I’m meeting Jason at Southwell. Things happen when Jason is around, things that you just couldn’t script. Less than a year ago I laughed so much that I didn’t know if I could stop one morning as he skippered us, in the loosest sense of the phrase, on an old gaff rig on the Norfolk Broads. But that’s another story.
He is slightly delayed on account of going to a cashpoint in the pretty market town of Southwell and discovering he’s lost his wallet. Or left it at work. Or it’s fallen out somewhere in the car. Then his hat blows off in the car park and a scramble amongst advancing cars ensues.
As I know nothing about all-weather racing I intend to make this week a cornucopia of absurd betting strategies. I’m deliberately leaving my Scrabble System (patent pending) for later in the week as I reckon Jason can come up with something unusual. He doesn’t let me down, of course. His artist’s eye is drawn to the geometric design of the carpet in the upstairs bar, and he quickly devises a method of throwing a pound coin at the diamond patterns so that where it lands denotes the number of the horse to back.
The mathematician within me instantly derides this as biased. Surely you are going to aim for the middle diamond each time? Jason is un-phased, claiming any selection criteria are bound to be biased. He has a point, although I’ve once seen him rolling dice at Cheltenham, which must be pretty close to unbiased? His pound coins lands on the third diamond, mine the fifth. Job done with our bets in the first race.
The irony of literally throwing money away on this ludicrous idea hasn’t escaped me, nor as it seems has it for a couple sitting nearby. The old boy seems taken with the spectacle and nudges his wife who smiles.
“It’s never let us down once!” I protest, before admitting “It’s never won us anything either.” They claim to be novices and have no idea who wins the first race. I’m not sure whether they think that we are professional punters, or are just being kind.
Jason bolts a Diet Coke before wanting to get the bets on. We wander outside to the ring where there are eight bookies, less punters, and no prices up yet for the first race. And it’s about nine minutes until the off! No rush here at Southwell. One bookie is offering odds at Huntingdon and Jason seems tempted before I distract him with a visit to the paddock.
I’m pretending not to look at the horses after my earlier paddock fiascos, but Jason likes the look of Number 1. I urge him not to start panic-betting in the first and stick with our thoroughly-thought-through strategy of throwing coins at a diamond carpet. On our return to the ring Jason spots a traditional sweet shop and dives in for a bag of foam bananas. I wonder if this guy I’ve known for 35 years has some weird form of undiagnosed ADHD? The bag has gone within two minutes, and so begins an afternoon of quite extraordinary eating.
Number 1 wins. The system has let us down in the short term, but a system can only be properly judged in the long term, so we return to the magic carpet to select our bets for the second race. Jason decides that the coin is at fault and changes to a fifty pence piece. It certainly bounces better, and it gives us a clear verdict in this four horse affair – we are both to back Number 2, the odds on favourite.
Jason again likes number 1 in the paddock, and this time can’t be dissuaded from backing that as well. He seems unperturbed that this is the 66/1 outsider in a four horse race, but remember that this is the man who backed Norton’s Coin to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 100/1 on his first visit to a bookies. I’m worried that this is sullying the purity of our system, but he wades in with a fiver. The odds on favourite finishes last of the four. The 66/1 outsider…..wins. Yes, really. More Norton’s Coin-esque jubilation.
The couple from the bar upstairs smile as Jason joyously waves around his wad of winnings. I wonder if they are now going to misguidedly employ the magic carpet technique themselves. As it is literally minutes since he last ate, Jason is keen to celebrate in Rosie’s Pantry. I say I’ve already had lunch, but he says he has too and marches off. As we look at the really rather appealing selection of home cooked dishes, I cave in and he treats me to a very fine sausage and mash, just to keep him company you understand; I hate to see a man eat alone. We both order coffee in some deferential nod to discipline.
We get chatting and realise it’s too late to either perform the carpet ritual or go to the paddock before the third race. A rushed and random bet reveals the need for a proper system. The magic carpet has let us down badly, so as the fourth race approaches we search for inspiration. Ominous, brooding black clouds whip towards the racecourse, and the big screen flickers in the charged atmosphere. I decide I can’t let Caged Lightning go un-backed at 9/2.
Just before the off there is an artificial sandstorm, as bits of the poly-track are whipped across the betting ring and sting in the eyes of crowd, and then a vicious downpour is hurled at the course as if an invisible tornado has arrived. We scurry to the sanctuary of the stand, but the bookies bear the brunt of the onslaught. It is nice to see them get a hammering, even if not from the punters. Eighteen days ago I was ambivalent to bookmakers, seeing them as just part of the machinery of the sport that I love, but I must admit it’s becoming more personal now.
But they’re off okay, and the horses seem to cope with the conditions better than us. Out of the maelstrom Caged Lightning appears to win cosily and salvage some betting pride. My turn to treat Jason, but as it is less than an hour since his second lunch he eschews the hog roast, instead opting for a modest tray of chips. This guy somehow weighs about four stone less than me. I wonder if he has a tapeworm. We return to the paddock before the fifth race, but the magic has gone along with the carpet. Jason selects three losers and a bag of Rhubarb & Custard from the sweet shop.
On the way back to the car park we are stopped by the horses returning from the course to the stables. Jason chooses this moment to examine his wad again, still within the confines of a category 3 hurricane. One slip and he would be unable to chase the notes across the horse walkway. They would be lost forever and probably end up in a hedge several miles away. He clings on, just. As indeed had his 66/1 shot a few hours earlier.
On the way back past the now familiar windmills by the M1, turning over time, a variety of stunning rainbows appear from the spray. Jason goes home with his own pot of gold, but he tends to make his own luck somehow. Perhaps mine is just over the horizon?