Archive for 2013

Mary’s Boxing Day Bet

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Mary’s Boxing Day Bet


  Christmas Day was always kept at home with the family; Mum, Dad, Nan, Judy the dog and me. With similar regularity, on Boxing Day, we walked from our little bungalow in Clarence Avenue, Woking, to Auntie Mary’s terraced house in Church Street, a distance of 500 yards exactly.

   I was quite sure of that, having regularly paced the journey to visit my cousin Peter on Sunday mornings. And, significant to me, a 14-year-old boy on the slippery slope (see below), as the standard distance at Wimbledon dog track.

  Young Churchy

   Greeted at the door of 199 by Mary, Henry and Peter, we were shown to their front room. A welcoming sight, with its colourful paper chains, large paper bells, sprigs of holly and a small artificial tree covered in lights.

  “Henry fixed the lights just an hour ago,” Mary said joyfully.

  “One of the bulbs had worked loose, but we didn’t know which one!” her voice booming with the sense of occasion.


   To cross the room, however, was in truth, akin to crossing a minefield, for another of Dad’s brothers, Albert, owning the property and renting it to Henry, had done nothing to repair the dry rot that lurked perilously beneath the freshly hoovered carpet.

  “Mind how you go Stan,” Mary cautioned, shepherding in Dad like the usherette she once was.

  “The seat over by the fireplace is quite safe, and Dorothy, if you sit on the settee with me.” Then in a hushed and dignified tone, added, “We put two large metal trays under the casters to save us falling through.”


  Warming to her roll as hostess, Mary directed, “Oh Henry, go into the kitchen and get us all a cup of tea and a mince pie, and Nan, there’s a wicker chair for you under the radio.”

  Peter and I, a little squeezed for room, were told to play in the kitchen, “You know, the game you like to play on Sunday mornings,” Mary continued, tirelessly, “Guessing the football crowds in the paper, I’ve saved last Sunday’s News of the World ‘specially for you.”

  Hardly a school certificate subject, but perhaps it should have been, since we both excelled at it. Anyway, true to form, Mary had put up a children’s see-through Christmas stocking as a prize for the winner – the ones with chocolate money, sugar mice and those tiny packs of playing cards with Scotty dogs on the back. Oh, and those small tin scales to weigh sweets on. Not much for a 14-year-old boy you might say, but then, Mary called out from the front room that she had included Old Moore’s Almanack.

  “It usually gives some veiled hints for next years Derby and Grand National. And somewhere in there,” she enthused, “there’s trap numbers to back in reversed forecasts for all the London dog tracks!”


   An hour later, I was enjoying a thumb through Old Moore’s, a little guiltily I must confess, since it had fallen to me to guess the Blackpool home crowd, which as every schoolboy knew, was invariably a capacity 30,000 – like taking a penalty kick really.

  Anyway, Henry topped us up with more tea and mince pies on yet another tin tray – The Laughing Cavalier this time. If there was one thing Auntie Mary had in spades it was tin trays – multi-purposed in her house!  

     Meanwhile, spirits were high in the front room, with Mary telling Mum how her friend Phyllis, had, during the war, seen the King and Queen inspecting the bomb damage in the East End of London.

  “They were very friendly, Phyllis told me, and she gave me the cuttings out of her News Chronicle – for my Royal scrapbooks you know.” 

  Auntie Mary was a devout Royalist; she had dozens of these scrapbooks, allegedly, full of Royal births, deaths and marriages, even pictures of past Royal Ascots – so she said.

  However, mysteriously, as yet, we had never seen any of them, and, despite our enthusiasm, we didn’t see them today either.


   Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Mary, peering round the aspidistra and, slightly twitching the net curtain, “Bloody hell it’s Albert, surely he hasn’t come for the rent on Boxing day?”

  Uncle AlbertAlbert entered with his usual cocky smile, to produce from behind his back with a flourish, a bag containing a bottle of Sandiman’s port, a Christmas pudding, laced with brandy and a wrapper containing 200 Craven A ciggies, the ones with the black cat on the box – the latter a life or death line for Mary and Henry. Then, going back to his Fish van, parked across the road, he returned with an oblong wooden box – a top grade Scottish salmon – “A rarity, even among the gentry,” said Albert with another broad grin. And, no, he hadn’t forgotten Peter either, who disappearing into the scullery with a brown paper parcel joyfully unwrapped a bright new red and white Woking football scarf.

     Mary seemed a little flummoxed at Albert’s sudden generosity and for once, untypically, steered him clear of the dangerous carpet zones.

   In the meantime, my dad, oblivious to the latest turn of events, inevitably redirected the conversation to Woking’s recent 3-0 victory over Wimbledon, “Alfie Welland scored two and …” his account was suddenly interrupted by cheers of relief at Peter’s perfectly timed entrance in his pristine scarf.

  Mary, meanwhile, was disappearing upstairs, when Albert, anxiously fearing that the weight of the gathering might prove costly, nervously called after her, “I can’t stay Mary, I’m just going to pick up Charlie; we’re going to Kempton.”

   Mary returned, slightly out of breath, to ask in a confidential whisper,           

  “Do you know anything good?”

