3) Hylters Chance – Worcester (26 August 1998)
Not many of you will remember this horse, or for that matter the horse that should have won, but I bet somebody will. I do, and I know there is a man in Bristol who will – it’s funny, the weird connections horse racing can make. There is a story behind this race so rare that it has never (to my knowledge) been repeated since, and it is a story that has to be told unabridged from my book Around The Races In Eighty Days.
Once upon a time, when I was a young man training to be a teacher, I was assigned to a school in South Gloucestershire. I was given a mentor, an experienced chap with a reputation for taming even the most unruly of classes. As a wide-eyed innocent, searching for my persona in the classroom, I admired Ivan for his no-nonsense style and fearsome approach. It wasn’t until I realised he was a horse racing fan that my admiration turned to friendship.
Ivan also wrote the timetable, which as luck would have it often resulted in some gaps in his timetable on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday afternoons (remember, the Cheltenham Festival was only three days back then). So it was, in the March of 1998, that I was told I would be having an extra class that Wednesday afternoon – Ivan’s Year 8s, who were otherwise messing up his free afternoon. Whilst I tried (and failed) to stop them throwing Pritt Sticks at each other, he watched my beloved One Man win the Queen Mother Champion Chase, and in all honesty, I didn’t begrudge him one bit. I smiled as he later recalled the scenes after the grey’s momentous victory, the cheers ringing in his ears as he watched from the overpass when our hero returned to the stable block.
And so we forged a strong bond through the joyous highs of Festival justice and the savage lows of Aintree despair, as well as through the imperceptible complexity and extreme privilege that was teaching. He was the perfect mentor for me, despite me not realising for another six years that I couldn’t be him in the classroom. I had to be myself, because at some point the mask would slip and there would be nowhere left to go. But that’s another story.
Anyway, in the long summer of 1998, in the gap between me finishing my training and starting my career, we toured the tracks of the region. Ivan wanted to become a professional gambler, a period he now refers to as his mid-life crisis, but over that summer he won a substantial sum and came pretty damn close to finally giving up the day job. He was on a good run, and we went to Worcester one sunny afternoon to back an old favourite called Zaitoon, trained by the late and mostly-great David Nicholson. I think the money we both had on this grand old chaser differed by a multiple of 1,000, I kid you not. Somehow it didn’t matter though. The 11/4 favourite jumped fluently under top weight, galloped his rivals into submission, and from a long way out there was only one winner. Coming to the last some 30 lengths clear we held our breath – things happen in jump racing – but the brave old stalwart didn’t let us down, clearing the fence cleanly and cantering towards the line.
Ivan and I both started walking down the concrete steps to collect – him to literally start a new life, me to be part of the moment, and us both to celebrate like never before. Suddenly we became aware of a hush in the crowd, and we looked up from our footings on the steps. The horse still looked fine as it approached the line, and the jockey Richard Johnson sat motionless on top. But people in the crowd were pointing back down the track, to where somebody standing just after the last fence was holding something up in the air, like a small rug or perhaps some sort of bag.
Zaitoon was disqualified because his weight cloth slipped off just after the last fence, within sight of the post. Of course, running the last 100 yards without the extra weight hadn’t made a blind bit of difference to the result, but rules are rules, and Nicholson took full responsibility for the incident. I suggested that Ivan should send the betting ticket to The Duke to see if he wished to be held financially responsible as well. We saw out the evening in Worcester as best we could in the circumstances – getting blind drunk and lamenting what could, what should, have been. They somehow let us in to a snooker club and I’ve no idea how the cloth survived unscathed.
So Ivan never became a professional gambler, and I realised there was no such thing as a dead cert, even if your horse jumped the last 30 lengths up and cruising. The betting exchanges now record in great and stark detail the regular occurrences of the unimaginable occurring, but they can never show the whole picture. Behind every massive fluctuation of the in-running odds there are winners and losers, a hidden human cost that cannot be properly quantified in purely monetary terms.
It is interesting that in all my years of punting I have never let my passion become a problem. Whilst my stakes have undoubtedly increased over time, I have never bet more than I could afford to lose. I don’t say this because I feel morally superior to those with a gambling problem. I have enough problems of my own to realise how fallible we all are, but luckily none of them are gambling related. And I suppose that’s it, really. In the end I may have been incredibly lucky to watch Zaitoon be incredibly unlucky. And although I’ve never admitted it to myself, I may even have something to thank David Nicholson for. I’m not sure Ivan would say the same though.
Zaitoon went on to win three more times, all at Worcester, amassing £50,000 in win and place prize money. He was retired in 2001.