The Honourable Bookie

Some of you may have noted throughout my book that I developed a growing antipathy towards our bookmaking fraternity. Let me make this clear – a vast majority of on-course bookies are friendly, decent and honest folk with whom I can share the camaraderie of betting battles, but some had non-runners available way after they were declared, and delayed giving change to see if it was asked for. Oh, and Barry Dennis is an idiot.

Of the off-course giants, I have always respected Bet365 who have become my bookmaker of choice, but I have previous form with a large Irish chain who refused to pay me at the correct price because they said they had made a mistake with their odds (hmmm, and I make mistakes with all of my losing selections – can I change that after the event too?)

And then there is Graham Sharpe of William Hill – Media Relations Director, author of over 30 books, and the go-to man in the industry for wacky bets. If Graham hasn’t priced it up, nobody has. He may not remember this, but I first spoke to him in 1995. I’d had a dream about where an errant satellite was due to crash land (the wilds of Minnesota, I believe it was) and called him up to ask for the odds. He quite rightly said he didn’t want to price-up a market which seemed innocent enough in my dream but may cause destruction if the speeding hunk of metal came down in a built up area. Fair enough. As it was, the satellite landed in the Atlantic to spare all our blushes.

Twenty years passed before we spoke again, and again he refused to take the bet. This time it concerned my project which spawned the name of this website. I wanted Graham to give me a price on completing my absurd quest of watching racing at all the British courses in an eighty day period between March and May last year. Just to sensible stakes, with any winnings split between our two charities, how about Evens, seems reasonable?

Again, he didn’t like it. It was a done deal, surely, he said. Where was the challenge? As it turned out, of course, there were many challenges (logistical and emotional) which started as early as Day 3 when Ffos Las was abandoned. So I added William Hill to the growing list of bookmakers that I felt acted only in their self-interests. Perhaps after 44 years on this planet I shouldn’t be so naive; they are a business, after all.

That was until three weeks ago. Graham emailed to confirm the entry of Around The Races In Eighty Days into the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award. Previous winners of the prestigious accolade, not to mention substantial cash prize, include sporting notables Brian Moore, Marcus Trescothick and Lance Armstrong, as well as media giants Nick Hornby, Gary Imlach and Simon Hughes.

Incredibly, he appeared to have actually read (at least part of) my book. He referenced the bit about our exchange last year and said that, to show there were no hard feelings, he would offer an £80 free bet with any winnings going to my chosen charity – The Racehorse Sanctuary. He didn’t have to do that, and I was suitably impressed with the class of that gesture. It demonstrated once again that there are good people all over the place, and that a few rogues should not sully an entire profession.

So I have been pondering the selection on which the hopes of the Sanctuary will rest. The pages of the Racing Post on a Wednesday in early September can be a barren and featureless place in which to search for punting inspiration. Meetings today come from Carlisle and Kempton which are on Racing UK so I won’t be able to watch them, and Uttoxeter whose card is as uninspiring as my visit to it was for its National meeting last year.

That leaves Doncaster, which I quite enjoyed when watching the 2015 Lincoln completed in a Force 8 gale. A flick through the racecard and a name literally (well, not literally) jumps off the page – Mon Beau Visage. I saw this fine animal make its debut at Redcar and it gave me a 17/2 winner. This, of course, is a silly way to punt. Once you’ve found a previous winner it’s all too easy to make a case for it – straws are randomly grasped until one finally seems to suggest it has a good chance, and any evidence that contradicts this is flung aside by romanticism. ‘Confirmation bias’ they call it.

The form pages reveal that the gelding has found life tougher in handicap company and has not won since his debut. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and in handicaps this means that the rating drops accordingly. He won on good to firm at Redcar over 6 furlongs, so I’m not entirely sure why a mile at Doncaster on quite tacky ground should help, but it was soft last time when he finished a close second to Hijran, so hey why not? I watch the video of that race – he didn’t seem to like the bend and stayed on down the straight, so will surely appreciate the straight mile today? And he’s three pounds better off against that opponent! And he’s drawn in stall ten and the high numbers seemed to do well in a previous race coming towards the stands side!

Finally my conspiracy theory is complete when I realise that my charity bet is running in a Legends charity race himself and his retired jockey Gary Bardwell reveals he is “a regular in the gym”. Dead cert. Hills have him at 12/1 in this 14 runner contest, but I ask for £1000 to £80, best odds guaranteed (I’m a friend of Graham’s, you know), and they say yes. Perhaps a little too quickly.

I had pondered contacting the good people at The Racehorse Sanctuary themselves for their input, perhaps asking whether they would prefer the greater chance of a small return or an outside chance of an enormous one that could really make a difference to the everyday running of their inspirational operation. However, they are such lovely people there and I wouldn’t want to burden them with the wretched hope from my misguided form-studying.

I settle down for the build up on At The Races; they do a pretty decent job, you know. The opening show has Bluff Crag being heavily backed because of jockey Richard Hughes, Hijran at 5/1, and Mon Beau Visage over three times that having drifted to 16/1. Devotees of my blog will know that I subscribe to the Pricewise philosophy of betting, and this doesn’t make sense. No matter, even more than a grand for the Sanctuary!

Mon Beau Visage - number 14, pink colours - leads them past halfway

Mon Beau Visage – number 14, pink colours – leads them past halfway

And they’re off! He gets a good start, tucked in behind but with room on the outside. Approaching halfway, Bardwell gives him daylight towards the stands side and he powers up to join and then quickly head Phosphorescence. The pulse quickens and my voice rises, and then, imperceptibly, both begin to trail away. Phosphorescence is still going strong, but Mon Beau Visage isn’t any more.

He begins to look weary on the testing surface. Bardwell gets to work, but the situation cannot be saved. Seventh. In truth he ran better than his odds of 16/1 suggested, perhaps around 14/1. Value, that is – Pricewise would be proud, sort of. Feel deflated. No large cheque to The Racehorse Sanctuary. And the remorse begins. I hadn’t even considered the winner who had finished tenth on his last outing over a year ago. Perhaps it was the first-time blinkers? Or the more youthful and recently retired jockey Joseph O’Brien? Or perhaps I just hadn’t spent enough sodding time considering the form of every runner in every race today and had become infatuated with Mon Beau Visage because I had won on him 16 months ago? This confirmation bias stuff sucks.

Fear not, dear friends. The Racehorse Sanctuary can still receive a cash injection if you buy my hardback – £1 from every copy sold will go straight to them. Go on. It would make me feel a little better about choosing the wrong horse: