Born to Bet
Five short stories, revised and re-edited
Ascot’s First King George
Amid the noise and excitement a crowded train pulled into Clapham Junction; it was one of many that day leaving for Ascot races.
This was Festival of Britain year 1951, and racing’s contribution to the festivities was a new race – the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Festival of Britain Stakes. Everyone seemed to be talking about it and everyone wanted to be there. On top of that, it was one of those days of characters and mysteries that were to sink sublimely into my schoolboy memory.
Clambering aboard, I squeezed into a train filled with cigarette smoke and swaying bodies.
“There’s room for a nipper over here,” a large lady beckoned – I squeezed in. Her bright blue turban and flowered print dress contrasted dramatically with the sombre utility suits of the four men facing me.
Directly opposite was a pale-faced man, fortyish, with dark crinkled hair, who I later learned was Mori. Turning to his neighbour, who looked ex-RAF and sported a ginger moustache, he said, “I’ve got a jacket at home that will fit you perfectly.”
“Sounds good,” said the moustache. “How much do you want for it?”
Mori paused, “If it fits you, it’s yours, free, gratis,” adding, “when you’ve had a winner you can pay me for it.”
“You see John’s jacket,” he continued, turning to the battered trilby on his right, “that’s one of mine. How long have you had that John?”
John frowned and took a sharp intake of breath.
“Must be 20 years now.”
“You see – quality,” beamed Mori. “Your brother’s got a similar jacket hasn’t he John?”
“Yes, he has sometimes.”
“What do you mean sometimes,” retorted Mori, now fully in command of the quartet.
“Well, he has it when I let him borrow it,” said John.
“You and your brother are a mystery to me,” continued Mori.
“Tell me now, how is it you’re 50 and your twin brother says he will be 45 next birthday? ”
“Because he lies about his age!” said John.
At this point, Reggie, their fourth member – egg-stained tie, and pebble glasses – looked up from his window seat, where he had been engrossed in The Sporting Life.
“Er John, isn’t that the jacket that your Mum wanted to bury your Dad in?”
Richmond – Twickenham – Feltham, the train was now heaving and a further gaggle of passengers stood between the two rows of seats in our carriage, temporarily depriving me of this surreal banter. And it was not until two of them found room in the corridor, that I tuned in again to the ginger moustache opposite.
“Flat on the floor I was, threatened with a shooter – then they blew the safe – I couldn’t stop shaking, but when they opened it there was only a monkey inside.”
The blue turban chuckled and her fag-ash went all over my lap.
“Sorry darlin’,” she exclaimed, “but you gotta laugh, ain’t yer?” And she did, chuckling away in spasms.
At Staines, two bottled beers got in, and after passing the Daily Mirror to and fro, the Fairisle pullover enquired of Mori, “Er, mate, lend us a pen for a sec.”
“Sorry,” said Mori dismissively. Whereupon, the Fairisle bothered everyone in turn for something to write with.
Finally, the blue turban offered him a crayon, which she later confessed she used to draw stocking seams on the back of her legs. Meanwhile, it was obvious, even to me as a 15-year-old, that the two bottle beers were a con-act, supposedly marking in that day’s stable whispers. And sure enough, as soon as we were pulling into Ascot station, I heard the Fairisle say to the ginger moustache, “Five bob and I’ll mark yer card.”
Hastily grabbing my brown paper bag from the luggage rack, I didn’t look back to see if the fish was landed, as by now, I was being swept along the platform by the crowds that spilled out from every door on the train.
Down the underground tunnel and out into the light, we were met by all manner of tipsters, vendors and entertainers along the footpath to the racecourse. And it was not until I had reached my vantage point in the middle of the course that I stopped to unpack my lunch: two bottles of stout and a loose banana wrapped in a pair of pyjama bottoms – I had grabbed the wrong bag! So who had got my flask of tea and cheese and pickle sandwiches?
My mind went back to the carriage; which of them was likely to take pyjamas to the races?
