Archive for 2012

The Ghostly Lieutenant

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The Ghostly Lieutenant

 

   Father Perry Green and his housekeeper, Emily, having spent the morning taking down the Christmas decorations, were carefully wrapping the crib figures in tissue paper and boxing them up for next year.

  The tree had been a bit of a problem – an artificial, three-part, screw together, measuring eight feet high. Not Father Perry’s idea, but Emily had insisted, “I haven’t time to hoover up pine needles every day for the twelve days of Christmas.”

  So now, having forcefully crammed the tree back into its original box, it joined the other packages on the landing, waiting for Father Perry to put them in the loft.

 

  A few days later, not having visited the loft since moving into his new residence, Perry was keen to tell Emily what he had found up there.  

  “It’s terribly dusty, nothing has been disturbed for years – rolls of carpet, tatty curtains, old picture frames; no lights of course, but there is a skylight window and under it, there’s a card table, a wicker chair and a pile of old newspapers. It looks as if many years ago someone went up there to study. Oh, and I think we might have mice too. I may have to ask the council to send around the pest controller.”

 

  The following Saturday, there was jump racing at Ascot on TV.

Father Green had come back with the Racing Post and was looking forward to studying the form. However, no sooner than he had summed up the first race, Emily’s brother, Donald, arrived to tidy the garden and rake up and burn the leaves.

  Perry became restless and felt guilty reading the racing pages while Donald was working, so to ease his conscience, he went out to make himself useful. An hour or so later, with Donald gone and the leaves gently smouldering at the bottom of the garden, Perry thought he had just time to find a few winners. 

 “Have you seen my Racing Post, Emily?”

  But no, she hadn’t, and after he had made a thorough search, his frustration became evident when, on turning on the TV, he learned that the only horse

he had picked out – Mark Pitman’s Hitman – had won at 20-1.

 

  That night, while lying in bed, Father Green was disturbed by a scampering in the loft, not much and not often, but just enough to add to his irritating day.

 

   Monday morning, after mass, Father Perry went out to buy four mouse-traps and on returning, climbed up into the loft to prime them with Sainsbury’s mature cheddar.

   The manoeuvre to set the first three entailed Perry crawling around on his knees with a torch for ten minutes. But then, with a touch of flair, he planned to set the final trap on the table under the skylight.  

  Approaching the dusty card table his eyes fell upon a half-opened Racing Post. He checked the date – it was Saturday’s!  

  “That’s impossible,” he uttered, then, instinctively, he turned the pages to the Ascot form, and instantly recognised the circle he had drawn around Hitman.

  Trembling slightly and feeling angry, he tried to reason how the newspaper he couldn’t find on Saturday had now appeared in the loft.

   After priming the fourth trap, Father Perry descended the ladder still in a state of bewilderment. Then, sitting down heavily on a kitchen chair he told Emily of the mystery.

His story, however, carried little credence with her.

   “Are you sure you didn’t go up there before Donald came; you’ve been going on about those mice for days?”

  Although still a little confused, Father Perry knew he hadn’t and didn’t bother to answer.

 

  The next day, as soon as Emily went shopping, Perry decided to take another look in the loft. He had told himself it was to see if the traps had bagged a mouse or two, but in truth he was still mystified by the reappearance of his Racing Post.  

  Taking a torch, he checked the first two traps – one tiny mouse.

  “Looks like they’ve started breeding up here,” he thought. Then, glancing across to where the light partially covered the table, he thought he could dimly make out a figure hunched in the wicker chair. He took a half step and leaned forward, to be sure. Suddenly, the chair creaked and a figure in a military uniform half turned his head to gaze in his direction. Perry recoiled in horror. Half of the man’s face had been shot away, there was no blood, but the face had a grey ghoulish look. Father Green, now transfixed four yards from the vision, spoke out – his faltering voice sounding distant and hollow.

  “Who are you, and, and w-why are you here?”

  The man then got to his feet and slowly raised his arms above his head, as in an act of surrender. Perry, mesmerised, focussed all his attention on the image in an attempt to remember every detail, but then, after six or seven seconds, the man whose uniform Perry now recognised as an army Lieutenant, slowly faded away. 

  

  “Father, are you in the loft, Father?”

Emily had returned laden from the shops and called up for some help to put the groceries away.

   When Perry came down, he said nothing, putting away the shopping as if in a trance. Meanwhile, Emily, sensing that he was preoccupied waited, until eventually asking, “How are the mice up there – still running around?”

   Perry remained pale and preoccupied.

 Then putting his hand on her shoulder said, “Sit down a minute Emily.”

They both sat down.

 “Look, I don’t want you to think I’m going mad, but, I have just seen what I think was a ghost in the loft – a military man, badly wounded.”

  Perry held the corner of the kitchen table for support while he continued, “I believe he might have been a Lieutenant in the First World War.”

  Emily listened, reserving her credence and watching poor Perry’s face while he tried to make sense of what he had just seen. And although they both made an effort to normalise the rest of the day, the thought of the ghostly Lieutenant returned in every quiet moment.

 

  The next morning, soon after Perry had gone out for his Racing Post, Emily, courageously pulled down the loft ladder, “To see for myself,” she mused.

   “Father Perry was right about one thing,” she thought, “it was terribly dusty.”

  Then, flashing a torch about her, she saw the dead body of a mouse caught in a trap.

  “Yuk!” she recoiled.

   Seconds later, she heard a rustle of paper and instinctively thought it was another mouse, or worse still, a rat. But slowly, almost unwillingly, her eyes went to the far end of the loft. And there, under the murky skylight, she saw him. Dignified in appearance and in his mid-thirties, he took no notice of her and carried on reading his newspaper.

 “It was true, he was wearing a military uniform,” but then, after remaining motionless for what seemed like a full minute, she nervously called out, “Can I help you, Sir?”

  He neither moved, nor spoke.

  Then, as he slowly faded before her eyes, she had the strangest feeling that he belonged there. 

  Carefully, she made her way back and down the ladder. Where feeling numb from the experience she flopped into a chair and gazed blankly out of the kitchen window.

  “So it really was true,”she told herself, “Just as Father Perry had said.”

   Slowly, her validation of the vision led her on, and Emily, being Emily she soon became troubled with the responsibility of it.

   

  While waiting patiently in the kitchen her mind darted to and fro over her experience, honing it in order to add to Father Green’s first encounter. But where had he got to?

 When eventually Father Green came through the door, he sensed from Emily’s expression she had been waiting for him. Apologising and explaining that he had dropped in on a sick parishioner, he put the kettle on, while Emily, anxiously at first, told him her story.

  After a while, when she had run out of things to say and Father Green had nothing more to add, they agreed that a drive and a walk around Victoria Park would help them put things into perspective.

  “Blow the cobwebs away,” said Emily, taking charge of the situation, “You’ve been too long worrying about St Joseph’s and that silly diocesan survey, and now this. A good long walk in the fresh air is what’s needed. I’ll put together a picnic.”

 

  Vicky Park, as it is known locally, was bathed in a watery sunlight and sitting on one of the benches by the lake, Father Green and Emily ate their sandwiches and fed the ducks. Oddly, they took on the appearance of a married couple after a disagreement; however, there had been no disagreement, only disbelief.

  They spoke very little, each in their minds revisiting the appearance of their ghostly lodger.

  There were very few people in the park that day, but Father Perry commented on the two soldiers taking a stroll.    

  “You know, there can be very little peace in an active soldier’s life and those who fight in close combat must remember those violent images for the rest of their lives.”

  Then as an afterthought, “And what of the loved ones left behind?”

  Suddenly, he recalled the childhood memory of the framed blood stained photograph on the mantelpiece of his great aunt Maud. Once she had told him that her husband, Walter, when fatally wounded in the trenches at Mons, had held it up in front of him, before he died.

  Father Perry, a very gentle and fearful man, told Emily, “I would surely have suffered nightmares if I had witnessed those bloody battles at close hand.”

  Emily, touched by his sentiments, supported and sympathised with him, until finally, she diverted the topic to her idea that perhaps, the ghostly Lieutenant had lived in the house some years before.  

  “We could check on that, I suppose,” said Perry, thoughtfully, “I’ll go to the Council Offices tomorrow, and ask if they have a record of past occupants.”

  “While you are there,” lightened Emily, “would you ask them to send a pest exterminator – who knows how many mice we’ve got up there now?”

   

  Father Green’s enquiries were absorbing. In fact, he was soon spending more time at the Council Offices than at St Joseph’s. Nevertheless, with time put to good effect, he had made steady progress. Apparently, a Mr and Mrs Henderson-Bell had lived there with their son, Roland, until 1913. They then went to live in Canada, leaving Roland behind, until he joined the Army a year later. Further records showed the house as purchased by the Army in 1919.

  Then, suddenly remembering the ever-growing patter of tiny feet in the loft, Perry made an appointment for the pest exterminator to call.

 

  A week later, a ring at the front door brought in Mr Horatio Smallwood, the tall, thin, weasel-like, pest exterminator from the Council. His ID checked, Father Perry welcomed him in, introduced him to Emily then took him upstairs to the loft ladder. Neither Father Perry nor Emily made any mention of their ghostly lodger, and once Mr Smallwood was in the loft, Perry, rather than accompanying him, nervously hovered at the foot of the ladder, praying that the Lieutenant would not put in an appearance. 

   After what had seemed the slowest 20 minutes in Father Perry’s life, Smallwood, having replaced the traps with rat poison, descended. Whereupon, Perry, after scrutinising the weasel’s face for signs of a sighting, gave grateful thanks. Meanwhile, Mr Smallwood washed his hands, asked for a ‘job done’ signature and, before Perry’s heartbeat had returned to normal, was gone.

 

  Having as he thought, his obsession with spectre under control, Father Green returned to the loft the following week. Sure enough, there was no sign of mice. Mr Smallwood had told Perry that when the mice ate the poison they would scuttle back to their holes to die.   

  However, the question that had troubled Perry’s mind was silently answered when, under the skylight all that was visible was an empty table and chair. Still requiring proof, he again looked hard, looked away and refocused – nothing.  

  For a moment, he stood there bathing in the relief. Then, torch in hand, he walked across to where the spectre had been. His old Racing Post was still there, but with it, he found a pile of very old newspapers, some racing. He looked at the dates – all were between August and November 1917. The front pages gave reports of the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, one newspaper, however, was folded to the racing news. Perry scanned the page – it gave the result of that year’s St Leger and on seeing the name Gay Crusader, he was reminded of that great horse’s Triple Crown victories.

  When later, he tossed the paper back onto the table, he caught sight at the foot of the wicker chair, what looked like a ladies prayer book.

  It was, and inside the front cover, he read the inscription – “To Rosemary, with fondest love, Roland.”  

    “Strange,” he thought, “Perhaps he never gave it to her? Unless, that is, she sent it back!”

  Finally, carefully folded into the back of the prayer book, he found a cutting from the local paper, telling of the bravery at Passchendaele of Lieutenant Roland Henderson-Bell.  

 

   When Father Green and Emily did their big loft clear-out, they vacuumed up all the cobwebs and dead insects, took down the tatty curtains and rolls of carpet, until, lastly, it came to throwing out the Lieutenant’s card table and wicker chair. Still haunted by his memory, Perry deliberated with mixed feelings. Nevertheless, it was Emily who insisted, “The past is past Father, let’s now have a nice clean loft.”

  So, as usual, in household matters, Emily had her way and everything was taken to the local waste disposal.

  

 Returning from the tip, Father Perry was forestalled outside his house by a very old man.

  “I saw you throwing out the last of Roland’s furniture,” he said inquisitively.

  “You knew him?” replied Perry, stunned.

  “Oh yeah, we all knew him round here, and everybody gave him money; you see, he was so horribly wounded.

  Mind you, that was before we realised he was gambling everything away on the horses. I was only a small boy at the time,” he said reminiscing, “but my Mum and Dad were very angry when they found out.” 

  “That said,” he continued, “I always had a soft spot for him – he used to call me little Tommy Atkins and sometimes, if I asked him, he would show me his medals and his officer’s revolver.”

  “Sadly, what finished him was when his lady friend broke up with him.  Soon after that, he died, suddenly like.”

  “I shouldn’t be telling this to you Father,” he said, lowering his voice, “but I heard say she lost a child – whose, I couldn’t say. But you shouldn’t listen to rumours, should you?”

 

  Father Green, however, felt compelled to keep the ladies prayer book and later that month, invited little Tommy Atkins to attend a belated Mass at St Joseph’s for Lieutenant Roland Henderson-Bell and his fiancé, Rosemary.

  Very few attended, but Emily and the old man went along and sat near the front, where they saw Father Green put Rosemary’s prayer book on a corner of the altar. The Mass progressed through the usual rituals and concluded with the final blessing.

   

  Afterwards, outside the church, while Father Green was conversing with his parishioners, he suddenly remembered he had left Rosemary’s prayer book on the altar. Excusing himself he hurried back through the empty church – it had gone.

  For a moment or two, he felt confused, until believing that Emily must have picked it up. Then, while still a little unsure, he heard the scraping of a chair in the darkened Lady Chapel. Peering through the shadows, he could just make out the veiled outline of a young woman holding the hand of a child in school uniform. With caution, he slowly moved towards the figures, already knowing it was useless, as they became fainter and fainter until, on setting foot inside the Lady Chapel, he was just in time to catch a glimpse of the little girl turning and waving goodbye.

 

  Father Green never told anyone of his experience and despite all his efforts, he was unable to recover Rosemary’s prayer book.

 

 

 

 This story was taken from Michael’s latest book of short stories,

The Gambling Adventures of Father Green, 

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

 

 

 

The Italian Job

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The Italian Job

This is a story from the golden age of greyhound racing – hugh crowds, highly competitive betting and a stage full of characters that have all but disappeared.

 

During World War II, Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium was very badly bombed, and in order to continue racing and offer some basic amenities, the authorities moved the traps, winning line and stewards’ box to the opposite side of the track.

Soon after my fourteenth birthday, my parents finally consented to me attending the track on my own, although my wish had been granted with reluctance.  First, to get in unaccompanied, I had to pretend to be a year older; secondly, I had to be four years older to bet. But, such was my enthusiasm, I managed to achieve both.

However, first I must tell you of my plan to compile a personal form book, covering a longer period than the racecard. Cutting out the Wimbledon results from the Greyhound Express, I pasted them chronologically into an exercise book and compiled an index, listing each greyhound’s finishing position, his time and the date of the race.

 

One thing I learnt very quickly was that some dogs, whatever grade they ran in, rarely won, whilst others often ran their ‘Best Recent Time’ when second. I labelled all these as chasers, since many did not like to lead, and if they did, some would idle in front until another dog joined them.  My developing plan, which I disguised at school as an applied mathematics project, was to find races where three or four of these chasers ran together, preferably behind one or two fast starters.  This scenario, used in Tote forecasts, looked to me like a key to a treasure chest.

After a few weeks of cutting and pasting, I had promised to give myself a month’s dry run, just checking through and making nominal bets on paper to find out if I were on the right track. But having selected five races in the first two weeks, from which I had predicted two straight forecasts and two others in combinations, I found it hard to resist. And so every Wednesday and Friday, throughout Nature Study and Double Woodwork, I would pour over the Wimbledon card looking for races that fitted my plan.  After school on Wednesdays, I would take my shilling forecasts and three dog combinations into Charlie Young’s betting room, but on Friday nights I went to the track.

 

One such night, when I was above an archway on the first bend, one of the regulars who I knew as Tony came over.

“What’cha got in that book kid – all the winners?”

“Sometimes,” I grinned.

But my reluctance to give him any details seemed to heighten his curiosity.  And although we would chat about the dogs most Fridays, it was not until the night I landed two forecasts both paying over £3 for two bob a time, that my tongue ran away with me.

Tony was mid-20’s, and wore a long black jacket with sideburns to match; a few years later he would have passed for a teddy boy.

“I’ve got some friends who’d be interested in your system and that book of yours – they might pay good money.”

Naturally, I was flattered by his suggestion and fortunately, I hadn’t given him all the details, for having almost perfected what I thought was a passport to riches, I had no intention of sharing it.

At this time, I think it fair to tell you that the sources of my income were many and varied: six shillings (30p) a week from an early morning paper round; a profitable school bookmaking business; a lawn-cutting and dog-walking service and irregular amounts from collecting manure from the milkman’s horse.  But, if my new system stood the test of time, all but the bookmaking business could go.

 

The following Friday, Laurels semi-final night, Tony introduced me to the gang – all Italians – Berni, Ricardo and Alfredo, whose flashing smiles never quite reached their eyes.  When they fell to talking amongst themselves, it was about ‘deals’ and ‘goods,’ and I quickly found out that they supplied the black market – that is, when they weren’t racing or at the dogs.

Alfredo, the main man, bore an air of menace, a black suit, slick black hair and a pitted face.  He seemed to know most of the bookmakers and when he made a bet, no money changed hands until after the race.  For most of the evening Tony stayed close at hand, as if keeping an eye on me, but after gabbling something about the need for cigarettes and a slash, he disappeared under the stands.

Being a big night, there were ten races, instead of the usual eight – the ninth, fitted my system – a 700 yard graded stayers’ event. On Ricardo’s invitation he bought me a meat pie, a pale ale and then came straight to the point:

“I hear you win money here.  A good system Tony tells me?”

“Keeps the w-wolf from the d-door,” I replied, in a desperate attempt to sound cool.

Ricardo smirked, tolerating a stammering schoolboy.

“What’s going to win this then,” he pressed.

“Three with the field’s the b-bet,” I replied.

At eight shillings a time this cost me £2, a very big bet for me, but I did it for bravado, and the pale ale helped.  As it happened, the three-dog won easily, albeit as the 6-4 favourite, but the second, one of the five chasers, was the complete outsider and the forecast paid me £7 and change.  Aware that Ricardo and Co. were close by, I suppressed both my relief and delight, and, on their suggestion, I joined them at the bar, after collecting my winnings.

“Nice forecast,” they all agreed, until Alfredo cut in with, “How you gonna getta home kid?”

“Train from Wimbledon,” I said.

“We givva you a lift to the station, OK? Tony does the driving.”

“Thanks; saves my legs,” I replied.

Strange words from 14-year-old, but I had had two beers!

Once in the car, Ricardo told me that they ran a tipping service – horses and dogs – for about 40 clients; wiring or telephoning their advices on the morning of the race.  Approaching the station, Alfredo half turned from the front seat, his slicked back hair reflecting the orange street lamps along the Alexandra Road,

“Listen kid, we wanna you to give us a copy of your system see. Just a copy you understand, we’ll pay £5, OK.?” He looked at me hard, “OK?” he repeated.

“I’ll let you know next Friday,” I hedged, “and thanks for the lift.” Then, glancing at Ricardo, “and for the beer.”

I scurried through the barrier and down to the platform.

I can tell you, I wasn’t too happy about giving anyone a copy of my system, especially not for £5. Perhaps they thought for a kid I was as cool as a cucumber, but I certainly wasn’t as green.

 

Throughout the week, I day-dreamed about employing someone like Tony to drive me about in a big car, and then stopping all homework. “Who’d ever heard of a professional punter writing about Roundheads and Cavaliers?”

But when the following Friday came and I had no system written out, I began to get nervous. But what the heck! I couldn’t miss the final of Wimbledon’s big Classic.

Travelling up on the train, I had the idea of missing the first two races, to let the crowd build up while I had a cup of tea outside the station. Then, if I were to go to the other end of the track, they surely wouldn’t look for me there?  Twenty minutes later, I caught the red double-decker bus that went to the track. I pulled an old flat cap over my eyes to disguise my age and squeezed through the turnstile to join the crowds that flooded into every available space.  The trade papers said there would be catering to suit every taste. Where I was, you had a choice between cockles, mussels and jellied eels served in a dish, with vinegar and crusty bread.

Inevitably, there was a Crown and Anchor dice game going on in the ‘gents’ and at Wimbledon, this was always played with five dice rather than the usual three, the operators paying out on doubles or more to get a better profit margin.

While the third race was being run, I was able to move more easily along the walk-way under the stands. I then hit on the idea of transferring into the main enclosure.  This way I would avoid the gang and get a better view of the dogs.  I paid the additional five shillings and climbed the stairs.  All the seats were occupied, but if I went down lower I could stand on the terrace. No sooner had I found a perfect spot than I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“What-cher got for tonight kid?”

“Oh bloody hell!” I thought, “and I’ve paid for the privilege.”

I straightened up to my five foot three inches and told Ricardo, “A 2-4-5 combination in the next looks good.”

Suddenly, Alfredo appeared on the scene,

“Have you gotta dat system with you kid?”

“Er n-no,” I stammered. “I started writing it but, my pencil ber-oke and Dad said I had to g-get on with my homework.”

It sounded weak, and it was – I hadn’t the nerve to tell him I had changed my mind.

He paused for a while, then enquired, “What’s agood tonight then?”

I told him what I had given Ricardo, and as he walked away to join the queue for the  forecast, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The dogs now going into the traps, I rushed up to another forecast window to place my bet.  Out whirred six ten-bob tickets, down came the seller’s hatch, the traps sprung open and released a wall of noise.

First I could see, then I couldn’t, pushing, shoving, jumping up and down and then falling into the gangway. But I did catch a glimpse of the orange and blue jackets going into the third bend.  Scrambling to my feet, I asked, “Who won?” I didn’t have to wait long.  A crackly Tannoy annouced  “First trap five, second trap two.”

Minutes later, I collected £8 and some silver from the payout window.  Ricardo spotted me.

“Well done kid! Alfredo’s got a table upstairs; come and join us,” adding as an afterthought, “make yourself comfortable, you can write that system out for us.”

Surprisingly, Alfredo was in a good mood.

“Good boy, nice divi, come and sit down.”

But then, staring hard into my face, he said,

“Look, I think we stop messing about. I’ma gonna give you £20 and you’re gonna write out the system, OK?”

To soften his order he smiled and handed me a pen.

What could I say?  It was twice what my Dad would earn in a week.

For a while, out of stubbornness, I hesitated, until finally, I asked him for two sheets of paper.  He waived my request away, spreading four fivers on the table before me.

“Write it out in your book and tear out the pages.”

He then took out a long blade flick-knife and started to clean his nails.

A rage of resentment welled up inside me, and so, with a trembling hand, I started to write.

 

The system that I gave him was not worth £20; neither was it my system.  What I did write was, I hoped, a convincing concoction of selections based on trap numbers and odds, together with a staking plan.  Enough I thought to occupy their minds for a few meetings before the truth hit home.  We shook hands, although mine were still shaking, and he counted out the dosh.

“Was that your only bet tonight kid?” he enquired, I nodded.

“That’s good,” he said, putting the pages into his inside jacket pocket along with his knife.

“Perhaps we’ll have a little drink later?”

They all got up and moved away, pushing through the crowd.  I stayed, feeling what I thought big poker players felt when they’d bluffed a big pot.

Over the next half-hour, I remained at the table reading my torn book.  At intervals a crowd would rush out and then back in again; the alternating babble and roar coming and going like a tide.  A Tannoy voice announced the weights for the Laurels and, walking down to the lower terraces, I was able to get a good look at the dogs in the parade.

Last year’s winner, the brindled Ballymac Ball, looked a picture. Trained by Stan Martin at Wimbledon and drawn again in Trap 6, he would be difficult to beat.  At 14, as now, nothing focused my mind faster than the anticipation of the traps opening.

Instantly, Ballymac Ball hit the lids and from the shrieks, yells and cheers that followed, you would think that everyone in the stadium had backed him.

A minute later, I was legging it out on the street.  All I wanted now, was to get on the train and get home.  From over the railway bridge, and halfway down the Alexandra Road, I had 10 minutes to catch my train.

Suddenly, a black sedan pulled up alongside me. Ricardo leaned out.

“Get in the back kid.”

The back door swung open. Fearing they had rumbled me already, I slid on to the back seat. The door closed with a sickening thud.

“Saw you striding out kid – didn’t want you to miss your train – great dog that Ballymac Ball eh?  We cleared two ‘C’s’ on him.”

They pulled up at the station.  I trapped out of the back seat.

 

Aboard the train, I re-thought the situation.

“What had I done?”

Here was a racy, black-market gang in the big-time, wanting me in and I’ve just double-crossed them – out of the frying pan into the fire!

 

From then on, Friday night followed Friday night, but I never returned to Wimbledon Stadium until the Laurels Final the following year.

What happened to my well crafted system? It served me well for a few years – but more of that another time. As for my pseudo system, I often wondered if I had been rumbled, or if the gang had moved on, until nearly a year later when Uncle Albert excitedly burst into our kitchen.

“You won’t believe it, but I’ve found a great way to make money,” he said.

“Oh no” Mum replied, “not again.”

“I have,” Albert continued, “and it’s just up Michael’s street – have a look at this.”

He handed me two typewritten sheets.

“It’s a greyhound system,” I exclaimed.

“Yes, yes, read it,” he said.

“I’ve seen something like it before,” I said slowly.

“No, no, you can’t have; it’s a new system, I’ve just paid £5 for it – it never fails.  An Italian geezer at Wimbledon has made a fortune with it!”

 

 

 

This story is from Michael’s book Born to Bet,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

The illustrations throughout the book are by Julia Jacs

Frankel’s Brilliant Pedigree

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Frankel’s Brilliant Pedigree

  As Frankel, is at present all the rage, there seems no better time to examine his pedigree.

   Almost immediately, you notice that his first three generations contain five Champion Sires. On the top line are Galileo, Sadler’s Wells and Northern Dancer, all now pillars of the modern thoroughbred.

 

  Another noteworthy inclusion is Galileo’s dam, Urban Sea. For not only did she win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but went on to produce two Derby winners.

   On the distaff side, Frankel’s dam, Kind, won six races from 13 starts, including, Listed races at Hamilton and Nottingham. And her dam, Rainbow Lake, won three from six, including the Lancashire Oaks at Haydock.

 

 

  The strength of the pedigree continues when you see that Kind’s sire, Danehill, (by Danzig), having won the Ladbroke Sprint Cup, over six furlongs at Haydock, went on to become Champion Sire in G.B. & Ireland three times, siring Danehill Dancer, another Champion Sire.  

 

 The stunning fact about Frankel’s pedigree is, his first three generations contain 22 years of Champion Sires in G.B. & Ireland.

In addition, he can boast a dam of two Epsom Derby winners and two Champion Sires of North America.

 It will take a bold person to say that Frankel will never be a Champion Sire!

 

 

 

 

Champion Sires by Champion Sires

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Champion Sires by Champion Sires

 

Whilst researching and examining the pedigree of Frankel (see later Blog),  I took the opportunity to update the analysis in my book, Champion Sires 1722-2003.

The facts and figures will be most encouraging to those who support the idea of prepotent sires and the continuing of past sire lines.

The original extract of Champion Sires is below.

Note: In the second table, the percentage drop in the ‘No. of YEARS’ within 

1960-1989, was due to  the influx of American bred horses. 

Escape to Newmarket

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Escape to Newmarket

Between the ages of 18 and 20, I, like every other able-bodied young man in Britain in the 1950s, did my two years’ National Service.

Starting off at RAF West Kirby, just outside Liverpool, I went through six weeks’ square-bashing, where they attempted to force my square peg personality through a round hole.  However, although it was brutal for some, having previously learned to play the trumpet, I found that band practice and pass-out parades regularly cut into the torturous schedule of crawling through barbed-wire, bayonet charges, gas attacks and giving pints of blood away. From there, having survived what should have been an onslaught on my passive lifestyle, I was posted to RAF Hospital Ely in Cambridgeshire, where, working as an orthopaedic clerk, with a little trumpeting on the side, I lived an almost useful life.

 

The highlight of my stay at Ely was undoubtedly an eight-day rest in bed with newspapers, fruit and a radio, owing to a suspected concussion sustained when slipping up on my first parade.  Other modest achievements included playing The Last Post in church on Armistice Sunday and landing a treble at Epsom to win our four-man syndicate £125 (at the time, my pay was £3 per week).

 

The journey from Newmarket to Ely is about 12 miles.  I had always wanted to go racing there, but they had no Saturday fixtures and I could never get time off during the week.  The thought began to bug me, and in view of my imminent posting to Bristol University Air Squadron, I might never be as close to the racecourse again. What was known as the First October Meeting started on Tuesday, September 27.  It was a three-day affair and to me, it looked like now or never.

 

Tom Lewis, the Station Warrant Officer, also Entertainment’s Officer, was known to be keen on sports, particularly athletics, and from time to time would organise cross-country runs.  According to the Orderly Room notice board, the next, over six miles of local terrain, was scheduled for Wednesday, September 28 – perfect.  Ben Jordan, camp pianist/punter, whose official job title was Medical Clerk, was also keen  to go to Newmarket. After much discussion, and to everyone’s amazement, we both entered our names for the cross-country.

On the morning of the run, SWO Lewis informed the various sections that, owing to a previous engagement, he would not be accompanying us on the run but Corporal Waterhouse would. We should assemble at the Guard Room at 13.00 hours in regulation shorts, singlet and plimsolls, signing out on our departure and in on our return.  Having seen a number of POW films, by comparison our Great Escape took the minimum of planning.

Our third party enabler was Leading Aircraftsman Bobby Barnes: MT driver/danceband drummer, and supplier of new-laid eggs. One of his tasks was to take the Hospital’s outgoing mail down to Ely Post Office and today this was conveniently arranged for 13.00 hours.