  “Well, Charlie says the Queen’s got Manicou in the ‘King George’ and, it’s a live’un!”

  Mary thrust a small white envelope into Albert’s hand, “Two weeks rent, Albert. Sorry for the delay, but it’s Christmas yer know.” She followed him out to the van.

  “You’re a real brick Mary,” Albert said earnestly, turning to meet her face on, “That’s very much appreciated,” he said with a wink, “It’ll make my day!”

  Mary started to hover from one foot to the other, like a little girl.         

  “Albert, that Queen’s horse Manna-something or other, would you put a bit on for me?” Albert nodded and with that, she slipped something into his overcoat pocket.

  “Must fly now Mary”, said Albert, “Enjoy the salmon,” and with that, his fish van disappeared round the corner and out of sight.


    Kempton was cold, bright and sunny and, there was a feeling of optimism amongst the packed crowd. The first three favourites had all gone in and now, the seven runners for the King George were making their way to post.

  Albert, who had the questionable system of backing horses with the initial letters of A, C, and E in a treble, had already landed the first two legs with Easy Winner and Attentif, and was now sweating on Coloured School Boy in the big’un.

  Just as the field came into line Albert remembered Mary’s bet and, thrusting his hand into his overcoat pocket, rushed up to Stringer’s joint in the front row and pushed the bet into his hand, shouting out, “Manicou, on the nose.”

  There were no ‘big screens’, or even commentaries on racecourses in 1950, so binoculars of all shapes and sizes were trained up the home straight. First round the final bend was the ‘Blue; buff stripes, blue sleeves and black cap’ of Queen Elizabeth’s Manicou, who, although joined two out by Silver Fame (ridden by the future crime writer, Dick Francis), drew away to win by three lengths.

   After the race, Uncles Charlie and Albert met up in front of the bookies. Charlie had collected a nice touch, while typically, Albert, having stayed faithful to his ACE system, had nothing to collect from third placed Coloured School Boy. Then, almost as an afterthought, he remembered Mary’s bet on Manicou, and rummaging in his pocket for the ticket, gave it to Charlie to collect.

   Returning a few minutes later, with an expression of veiled incredulity, Charlie enquired cautiously, “How much did Mary have on that Queen’s horse?”

  “Don’t know, exactly,” Albert said, “Stringer did say, but we were both in such a hurry I didn’t catch it,” continuing, “She had it wrapped up in an envelope.”

  His hand slid back into his pocket and as it did, so Albert’s expression changed. Pulling out another envelope, he opened it – a ten bob note!

  Mary’s two weeks rent had amounted to £6 and now, at 5-1 …“Blimey, I’ve put the rent money on,” Albert exclaimed, his conscience suddenly working overtime with the thoughts of, “If only I had collected the bet myself.”

   Albert thrust out his hand to Charlie, “Give me the money, I’ll deduct the rent and pay Mary her winnings.”

  “OK,” said Charlie, but knowing Albert of old, added, “But won’t Mary be delighted when I tell her she’s won £30. I’m sure she’ll forgive you the cock-up.”  

  Albert’s face was a study; for once, he had been completely thwarted,


 The story of Mary’s Boxing Day bet was often recalled at Christmas and on family holidays – see below, Mary, Henry & Peter, a few years later, on Brighton Pier.


Mary,Henry and Peter on Brighton Pier 

This story comes from Michael’s Black Horse – Red Dog,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

See also his list of books for sale by clicking on Books for Sale

at the top of the page.  



Seven fallers in the Derby

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Seven fallers in the Derby

Larkspur 7 fallers

Nineteen sixty two was a bad year for the Derby and public relations were at an all time low. My lasting memory of the race was the loose horses coming in, one after the other, and the crowd too stunned to cheer the winner.

The Press and the public had struggled to cope with the three accidents, two years previous, when the Irish challenger Exchange Student broke a leg when exercising on the downs, Sir Winston Churchill’s fancied colt, Vienna, had to be withdrawn,  when pricked by the blacksmith on the morning of the race and,  thirdly, the well-backed favourite, Angers, broke a fetlock when at the top of the hill.

In 1961, Psidium’s friendless victory at 66-1 only added fuel to the fire. So after a Derby where seven horses fell, there were many who supported a move to run the race at Newbury. Nevertheless, Epsom survived as it had done many times before.

Here then is my account of the race from The Derby Stakes – The Complete History – 1780-2006.


 Larkspur essay


As a result of downsizing to a nearby 15th century cottage,

 many of the books in my library are now for sale.

 To view the list, go to the top of the page and click on  – Books for Sale. 

Herod on the Racecourse & at Stud

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HEROD on the Racecourse & at Stud

King Herod b.c. 1758 

Although their paths never crossed on the racecourse, Herod and Eclipse were rivals at stud for a decade. Herod was Champion Sire eight consecutive years 1777-1784, whilst Eclipse, although never Champion Sire, was a runner-up in the 11 years 1778-1788.

One dominant reason for Herod’s overwhelming success at stud was the reluctance of the aristocracy to do business with the self styled, Count Dennis O’ Kelly.