But by now there were more important riddles to solve, as 18 two-year-olds went to post for the first, over the straight six furlongs. Soon after, Gordon Richards came back to tremendous cheering on the favourite, Olympic. Half-an-hour later, Scobie Breasley did favourite backers another good turn, when the filly, Verse, won in a photo finish.
Moving over to a spot opposite the paddock, I watched the best horses in Europe filter out on to the course, for what was to be the first ‘King George’. Its prize of £25,000 was the richest ever for a British race.
The favourite was the Derby winner Arctic Prince, while the opposition included Tantieme (Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe), Scratch (St Leger), Supreme Court (King Edward VII), Belle of All (1,000 Guineas), Ki Ming (2,000 Guineas), Sir Winston Churchill’s grey, Colonist, and the temperamental Zucchero with the 15 year-old Lester Piggott aboard.
Nineteen runners went to post before a crowd reported to be more than 100,000.
I had taken an array of bets from my school-mates on the race, including two doubles running-on from Olympic to the long-shots Belle of All and Ki Ming, but refusing to hedge-off, I stood my ground.
Without a public commentary, or my Mum’s opera glasses, it was hard to know what was going on, but a tall man standing on a hillock nearby shouted out that Wilwyn and Belle of All were leading, and even I could see the grey, Colonist, up with the leaders. But along the home straight, two horses pulled away from the rest and although it was a bright sunny day. – the electric atmosphere and the tremendous roar from the crowd gave me the feeling of being in the middle of a great storm.
Finally, I could see Charlie Elliott in the colours of Supreme Court – scarlet with a white V – get the better of young Lester on Zucchero. Both horses broke the 30-year-old course record.
Having weathered the storm, I realised that no-one at school had backed Supreme Court, so, to celebrate I bought a jumbo ice-cream cone and washed it down with the bottle of stout. However, still in the possession of an unwanted pair of pyjama bottoms and, having been unable to come up with a use for them, I decided to ditch them in the makeshift lavatories. The task completed, I saw a huddle of men gather at the exit. Not the usual ‘Find the Lady’, but Banker! Surprisingly, I was joined by the Fairisle pullover.
“High there”, I piped up.
“Oh, hello titch, weren’t you on our train?”
“Yes,” I said, then daringly, “How are your tips going?”
“Oh, those,” he grinned, “just out to make a bob or two, you know.”
“Were they really stable whispers?” I persisted.
“Nah – just a couple of favourites and some my old Mum picked out – double-barrelled names with the same letter, you know, Fast Fox, that sort of thing,” he said with surprising candour.
Spilling out into the light, I was confronted by a cockney balloon salesman.
“The more yer blow, the bigger they grow,” he proclaimed. And then, as a small gathering of children surrounded him, he proceeded to make a series of giraffes, poodles and dachshunds from blowing and twisting balloons.
“One shilling for a giraffe,” he announced, “start your own zoo today.”
A further two races passed – Fast Fox 7-2 and Lancashire Lassie 13-2. The Fairisle’s Mum certainly knew a thing or two! Drifting through the crowd and feeling a little thirsty, I went into the beer tent to try and get another bottle of stout, but after standing on tip-toe for five minutes in front of a bar, now five deep, I heard a voice behind me say: “You’ll be lucky, nipper.” It was the blue turban, who surprisingly had linked arms with the ginger moustache from our carriage, introducing him as Ralph and herself as Betty. Both seemed very jolly, as Ralph, having paid five-bob for the Fairisle’s tips, had backed three winners. Betty snuggled up to him and told me she was going to help him spend it.
Eventually, Ralph got to the front of the bar and ordered me a beer. Standing in a corner of the tent, Betty mused, “I brought two bottles of stout with me, but must have picked up the wrong bag – still the sandwiches came in handy.”
What could I say? I couldn’t ask or the subject of the pyjama bottoms would crop up. I didn’t feel equal to that discussion, so I kept quiet, but my mind ran riot with the possibilities.
