Ripping Gambling Yarns
Six short stories, revised and re-edited
Harry Wragg and the Brylcreem Boy
I knocked twice on the dark stained door at the end of the passage.
A small hatch slid open.
“Oxo,” I said boldly, standing on tiptoe.
Alice let me in.
I entered the smoke-filled room where the usual crowd huddled around the ticker-tape machine, its stuttering chatter competing with the ringing telephones.
This is the back room of Charlie Young’s Hairdressing Salon and, as a chirpy, skinny ten-year-old, my excessive enthusiasm for racing and betting has led me to be accepted by all the regulars.
Today is both the last day of the 1946 Flat Season and the last day in the riding career of Harry Wragg, so consequently, my last chance to back him.
Harry was the thinking man’s jockey, known nationally as ‘The Head Waiter’ because of his effective waiting tactics. He had been champion jockey in 1941, and ridden the winners of 13 Classic races, including three Derby winners – Felstead (in 1928), Blenheim (1930) and Watling Street (1942). He also had two younger brothers, Sam and Arthur who were both successful jockeys in their own right.
Time running out, I quickly scribbled my first bet, 2/- win Tiffin Bell, (Harry’s first mount), and slid it across to Charlie’s lanky blonde wife Alice, who promptly secured it among 50 or so others in a giant bulldog clip.
“Two lumps today, Alice,” I piped, reaching for the obligatory cup of tea. But before I had put the cup to my lips, Uncle Albert shouted across “Result Manchester – 1.15 – first Tiffin Bell – 5-2.”
“Blimey, I’m off to a good start,” I squeaked.
During the next 30 minutes, a pipe and two Capstan full strength passed through the security system and quickly contributed to the diminishing visibility.
Continuing my loyalty to H. Wragg, I invested 2/- to win on Aprolon in the next, and made myself useful by taking a tray of tea and biscuits out to Charlie in the shop.
Charlie, a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock, often used his ventriloquist talents whilst cutting hair.
“How’s it going young squirt?” he enquired, throwing his voice to the corner of the salon.
“I backed Tiffin Bell, won 5-2,” I boasted.
“Then you can afford a hair cut he replied,” still in the high squeaky voice.
“Sit in the end chair.”
“Ten minutes later I re-entered the betting room sporting a well-slicked head.
“Aprolon won at 7-4 Michael,” Alice said, coughing manfully, adding “it must be your lucky day.”
“And Harry’s,” I said.
“What are you doing in the big one?” she enquired.
“Well, I’ve got to stick to Wragg now, but c-c-can I have a sub on my winnings? I did have a shilling left over, but I had my hair cut.”
“Ask Taffy to settle up on one of your slips.”
“Bloody hell boyo,” said Taffy, “its like looking for a needle in a haystack. Tell you what, I’ll lend you two bob until Monday.”
“Super,” I replied, and instantly returned the coin to his hand.
“Put it on Las Vegas in the N-November Handicap,” I stammered.
Two fifteen approached and the request for prices from the ticker-tape had the ring of an auction. Five to one Dornot – Rae Johnson; 100-8 Star of Autumn – Charlie Smirke; 20-1 Las Vegas – Harry Wragg.
Arriving just in time for the big race, I recognised the voices of Uncle Arthur (Craven A), and Uncle Henry (Rothmans), through the blue haze. At this time, it was thought expedient by a health fanatic, to take the drastic step of opening a window an inch or two, as visibility had fallen to one pace, and it was difficult to hear the odds over the coughing.
Standing on a chair, Taffy shouted out “Under orders Manchester,” shortly followed by “Off Manchester 2-20.”
A stillness now came over the assembly, and strangely, the absence of a running commentary in no way diminished the excitement, as each man prepared himself for the instant finality of the result.
The silence was finally broken by the sound of the ticker-tape. Taffy crouched over it assisting its passage like a midwife at a birth.
“Here it comes,” Taffy warned … “Manchester – 2.15 – first, Las Vegas 20-1, second, Delville Wood 33-1, third, Star of Autumn….”
