the draw, more so these days with starting stalls being the norm, and which side of the draw this course and distance has historically favoured. Then look at the past success at the course of the trainer and jockey, perhaps less so the owner. Compare the tipsters’ selections, particularly their naps of the day. Given all that research your chances are more considered which is a little better than picking with a pin or choosing a nice name. Yet, you might invest all that time and your selection becomes a non-runner. My advice – look the above stats over, but then go with your gut!

In our local group of stores there was a Welsh guy at headquarters who made all the laying-off decisions. I occasionally watched as he went through the Sporting Life and picked the two or three horses in each race that he would follow carefully through the afternoon. Significantly, he never placed a bet himself. He indicated he had once been a heavy punter but his careful study of racing led him to decide to abstain.

Park Street, Bristol

At one shop we did hit on a system that invariably worked. Our betting office was on Park Row in central Bristol and on the adjacent Park Street was one of the West Country’s leading hairdressers, André Bernard of Mayfair. I doubt the Mayfair had any more reality than the French name, but whenever there was a local meeting between Exeter and Cheltenham, a number of owners’ wives would get coiffed at ‘Andie’s’. During their hairdos they would talk to their stylists (although I’m not sure that was the term used back then) about which of their horses was ‘trying’ and had a chance. The stylist would rush around to us and place a bet, and as I was on the board I could use their inside info. My memory is that this fairly regularly delivered winnings. However, I was always moving from shop to shop and thus lost my source.

In my early days with the firm I was a counter hand or boardman, but I was studying two Maths A-levels (Pure and Applied) and yearned to be a settler. I admired the settlers for their block and crash-block method for working out multiple bets speedily and correctly. When I was first shown by rote how to use the crash-block method it took me a week or so, as an A-level student, to work out why and how it worked. These were not classically numerate guys, but they had plenty of street-smarts.

I did enjoy settling and my motivation became to presort the bets, so when the result was known I had all the winnings calculated before the weigh-in and punters could be promptly paid out, yet they could still be re-worked if there was an enquiry or changed result. I do recognise the use of coloured-chalks on the board and hurrying for prompt payouts to be a mild form of OCD – I still have it.

I was at one shop when an infamous punter turned up. He was a wholesale-baker’s roundsman who made good money and was a canny gambler. He would show up irregularly at different shops in the group and make just the one bet, usually £500 to win on a horse. Invariably he won. At this time managers could earn a bonus from the overall winnings achieved in the shop and usually they would immediately lay-off this £500 to the head-office guy who could look across the group and decide whether to lay it off externally or take the risk. The manager on this occasion was a notorious chancer. He didn’t rate the horse so he did not make the HO lay-off call – and thankfully for him the horse did not win! That would normally have been the cue for the baker to leave and return perhaps weeks later with his next punt. But on that day he promptly put on another £500 win bet. The manager had the first £500 as cover so once again he did not lay off the bet, and again the horse failed to win.

The baker clearly had a problem as he chased his luck again. This time he put £500 to win on a dog. The manager was now full of confidence and took the bet on – and the dog lost. The baker left and the manager could look forward to a career-best bonus.

Shooting craps on the floor

There was a disturbing side to the business. I was at school or college, living at home and unmarried so betting was not a real issue for me, provided I never bet what I didn’t have. But some of the settlers and shop managers were married with children and seriously addicted. The central shop in Bristol on a Friday evening was where we gathered to receive our wages, paid out in cash. The shop had all the detritus of a day’s business, discarded betting slips, bits of newspaper, cigarette ends and ash (you were allowed to smoke then) spread across the floor. Someone would sweep a patch on the floor and these guys would sit down to play craps (dice) with their wages. On a number of occasions I watched married family guys lose a whole week’s earnings. Those who won, instead of keeping their winnings, would move on to the local Craywood Club casino where they would go on to lose their money there.

One manager, known familiarly as the ‘Chippenham Flyer’, had a dream. In it he made ten times consecutively at craps in the casino. I’m not going to explain all the intricacies, but you need to know that a shooter wins on the come-out throw with a 7 or 11 (a natural), and loses with a 2, 3 or 12 (aka crapped out). Any other number thrown on the come-out becomes your ‘point’ and you keep throwing until you either repeat your point (win) or a 7 (lose). Others can bet on whether you will win or lose, or on each individual throw.

As the shooter you must place a binary bet on yourself, either Pass or Don’t Pass, meaning Win or Lose. If you place £10 on Pass and win, then you get £20 back. Let it run for a further round and you have £40. If you should let it run ten times, and win every time, then your winnings are £10,240, provided you do not fall foul of any casino limits.

The ‘Chippenham Flyer’ did indeed make ten times on the trot shortly after his dream, but he didn’t back himself. He ran on the Win bar for three rounds amassing £80, then bet Don’t Win three times. Although he actually won with the dice, in fact he lost financially, if you are following the logic. He switched back to Win for three occasions, then switched again to Don’t Win, while continuing to win. Losing on his eleventh throw he had lost £60 rather than won £10k!