After another round of drinks, courtesy of Ralph’s success, we dashed out to back the favourite in the last. Wanting to look big, I had a £1 on it, while Betty was urging Ralph to double his stakes. Inside the final furlong, the favourite Pares, and Red Linnet (the danger), were up-front going hammer and tongs. I confess I had to look away, but I could hear Betty screaming and then noisily kissing Ralph.
It had been a great day for all of us. We collected the cash and walked back to the Railway Station, where we met up again with Mori. He seemed a little quiet however, and declined the offer to accompany us all to White City dogs.
Ten minutes later, having talked about our varying degrees of success, we boarded the London train together.
Mori looked tired, and sank back into the corner seat. After a few minutes of staring blankly out of the window, he sighed and said,
“Life’s like a game of poker you know; most people are dealt a hand for life – I think mine was a pair of Jacks. Not great, but when the opposition is weak or they hesitate, you can pick up a few quid. Some good times, some bad and, if you like what you’re doing, even the bad times are good.”
We all nodded respectfully at his obscure soliloquy. I concluded that Mori was coming to terms with a very bad day.
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 the hospital, supplied with the Sporting Life, fruit and a radio. This, following the annual Air Marshal’s parade, when I slipped, crashing down with rifle and suspected concussion. The incident caused great concern at the hospital for fear of replicating a similar incident in the previous years parade, which had ended in tragedy.
On surviving my stay in hospital I was chosen to play The Last Post in the Ely Catholic Church on Armistice Sunday, for which the Priest gave me 40 Churchman’s No.1.
Ironically, at that time, I was neither a Catholic nor, a smoker! However, soon after I landed a treble at Epsom to win our four-man syndicate £125 (at the time, my pay was £3 per week).
After keeping out of trouble for a few months, I hankered after going to Newmarket races. The journey from Ely to Newmarket is about 12 miles, but they had no Saturday fixtures and I could never get time off during the week. The thought turned into a quest and in view of my imminent posting to Bristol University Air Squadron, it looked like now or never.
What was known as the First October Meeting started on Tuesday, September 27. It was a three-day affair, but how to get there posed a problem.
Tom Lewis, the Station Warrant Officer and 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/bookies runner, whose official job title was Medical Clerk, was also keen to go to Newmarket. So, after much discussion, and to everyone’s amazement, we both entered our names for the cross-country run.
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 wasn’t aware,” 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, and 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.’
The Village Donkey Derby
There are few things more typically English than the summer village fete – bric-a-brac stalls, Morris dancers, benign vicars and hearty ladies serving teas – none of which appealed to me on a Saturday afternoon.
Until, one August in the mid 1970s, when our family was invited to accompany friends to the Chobham village fete, one glance at the flyer changed my mind – a Donkey Derby with a Tote.
My two sons, Shaun (ten) and Dominic (six), not usually fete enthusiasts, were also showing a lively interest.
On the morning of the fete expectations were high, a hamper was packed, and when our friends turned up in their cars – that we might all go in convoy – it had the feel of Derby Day. In fact, I even threw an old pair of binoculars into the hamper, just in case. Surprisingly, they played a vital role in our afternoon’s enjoyment.
Cars parked, the men and boys of our party showed a minimal interest in the picnic, preferring to make a bee-line to what passed for a paddock. Hard as we stared however, we could glean nothing from the neddies – a sorry bunch, one hardly distinguishable from another. I found it difficult to imagine them moving, never mind racing. But the jockeys moved freely, weaving about in diverse riding gear. These were young girls aged between eight and 14, with vastly different demeanours. There were about eight of these lasses, although four or five of them had that ethereal, fairy-like quality, not usually associated with a driving finish. Inevitably, our eyes were drawn to the others, two of which had that steely-eyed confidence often seen in young ladies used to getting their own way.
Just before the first race, an official selected six donkeys, called out the jockeys’ names and then, at the last minute, pinned their numbers on the front and back of their jackets.
Having watched the saddling up, we had no time to join the lengthy tote queues before the race was underway. But our jockey observations proved correct.
One of the young ladies we had noted, rode her race with a ruthless determination that a young Lester Piggott would have been proud of.
