I have been doing a bit of reminiscing about my misspent youth in betting shops. I have already overshot myself there. True, it may have been misspent in terms of I’d have been better off out playing football. Even better, going to college to get some further education after being a blatant non-trier in my final years at school. On the other hand as far as a life-long love of racing goes, it was time well spent.
That may well seem a weird statement, because I’m talking 1982 onwards here. In those days there were no TVs showing the race you had wagered in. You’d have to listen intently to a speaker that was often not state of the art to a commentary coming in from Extel which would very often suffer ‘Telephonic Interruptions’ at a crucial point in proceedings. Weirdly most betting shop patrons used to stare at the speaker, clutching their betting slips white-knuckled in the hope that their hitherto unmentioned selection would suddenly make ‘rapid late headway’. If that glimmer of hope was forthcoming followed by a head-bobbing finish the staring at the speaker got more intense waiting to hear if the ensuing photo finish had your horse’s name first when called. Of course, that usually meant you had copped. Unless your luck was really out, in which case your well-chewed green and blue ( in our case) pen would be launched across the smoke-filled room, the final pleasure in return for the money lost.
Even worse for information purposes was on those bank holidays when there might be as many as a dozen meetings on. Places like Cartmel where you could add a 2/13 shot to your long odds-on accumulator. Did I mention that I was very welcome to wager with the firm that had blue and green pens back in those days? You wouldn’t hear a commentary from there, or any of the other meetings with hardly any runners and a plethora of hot-pots. You’d have to keep peering up at the screens through the smog in the hope the results would confirm you’d copped, there’d always be one that got beat. I still remember a beast called Gearys Cold Rolled or similar getting eclipsed at 1/5 letting me down, the last of a long list of very short-price ticked off winners. My theory for these bets was that if the longest-priced horse was 1-3 that was the chance of landing the bet. Like I said, a very welcome customer in those days.
The lack of TV pictures did do something to add to the mystique of the weird and wonderful places you were betting at. We had no idea what Cartmel, Hereford or Fakenham looked like or even where they were, they were just exotic names in the Sporting Life no doubt teeming with pro-punters having those monkey bets we’d read about in the results sections of the paper. Everyone that had a bet on a Saturday would go home or more likely to the pub next door or across the road to watch the racing. It was a treat to be able to see what happened to your money and no doubt ensured big viewing figures too. The pundits became household names as a by-product, hello Big Mac. That was the first payback the betting shops gave racing, support for the sport on terrestrial TV of course there was no other type at the time but let’s not get pedantic.
Of course you wouldn’t see the aforementioned picturesque but modest venues on TV but you would see the big ones. Cheltenham, Chepstow and Newbury being three that we discovered were within the reach off our Vauxhaul Vivas. We wanted to go to those places. It was only a year after I had my first, illicit I may add being only 17, visit to a betting shop in 1982 that I went to my first meeting, The Mackeson at Cheltenham in 1983 and my first on-course bet with a bookmaker. £5 win on Sweet Mandy at 9/4 in the opener with Ricky & Son on the front row. Of course it was 5/2 hawking further back, but I was green. Oh and for any Gambling Commission bods looking for an historical nick, I was 18 by this time. Payback number two, we wanted to go racing, and of course as we all know, once you have been you are generally hooked. Attending a meeting was the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ back in those days and boy didn’t it feel good. So actually that’s betting shop pay back two and three, racecourse attendances and racecourse bookies punted with.
The Sporting Life was another to gain in payback from betting shops. Not only did every shop have a couple up on the wall (as well as the rubbish, in our opinion, Morning Advertiser) but once we proudly became ‘punters’ – usually after our first lucky Saturday when we left the shop with a pocket full of readies feeling like we had the game by the bollocks – you’d often buy your own ‘Life’, especially on a Saturday. There was something about spreading its out-sized pages out on a table up at the Boar’s Head at opening time and picking your winners. In reality, rather than studying the form you’d see if Auger and Man On The Spot agreed before underling that one at least to begin with, see below.
The Sporting Life actually copped twice, once from the sometimes purchase and others from advertising. How galling it was when your winner-finding methods had yet again proven fallible to read in an advertisement when perusing the getting out bumper on the card what you should have done. By simply sending £2 to Ryan Hartley the previous week you’d have been a recipient of his Saturday One Horse Letter and backed countless winners over the season. As proofed by the Sporting Life so it must be true. So I did, I sent him £2 and got my Saturday One Horse Letters. Read how they got on in my book Skint Mob more payback for racing, Ryan got lots of £2 every week, he continued to advertise so the paper copped. As did the betting shop most weeks too. Every one’s a winner, expect 18 year old Simon that is of course.
Despite all those paybacks, the biggest payback of all went rightfully to racing itself. As time went on I and plenty of others did delve deeper into the sport. We wanted to understand it, we wanted to pick out our own winners and not rely on Man On The Spot. Superform Annuals were purchased and thumbed, we started to learn about trainers and jockeys, Bill O’Gorman and Tony Ives had a lot of sprint winners, if in doubt back them blind in maidens. OK we were still mugs, but enjoyed our apprenticeship and discovering a whole new world had opened up. We organised 10 To Follow competitions amongst the betting shop regulars. In short the betting shop created life-long racing fans who still love and cherish the game over 30 years later. Not just myself but the vast majority of the people of my age who discovered horse racing and betting in that mysterious smoky and slightly dubious world that lay behind those green and blue streamers.
I’ll admit that my initial attraction of the betting shop was the lure of supposedly easy money. People only chirp when they are winning so the pub door was always threshold to beaming punters who’d just had Yankees and forecasts up rushing in to boast their skills. I imagine that these days that is still the same lure. The difference is that now all the wide-eyed first-time betting shop punter has to do is decide if they should chance their hard-earned on red or black the FOBT just inside the door. They no longer learn that there is a racecourse at Exeter, Cartmel and Worcester. They have no idea that David Pipe is a great trainer, especially, when the money is down and marvel at the skill of certain jockeys. They don’t yearn to visit racecourses because if they don’t get past the FOBT they will soon learn about percentages when they leave again pot-less without even knowing they exist. Sadly they don’t learn about percentages and gambling in detail, if they did they’d know that the often lambasted racecourse bookies offer value the like of has hardly been seen before.
Those that do actually bet on horses may even be fuddled as I was why ‘bookmakers’ – my assumption being that these were chaps that spent their time binding Dick Francis novels – had anything to do with taking bets. If they are confused, or even care they won’t be going home to get informed by Matt Chapman on ITV Racing because all the pictures are there in the shops, why bother going home.
Then there is the final insult. Should any new customers to betting shops get past the FOBT, ignore Portman Park, swerve the numbers and fall in love with racing. Don’t get good at it because if you do, or as in my case follow someone who supplies plenty of winners Andrew Mount – Form Book Genius @TrendHorses & Westcountry Racing @Wcountryracing you’ll no longer be welcome. You won’t even get the chance to get all that money back you lost in cold blood learning the game and William Hill on Gold Street in Tiverton, you still owe me plenty. I suppose that’s one old-school edge. Stay away from on-line betting and bet in a betting shop, that’s a retro-advantage.
Those happy halcyon days are gone forever, betting shops no longer provide racing with new blood, life-long racing fans as they used to? If as is my opinion that is true where are they going to come from now? Over to you racing.
(c) Simon Nott