At this point Charlie, burst in shouting “Quiet everybody, quiet, I’ve just seen two coppers hanging about outside – there’s going to be a raid – everyone upstairs, quick as you can.”
Charlie then went into his raid-drill, “Alice get rid of the ash-trays, Taffy give me the cash and the books, and put the ticker-tape under the stairs, NOW!”
A crocodile of disgruntled men climbed the stairs to temporarily pay their respects to Alice’s bewildered mother, Violet. Meanwhile, Charlie beckoned to me, “You come with me boy.”
“They’re at the back door Charlie,” Alice cried out.
“Hold them up for as long as you can,” he replied, then staring close into the faces of two bemused customers, said, “You’ve seen nothing, OK – and your haircuts are on the house.”
“Michael, put the plank across the arms of that chair, and sit up on it.” I obeyed instinctively. Charlie then put the books, cash and betting slips into a pillowcase, pushed it under the plank and threw a large white cape around me to cover everything.
“Afternoon Mr Young.” The stentorian voice preceded the presence of two uniformed police officers.
“You’ve been very busy this afternoon.”
“Yes, usual Saturday afternoon you know.” Charlie replied, looking a little pale.
“Alice looks as if she has been washing up cups for an army,” the sergeant added sarcastically.
“Customers like a cup of tea with their haircut you know.”
“Yes of course, we must try that approach down at the station,” he retorted.
“Given up the betting, have you Charlie?” he persisted.
“Yes, a mug’s game really you know officer.”
“You’d be a mug if you got caught Charlie – a heavy fine could close your business down.”
“Yes officer, but all that’s in the past now.” said Charlie, riding his luck.
The sergeant’s gaze turned to the customers.
“Been waiting long, gents?” he probed, but their nervous mutterings revealed nothing.
Looking in the facing mirror, I watched the copper slowly circle my chair.
Until, “This boy’s nearly done. Perhaps as a favour you could cut my hair next.”
I could feel my heart beating – my winnings were in that pillowcase.
Suddenly, I blurted out,
“Ch-Charlie’s got to wash it first, officer, I’ve only just got here.”
Charlie’s blanched face sprang to life.
“Yes, course I have. His Mum hates all that Brylcreem plastered all over it.”
Suddenly, I felt myself propelled forward to the basin for a vigorous hair washing. This, having been done under the sergeant’s steady gaze, Charlie was then obliged to begin my second haircut of the afternoon. As the sergeant’s puzzled frown deepened, Charlie explained helpfully, “His mum likes it short!”
As the story of this raid went around Woking, so I became the boy hero, albeit with the shortest haircut in Surrey.
A Tip from Charlie Smirke
In 1952, Charlie Young was 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 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, 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 thirty quid 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 thousand pounds to seventy,” said Charlie, “but,” covering the mouthpiece, “I’ll want the cash here before the race, say Monday.”
“Of course, of course,” Solly nodded adding, “don’t forget yourself.”
Charlie lowered his voice and completed the total 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 thirty quid 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 Charlies money carefully into my blazer pocket. I’ll be the biggest punter on our coach I thought, and this could be the start of the big time for me.
Arriving at Epsom with my bottle of pop, 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. I did – still no Solly.
Walking along the bookies I was surprised that Tulyar was now not only as low as 10-1, but 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 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. 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 reality. Apparently, at the finish, my unrestrained celebrations had convinced a nearby policeman that I had made a full recovery and I was promptly taken back behind the rails.
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 thirty quid, 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 twelve hundred quid.”
“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 thirty pounds. On hearing my story, Mum had no such ambivalence in reaching her conclusion.
“That Charlie Young is a mean bastard!”
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, the St Leger Stakes and was unbeaten as a 3-y-o.
Alice and Charlie had their first holiday since the war, staying in style at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.
Grease, Greyhounds and Crimewatch
“Scrape those meat tins out before you go Church. I want to see them gleaming before you put one foot outside this camp.” Sergeant Thompson’s voice boomed across the ‘tin room’ at the back of the canteen.