“Come on Sadie,” yelled her connections, to whom, we were pleased to note, she gave scant attention during the race. Not so some of the other riders, who spent valuable racing time waving to parents and loosing their grip on the reins. Georgina, another promising young thing, finished second. She too appeared to have the necessary concentration and determination of a winner. These two would be our bankers.
An inspection of the tote revealed six trestle tables, one for each of the runners. So if you wanted to back numbers one and six in the same race, and many did, you had two queues to join and a tidy walk between. It soon became obvious that we needed a plan and, it had to be a team effort. A family member was posted in each of the tote queues, while someone had to be in the saddling enclosure, watching the numbers given to our two jockeys. This responsible and crucial work was entrusted to Shaun. I was to interpret his tic-tac message, using my binoculars, and dispatch Dominic as our emissary with betting instructions to the appropriate queuers. Speed would be the essence of our campaign.
Before the second race we conferred avidly, tying up loose details and sharpening the team’s resolve. Where were the weak links? Perhaps Irene’s aged Mum in queue six. No time now; hope for the best. They’re off!
The whole operation worked like a dream. It was wonderful to watch all the other punters swelling the pool with their amiable bets. These investments seemed to be based on either loyalty to the jockeys, who were either their offspring or those of their friends, or an unexplained fascination with the supposedly comic names given to the donkeys.
After the fourth race, we had amassed some serious money. Irene’s Mum, or the Bursar as she liked to be called, far from proving a weak link, had become a hugely enthusiastic collector of the funds. What a team, what a plan, it had all the marks of The Sting or The Great Train Robbery! What a shame there were only two more races.
Carried away with our well-oiled operation, we decided to re-invest all our winnings on the next race. It would shorten the odds of course, but the payment would be bigger and it looked money for old rope. Chatting with team members between races, to inform them of our success and keep up morale, I began to notice the officials manning the tote tables – kindly, unsuspicious souls, every one. Then, one of the posters caught my eye: Profits to be divided between the Parish and the Donkey Sanctuary. As if on cue, a little scrap of a jockey, Celia, came up to earnestly explain the dreadful ends that some of the donkeys met if not provided for in a sanctuary, adding the gorey details that some poor beasts had been found in.
Feeling guilty for picking winners is not an emotion I am familiar with, but events were certainly conspiring to take the gilt off the gingerbread. Slowly, I found myself seriously questioning whether our professionalism was in the spirit of the afternoon.
However, on receiving the signal from Shaun – numbers one and three – our gang went back into action. Irene’s Mum gave me the nod, the money was on. But just as I was focusing my binoculars on the start, I was alarmed to see Shaun run onto the track, waving his arms and shaking his head. Something was wrong, but what?
The donkeys came towards us at a steady rate, although one dug in his heels and another veered off into the shrubbery. Following them through my binoculars, I could see that these two weren’t ridden by our girls, but then unbelievably, I saw they were marked up as number one, and number three. What on earth was going on?
Shaun and Dominic came running up,
“It was the stewards’ fault Dad, he changed the jockeys at the last minute. He said that Sadie and Georgina should sit out the last two races to give the other girls a chance.”
Our team was shattered. A disaster! We should have cleaned up; instead, we had lost everything.
In time, the adults did see the funny side of our inappropriate zeal, but the kids found it hard to give up the dream. And although they could not be placated with bric-a-brac and Morris dancing, everyone agreed they had learned a valuable lesson. But I’m not entirely sure what it was.
Farewell to Ally Pally
What was so special about Ally Pally? Why was it John McCririck wanted his ashes to be scattered on the site of the furlong pole? John had said in his World of Betting book that: “Nothing could match the atmosphere of that tiny course near the foot of Muswell Hill, at the time of its demise the only racecourse within the boundaries of Greater London.”
It was of course, cheap, easy to get to and, like a night at the dogs, totally informal. I can still remember the jellied eels, cockles and cockney humour, and now recall my memories of that last day’s racing at Alexandra Park.
It’s early Monday morning September 8, 1970, and the phone is ringing.
“Is that you Michael (pause), Ron Noble here – Kenwood’s – do you remember?”