   O’Kelly left Ireland, coming to London in 1745, to improve his frugal living. He started as a sedan chairman then, became a billiards marker, until eventually forming a friendship with Charlotte Hayes, a woman with a notorious reputation. Both were released from Fleet Prison in 1760, on the death of George II, and from then on they worked their way through society, she, with her feminine ways and he, as a sharp practising gambler. At Epsom, in May, 1769, from winning his historic bet of, “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere,” Dennis O’Kelly went on to buy Eclipse outright, and despite Eclipse’s dominance on the racecourse – unbeaten in 18 starts – when sent to stud, many of the aristocracy shunned the uncouth O’Kelly and sent their best mares to Herod.

 But now it’s time to hear about the life of Herod (b.c. 1758) – Champion racehorse and Champion sire.



 KING HEROD was a remarkable fine horse, with uncommon power, and allowed to be one of the best bred horses this kingdom ever produced, and as a stallion inferior to none, being sire of a larger number of racers, stallions and broodmares than any other horse either before or since his time.”

So reads a contemporary description in William Pick’s Racing Calendar.

First entered in the General Stud-Book as King Herod, he was later more commonly called Herod.

   A bay colt by Tartar (a great-grandson of the Byerley Turk) out of Cypron by Blaze, Herod was bred by William, Duke of Cumberland (the breeder of Eclipse), at his stud in Windsor Forest.

   Over his first two seasons as a five and six year-old, Herod was unbeaten in four starts. The last of these for 500 guineas, against Antinous (rec’d 3lbs), over the Beacon Course, at Newmarket, provoked the beaten connections to call for a return Match at double the stake and with a pull of 9lb. The Match caused a great deal of interest and was run the following spring, with Antinous once again starting favourite. But the difference in weight appeared to make no difference to Herod who again won easily. However, later that year, Herod’s first defeat came when conceding a stone to Ascham, over the Beacon Course, for 1,000 guineas.

   After the death of the Duke in 1765, Herod was purchased by Sir John Moore. The colt was beaten a further twice the following year: first by Turf (rec’d 6lb), for 1,000 guineas over the Beacon Course in April, and then by Bay Malton in York’s Great Subscription Purse. During the latter race, Herod sustained a burst blood vessel in his head, and for a time was dangerously ill. He did not race again that year.

   At nine, he finished second to Bay Malton over the Beacon Course, but ahead of both Ascham and Turf. The following May, Herod ran his last race, a Match over the same course, for 1,000 guineas, against Ascham (gave 7lbs), which he won in fine style.


   Herod was the Champion Sire for eight consecutive years from 1777 to 1784. His best progeny were Highflyer (b.c. 1774), the 13 times Champion Sire; Woodpecker (ch.c. 1773), a winner of 15 races and runner-up Champion Sire four consecutive years, and Florizel (b.c. 1768), the sire of four Classic winners, including the first Derby winner Diomed (ch.c. 1777). Herod also sired the dams of ten individual Classic winners.


It was said that breeders of the day singled out Herod for his toughness and courage in running, despite a tendency to break blood vessels. They also discovered that, when his offspring were put to those of Eclipse, they produced winners – Classic winners.

Herod stood at Netherhall, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. The sire of 13 crops, he got the winners of 1,042 races, valued at £201,502 (the equivalent of more than £13 million today). He died on 12 May, 1780, aged 22 years.

White Lightning

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White Lightning

  Father Perry Green was no stranger to greyhounds. His uncle Robert had taken him to Harold’s Cross, as a boy, to see the great Spanish Battleship win his third Greyhound Derby. And later, during his seminary days, he would sometimes be seen at the local flapping track. So, when Uncle Robert’s son Jamie asked if he could leave a white greyhound with him for a few days, Perry was joyful at the prospect. It would encourage a healthy life style too, he reasoned – a couple of miles walk early in the morning and a mile after dark – it would be good for both of them.

   “Oh and by the way Emily,” Perry beckoned, lowering his voice, “when the dog arrives I’d like to keep quiet about his stay with us – parishioners can be very inquisitive.”  

  Emily, ahead of him in that matter, gave him a tolerant smile.


  The following evening, after dark, Jamie arrived with the greyhound.

  “He’s a grand looker,” said Perry, “what’s his name?”

  “White Lightning,” replied Jamie, “although his kennel name is Blanco!”

  “Just one black ear,” observed Emily, “are all-whites rare?”

  “As a matter of fact they are,” said Jamie, “although, saying that, I did see one a week or two ago at a flapping track.”

   Jamie then gave them Blanco’s bed and apologised for not bringing any dog food.

  “Don’t worry about that Jamie, I know how to feed greyhounds,” said Perry with confidence.

They shook hands, patted the dog and Jamie said goodbye.

   A few hours later, rather than go down to the supermarket, Emily popped out to the corner shop.

  “Just to get a few things for the dog,” she called out to Perry.

   And within minutes, she had filled her basket with tins of Pedigree Chum, some biscuit mixer and a bone-like chew – it was a big mistake. For as Emily joined the checkout queue, who should come in but Mary McGovern.

     At first, Emily pretended not to notice her, but it was quite hopeless.

    “Emily, Emily dear, how are you and how is Father Green?”