Thompson, the catering sergeant at RAF West Kirby, had promised the Commanding Officer that he would win the all-England award for the best and cleanest RAF canteen. And here was I, five weeks into my National Service, released from square bashing and band practice (3rd cornet), only to be roped in to bulling up the canteen.
To make matters worse, this evening was my first off-camp pass, for which I had planned to visit Seaforth Stadium, one of Liverpool’s three greyhound tracks.
Two hours later, with the help of half a dozen Brillo pads, I presented eight large meat tins for inspection.
“Call those clean Church? They look bloody mankey and smell bloody mankey. Get them into boiling water and this time use wire wool.”
It took a further hour’s drudgery before I was released but, with great determination, I caught the bus and train to get to Seaforth for the last three races.
To my surprise, all the races were four-dog handicaps, the traps placed at intervals; trap four at the front on the outside and trap one at the back on the rails, with an inside hare. Punters had to have a degree in maths to work out the comparative times, but the finishes were usually close and the forecast was the most popular bet.
After two failed attempts at the forecast, I decided to back trap four to win the last race.
Joining the back of a queue, I eventually got to the tote window just as the dogs were being put into the traps and, having a slight stammer, my attempts to spit out “One win four,” became “Wer-wer-one.”
Before I could finish, a ticket whirred out, my pound was taken, the lights went out and the sellers hatch slammed down. Surprised and annoyed, I banged on the hatch, shouting “What about my change?”
Now, with the dogs already racing, I checked my ticket under one of the down lights on the terrace. It read £1 WIN TRAP ONE. One pound! I only wanted two shillings and that was on the four dog.
Looking across at the greyhounds, four led the other three into the last bend. But then, running wide, he let in the one-dog who powered up the straight to win by a length. Still in shock, I waited for the official result and tote dividends.
“Win number one, seven pounds ten shillings.”
The rest I never heard – Seven pounds ten, three weeks wages! I dashed over to the payout and could now clearly see the £1 sign over the window. Handing over my ticket with a trembling hand, the young lady said, “Feeling better now – you were getting in a right state.”
Just behind me, I heard a grumpy old man mutter, “Where do these young Airman get their money?” I would have liked to have told him but it might have taken me all night to spit it out.
The following week I went to Liverpool’s White City, a narrow track with the spectators undercover all the way round and standing on floor boarding. It looked then as if it had seen better days and only had six bookmakers.
Once again, the races were four-dog handicaps, but tonight, there were two inter-track races with another Liverpool track – Stanley.
I suppose there was acute rivalry between these tracks, but I wasn’t aware of this, at least, not until the second of the heats.
In the first race, the White City favourite won, but their other dog finished last, so, because points were alloted on a four-three-two-one basis, the tracks were tied at five all.
In the second heat, a Stanley dog was favourite – a fast starting brindled bitch in trap four.
Standing near the fourth bend, the race already in progress, and with the four dog about six lengths clear, I noticed a tall, swarthy man nearby, remove his large cape-like raincoat. Just as the dogs turned into the home straight, he threw it, like a matador’s cape over the leading bitch.
A pile-up followed, with the last two dogs convinced the hare was also under the coat.
The man then ran off, pursued by two officials, one of which caught and held him fast until a policemen arrived.
It seemed the villain had claimed mistaken identity, but one of his pursuers called on the policeman to “get the young airman over to identify him.” This I was duly pressurised into, and signed a short statement, before the culprit was handcuffed to another police officer and taken away. The race was declared void and soon after the punters settled down to studying the next.
Leaving the track half-an-hour later, I spotted two shady-looking men in a doorway opposite.
“That’s him, the airman,” I heard one of them say. I took off.
After running forty yards or so, I joined a bus queue and removed my peak-cap. My heart was still pounding when they caught up with me before the bus arrived.
“We’re from the Liverpool Echo; would you give us the story?”
