There is an unexpected breakfast served in the tiny window of an eighty minute flight to Glasgow. It’s not easy to serve a plane-load of people a hot and tasty meal within the confines of a small galley on a short flight, as British Airways proves by serving something which is neither hot nor tasty.
The train from Paisley to Ayr is as close as I have experienced to a Hogarth painting since the streets of Galway 8 years ago, but that was past midnight in Galway and this is before midday in Glasgow. Everybody that enters the train seems to be carrying their own private brewery in a plastic carrier bag. Anything goes, from Buckfast to champagne, as long as it gets you steaming drunk before you exit in 45 minutes time. There are signs that proclaim that no alcohol is allowed on this special service, and that Police will be in attendance, but the only Police presence is when we arrive, hot and explosive, at Ayr. Anything un-drunk is quickly necked by the extremely-drunk before it is confiscated, and the thronging menagerie sluice out of the doors and leave a detritus of empty alcohol promises behind them. I am a veteran of drunken racing jollies, but this is staggering even to me.
It is clear when I arrive that the Hogarthian train is to be followed by a Boschian bus to the course, so being the only sober person in Ayrshire, I opt for a taxi. As a mature gent steps in just ahead of me I ask him if he is going to the racecourse and whether we could share. Instantly friendly, Robert obliges and shakes my hand. He is a professional gambler, or “something like that”. He’s “done the times” for 20 years now but since retiring from the pub business three years ago he has dedicated himself full time to his form studying. I feel so lucky to have found this intriguing man in the vastness of the racing world, and only slightly unlucky that he doesn’t have a tip for me today.
“The ground’s changed now, there’s nothing here today for a decent wedge”.
He gets the taxi to drop us at what I can only describe as a country club just to the side of the racecourse. This haven of tranquillity is so far removed from the bedlam of the train that I wonder whether I am dreaming. Fountains play gently in front of a handsome residence, and a couple of crooners in dinner jackets soothe the assembled punters in the glorious sunshine of a perfect Ayr springtime by wafting out some gentle Sinatra numbers. Robert assures me that all I need for membership of this exclusive enclave is a Club badge, and he is right. Inside, we drop our bags at an amenable reception and, as Robert has refused to share the cost of the taxi, I buy him a beer as he describes his punting strategy.
It’s all about the times, for Robert. Therefore, he’s very keen on Douvan for the Champion Hurdle next year rather than reigning champ Faugheen, whom he describes as a stayer who may not even defend his crown next year. We agree that the Coneygree performance was incredible, with so many good horses unable to keep up behind him. Robert instantly knows the time of his Gold Cup demolition “6:43” and thinks he’s a good thing next year if he stays sound.
We have a minor disagreement about betting. With my record compared to his, who am I to pontificate, but I maintain that, very occasionally, odds on can be value in the right circumstances. I use the lovely Tanerko Emery as a case in point.
“No, no, no!” Robert insists.
He only bets at 4/1 or more, or perhaps as low as 5/2 if there aren’t many runners, and he doesn’t mind each way. The mathematician in me protests, and I outline a hypothetical game where he rolls a dice and I’ll offer him even money if he rolls 1 to 5, but still he can’t be swayed. Whilst I don’t agree with his maths, I can’t help but admire his discipline.
This is his favourite course, and I can see why. It’s a sell out, but you can still move around and get a bet on and, with a little patience, a beer as well. Two years ago Robert went to the Cheltenham Festival on Gold Cup day, and walked out an hour later in disgust. Since then, I point out, it’s got worse with record crowds and reduced capacity because of the building works.
It’s hot, very hot, and I realise I’ve misjudged the weather forecast and over-dressed. In other words, the forecast got it wrong and it’s about 24 and sunny instead of 9 and cloudy. The pressure cooker atmosphere of the train has dissipated and people are having fun in the sun. Robert is adept at talking to anyone and everyone and I get swept along behind him like some apprentice.
I have a bet in the first race on The Last Samuri at 5/2 and I think Robert just about approves. Puffin Billy, the Ascot conqueror of my Thomas Crapper, sets off in front but his jumping is under pressure on this faster ground, as I’d predicted. I hadn’t predicted that when my Last Samuri sweeps past him at the final fence that he would stoically battle back to get up on the line. This is twice Puffin Billy has done this to me, but I can’t help but admire his bravery.
Robert goes to the loo and we lose touch in the melee of a busy day at the races. I return to the idyllic haven of the Western Hotel, thinking he might retrace our steps, but that is the last I see of him. As he put it in the taxi, you never know what’s going to happen at a day at the races. We were flung together by chance, and drift apart in the maelstrom of a big racing crowd. Perhaps we might meet up at Perth on Thursday; you never know.
In the Scottish National I fancy both Pricewise horses, as well as three others, but I can’t back five horses. That’s silly. So I stick to Wayward Prince and Man With Van. I watch the race from the splendid position of the country club lawn. A few others have cottoned on to this marvellous viewpoint just past the winning post, and we share a strangely muted finale to a thrilling performance from Wayward Prince. It seems wrong to shout in this peaceful idyll, but inside I’m buzzing – he pays 32/1 on the Tote to secure my biggest win of the tour so far.
I’m aware that I have a plane to catch, and so leave soon afterwards. The train back is relatively calm before the tidalwave of soused Glaswegian humanity smashes in, and I make the plane comfortably. On the flight back I am only a few seats away from Statto, or Angus Loughran as he is sometimes known. But I rue my decision at check in to move to the extra legroom seats of the exit row – if I’d stayed where I was randomly assigned I would have been next to Channel 4 frontman Nick Luck, with commentator Simon Holt not far away. Again, what the Gods of Probability give with one hand they take away with the other; the inexorable pull of the balancing scales is never far away where chance is concerned.