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.
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.
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