Ben Jordan and I had already rolled up our civvies into a spare mail bag, and thrown them into the back of Bobby’s van.  Our signatures and last three numbers having been recorded at the main gate, we set off at a steady trot. So steady in fact that, after half a mile, we were already 200 yards adrift of Corporal Waterhouse and the main pack.

Immediately turning off into a side lane, who should be waiting for us but our chauffeur for the day, Bobby Barnes.  We quickly changed into civvies and stuffed our running gear into the post bags.  Bobby then drove us to the racecourse, promising to meet our return train at Ely after racing.

 

The two principle races this day were the Newmarket St Leger and the Cheveley Park Stakes.  In the ‘Leger’, Ben and I plumped for Cardington King.  We had both recently been kitted out at RAF Cardington and had backed the horse each-way in the Derby at 100-1. Sadly he finished fourth that day, but we reckoned now was the time to get back our money – and that’s just about what we did.  Cardington King won by three lengths at odds of 4-7 and we spent our entire winnings on two half-pints of Mackeson Stout.

The next race was a two-runner affair, but by the time we had collected our previous winnings and queued for the beers, it was all over.  The Cheveley Park, for 2-y-o fillies, looked an interesting event and often threw-up a Classic contender.  This year, the French filly Midget was all the rage and, ridden by Roger Poincelet, won easily.   We collected on our modest even-money investment, then the sun broke through and our ‘away day’ seemed proof of our charmed life.  It was not to last.

Queuing at the bar for further refreshments, a familiar, but dreaded voice shattered our bonne fortune.

“What the bloody hell are you doing here Church? And you too Jordan?”

“Wer-wer-well Warrant Officer, we did our cross-country and c-came on here.”

“I can see that,” he fumed, “but sports afternoon is not intended for Horse Racing.”

“Oh, I didn’t realise,” I replied feebly, my voice trailing away.

As the three of us were strangely wedged together against the bar, he eventually succumbed to ask us briskly “How are you doing anyway?”

In my shaken state, it must have taken me fully five minutes to tell him we had backed C-C-C-Cardington K-K-K-King, and from the glazed look that came over him I knew he wished he hadn’t asked, worse still, we had all missed another race.  Lewis, unable to extricate himself from our unfortunate pincer movement in front of the bar, heard that his intended nap of the day – Sculpture – had been beaten in a close finish.

“Well, I suppose I’ve got you two twerps to thank for that,” he said grudgingly.

At this point, Ben thought it might help our predicament to order another round of drinks and although SWO Lewis accepted his offer, his expression gave us no sign of hope.

Eventually, we broke free in time to see the last race.  Neither of us had a bet on it and we watched the finish in a subdued silence. On the long walk back to Newmarket Station, we talked over various excuses to give the Military Police on our return, none of which I feared, would get us less than 14 days confined to camp.

 

Bobby Barnes met our return train as arranged, and we changed back into our crumpled, but spotless running gear in the station toilets.  Jogging the last half-mile back to camp we had our ‘got lost’ excuse ready and offered up prayers that SWO Lewis had not shopped us.

“Who goes there?”

“Ch-Church and Jordan.”

“Advance and be recognised.”

A corporal MP looked us up and down.

“What hour do you bloody well call this?”

“W-we g-got lost c-corporal,” I stammered.

“Yes, yes, yes, I’ve heard all about it.”

My heart sank.

“Lucky for you Station Warrant Officer Lewis saw you running in the wrong direction – half way to Cambridge he said.”

 

Later that evening, Lewis came into the NAFFI.

“You boys all right after your long run?” he enquired.

“Yes fine, and thank you for looking out for us.” I replied.

“Strange you didn’t see me,” he said meaningfully.

“Anyway, next week’s concert in the Town Hall wouldn’t have sounded the same without our pianist and trumpeter, would it?”

We nodded solemnly, knowing it was just another case of ‘birds of a feather.’

 

This short story is one of 22 from Michael’s book Born to Bet,
of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

Illustrations by Julia Jacs

The World’s Fastest Greyhound

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The World’s Fastest Greyhound

 

 

Little did I know as I queued in front of the new Woolworth’s weighing machine in the summer of 1949, that I would remember the next minute for the rest of my life? 

  The eager queue of school children waiting to weigh themselves en route to Saturday morning pictures, were not there to monitor their progress against under-nourishment, nor to measure obesity, but simply in order to obtain a weight-card in the highly collectable series, ‘Speed’.

  Among the cards I had seen at school were ‘The Flying Scotsman’, the racing driver Malcolm Campbell, and the Olympic athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen.

 To this 13-year-old they looked exciting and a change from cigarette cards.

 

I put my penny in the slot and waited. My weight on the card – 8st 6lb, was of little interest, but the picture was – a brindled greyhound in a red jacket at full stretch.

It read, ‘Priceless Border – Greyhound Derby Winner 1948 – approx 37.3 mph.’

 I had another penny left, but with the kids behind me shouting ‘hurry up Churchy, jump off’, I complied – only to jump smartly back on to weigh again. ‘Hallelujah! Another Priceless Border! What are the odds of that?’ I said to the next in line?

 

Priceless Border was well known by my school mates, some having backed him. And I could remember, reading in the Greyhound Express, about him winning a heat of the 1948 Greyhound Derby in 28.64 sec – a world record for 525 yards – before he went on to win the 1948 Final.

On a day dream level, I learned he was owned by a 10-year-old boy, Desmond O’Kane, his father having bought the dog for £110 as a present for him. 

  From that moment on, I saved a weekly amount towards my first greyhound.

 

The strange thing was that no-one else at school, no matter how many times they weighed themselves, ever got a Priceless Border. And it got to the point that a few Doubting Thomases’s, including Bobby Reigate, who only needed that card for the set, continually heckled me into bringing one of the ‘Priceless’cards to school.

 

During the next day’s dinner break, I enjoyed the notoriety and the bargaining power of being the sole owner of these rare cards. The gathering crowd of enthusiasts inevitably broke up into scuffles, attracting the attention of the duty dinner teacher Ma Frost.

  Fearing the card could be confiscated; I quickly switched it for the less valuable cigarette card of Don Bradman and, under duress handed it over.

   Later that day, I stoutly refused all overtures from Reigate for the precious card, until he hinted darkly that he would, in future, make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

 

A few weeks later, there was a knock on our front door. It was Bobby Reigate and his father. My Dad, unaware of the significance, invited them in and Mum made them tea. It ensued that Mr Reigate was taking Bobby to see Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and asked if I would like to share Billy’s birthday treat?

  ‘We could stay after the match for the greyhound racing’, he added.

 

I had to hand it to Bobby; this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But, wishing to look cool, I sat very still and pinched my leg, until eventually, politely thanking Mr Reigate. Strangely, nothing was said about the Priceless Border card, but with schoolboy honour I knew my duty as one obsessive to another.

  Going into the front room I took one of Mum’s ‘get well soon’ cards, wrote Happy Birthday Bobby and dropped in the ‘Priceless.’

 

More than 60 years later, and by now my prized weight-card long gone, a strange coincidence took place. One evening, on entering ‘greyhound’ into eBay, up popped an original Priceless Border weight-card. Joyfully, I bought it, but that’s not it, for when the card duly arrived I turned it over to see the date – July 49 and, the weight 8st. 6 lb – what are the odds of that?

 

 

The First Triple Crown Winner

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The First Triple Crown Winner

As an appetizer to Camelot’s Triple Crown bid at Doncaster on 15th September,

I would like to take you back to the very first winner of the classic treble, comprising the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger.