   She meant well of course and fortunately, recalled the parish quiz night and Father Perry’s success with the sporting questions, which, as luck would have it, gave Emily enough time to throw in a couple of free magazines over her basket. “Phew,” she thought and headed for the door.

Alas, only to hear Mary asking the cashier, “How long has Father Green kept a dog; unless of course, Pedigree Chum is on the menu at the Presbytery?”


  By the time Emily had returned to the Presbytery, she decided that she hadn’t heard Mary’s comment, and so, she said nothing to Father Perry.

In the meantime, she thought it safer to steer clear of the corner shop until after Blanco had departed.

  A few days later, whilst doing her weekly grocery shop in Sainsbury’s, she saw Brenda Bartholomew looking through the greetings cards.

  “How’s the singing tuition going,” Emily enquired.

  “Oh, fine, I’m really enjoying it,” then, “say, what’s this I here about Father Green having a dog?”

  “Dog, what dog?”

  Emily quickly went on defence, successfully using all her gossiping skills to distract Brenda.


  Back Home, Father Perry, tentatively and silently helped her unpack the groceries. Eventually he had to ask, “Did you get anything for the dog Emily?”

  “Oh yes,” she replied breezily, “there’s 8lb of best mince, a large cabbage, onions, half a dozen eggs and a loaf of granary bread, which I can toast. Oh, and you’ll find a bottle of Bristol Cream Sherry; Dad always added a little sherry to the raw eggs on race night!”

   Now that Emily had revealed that she was no stranger to the game, Perry was able to tell her that Blanco, alias, White Lightning, would likely be the subject of a flapping track coup. How, where and when, he didn’t know, but after dark, Perry took off his dog collar and put White Lightning’s on. They were going for their late night walk.    


  The next few days were pure joy for Perry, walking the greyhound every day brought back memories, not only of his bitch Tina d’Argentina, but his misspent youth, then, of course, with less subterfuge. Nonetheless, when Emily told him the dog’s provisions had run out, he began to show concern for Jamie’s return – after all, how much more of the best mince should Emily be expected to buy?

    On the afternoon of the eighth day the door chimes sounded the return of Jamie, who came through the door with another white greyhound.

  “How’s the lad been?” enquired Jamie, running his hands along the back and sides of White Lightning.

  “He certainly looks grand,” he said, looking at Father Green in approval.  

  “Oh yes, he’s fine,” said Perry.

  Then turning to the new arrival enquired, “What’s the plan with this one then?”

  “Well as a favour Father, perhaps I could leave this fella with you until tomorrow? I’ll be back in the morning to collect him and then I’ll settle up – will odds to £100 be O.K.?”

  “You don’t have to do that Jamie, I’ve had the fun of looking after him.”

  At that point Emily joined the conversation with, “What’s this one called?”

  “Let’s just call him The Understudy,” said Jamie, keeping a straight face.

  “Enough said,” said Perry, tapping the side of his nose and glancing across at Emily, to indicate she should leave it there.


It was later that night, when Father Green returned from walking The Understudy, that he voiced his concern.

  “I’ve been thinking, Emily, this greyhound is completely white, whereas White Lightning had one black ear. I do hope Jamie knows what he’s doing.”

  “Well, whether he does or not, Father, it’s none of our business – all you’ve done is to walk a dog for a friend.”


  Early the following morning Jamie was back. Emily watched his white van draw up and saw him bound up the path. She opened the door.

  “Did everything go alright?” she said hopefully.

  “Yes fine. Is Father Perry in?”

  “No he’s saying Mass at the school this morning.”

  “Oh, that’s a pity,” said Jamie, “Never mind, would you give him this envelope and say that I’m really grateful for all his help, and also to you come to that.”

    “Sure, sure,” Emily nodded.

  “Have you come to take this one back now?” she said, already fixing the lead to his collar.

  “Yes, of course, it’s a pity Father’s not here. But thank him for me won’t you.”

  “For sure,” she said, handing over the lead.

  “Have you got White Lightning in the van – can I just say goodbye to him?”

  “Yes, he’s fine,” said Jamie, “Come and see.”

  Emily, Jamie and The Understudy walked out to the van. Jamie opened the back to put The Understudy in on the mattress, while Emily lovingly fondled White Lightning’s head.

  “White paint,” she exclaimed, looking down at her hand. Then, coolly, “Shall we get him cleaned up?”

  But no, Jamie said there was no time for that and soon after, she watched the van turn the corner of the road and they were gone.


  Emily decided not to mention the paint to Father Perry.

  “Why compromise a good priest,” she thought, “and anyway they had been promised a good meal for their troubles.”

   Then, just as she had finished scrubbing the white emulsion from her hands, the door chimes rung. It was Basil Tompkins.

   “Come in Basil. Father’s not yet back from saying Mass at the school I’m afraid.”

  “Oh that’s alright my dear, I was just passing and thought I’d take a look at his new dog!”


  That evening, Perry took Emily and her brother Donald, for a meal down at The George. When they were all seated, Emily said she would like to propose a toast.

  “To White Lightning and may he never strike in the same place twice!”


