Tuesday was a classic November day, a firm reminder of the months of gloom that lie ahead. Only last week I was picking sweet peas off the allotment; suddenly I was looking at a grey and gloomy landscape half hidden by a veil of mist and drizzle. Outside our front door the nasturtiums, which had been blooming cheerfully through October, were a sodden mush.
We almost missed the first race. It would be cheap and obvious to blame my Irish pal, because he’s built a career, and a reputation, on being unreliable, elusive, unpredictable. I still cherish a memory of us all sitting on the Tote bus as it set off from York for an evening meeting at Haydock Park one sunny afternoon, circa 2005. This was in the days when I was a part-time racecourse betting assistant, attending 60 or 70 meetings a year, having more laughs than I could possibly recall, and everyone was saying, ‘You should write a book, mate.’ We - I refer to the male element, who occupied the back of the bus - were what you’d call a bunch of likely lads. Our average age was 50-something and we comprised retired teachers, ex-army officers, a former railway manager, an artist, a theatre rigger, a writer, an opera singer, a couple of mature students and a one-time jockey now selling dodgy cars for cash. We formed a group, because until we came along, the Tote mostly employed women. And many of the old-stagers resented our presence, mainly because, unlike them, we displayed a keen interest in racing and couldn’t resist betting on duty - despite the written notices telling us that such a misdemeanour would result in instant dismissal. So, a motley crew - plus Gerry, a taxi-driver whose past included a number of wives, almost a many jobs as I’ve had, a spell in India and a childhood in war-torn Belfast.
Not for the first time, the bus set off to the familiar cry of ‘Where’s Gerry?’ and a riposte from those of the female persuasion that if he missed the bus it was his own stupid fault. We were barely two furlongs from the station when I happened to glance over my shoulder and there he was, hunched over the handlebars of his clapped-out bike, pedalling like fury. He passed us at the traffic lights, tied the machine to a convenient railing and hopped aboard.
It was a bit like that on our trip to Sedgefield. Shortly after I’d left home to leg it to town he texted to say he was on the train from York to Durham, neglecting to mention which one. He was in fact half an hour late, meaning that by the time we’d done our business at the bookies and got a bus to Sedgefield, we were fighting the clock. As ever, we were deep in conversation. Gerry’s an interesting guy with some provocative views on politics and economics - e.g., ‘Money is an illusion’ - so we managed to miss the stop at Sedgefield. As the bus headed out into the Durham countryside we clattered downstairs and asked the driver where we should alight for the racecourse. ‘Back there in town,’ he said. ‘Oh. Drop us off here, will you?’ we replied. He pointed to a web cam above his head and said, ‘My next stop’s Stockton, pal. If I let you out at an unauthorised stop it could cost me my job.’ Then he shrugged his shoulders and applied the brakes.
We thanked him kindly, wished him luck and hot-footed it back towards town. Twenty minutes till the first race, a mile and a quarter to go. ‘Fancy a quick pint?’
‘Gerry,’ I said, ‘I’m here for the races. We’ll drink afterwards.’
Gerry is his own man - and I guess I am too. I went into a slow canter; the last I saw of him he was a furlong behind me, trying to unravel the scrunched-up sports pages of his Guardian to see what the tipster had recommended. At the risk of extending this posting to inordinate lengths I must add that the reason his paper was so disorganised, even by Gerry’s exacting standards, was, he said, the fault of the train operator from York. ‘Bloody technology,’ he said. ‘Went to the toilet, put the paper on the sink, went to wash my hands and it was one of those automatic taps. Soaked the bloody thing.’
I made the first race. Didn’t back the winner as such, but managed the forecast: Number 1 to beat number 3. £1 outlay, £16 return. Yes. In the second race I had a strong fancy: Glasson Lad, ridden by a favourite jockey of mine, Graham Lee. How could you not love a guy you once watched powering up the infamous hill at Cheltenham aboard a 25/1 shot with your money riding on him? Sweet, sweet memory. Glasson Lad was sitting a handy third as they approached the last couple of hurdles, moved smoothly into a challenging position - and fell flat on his face at the last. Ho hum.
I don’t know what other people’s tactics are, but a far as I’m concerned betting on the horses is largely about confidence. Hit a bad run and it goes - poof. You’ll spot a likely contender, hesitate, let the doubts creep in, decide not to back it - and then watch it go by the winning post fifteen lengths ahead of the field at about 8/1. Hit a good run and suddenly picking winners is as easy as falling off a log. The trick is to get started. I needed a winner now, and fast. I set off for the betting hall, studied the runners at Lingfield in the 1.40 and found a nice 2/1 shot who cantered home and earned me £30. Back in business.
Third race. Would Graham Lee, stung by his failure in the previous race, put in that extra bit of effort aboard the ominously named Going Wrong, trained by Ferdy Murphy? He did - and I had another £29.25 to collect. ‘Tell you what,’ I said as the bookie counted it out and I glanced at the runners in the next, ‘give me the twenty and put the rest on that one of Murphy’s. Gavroche Gauguin at 13/2.’
And here he is, in the blue and yellow hoops, easing into contention over the final fence to pass the line with half a length in hand. £67 and thankyou very much.
It went downhill after that. I’d already failed to back Mister Dillon at Lingfield (duh! - who just spent six months with ‘Matt and Kitty’ in Nebraska?); and although I got one more winner at Huntingdon, that was it for the day. I’d reached the dizzy heights of being £50 or so in profit, but ended the day about level par, with my expenses covered. Gerry and I had the usual post-mortem in the aptly named Nag’s Head, where the first pint of Lancaster Blonde - and the second - slid down my throat like silk. Then we had the usual panic while Gerry rummaged through his bag of Guardian cuttings, losing tickets and photos from a chaotic youth (you tell me…) - and finally came up with his bus ticket. Fish and chips in Durham and that was it: he went to the station (I hope he got there) and I legged it home.
We’re off to North Wales tomorrow for a weekend break, and on the way back will call in on my daughter in Leeds who may, or may not, have produced a grandchild. So I dare say the next posting here will be Monday, with lots of pictures of rain. But don’t bet on it.