“Of course, how are you, haven’t seen you since Ally Pally a few years ago.”
“Well that’s it really; I expect you already know today’s the last meeting before they send in the bulldozers. Wondered if you are going?”
“Yes, have to be in at the death, as they say.”
And so we arranged to meet at Charing Cross Station, kidding ourselves it would be like the ‘Last Train to San Fernando’.
Ron had been the Sales Director at Kenwood’s – the food mixer people – and there, as his statistician, I supplied him with their sales figures, my forecasts and their rep’s progress. In addition, I wrote out all his bets and collected his winnings.
To appreciate the finality of Ally Pally, I had already read up on some of its history. It seems the first meeting took place in 1868, in front of a crowd of 40,000. However, the standard of racing was never very high and inevitably the crowds dwindled. The innovative evening meetings of the 1950s and 60s revived its flagging fortunes but, ironically, it was the Horserace Betting Levy Board that finally put the boot in by refusing to fund the course, since betting shops at the time were not allowed to open at night. Sadly, at the end of the 60s, its accounts went further into the red and its closure became inevitable.
Because of the shape of the course, Ally Pally was also called “the frying pan”, although experts proclaimed its shape to be more like a banjo. Londoners however, seeing more frying pans than banjos, favoured the former. My own treasured memory of the place had been watching Cider Apple win his third London Gold Cup there in 1952. A big and almost black seven-year-old, he had led from start to finish.
We alighted at Alexandra Palace station. The Palace occupied the higher ground at the back of the racecourse, and was for many years the main transmitting centre for the BBC. But that’s enough history for now.
On entering the turnstiles at Tattersalls, we splashed out on two baskets of scampi and chips and two pints of Guinness. Our bets did nothing in the first two races and so, to get a better view of the horses, we went down to the rails to see the start of the one mile five furlongs, just in front of the stands. As the crowd gathered to watch the start, I spotted two old travelling companions – “Fair Enough” Smith and his girl friend Joyce. The former had acquired his handle by repeatedly saying “Fair enough,” after everything said to him, while Joyce was an SP settler who worked with Smithy. The two of them had been regulars on the Portsmouth to Waterloo trains in the early 60s, where I often joined them in a Craps dice game. Joyce, by the way, had the distinction of having one blue tooth, and I was pleased to see that when she smiled it was still with us.
After the “How yer doings”, and “long time no sees”, Joyce quietly gave us what seemed like some good inside information.
“I went into the office for a few hours this morning to settle up Windsor and Warwick, and took a couple of lumpy bets on this Bruce Hobbs horse in the next – the sprint.” She turned the page on her racecard. “Thundergay,” she said and looked up and smiled. “Thought I’d pass it on for old time’s sake.”
“Fair enough aye, nice to see you are keeping well Michael.” Smithy rounded things off with another “Fair enough”, and we all shook hands. Having wished them well, Ron and I agreed that Thundergay it had to be. We put our tenner’s together (a big bet at that time) and went in search of a price. We got it: 11-2.
From Tatts, the first two furlongs were obscured by a long stretch of trees, but turning into the straight we could clearly see the blue with white sleeves of Thundergay leading the way, and so he continued, ridden out by John Gorton to win by six lengths. Good old Joyce. We scurried around afterwards to try and buy her and Smithy a drink, but they had disappeared. So another round for us, and two races left.
About this time, we went into our ‘second last syndrome’ – our second last bet, our second last drink and the second last visit to the loo at Ally Pally. Our supposed second last bet turned out to be a Geoff Lewis 4-7 shot – Golden Reppin. Ron, now a little worse for Guinness, wanted to play up all his winnings, while I erred on the side of caution. In the end we each put down a pony and took the odds.
The race off and running, Ron decided to stay in the bar, while I went outside to witness our fate. Well it wasn’t easy; Lewis had to ride all the way and was never more than a length up until the final stages, when the second horse gave way.
We were now in the ‘last time syndrome’.