 Father Green headshot

 This story was taken from Michael’s book ,
The Gambling Adventures of Father Green, 
of which he has a few signed copies for sale.


The Origins of the St Leger – and the one running missed!

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The Origins of the St Leger and the one running missed!


As the St Leger will soon be upon us, I thought it of interest to return to the origins of the race and its fragmented history.

The St Leger is the oldest of the five Classic races and throughout the Victorian era it fiercely rivalled the Derby for supremacy. Its origins were, however, both obscure and humble.

First run on Tuesday, 24 September 1776, as an unnamed sweepstakes for three-year-old colts and fillies over two miles, it was run on the old course on Cantley Common, Doncaster.

Five ran and the winner was an unnamed filly owned by the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, who he later named Allabaculia.

The following year the race was run under the same conditions, but in 1778 the race was given a name and a change of venue.


At a dinner party held at the Red Lion Inn, Doncaster that year, the Marquis of Rockingham proposed the race be called the St Leger’s Stakes as a compliment to the popular local sportsman Lt-Gen. Anthony St Leger of Park Hill. The venue was then changed to Town Moor, Doncaster and the race run on Tuesday, 22 September 1778.

The distance remained at two miles, until, with various changes, it was eventually run over the current distance of 1m. 6f. 132yds.


 In a strange and varied set of circumstances, the St Leger has taken place at seven different venues: Cantley Common, Town Moor, the Cesarewitch Course, Newmarket, Thirsk, Manchester, the July Course at Newmarket and, in 1989 at Ayr.

Incidentally, the St Leger is the only British Classic to have skipped a year from its inaugural running, and in unique circumstances it happened so.

 In 1939, the 6th Earl of Rosebery’s Blue Peter, having won the 2,000 Guineas and Derby, was undergoing his preparation for the St Leger. However, history intervened at 11 o’clock on Sunday 3 September, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast the news to the nation that Great Britain was at war with Germany. Subsequently, the St Leger was cancelled, thus denying Blue Peter the chance of the Triple Crown.


The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Nijinsky in 1970, seen below, winning the St Leger at Doncaster, with Lester Piggott aboard.


1970 St Leger


To see some of Michael’s own books for sale

go to Books for Sale

Films and the Derby

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Films and the Derby


One of the pleasures of writing a book is, after publication, receiving appreciation for making known to a wider audience some hidden gem.

According to the readers of my The Derby Stakes – The Complete History1780-2006, the section on Films and the Derby, created a lot of interest.

And, as it has been a while since the Epsom Derby has been the focus of a major film, I thought  followers of my website may like read my film reviews.


Derby Films 1

Derby Films 2

Derby Films 3

Derby Films 4

Incidentally, Esther Waters is now available on DVD.

Details of a few signed and numbered copies of Michael’s book

The Derby Stakes – The Complete History – 1780-2006

can be found on this website under Books for Sale.

Shooting Craps on the 8.27

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Craps on 8.27 - small

Shooting Craps on the 8.27


In the early 1960s, there was a quartet of commuters who passed the journey from Portsmouth to London Waterloo, by shooting craps.  For the uninitiated, craps is a popular American casino game, played with two dice.  Briefly, to win, the shooter has to roll a seven or 11 on the first throw. If unsuccessful, he has to throw the number he rolled the first time again, before he throws another seven.  The shooter looses if a two, three or 12 appear on the first throw (this is known as craps), or a seven thereafter.  Simple isn’t it?


     Of course there are variations and side bets.  In our travellers’ case, the players took turns to act as the banker or bookie for the journey, while the other three bet on the game.  The original bets are at evens, but if the shooter doesn’t win on his first throw, various odds are laid that he will throw the original number before a seven.  For those still with us, or for those who have read the first paragraphs for the third time and now think they have a vague understanding of the game, I can now introduce you to the quartet.


     Chris, an overweight accountant, would sit in the corner by the window, his shirt sleeves rolled up, forehead slightly sweating whatever the weather, 20 Rothmans and Ronson lighter to hand.   Fair Enough Smith, or to his intimates, Smithy, had acquired his handle by repeatedly saying “Fair enough” after almost everything said to him.  Also a smoker, he had the worrying habit of laughing and coughing at the same time.

    The third member of the quartet was Joyce, an S.P. Settler who worked with Smithy and appeared to be slightly more than a close friend of his.  Unfortunately, she had one blue tooth, which showed when she laughed and sometimes stopped others from laughing when they saw it.  Finally, Monty was a short, dark, dapper man in his late 50’s, now a messenger in the City, but reputedly an ex-member of a Brighton race-gang after the war.  Oh yes, observing all this, I boarded the train at Woking, and on Monty’s invitation (I’d met him a couple of times at White City dogs), sat or stood as near as possible to the action. So, when one of the players was absent, I was invited to play.


    On this particularly Friday, as the train rattled through Vauxhall Station, Monty pushed the dice across the table.

    “Your roll Chris – I can double the limit for you as it’s the last roll today.”

    “Yeah fine,” said Chris who, after vigorously cleaning his glasses, made the pretext of searching through his wallet.

    “Can you lend me a fiver until tonight Monty?”