I never returned to White City, but instead visited the Stanley track twice during my last week at West Kirby. Meanwhile, Sergeant Thompson’s dream came true as the camp’s canteen won the all-England award. Photographs of its modern furniture with latticed dividers, highly polished floors and flowers on every table, appeared in the Echo alongside, ‘Airman Identifies Culprit in Greyhound Scandal!’
Part of the excitement of going greyhound racing whilst in the RAF was the freedom of mixing with civilians – ordinary people, who would gladly chat to you about the dogs. This, compared with the strict ordered routine of the camp, seemed to me like paradise. On both my trips to Stanley, I transferred over to the ‘posh side.’ On one occasion, standing alone by the winning post, I was asked by a lady in a fur coat who I was going to back in the next.
“Roller Coaster,” I replied.
“Oh that’s ours,” she said. “Trevor and I own it.”
Just then, Trevor appeared in a bright camel coat, nodded on our introduction and then buried his head in the Greyhound Express.
I drifted away and so did Roller Coaster, finishing third of four.
Later that week I saw Trevor and Sadie again. This time, they had been drinking and he raised his hat.
“Trevor’s on a roll,” Sadie said, “He’s backed the last three winners.”
“Quiet dear; let’s hear what the Royal Air Force fancy for the next.”
“Well, I think the scratch dog’s got too much to do and both three and four will fade, so it’s got to be two.”
“Trap two – Young Hazard,” he laughed, “Young Hazard it is then. I’ll cut you in for a quid.”
We watched the race together, the blue jacket the focus of our attention under the bright lights. Three led four into the straight, but two finished like a train, with the three of us jumping up and down and shouting him home.
After the last race, I was invited to meet their friends in the owners’ bar, a rare treat for me, especially as all of them wanted to buy me a drink. “This was more like it,” I thought, putting the meat-tin episode behind me and downing my third gin and tonic.
All too soon, Trevor and Sadie were driving me back to camp in their new Jaguar, and the inevitable sight of the barbed wire fences and rows of wooden huts brought me back to earth. Pulling in at the main gate, we were approached by a Military Police Sergeant. Trevor wound down his window.
“Oh it’s you sir! Sorry, didn’t recognise the new car – oh and thank you for the case of whisky for the canteen celebrations.”
“I hope you were able to enjoy a drop,” Trevor said graciously.
“Is that one of our Airmen with you sir?” the Sergeant enquired.
“Has he been in any trouble sir?”
“No, on the contrary ….”
The Sergeant peered into the car.
“Oh it’s you Church, I see ….been on another one of your crusades against crime have you?”
Churchy’s Golden Goose
Housed in one of the bleak huts at the far end of Filton Airport, a place where mugs of tea froze in winter, and mosquitoes swarmed in summer, my posting to Bristol University Air Squadron had its compensations, for not only was I driven to the centre of Bristol every day to work, but was also given permission to practice my trumpet.
Ensconced in a converted private house at the back of the University, my duty as a newly promoted Senior Aircraftsman was to look after the records of students learning to fly light aircraft at Filton.
Due to my stammer, I was inclined to be a loner and spent many evenings back at Filton with my greyhound papers in front of the stove. On one such evening, my corporal asked why I wasn’t over the NAAFI with the other men. I explained that I was working on a new system, using the recent average times of greyhounds when they got a clear run. He seemed to be impressed, and to my surprise gave me a £1 (his day’s pay) to cover my selections the next time I went greyhound racing.
The system was an instant success and very soon, through Corporal Buchan’s free publicity, I had more than a dozen Airmen giving me money to bet for them. This I agreed to do, on condition my expenses were taken out of the pool and that dividends were paid out once a month.
After a further two months of continued success, I upped the ante by asking for 10% of the pay out. No one objected. Eventually my two drivers, who were by now both part of the syndicate, leaked the news of Churchy’s Golden Goose to both our secretary, Glenda and my Adjutant, Flt-Lt Ruggles.
That Friday. Glenda gave me half her salary as a down payment and, a week later, was at my side at Eastville Stadium.