 

WEST AUSTRALIAN (b.c. 1850)


 


  ‘THE WEST’, as he was known on the racecourse, was at the time, heralded as the best horse of the 19th century. Owned and bred by John Bowes, he was by Melbourne, sire of the winners of 11 Classic races including Blink Bonny (1857 Derby and Oaks), out of Mowerina by Touchstone.     

 John Bowes  was the son of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, but as he was born nine years before their marriage he never succeeded to the title. Nevertheless, he became a member of the Jockey Club and a successful industrialist, developing a shipping line in Newcastle and a coal vein discovered on his estate. He also owned and bred three other Derby winners – Mundig (1835), Cotherstone (1843) and Daniel O’Rourke (1852).       

West Australian stood 15.3½ hands, and was described as a yellowish bay, rather long in the body, with good shoulders and great depth of girth.

       Sent as a yearling to John Scott’s illustrious Whitewall stable at Malton, West Australian was found to have a weakness in his feet and ankles, and his debut had to be delayed until the Newmarket Houghton Meeting. Here he ran second, beaten half a length by Speed the Plough, in the Criterion Stakes. This was to be his only defeat and three days later he reversed the form in the Glasgow Stakes, winning by two lengths.       

  Before the colt’s racing debut Scott had tried him in early August, with Longbow, a three-year-old who was to win the Stewards’ Cup the following year with 9st 9lb. In the trial Longbow, ridden by Frank Butler, gave the two-year-old the standard 21lb but West Australian, with Sam Templeman up, won very easily. After the trial Scott caught the London Express, and early next morning visited London’s biggest bookmaker, ‘Leviathan’ Davis to take £30,000 to £1,000 (approximately £1,650,000 to £55,000 today), about West Australian winning the Derby.       

   The following year West Australian’s first outing was in the Two Thousand Guineas. Starting 4-6 favourite, he beat the Duke of Bedford’s Sittingbourne by half a length.

Soon after, rather than submit ‘The West’ to the long and arduous train journey from Yorkshire to Epsom a day or two before the Derby, Scott took him to nearby Leatherhead a week before the race and, as a precaution, lined his box with clay to protect his feet from overheating and the risk of infection. 

   On Derby Day, 28 runners went to post and after a ding-dong struggle throughout the last furlong, West Australian courageously held off the challenge of Sittingbourne by a neck, with Cineas a head away third.       

“Leviathan” Davis did settle up, but only just, and he was forced to go to Ascot with barely £200 in his satchel. Fortunately, his luck turned and he won £12,000 on the first day.        

    

    In the St Leger, despite plots, counter plots and a horse Cat’spaw, entered with the sole purpose of bringing down the favourite, West Australian won in a canter, while Sittingbourne, well backed to reverse the form, failed to stay. Thus West Australian became the first horse to win the Triple Crown, although the title was not generally coined until the 1870’s.          

    At Doncaster, two days after his St Leger victory, West Australian walked-over for a sweepstakes and at Newmarket two weeks later, he was unopposed for the Grand Duke Michael Stakes.  

    As a four-year-old he won an Ascot Triennial, beating Vanderdecken by four lengths, took the Ascot Gold Cup by a head, after a determined battle with Kingston, and finally, won a three-runner sweepstakes at Goodwood by 20 lengths. Bowes then sold him for £4,600 to Lord Londesborough, who stood him at Kirkby Farm, Tadcaster, at 30 guineas. On the death of Lord Londesborough in 1860, West Australian was resold for 4,000 guineas to the Duc de Morny, before finally passing into the hands of Emperor Napoleon III.         

    Although West Australian sired two Classic winners – Summerside (1859 Oaks) and The Wizard (1860 Two Thousand Guineas) – his long time influence on the breed came from Australian (ch.c. 1858), sire of Spendthrift (1879 Belmont Stakes), and Solon (b.c. 1861), sire of Barcaldine. Australian was sent as a weanling, with his dam, to Scott County, Kentucky, in 1858. He is the maternal grandsire of Iroquois (1881 Derby).         

West Australian died in France on 2 May, 1870.

 


A full account of the 15 Triple Crown winners can be found in Michael’s book

The Classic Pedigree 1776-1989

of which he has one or two numbered and signed copies for sale

 


                           

           

West Australian’s Triple Crown race record is below

                       

                      

A Glorious Goodwood

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A Glorious Goodwood

Alf was carefully chalking the numbers from one to 36 around the front tyre of the coach. This was Stewards’ Cup day in 1959, and for many the ‘sweep on the wheel’ would be their first bet of the day. The coach trip to ‘Glorious Goodwood,’ run by our local working mens’ club, was always fully booked and many of the stalwarts on board had been saving for this day since Christmas.

This year, I had been assigned by Mum as ‘guide for the day’ to Martha and Bucky, distant friends over from Dayton, Ohio. Keen racegoers in the States, they were eager to sample the delights of an English race meeting. However, by choosing a working mens’ club outing, they were about to be exposed to the primitive delights peculiar to that genre.

Five miles out of Woking, Alf, the senior bar steward, was joyfully handing out bottles of pale ale, Bass and Worthington for the men, and miniature bottles of spirits for the ladies. Having got everyone loosened up, he then went round collecting two shillings a head for the numbers on the wheel, (each passenger being allotted the number on their seat), and the same amount for the traditional Stewards’ Cup sweep.

Alf, by this time, pleased with the smooth running of the business end of things, generously assisted my bookmaking ambitions by announcing, “If any of you are going to have small each-way bets, I suggest you give them to young Michael, as they probably won’t take them on the course.”

 

Our first stop for ‘refreshments’ was the Half Moon in Petworth. Everyone was keen to stretch their legs, and it was ‘getting to know you’ time as the passengers mingled. Alec and Danny, two ‘likely lads,’ certainly used the time well, chatting up the Littlewood sisters, Wendy and Maureen. Meanwhile, having collected about a dozen small bets, I kept a distant eye on Bucky and Martha, unsuccessful in their quest for either Root Beer or Daiquiris. They had been cornered by Smithy, an expert on the Turf, but badly handicapped with pebble glasses and two walking sticks.

“Back on the bus folks, or we’ll never get there,” Alf pleaded, and slowly the pints were emptied and the seats were filled. Traffic was now building up alarmingly and in the next half-hour the passengers’ bladders reached capacity. Even Martha and Bucky politely enquired about the next washroom facilities.

As we were then stationary, Stan, our driver, decided to follow the example of the coaches ahead and release the passengers to take their chances in the hedgerows. Gents to the right, Ladies to the left, seemed to be the etiquette. Although the more discreet ladies could be observed laughing and stumbling towards the privacy of a distant thicket.

 

Eventually everybody returned, some more dishevelled than others but, after another round of bottled beers, including a Bass for the driver, any inhibition that lingered was swept away, as the volume of noise and laughter rose by a hatfull of decibels. ‘No Limit Banker’ was in full swing across the back seat, and a four handed game of Spoof (three matches per hand), stretched across the gangway. Martha and Bucky, who in necessity had taken advantage of the hedgerow washroom, watched in awe as the Littlewood sisters got down to some serious snogging with Alec and Danny. Such was everyone’s preoccupation, that no-one (except the driver, of course), noticed us turn into the racecourse. Journeying along from the straight six furlong start, we lined up with 30 to 40 other coaches.

 

In time-honoured tradition, Stan the driver was first out of the coach and, checking for the winning number on the front tyre, let forth a stream of expletives. Soon passengers were pressing in on all sides.

