My Only Interest In Horse Racing Was As A Bookie! (29 June 1973)
A few weeks back I wrote in this column that the only British sport I had not been interested in had been horse racing. I am writing this on Derby Day. I do not know the name of a horse and the last thought in my head is to have anything on. But the day does remind me that my previous statement was not quite true. It reminds me of the long-forgotten fact that for a few weeks I was a bookie, no less.
It happened like this. I was in the army, stationed at a large supply depot on the Outskirts of London. The war was either over or just about over and racing was getting going again.
One day I caught one of my lads making his way back through a well-known hole in the perimeter fence when he should have been somewhere else. I asked him where he had been. He replied straight out that he been running bets to a local bookmaker for some of his pals.
Our Old Man, bless his heart, did not like being bothered with petty offences. He first joined the army in 1908, the year I was born, was a DCM of the first world war, knew every sort of fast one that any soldier ever tried to pull and expected his NCO’s to maintain discipline while he got on with the more important aspects of his job.
So I advised this lad to clean two other chaps’ equipment besides his own – a system whereby we always had a smashing turn-out whenever that kind of parade was suddenly called.
Then, silly-like, I added that if his mates wanted to throw their money away on horses they had no need to go sneaking out to civvies like that; they could throw it away to me instead and I would prove to them what a mug’s game they were playing.
Instantly I regretted my remark. The never-mournful Cockney face of “Tiger,” which was not his real name, lit up like the sun. Would I really? Starting prices and all that? But just straight bets on particular races, with some kind of limit, eh? If I did that, he would do all the running and for no other reward than to inject a bit of fun and adventure into his present boring existence.
I said he seemed to know a lot about such things for his 18 years and he said that he ought to because his dad was an established bookie at a London dog track and he helped him.
Well, I ought to have known better. But a promise Is a promise. Besides, “Tiger” was not the only one who was becoming bored. Financially I reckoned that the bookie always won in the long run and that I would be able to cope with the few bets likely to come my way.
For a time that was how it worked out. None of those first chaps could show a profit and I was at pains to point out that all they were doing was paying my rest-day expenses.
“Tiger,” too, was as good as his word. He collected and paid out and accepted or refused custom exactly according to our terms and there were no complaints from anybody.
But “Tiger” was enjoying himself and soon became too energetic for my liking. The small affair escalated and the more it grew, the more my apprehension grew with it. Very soon I heard that bets were even coming my way from WO’s via the office clerks. I did not like this at all. A little flutter was becoming a big gamble. I was also having to keep too much cash about me, even if only for an hour or two at a time.
I also guessed that I must be breaking some army law or other. And, strange as it may seem, I held the view then that I still hold – that too much gambling, like too much drinking, is basically wrong and should not be encouraged.
But how to quit gracefully was a problem. We were just leading up to the day of a big race, whose name I have never been able to spell out of my head, but which begins with “C” sounds like Sizarewich. Bets were already coming in and I had not yet got down to the technique or the means of laying off.
Luck stepped in to solve my problem – but only after a big fright.
A day or two before the big race came hut inspection by the Old Man, who was usually accompanied by a junior officer and the orderly dog. That day, as it happened, I was the orderly dog. We set off from the company office – myself on the heels of my masters and more or less cheerfully wagging my tail. We passed fairly quickly through three or four huts. Then we came to the one of which I personally was in charge.
I could hardly believe my eyes. Above what might be called the front door somebody had fixed a large board which in big red letters bore the legend “Heppy Always Pays” and followed that up in smaller letters with the usual jargon found on bookies’ announcements.
For a fraction of a second the Old Man hesitated, as though he had seen something. Then he went on with his indoor inspections without a word. I assure you I had that board down and away the instant I was dismissed to other duties. Whodunnit I never knew, but I heard no more of it.
Then came the big race and just before it we received too many bets on one nag. Mercifully that nag won – and how many bookies have been able to put it like that? Mercifully I was able to pay up, having neither won nor lost over the whole affair. Mercifully “Tiger” was posted next day. And thankfully I then let it be known that I was shutting up shop.
By that time my demob date was in sight. When it arrived the Old Man gave me a reference, which said: “Conduct exemplary. Highly suitable for any position of trust.”
And I have forgotten to switch on the telly for the Derby.
My memory has played me false. In these notes recently I wrote that a Colonel Turner was sent to Bletchley to investigate its suitability for expansion and advocated its limitation to 20-odd thousand. In fact, it was ministry officials who advocated that only 10,000 more people should be added. They were soon shown to be mistaken. Col. Turner came here later to investigate another aspect of development, not that one. Sorry, Colonel – and readers of this column.