“Well Michael, who’s going to win the last race at Alexandra Park – the very last race at Ally Pally.” I stared blankly back at him. Our success, the Guinness, and now the sadness all mingled.
There is something deeply poignant about the closure of any racecourse, greyhound track or football stadium. But strangely, more so at the demise of this little corner of London. All those hopes, all those dreams, all that noise and then, silence.
Suddenly, I got up to go. I shook Ron’s hand solemnly, thanked him for sharing a memorable day and took my leave. I went to the top of the stands for one last look – like when you used to say goodbye to the sea on the last day of your summer holiday. The runners were gathering in front of the stands for the start, and that was my last memory of it all. I walked out the back of the stands just as the commentator called “They’re Off!” and his voice slowly faded away as I continued on towards the railway station.
A Psalm to Monte Carlo
Our family holidays at this time were camping on a shoe string for a month at Madam Rosa’s camp site, on the Cote d’Azur.
This time however, with our four young children we felt privileged to be allotted part of an overgrown car park under the trees. It was here, on a fellow camper’s portable TV, that we watched the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana, only to be brought abruptly back to reality by visiting our camp wash-house and toilet facilities. Here previously-learned standards of hygiene were abandoned in favour of agility in suspending over bottomless pits. And so, by necessity, and to the relief of the children, our ablutions were carried out at a nearby supermarket, where twice a day, we disguised our mission with purchases of pastries.
It was always on my mind to visit the Monte Carlo Casino, however, my wife Pat had other ideas and, unbeknown to me, had surreptitiously unpacked my smart jacket and tie.
Previously, I had been refused entering the Casino while wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. Now, however, Alf, our TV neighbour, had suddenly come to my rescue.
“A jacket and tie? Of course you can borrow them. I rarely wear them, but Julie always insists I pack them!”
So, against her better judgement, Pat had dropped me off in Monaco on my way to the Casino. However, I decided to take a quick look in the Cathedral first, the opulence contrasting strangely with the austerity of Madam Rosa’s.
Staring up into a big gold dome, until shuffling feet broke into the silence, I stood in awe, surrounded by statues, stained glass and candles. My eyes continued to scan the walls until focusing on a wooden frame used for holding hymn and psalm numbers. It bore a single psalm number in red – 23 – The Lord is My Shepherd. On the way out, I dabbled my hand in the holy water and was gone.
There was a big crowd at the Casino that night, and moving into the main room, I gravitated towards one of the roulette tables to watch the action. But with the crowd pressing in on three sides, I ended up looking at the ornate ceilings and brilliant chandeliers above. Its grandeur matched the Cathedral, although the expectations of the congregation were a little different.
Eventually, I got into the second row at the table and was able to buy a handful of chips, enough to start with in view of our limited budget. But tonight I was on a mission; the insult of being turned away all those years ago still rankled. Now, thanks to Alf, I had made it through the glass doors.
I passed two ten franc chips over a row of heads and called for them to cover the first six numbers, but in the melee the chips were nudged forward between the pair 1 and 4 (17-1). I hadn’t noticed this before the croupier called “Rien ne va plus,” followed soon after by “Quatre-noir-four-black.” Good nudge; I had won roughly £36 on the first spin. Brilliant! Could this be the start of a winning streak, or perhaps with cautious play, just an hour’s fun?
Fifteen minutes later, after a few minor ups and downs – mainly downs – I got to the seats at the front. No mistakes in placing my bets from here, but would that be an advantage?
I could now see the faces of the other players. Opposite was a small, pretentious Frenchman with a monocle and a pile of high value chips. From what I could see, he was betting on the four corners of number 20. This way he covered nine numbers, and if 20 came up he copped it four times and stayed under the table limit. His stacks of colourful chips seemed to intimidate some of the other players, but he couldn’t survive a run of 10 losing spins and, as his chips melted away, so did he, making way for the next in line.