“What’s the winning number,” Bucky enquired.

“I wish I bloody knew,” replied Stan, “someone must have peed over the wheel at the Half Moon!”

Alf, well trained in thinking on his feet, instantly came up with a solution.

“The money on the wheel goes into the big race sweep – that should double the winner’s prize.”

Moments later, Alf, small but with Sampson like strength, was sliding out trestle tables from the under-carriage of the coach, assisted by a number of glazed but willing helpers. And while the ladies spread out table-cloths and covered them with all manor of meat pies, sausage rolls and sandwiches, Alf, now having enlisted the assistance of Bucky and I, distributed a full bottle of spirits to each of the passengers. According to Alf, this was all in the price, thanks to the generosity of the Committee.

A pork pie, two radishes and a glass of neat gin was not my usual diet for picking winners, but half-way down the gin bottles and well before the first race, many amongst us were confident that it was going to be their lucky day. Even Martha, who had managed to dilute her vodka with a Pepsi, had suddenly become psychic.

“Today the Smiths have it,” she said. “I’ve been talking to Smithy of the pebble glasses; I think it’s an omen. He was telling me about the Smith brothers, Doug and Eph; said they were the jockeys to follow.”

Bucky preferred to bet on the names, and being in England, fancied Queensberry and Tudor Monarch, the latter particularly, since it was owned and bred by Sir Winston Churchill.

As part of my duty, I proudly guided my middle American charges up to Trundle Hill, where they admired the view, but had to admit they had never watched racing from so far away. Lending them my binoculars went some way to placating them but, after Doug Smith won the first race and brother Eph the second on Queensbury, they seemed to be settling in nicely.

 

Next up was the Stewards’ Cup – 21 runners and the biggest betting race of the meeting. Bucky, looking to play up his winnings on Winston Churchill’s, Tudor Monarch, and Martha, convinced of the infallibility of the Smith brothers, headed off to the Tote, taking with them my ten-bob each-way Deer Leap.

Trying to call a race head-on from about a mile away is almost impossible, but halfway up the straight, I could see Manny Mercer on Deer Leap heading affairs. Into the final furlong, now well clear, I was counting my money. Suddenly, the pink, chocolate sleeves and cap of Tudor Monarch came out of the pack to challenge. Could Mercer hold on? Bucky hoped not, and he was right. The Tannoy announcement wavered across the downs, “First Tudor Monarch 25-1, second Deer Leap 22-1, third St Elmo 100-8.” The Yanks were delighted and I was more than pleased with my 10-1 place odds on Deer Leap.

Throughout the afternoon, Martha had been obsessed with the bookmakers and tic-tac men, and although her profits had been dented by Lester Piggott winning the next two races, she desperately wanted to bet with a bookie before returning home. Naturally it had to be on a Smith.

Doug was riding the Boyd-Rochfort two-year-old Jet Stream.

“That’s the one,” Martha said, pressing a pound in my hand. Bucky wanted the same and gave me another pound.

“Do your best Michael, we’ll come and watch,” he added.

Bookmakers on Trundle Hill weren’t usually known for their wild generosity, but amongst all the 7-2’s I spotted a 4-1 and dived in.

“Ten quid to collect if you win,” I told them.

Giving them a commentary on the race was a pleasure – Jet Stream led from tape to line. And Martha, given the ticket to collect the dough, made much play with the ten one pound notes, laughing and waving them around.

Battling back through the crowds to find our coach, Martha and Bucky, eager to tell the tale of their success, rejoined their fellow travellers who, had formed a large, seated circle on the grass. Predictably, about a dozen of them had not moved from the coach all afternoon, and were now more laid out than laid back. Meanwhile, Robert, the assistant bar steward, check waistcoat and beret, was serenading the circle with his accordion, and two gypsy women who had gate-crashed the party were, in the absence of tea leaves, reading palms.

At this point, one, ‘drunk as a skunk’ Turfite from another coach, staggered into our circle. His binoculars having worked around to the middle of his back, appeared to balance his equilibrium, since after having taken three steps forward, the weight of his bins contrived to drag him back.

Soon it was obvious to everyone that he was going to fall, but which way? Thinking quickly I borrowed Smithy’s walking sticks and crossing them in the centre of the circle to give us north, south, east and west, I encouraged the punters to bet on which way he would fall. The 2-1 odds I offered were not, in truth, for their benefit, but the entertainment value was great. Everytime he tottered north, folk would shout across their bets and throw over their cash, then, when he staggered back, they would call out south and throw over more money for me to record. Since his shambling progress continued for nearly five minutes, a small crowd had gathered to watch the fun, and my take on the event would have been the envy of any bookmaker on Trundle Hill.

Just when we thought he might stagger out of the circle, he went down to a great cheer. After close inspection, it was agreed he was inclined east, which, I am ashamed to say, was a very good result for me.

 

Climbing aboard the coach, we learnt that Alf had won the double sweep, but, appeared in no fit state to receive this news or any other. Out cold, he had been carried back to his seat by his conscientious family members.

Looking around, I noticed that the Littlewood sisters, whose petticoats and beehive hairdo’s were looking more than a little distressed, had changed partners with Danny and Alec. Meanwhile, those who still had a little money and were conscious continued with the ‘No Limit Banker’ and rounds of Spoof.

Feeling a little queasy, but otherwise contented, I settled down to count my day’s profit, when suddenly, I was disturbed by angry voices a few seats behind. Looking around, I saw two chaps, both very much the worse for wear, taking poorly aimed swings at each other. This continued for a short time until they both simultaneously passed-out and keeled over onto the seats, where they laid happily for the rest of the journey.

 

As we pulled into the Crown for the use of their toilets, Stan shouted out, “Fifteen minutes only, if you’re not back I’m going without you.”

Thirty minutes later, he went in to dig them out, but by then most people could not have told you who they were, let alone how long they had been there. Eventually, just as Stan was shepherding a few folk back on the bus, those aboard having become restless, were going in for the second shift. This pantomime continued for some time with most of those passing to and from the pub, breaking into impromptu dances on route, Martha and Bucky executing a very well received square dance.

 

Eventually, all were aboard, and everyone agreed that Stan had been a ‘brick’ by not driving off without us. So rather than ask him to do the usual, slow, one-by-one, drop- off routine, we all agreed to go back to the club, tipping generously when the hat was taken round on his behalf.

Tumbling out of the coach to the church clock striking 12, we were still a very rowdy bunch, since many had now got their second wind and were determined to sing their way to their doorsteps. Martha and Bucky thanked me, in song, for my company and then slowly wended their way along Church Street, harmonising their own particular version of ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’.

 

If I could have had one last bet that day, it would have been that Martha and Bucky would never, ever, have a day’s racing quite like that, again.

 

 

This story is  from Michael’s book Ripping Gambling Yarns,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

The illustrations throughout the book are by Julia Jacs

The Coral-Eclipse 2012

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The Coral-Eclipse 2012

 

You’ve gotta have heart 

All you really need is heart 

When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win 

That’s when the grin should start

 

The Jason Mraz lyrics from the musical Damn Yankees could well have been written for Nathaniel. For, after leading all the way up the Sandown straight, his two-length advantage, suddenly swallowed up by the oncoming Farhh and Frankie Dettori, brought about an heroic show of courage, to go again, and win the Eclipse by half a length.

David Walsh, writing in The Sunday Times the following day, also waxed lyrical over Nathaniel – “Trainers like their charges to have speed but they love them to have heart.”