    Monty nodded and Chris rolled – “Three – craps – oh shit,”

    Chris groaned as he slumped back in his seat.

    Passengers began reaching up into the luggage racks for their coats and briefcases as the train pulled into Waterloo.  Soon, hundreds of commuters spilled out onto the platform to start their day, but not Chris.

    Looking dazed, he lingered, lighting yet another cigarette and fumbling through his briefcase.  A respected £1,000 a year accountant, Chris had told us he lived with his elderly mother in a big house near Fratton.  Lately, however, even I had noticed his loses were getting to him.


    The following Monday morning, I located their carriage.

    “No Chris?” I enquired hopefully, seeing the vacant seat.

    “He’s gone to the loo,” Monty said, adding, “his luck today is diabolical.”

    Smithy and Joyce urged Monty to restart the game, but Monty said he would wait and put the dice into his shirt pocket.  As the train sped on, they talked of racing and football, until Monty said, “You might as well sit in Churchy; it looks as if Chris is involved in another sort of crap game!”


    Doubling up on three straight sevens, my enthusiastic shouts drew the attention of other passengers away from their newspapers, adding fuel to my ambition to be a regular in this corner seat.

    “Who let Churchy in this game?” said Joyce, flashing her tooth.

    Just then Chris appeared, “Gyppy tummy,” he said sheepishly.

    “I see Churchy’s getting stuck in – no, no, that’s OK, I’ll watch – we’re nearly there now anyway.”

    Chris waved his hand to brush aside my offer of his usual seat, looking slightly relieved.


    On Tuesday morning. I made my way to the quartet’s carriage.

    “Chris in the loo?” I asked seeing his place vacant.

    “No, he’s not with us. Sit in if you like,” said Monty.

    “Yes, that’s fair enough,” said Smithy, stifling what was either a laugh or a cough, or both.

    Once again I was a few pounds up on the trip, and the following day, with still no sign of Chris, I made a strong finish as the new shooter, after Monty had nearly wiped me out before Clapham Junction.

    Before we left the train, Joyce, who had been noticeably quiet throughout the journey, said she would look up Chris’s address and Smithy added “We’ll try and phone him – see what’s happening.”


Craps on 8.27Next day, hoping to add to my run of luck, I watched the windows of the 8.27 as it arrived at Woking and, catching a glimpse of Monty, hurried along the platform to join him.

“How’s Chris?” I said, seeing he wasn’t there and eagerly moving across into his place.  Looking down at the table, Joyce said, “He’s dead. He died late Friday night, after coming back from the pub.  Heart, I believe. Sadly, his big house was really a small flat that he shared with his mum. And she’s worried stiff.  He hadn’t paid the rent for three months and the landlord’s been threatening to throw them out.”

   I looked across at Smithy’s black tie.

       “Fair enough, I suppose,” he said, “but a bit harsh, wouldn’t you say?”

Joyce started to cry.

    “There, there,” said Monty, leaning across to comfort her.

    “I tell you what,” he added, taking three dice out of his shirt pocket, “as a mark of respect, we won’t be needing these again,” and, reaching up to the window, he hurled the dice out onto the track.

    “Why three dice Monty,” I asked irreverently,

    “Always carry a spare Churchy.”

    “Fair enough,” said Smithy, “but I’d never seen the third dice before!”


   Throughout the day and that evening, I could think of nothing but Monty’s third dice.  But next morning, resolving to get into the office a little earlier, I caught the 8.05.




This short story is taken from

Ripping Gambling Yarns,

of which Michael has a few signed copies for sale.

Illustrations by Julia Jacs

Investec Derby Day 2013

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Investec Derby Day 2013


“The day Ruler Of The World beat the Ruler of Dubai.”

So ended David Walsh’s Derby report for The Sunday Times, and seldom, has a single sentence encapsulated the highs, the lows, the sub-plots and for some, the celebrations, of Derby Day.

   Dawn Approach, Godolphin’s unbeaten 2,000 Guineas winner, had previously been  supplemented for £8,000, by the 51% shareholder Sheikh Mohammed, in the hope of, not only winning the Derby for the first time, but, strengthening his bloodstock hand, so often eclipsed by the Coolmore Stud operation.

   Dawn Approach’s remaining shareholder was his trainer, Jim Bolger, who, controversially, was director and co-founder of the Equinome genetics testing programme that was sure the colt would not stay the Derby distance.

   The betting public, however, enamoured by the colt’s brilliant victories, thought they knew better and sent off the chestnut son of the 2008 Derby winner, New Approach, the 5-4 favourite. 

   Also in the field of 12, were runners from France – Andre Fabre’s Ocovango – and as far as known, the first German bred runner – Chopin, trained by Andreas Wohler.

  2013-06-01 16.15.15 Aidan O’Brien, saddled four for Ireland; three by the Champion Sire and 2001 Derby winner, Galileo, of which Battle Of Marengo (Joseph O’Brien), having won the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial Stakes and Ruler Of The World (Ryan Moore), the Chester Vase, were the pick and, second and third favourites for the race.