Taking his place was a short-haired, blonde Dutchwoman – Hilda – white handbag and no nonsense, who stayed a little longer. She kept a good memory under pressure, backing the four previous numbers to show and hoping for a succession of repeats. She had her moments, but 20 minutes later I looked up and she too had gone. But the elderly man on my right hadn’t. A frail, thin-faced ancient with craggie features, he reminded me of an old crocodile in everything but snappiness. His hesitant and infrequent placing of bets often brought the table to a standstill, as his quivering hands hovered exasperatingly over the numbers.
Suddenly, a young Englishman pushed in at my left.
“What’s been showing,” he asked, not politely, but as if he needed to know.
“South London are you?” he enquired.
“Yeah, Woking actually.” I grinned an apology.
“Fulham Road me. Need to win tonight; hotel bill to pay you know. Where are you dug in?”
“Oh I’m camping – wife and four kids – 40 miles away” – another apology.
“Fifty 100 franc chips, s’il vous plait,” he tossed a bundle of notes to the croupier. After this I thought I had best keep quiet, but he pressed on, wanting to exchange names – his was Harry – and as he seemed a nice enough guy we chatted on.
Harry was what you might call a roulette buff, and had learnt the order of the numbers around the wheel, often covering groups of numbers adjacent on the wheel, rather than on the board. For those of you who have rarely played the game, on the French wheel number one is on the opposite side to two, but 30 is only two slots away from 32. And it was on these even 30s – a small section on the wheel – that Harry concentrated. At first they came in slowly – 10; 3; 34; 25; 8 and 36, but then, after he raised a little and I too covered his numbers, they suddenly appeared like a rash – 30; 34; 15; 2, and 30 again. Very soon the whole table came to life as other players joined in the gamble.
As is usual in these circumstances, the croupier was changed in order to break the run, this time to an older man. But by now, chips were repeatedly stacked high against the bottom section of 31-36 (odds 5-1) and on each of those single numbers. The Pit-Boss, a sinister looking dignitary, now came over to scrutinise the players and watch the croupier. But at that point, Harry suddenly took on a strange look, a stare of concentration, his head tilted to one side as if he were listening to something or someone. In an instant his attention returned to me.
“Twenty-three red,” he urgently whispered, “I can see it!” His face was almost transfixed.
“It’s jumping up at me; it’s got to be!” He stacked £50 on 23 red (odds 35-1), blotting out the number. Now unable to add to his pile, I backed the four corners of 23. I watched his face – taught, tense and expectant.
Three times we did this without winning a cent, each time our heightened expectancy taking a visible knock-back.
Some doubting Thomas’s suggested his luck had deserted him. But each time we faithfully re-invested until; “Vingt-trois rouge” – three little words. Harry started shouting, “I knew it was coming; I saw it, I felt it.”
But at the height of the excitement the elderly crocodile slid slowly off his seat and slumped at my feet. No-one else seemed to notice. Somehow, I got him back onto his stool just before two members of staff appeared from nowhere to spirit him away. After watching them expertly manoeuvre him through the doors, I turned to Harry – he’d gone, chips and all.
I called to the croupier, “Where’s my chips from last time?”
He raised his hands; it was out of his control – the ball was spinning. Seconds later he called “Vingt-trois rouge,” followed by “Oh la-la-la.” Stunned, I watched him push columns of chips towards me, as I accepted congratulations for “letting it all ride.”
Waiting at the pay-out window – very posh, like a city bank, polished wood and brass metal bars – I was suddenly joined by Harry.
“Where did you get to?” I asked.
“Time to cut and run,” he said mysteriously. Then, while they counted the chips in, I said: “Your 23 came up again – next spin. I stayed on it!”
He looked so impressed, I kept the explanation to myself. And so we had both paid for our very different holidays, he in his five star hotel and me on an unlisted campsite.
The Casino Manager came over to congratulate us and shook our hands.
“Well done gentlemen; we’ll see you again tomorrow.” He partly bowed.
I was about to say “Not bloody likely,” but was surprised to hear myself politely make the excuse that we were both going back to England in the morning.
Finally, Harry and I shook hands and went to go our separate ways, but after a few paces, he paused and shouted back, “See you in church!”
It was only then I remembered the 23rd Psalm.