    This was the fourth victory from eight starts for Nathaniel, who, although having previously won the King Edward VII Stakes and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, had the disadvantage of going to Sandown without a prep-race.

 William Buick, who has ridden him in all his starts, is to me, rapidly becoming the best jockey seen in Britain since Steve Cauthen.

  But what of the also ran’s – Godolphin’s Pivotal colt, Farhh, ran his best race and was given every chance with a superb ride from Frankie, only to be outgunned by the winner. Twice Over, a 7-y-o, who won this race in 2010 and also took last year’s International at York, ran a commendable, but distant third.    

  Coral-Eclipse Day had a very strong supporting card; the Gosden/Buick team also winning the Coral Challenge with the heavily backed Trade Commissioner and, Frankie Dettori completing a double with Falls of Lora in the Coral Distaff and the classy Cavalryman in the Coral Marathon.

It was a day that the punters and the sponsor could be pleased with. 

 

 

 I have set out below the full result of the 2012 Coral-Eclipse and the notable progeny of

Galileo, in the style of my book,  Eclipse – The Horse – The Race – The Awards

 

Our ‘Olympic’ School Sports Day

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Our ‘Olympic’ School Sports Day

I would like to take you back to our School Sports Day in 1948, which according to our Headmaster, would draw inspiration from the then current Olympics in London.

To put you in the picture and to give you a flavour of my life, when still a lad, I often attended horse and dog races, and could also be spotted in the crowds at Chelsea and Woking’s football matches. Athletics, however, due to the distinct lack of betting opportunities, had never grabbed my attention.

But now, fuelled by the ground swell of interest generated by the Olympics, everyone I knew was talking about the popular athletes, MacDonald Bailey, Arthur Wint and, of course, the phenomenal Fanny Blankers-Koen.

In fact, every playtime, class relay teams would hurtle their way round our playground, which inevitably led to queues forming outside the first aid room for attention to grazed knees and elbows.

At this time the School Sports loomed large in both teachers and pupil’s consciousness. And although it had crossed my mind that there might be some betting opportunities, it  came as a major disappointment that the only school events open to my age group, the 11- and 12-year-olds, were to be the egg and spoon, the three-legged and the sack race. Who were the National Heroes in those, I wondered?

I must have sulked for a week. Secretively, I had planned to run a book on the sprint races for our year. But not with eggs and sacks – I ask you?

Then one day I confided in Uncle Ernie, who surprised me by taking the higher ground,

“Never mind the type of event lad, why don’t you try to win one.”

He was right of course, although in truth I was a moderate runner, unless someone was chasing me, and my lack of hand-to-eye coordination had cost me dearly at conkers. So that sadly ruled out the egg and spoon.

My thoughts turned to the sack race, until dad reminded me of my nightly struggle to remain upright whilst climbing into my pyjama trousers – so no go there.

Finally, I settled on the three-legged race, but as Uncle Ernie said,

“You’ll have to find an agile partner for that one Michael?” He was right

again, and from then on I started to give it serious thought.

The Goldsworth School 12-year-old mixed three-legged race, run over 50 yards, was for 16 boy/girl pairs, to be run in two heats of eight, the first four in each heat to run in the final. Uncle Ernie, having temporarily given up betting, was keen for me to run and win, promising me a £1 note if I did, and he persuaded two of his brothers, Albert and Arthur to stump up the same amount.

That was all very encouraging, but my appeal to the fairer sex was at this time limited. As a geeky loner with a serious stammer, I had to make my p-p-pitch c-c-convincing.

Plucking up courage, I put my case to Thelma. Bespectacled, she had freckles, a fringe and two short pigtails. But more relevantly, she had been a member of the Junior School hockey team. So she was both well balanced, agile and the owner of a pair of satisfyingly sturdy legs.

After careful consideration, even at this young age, she would be a worthwhile ante-post bet for Council Librarian. On the other hand, if she later chose to smoke and drink, she would be nailed on for the cast of St Trinian’s.

For someone who I had rarely spoken to before, she was surprisingly compliant with my wishes. Thereafter, every lunch break and for half an hour after school, clasping each other behind our backs, we ran to the bicycle sheds and back, straight backed and focused ahead.

As we progressed in our training, we began to feel our elevation from ‘bus horses’ to thoroughbreds. This new image was further supported by Thelma’s excellent suggestion that we breathe in unison. At this point, I began to congratulate myself on my inspired choice of partner.

We were, at times, subject to ridicule, nothing new to me, but I felt sympathy for Thelma.

 

Inevitably, my reputation was called into question and I was summoned by Headmaster “Bonk” Peel, to be warned of the consequences of betting on the school sports.

Marshalling me into his study, he began, ‘Church, you are not going to turn our ‘Olympic sports day’ into a disreputable occasion are you?’

He sat menacingly on the end of his desk, glowering at me with knitted eyebrows.

‘You remember what happened on our last encounter, when we confiscated your double-headed penny?’

I did indeed, and to reinforce his threat, he took one of the five switches from behind his desk, momentarily trying it out for flexibility.

‘I w-w-wouldn’t dream of it Sir,’ I said with a slight tremble.

He looked past me, my reply having no impact on his impending lecture.

‘By that, I mean no wagering; not sixpences, thrupences or even pennies. Do you understand Church?’ he said, swishing the cane in the metre of his threat. Fully wound up he continued, ‘The Olympics are a proud occasion for everyone in the British Isles. Remember Church, it’s not about winning, but taking part – right Church?’

‘Right Sir, permission to speak Sir?’

‘Yes Church.’

‘W-w-well to say as yet, I haven’t taken a single bet.’

‘As yet, as yet,’ Peel fumed

‘W-well Sir, I m-meant to add – and I don’t intend to.’

‘I should hope not. Is that a promise Church? You know the consequences.’

‘Alright then, a promise,’ I said resolutely.

Bonk kept up his frown, but I did hear his secretary, who had crept in midway through his tirade, give a sigh of relief.

 

Sports day arrived and in the heats of the three-legged race, Thelma and I ran well to finish second. Delighted with the result, we decided not to watch the second heat, preferring instead to go behind the cricket pavilion and relax.

Ten minutes later, we were tracked down by Thelma’s anxious parents.

“There you are. What are you doing down there?” they echoed.

But I could see the relief on her mother’s face, when she saw we were rubbing the embrocation into our own thighs rather than each other’s!

In the final, we bounded from the start in unison and at halfway, we led by a yard. Then, someone clipped Thelma’s heel, causing her head to go back, then violently forward, sending her glasses flying into our path. I heard the crunch beneath us. Thelma swore and momentarily checked her stride, but she kept going with a grim determination – a girl after my own heart.

Sadly, we were beaten by inches, although Thelma’s mother kept telling everyone that we were the moral winners.

From that moment, after what had seemed to us a personal tragedy, our friendship steadily grew.

That evening, Thelma’s parents invited me round for tea, and to give

them credit, they never mentioned the likely cost of new glasses once.

Over cream buns with strawberry jam, I realised how lucky I had been to

find a girl as obsessed and committed as myself, one in whose company I now no longer stammered.

In the very happy months that followed, whilst guiding her gently through, what was for her, the unchartered waters of fixed odds football pools, we became an item, both in the classroom, sitting next to each other for algebra, and out of it, standing behind the goal at Woking.

Twenty years later, at Sir Ivor’s Derby, I thought I saw her in the grandstand. The pigtails had gone, but she still had the glasses and the freckles. I tried to get a closer look, but suddenly, she became engulfed in the crowd, and I could never be sure.

 

This short story is from Michael’s book Black Horse – Red Dog ,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.