   O’Brien’s other two – Festive Cheer and Flying The Flag were generally expected to set a strong pace in an attempt to test the favourites stamina. However, when the stalls opened an alternative plan was revealed – for the slow pace completely unsettled Dawn Approach, who, ridden by Kevin Manning, was immediately, pulling hard, throwing his head from side to side and refusing to settle. Eventually, rounding Tattenham Corner, he pulled his way to the front, by which time his chance was gone – historian’s recalled a similar scenario when the brilliant Guineas winner Tudor Minstrel was beaten in 1947.

    Meanwhile, at the two-furlong pole, Ruler Of The World joined Battle Of Marengo and then quickly drew away to win by one and a half lengths. Galileo Rock, a David Wachman entry, also by Galileo, stayed on well to be third, passed by the strong finishing Libertarian, who bagged second place, right on the line, after a photo finish of short heads for the places.

   The race, run at a comparatively slow pace, was won in 2 min 39.06 sec., the winning jockey, Ryan Moore, having previously ridden Workforce to victory in 2010, in the Course record time of 2 min 31.33 sec. Ruler Of The World (pictured above, leaving the winner’s enclosure), became the first Derby winner to wear a cheekpiece.

 2013-06-01 14.53.21

Derby Day was also graced with the outstanding performance of St Nicholas Abbey, the first horse to win the Investec Coronation Cup three times. It was his sixth Group 1 success, after which, his trainer Aidan O’Brien said, “He’s a great traveller. He comes down the hill and he slowly moves up the gears. He is very classy and everyone forgets that he won a Racing Post Trophy by five or six lengths. He had that class the whole time. Obviously, his trainer destroyed him at three and it took him three years to get back! He is an incredible horse.”

And so say all of us. 


Set out below is the classified result of this year’s Investec Derby

in the style of my history of the race.




A Tip from Charlie Smirke

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Charlie Smirke - head

A Tip from Charlie Smirke


For many years, Charlie Young had been the most popular hairdresser in Woking and his backroom gambling set-up handled more than a third of the town’s betting turnover.  Charlie’s acquaintances were legendary and, a few days before the 1952 Derby, one such character – Solly Bernhart – was an unexpected visitor to his Saloon.

   “Something for the weekend Solly?”  Charlie enquired.

   “No thanks,” replied Solly, whose sexual experiences where now purely academic. “Actually, I’ve come down to-day to do you a little favour.”

   “Let’s go through to the back room then,” said Charlie, remembering some of Solly’s previous favours.


   Solly Bernhart was a flamboyant character, who resembled Mr Pickwick in appearance but not in motivation.  He had been a friend of Charlie’s since before the war, and having recently sold his jeweller’s shop in the East-end of London, was now flirting with a life of leisure.

   Once in the betting room, Charlie introduced Solly to Alice and I, who were pouring over the day’s runners.

   “You’ve met my wife Alice, and this is young Michael, runs a penny book at Goldsworth School, but comes in to hedge-off the occasional hefty double.”

   Solly shook hands, but hastily declined Alice’s offer of tea and Woodbines in favour of Charlie’s Cognac.

   I was all ears as Solly told his tale of how, on a recent visit to the Savoy Turkish baths in Jermyn Street, he had bumped into Charlie Smirke.

   “He was full of himself,” said Solly, “whistling away, he was, told me Tulyar was the best Derby mount he could remember.  In fact he kept on saying ‘I’ll Tulyar this and I’ll Tulyar that,’ to hammer home the message.”

   Young rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

   “Have you backed it yet Solly,” he enquired.

   “Well, I had £30 at 100-6 with my local man, but that’s his limit, and I’d like to get a bit more on with you.”

   “That’s OK,” said Charlie, sipping his Cognac, “I’ll make some calls, take a price and you can pay me cash, how much are we looking at?”

   “Fifty or sixty quid if you can – we can’t miss this one,” responded Solly.  Charlie made the calls on the ‘business phone,’ keeping his voice to a whisper. Suddenly he looked up “100-7 do yer, Solly?”


   “He will lay you a £1,000 to £70,” said Charlie, “but,” covering the mouthpiece, “I’ll want the cash here before the race, say Monday.”

   “Of course, of course,” Solly nodded vigorously, “don’t forget yourself.”

   Charlie lowered his voice and completed the added investment.

 Sinking their second Cognac, they congratulated themselves on their expected good fortune.  Feeling rejected at being left out of the negotiations, I got up to go.

   “Off now,” said Alice, then, “here Charlie, aren’t you going to cut Michael in for something?”

   “Yes of course, I almost forgot about the boy; what would you like Michael?”

   “Well, as I am actually going to Epsom; perhaps you’ll give me the price to five shillings?”

   “Yes that’s OK,” Charlie replied nonchalantly.  “You have a few bob to come, so I’ll take it out of that.”

   “You’re all heart Charlie,” I replied and promptly legged it back to school.


   Monday came and went with no sign of Solly. Tuesday lunch-time, he still hadn’t shown. Charlie began to panic.  Alice suggested that he try to cancel the bet, but his reputation was at stake and Charlie wouldn’t hear of it. However, after failing to trace Solly, he phoned his big players to try to lay off – they were not interested.  Charlie’s panic mounted and he suffered a troubled night.