As the syndicate grew, so did the stakes and my bets regularly affected the starting prices, while the bigger bookmakers would grant me fractions over the odds. Further benefits followed as the weeks rolled into months. I was now regularly treated to supper in the NAAFI, allowed unofficial extra days’ leave – yes, the Adjutant thought he would be part of the fun after all, and even arranged speech therapy for me. Finally, to allow me more time to study the form, the Greyhound Express and The Sporting Life were ordered for the lounge, the latter since many of the officers thought they could ‘earn’ even more if I would work on a horseracing system.
Although there were occasional weeks when the prices of our winners would not recoup our total stakes, overall we had nine months of steady success and not once had we gone through the card without a winner. Several of the syndicate thought my system was invincible and drew out their holiday savings to add to their investment, while many others refused to take the dividends, ploughing them back into their stake. Glenda, a pillar of the syndicate’s administration, was considering selling some of her husband’s shares.
One Friday night, Glenda and I travelled to Eastville in her newly acquired estate car, with a holdall packed with pound notes. Two hours later, after six straight losers, we were £300 down. Needing to compose myself, I decided to skip the seventh race and wait for the last. Our maximum bet of £150 (my weekly wage was £4), was placed by Glenda and I in two hits at 3-1 and 5-2, on Real Treasure – trap three.
The hare rattled past the traps. Suddenly all our concentration was focused on the white jacket, a fast starter. He trapped well and led into the final bend. From then on, Mighty Mo, the deposed favourite in trap one, made steady headway, until the pair passed the post locked together.
“Oh God, what do you think Michael?”
“Never mind about that,” I said, “go down and put this on Mo in the photo,” and handed her £120 from my reserve kitty.
“Try to get odds against, then we can’t lose whichever one wins.”
Glenda sped down to the bookies and I saw them take the cash. Moments later the Tannoy announced
“First trap one, Mighty Mo.”
What happened next was to affect the lives of 26 Airmen.
Glenda returned looking like death.
“I’ve backed the wrong bloody dog,” she gasped, “I just can’t believe it.”
I was speechless. In seconds we had gone from a no-lose situation to a total disaster. On the night we had lost £570.
Later that night, Glenda said she would make good her £120 mistake by selling her car. It was a tough decision to allow her, but it temporally quelled the threat of a lynching when I returned to camp.
Over the next week, no-one spoke of anything else – everyone was affected, and immediately all the goodwill vanished. Glenda was given much sympathy, but not from her husband, who, having believed her car had gone in for a service, saw it for sale in a Bristol showroom. Later that week, he was also forced to query the disappearance of their new refrigerator, which Glenda had also found necessary to sell.
After the immediate anger died down, everyone accepted that Churchy’s Golden Goose was cooked. But three weeks later some of the syndicate, missing the excitement and the hope it had given them, started to put the loss into perspective. After all, it had only bombed out once in nine months and, if they had not kept ploughing back their winnings they would still be ahead.
Slowly the punters returned, and, at a reunion in the NAAFI, eight of them agreed to continue, but this time amending the increase in stakes between the fifth and seventh selections.
That Saturday afternoon I returned to Knowle, a tight track just outside Bristol, with an inside hare and trap 6 vacant. Success came quickly, my dog winning the first race, at odds of 4-5. Not great, but we were up and running and, over the next two weeks I notched up successes at six other meetings.
One morning Glenda, and Flt-Lt Ruggles, who had been giving her lifts to and from work, called me up to his office.
“Look Church,” he said, staring at his blotting pad, “I think people have said a lot of unfair things about you. After all, it wasn’t your fault they bet more money than they could afford to lose. By all accounts it’s a very fine system and,” he paused, looking up, “if it’s all right with you, Glenda and I would like to be part of it again.”
Minutes later, in the Air Students’ lounge, I was pouring out Ruggles’s favourite tipple – Amontillado sherry – into three glasses, to toast our future success.