Voodoo doll

I worked for a while at a branch in a West-Indian part of Bristol where dreams caused me grief. A seemingly friendly Jamaican guy came in and explained that he had had a dream. He explained that Voodoo gave significance to particular numbers, a certain number meaning a woman, another a policeman and so on. He had dreamt of a policeman and so was placing a bet on a horse that had some police allusion. Without meaning it disrespectfully, I chuckled at his explanation as I took his bet. When the horse didn’t win, he came back to the shop with a machete shouting that I was responsible for his loss. I had to have a police escort to my car.

Another awkward situation happened much later. I had by then dropped out of college (see above) and pro tem, for the want of anything else, had glided with little thought into the Civil Service. I still worked on Saturdays in the bookies. An unfortunate clash occurred while I was working at the Ministry of Labour.

On a Friday I had been at a long counter at Bristol’s Nelson Street central Labour Exchange paying out dole monies to claimants. I hadn’t considered the significance that the next day I was working at the bookie’s head office. This too was in Nelson Street, directly opposite the Labour Exchange. It turned out that the shop’s punters included many to whom I had paid dole to the day before. They were unhappy, speculating that perhaps I was an investigator and might cancel their dole. I only did that the once and arranged never to work from that shop again!

Because counter hands in the bookies had to work only from one hour before the first race until half-an-hour after the last, both my and Jane’s mothers would work for the firm too – much better than shop or office hours of 9-5. But another problem hit when I worked with Jane’s mum, Violet – by the way the most unlikely person ever to have worked in a bookies. I had by then caught the betting habit and unbeknownst to me Violet had seen me put on a bet for £50 to win on a young horse called Persian War. This was a great deal of money, but then the odds were going to be short.

Press Association picture
Persian War at the front

This was early days in the horse’s career. He would go on to win three Champion Hurdles, but was already obviously a flyer. I think this was his third outing having won the first two, both by fifteen lengths. I had fixed the opening odds at close to evens, before he went deeply odds-on as expected. The audio was all going well, he was out front and there appeared to be no problem, but the commentator suddenly announced, ‘he has hit the last hurdle’. Long pause, then ‘he has stumbled’, long pause. Imagine the relief when I heard ‘he is still eight lengths clear’ – and he carried on to win by more than that distance.

My heart rate had only just settled when Jane arrived at the shop; it seems we really weren’t on the same wavelength. She challenged me ‘Was it true you put £50 on a horse?’ I said jubilantly, ‘Yes. It won!’ She was having none of that, ‘If you’re capable of putting £50 on a horse then I don’t want to know you!’ Perhaps now a tad plaintively, I repeated, ‘But it won!’ I was never going to win that argument, but we must have got beyond the matter.

Thanks to my working in the bookies I was seduced by betting in those early years. Thankfully when I stopped working there, I also left behind gambling, apart from infrequent visits to casinos, even then on fewer than a dozen occasions, and more recently a handful of visits to racecourses. This was probably influenced by the sight of those family men losing their wages on the grubby floor of a betting shop.

I can’t leave this subject without mentioning one trip to Vegas in the 1990s. I went with two other guys, one was my then boss. He was Robb MacKenzie, a 6’5” Canadian who had never been to ‘Sin City’ before. Our hotel’s TV service advertised a casino games familiarisation course which he attended. He emerged bearing a big lapel badge proclaiming ‘Be gentle with me, it’s my first time’. That evening we had a session on the craps table and it was a case study to watch.

Crap table in action
– ‘new shoes for the kiddies’

When he was up as shooter, still wearing his badge, he religiously followed the advice and started winning. I watched the usual flurry of other ‘players’ arrive and begin to follow him, with shouts of ‘Go Shooter, Go’ and bets on his Win Line.

He carried on winning and suddenly a pretty Brazilian girl appeared under his arm, looked up at him admiringly and asked his advice. Reminded of the Chippenham Flyer, I whispered to him that he was over a hundred dollars up and should now cash in but he wasn’t listening – he was on a roll!

A more senior pit boss arrived and the croupier was changed, presumably to avoid any chance of collusion. The table was now getting crowded and noisy. Everyone was winning by following him.

I assume that had this continued he would have been offered a suite in the hotel. I was pondering what the bill of fare might include beyond that, presumably the Brazilian might be part of it. However, his run inevitably ran out. It was amazing to watch the crowd dissipate. The girl exited first, then his audience wandered off to perform their theatre with the next mug.

It didn’t matter that he lost it all, he still had that experience. That’s the thing about gambling – you remember all the good bits and none of the bad.

ASIDE: In the early 80s a supplier, Oric Computers, invited Jane and me to Royal Ascot and a rather unique drive. We had to wear the full clobber (morning suit, top hat…) and go to Windsor Great Park. There we climbed aboard a coach and four. I sat up on top, at the rear of the coach so I could doff my top hat to those we were holding up on the way to the course. We followed the royal procession along the sacred turf and the coach was ‘parked’ in the Royal Enclosure where we picnicked – very much a one-off experience.

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