    1952 - Tulyar - best Early Wednesday morning, having got special permission from Headmaster, Bonk Peel, to have Derby Day off, I dropped into the hairdressers to hand in my family’s bets. Charlie and Alice, looking the worst for wear, were already occupied with a steady stream of shilling each-way’s and any-to-come’s. Alice confided, “Charlie’s  furious with Solly – it isn’t the first time you know.  If he doesn’t show and Tulyar loses, we’re buggered – it’s like doing a thousand hair cuts for nothing.”

   Charlie came over, “Don’t listen to her, she’s got no bottle,” he said bravely.

   “But you could do me a favour as you’re going to Epsom.”

       “Sure,” I piped up, eager to help.

    “Look, phone here as near as you can to the big race, if Solly hasn’t brought the dosh, I want you to spread £30 over the first three in the Derby betting – the race is wide open and I know you’ll beat the S.P. Hopefully it will save our bacon.”

     I stashed the small fortune carefully into my blazer pocket. I shall be the biggest punter on our coach I thought, and perhaps, this could be the start of the big time for me.

    Arriving at Epsom with my telescope, sandwiches and raincoat, my heart sank on seeing the length of the telephone queues behind the stands. If I was going to phone, it had to be now – still no Solly.

    Walking across the course I was surprised that Tulyar was not only as low as 10-1, but now third favourite. I waited. The showers forecast for the afternoon didn’t arrive. Instead, the sun beat down on the packed crowd, causing hats and coats to be relegated to carrier bags.


    Just before the Derby, the money for Tulyar became an avalanche, forcing him into favouritism. Some bookmakers, in danger of a one-horse-book, off loaded their commitments onto other bookmakers, so forcing the price down further to 11-2. In consequence, the five French-trained horses who had previously vied for favouritism, were now all on the drift. I was now faced with the problem of which three of the five Frenchies to back for Charlie, as they were forever interchanging and increasing in price. And it now became obvious from the crowds pressing in on the bookies, that I had to choose between seeing the race or trying to beat the S.P.  My 16-year-old priorities won the day – I watched the race.


    Throughout the Derby parade, the heat, and the endless inane chatter of two uncommitted ladies immediately in front of me, caused me to feel queasy. I must have slumped forward as, moments later, I felt myself being passed over heads to a perfect position, normally reserved for members of the constabulary. I sustained a miracle cure.


     There was no racecourse commentary in those days, and my first view of the race was when the field turned into the straight – 33 runners were an eyeful, but I could pick out Tulyar, moving up on the outside. Steadying my telescope, I got a better view two-furlongs out as Charlie Smirke gave him a crack and they stormed into the lead, the green and brown hoops of the Aga Khan getting bigger and bigger until my hopes became a reality.

Charlie Smirke - full   Apparently, at the finish, my unrestrained celebrations had convinced a nearby policemen that I had made a full recovery and I was promptly escorted back into the enclosure.

Later, checking the number board with my racecard, I noted that the second, Gay Time, had been ridden by the young Lester Piggott, and Faubourg, one of the French horses had finished third.

The relief of Tulyar’s victory and the saving of Charlie Young’s £30, together with my skin, seemed to have solved everything.  So after a near-perfect day and after being dropped off in Woking, I hurried to the hairdressers.


“Come in Michael,” Charlie said beaming from ear to ear.

“Did Solly turn up?”  I blurted out.

“No, and not a word on the phone. Just as well, thank God, what a result.  Do you know I’ve won about £1,200.”

“I think it is a little more than that,” I said.

“How do you mean?” he puzzled.

“I saved the thirty quid for you.”

Alice intervened with a certain lack of perception, “Blimey Charlie, how’s that for honesty? I think he deserves a reward.”

“Ummm,” said Charlie, obviously considering the pros and cons of my actions.

“Tell you what, Michael, I’ll double your winnings and we can all celebrate.”


  Later clutching my seven quid and change, I made my way home with ambivalent feelings – the glow of nobility from my honest gesture vying with my mental calculation of just how many paper-rounds at six shillings a week equalled £30.

  On hearing my story, Mum had no such ambivalence in reaching her conclusion.

  “Charlie Young is a mean old miser!”



Post Mortem:  Solly Bernhart died of a heart attack on

Monday, May 26, 1952, two days before the Derby.


 Tulyar went on to win the Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen

 Elizabeth Stakes, and the St Leger Stakes.  He was unbeaten as a 3-y-o.


 Alice and Charlie had their first holiday since the war,

staying at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.



This short story is taken from

Ripping Gambling Yarns,

of which Michael has a few signed copies for sale.

Illustrations by Julia Jacs


The Centenary of the Suffragette Derby

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The Centenary of the Suffragette Derby

Suffragette plaque on 18-4-13


Having recently attended the unveiling of a plaque at Tattenham Corner

to commemorate Emily Davison’s martyrdom at Epsom,

I thought it appropriate to run the chapter covering the incident in my book –

The Derby Stakes – The Complete History – 1780-2006.


Suffragette 1913 Derby - p1

Suffragette 1913  Derby  - p2

Suffragette  1913 Derby - p3Suffragette 1913  Derby - p4Suffragette 1913 Derby - p5