The very next Wednesday evening, I stood high in the stand at Eastville. It was pouring with rain and by the fourth race puddles began to form at the first bend. Why I had gone along to the Puppy Heats I will never understand. Although all the dogs had had one or two trials over the course and distance, I could never justify their reliability. Inevitably, disaster struck – seven straight losers – a lethal blow to my hopes of becoming a professional punter in civvy street.
The following week, a posting to a Fire Fighting course in Chorley, Lancashire, suddenly became expedient. The C.O. coyly explained that it was for my personal protection, allowing me to transfer my kit from Filton to Bristol, while I waited for the date to arrive.
I left with no good-byes, although the duty driver wished me good riddance, as I struggled to get my kitbag out of the back of the jeep. My stay at Bristol had been a roller-coaster ride and, as is the way with these things, I had got off at the bottom.
Alone again, while waiting for my train at Temple Meads Station, I suddenly had the germ of an idea, but that’s another story!
The Levy Board Experience
It was snowing big flakes as I walked down Oxford Street in search of a job. I had been unemployed for three days and was looking for the Brook Street Bureau. Shortly after being told, “It’s about 30 yards along on your right,” I spotted a pound note on the ground, trodden in the snow. Picking it up by the Bureau entrance, I went inside, hoping to play up my luck.
It seemed that the newly formed Horserace Betting Levy Board were in need of clerks who were good at maths, knew a bit about racing and had preferably worked for the Government. And so, deemed fit for purpose, after the first month, I was given a rise and put in charge of the Assessments Division.
The task, after the legalisation of Betting Shops a year and a half earlier, entailed assessing and collecting monies from bookmakers and the Tote, for the purpose of improving the panorama of horseracing.
The staff employed, roughly fell into three categories – ex-army personnel, their daughters, and ex-civil servants. For a while, the daughters (rarefied breeds), were allowed to keep their pet dogs (rarefied breeds), under their desks, and this perk seemed to catch on, until dogs of different persuasions confronted each other. Then the posturing, growling and barking would inevitably bring their owners into the fray in an attempt to separate their charges. However, these ‘teething problems’ were soon sorted, when both ‘Peek’s’ and perks were withdrawn.
It didn’t take me long to discover I was the only member of staff with a Secondary Modern education, and there were times when I was more than a little embarrassed, although, a few of my colleagues also came from unique backgrounds. Gerry, who had studied to be a Cistercian monk in Ireland, was unable to keep silent either then or now. There were two Hugh’s – ‘Hugh the cash’, who was the chief cashier, and ‘Hugh the books’, who kept track of the ‘non-payments’. Both were brought up in the village of Bedgellert, in darkest Wales, and in times of high excitement, reverted to their mother tongue.
At the time, everyone shared a great enthusiasm for the work, but none more than Dennis, who would make the return trip to Angmering in Sussex every day on a moped, having first purchased The Sporting Life at 6 am. By contrast, Anne – a voluptuous young lady who, in the process of calculating horse transport allowances, was often to be found lying in the middle of the floor on a huge map of Britain, inviting passer’s by to come down and help her find the way from Bridgwater to Bogside.
Another lady who left a vivid impression was the formidable Miss Hardcastle, who ran the Registry. A forerunner of Ann Robinson, who, peering over her spectacles could discharge a volley of cutting remarks that would bring a Brigadier to his knees.
Of course, harnessing these diverse personalities was sometimes a headache, but I had no difficulty in organising the daily Naps table, encouraged by the hierarchy “to spread a wider understanding of the sport among the staff.” This unfortunately they lived to regret, for its inroads into the workload were significant, firstly the deliberation over the selections, secondly because of the necessity of keeping the master sheet up-to-date, with all its pluses, minuses and disputes, and finally, the collection of money each week, all of which left very little time to fit in the work. However, it did generate a lot of fun and a nail-biting finish on the final day, with Dennis, myself and Gerry leading at different times in the afternoon, and Gerry celebrating his last race triumph with an exuberant Irish jig on the top of his desk.
A few weeks later on, December 21, 1962, there began a lengthy period of bad weather known as ‘The Big Freeze’. Only one race meeting took place (Ayr, January 5), before racing resumed on March 8, and the effect on both betting shops and the Levy Board was devastating.
With the bookmakers’ payments down to a trickle, the staff was left in a void, and more so, after a well-timed directive closed the Naps competition. Nevertheless, we all came to work as before.
Now, inventive activities filled the time. To begin with, there was pool betting on the first word uttered by the tea-lady as she entered our office with her trolley, but since she had a colourful vocabulary, there were many rollovers. However, this was such a success that an afternoon version was added. I’m sure the poor woman often wondered why her opening greetings were met with such mixed reactions from the staff.
Then of course, there was the paper dart in the hat game, paying even-money at three paces. Another stimulating challenge was betting on the number of minutes between red buses stopping outside St Pancras Church. This activity kept the two Hugh’s happily occupied at their window desks for the best part of the afternoon, and could surely be claimed as the forerunner of spread betting.
The usual diversions such as Pontoon, Poker Dice and Totetopoly were, for reasons of decorum, played in our extended lunch break, whilst some of the more restless of the staff would prefer to catch a cab to a nearby Dance Hall to improve upon their Twisting or to learn the ‘Locomotion’. And so it was that many happy hours were passed throughout that winter.
Sadly, all this came to an end when racing resumed; that is until Gerry devised a novel Grand National competition. As soon as the weights were published, he encouraged each person to put a cross against their fancy and put two shillings in the kitty. This was repeated every week until the big race, when the horse with the most crosses carried all the money in one huge, each-way bet. Gerry’s Cistercian logic was that if we were lucky, we could all celebrate together. Anyway, despite all that, Gerry let the ladies persuade him to divide the kitty between the top two horses. Thus it was that we went down to the bookies with our crock of gold and backed Frenchman’s Cove and Mr What each way.
Leaving a friend’s wedding early to watch the race on Mum’s TV, a mile and a half away, I was grateful to those cautious ladies, as Frenchman’s Cove, our first choice, was brought down, while Mr What finished third at 22-1, to Kilmore and Fred Winter at 28-1.
Throughout this year and the next, for various reasons, the Levy collected fell critically short of expectations, and I was gently persuaded to move on. My fond memories of this happy time have now mingled with the reflection that I was possibly not quite mature enough for the job!
Racing Post and all that
The stories that you have read, and hopefully enjoyed, were the product of a misspent youth, for as a young man I can never remember school or work interfering with the chance of attending a good race meeting or landing a betting coup. But what happened in the time that followed?
Well, you will be glad to hear that I married my lovely girlfriend, Pat and, after an initial burst of caution, we had four children in five years: Shaun, Sarah, Dominic and Mia.
Many years later and just when everyone thought I had become rooted in a local accounting job, I replied to an advertisement for the position of accountant with the Racing Post newspaper, weeks before its launch.
Surprised and thrilled to get the job from a number of applicants rivalling the cast of Ben Hur, I soon found myself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sir Peter O’Sullevan and Lord Oaksey and I still remember the first time I shared a urinal with Brough Scott.
Soon after setting up the Accounts computer systems, my knowledge of horseracing and greyhounds came to the fore, and following an innovative project for the Bloodstock department, and a successful spell as a greyhound ‘Spotlight’ writer – both ‘after hours’– it was obvious where my heart lay.
In what proved to be a crucial transition from accounts to writing my own books, I was appointed to the especially created post of Special Projects Manager, covering the promotion of racing and greyhound events and Racing Post publications. Fortunately for me, successive Editors and Chief Executives – and there were many – allowed me to write a series of classic tomes on bloodlines and the history of the Turf, all of which were successful.
These stories from Ripping Gambling Yarns were my first venture into short story writing. And their success led to the further volumes: Born to Bet, Black Horse Red Dog and The Gambling Adventures of Father Green, which I hope you will also enjoy.