I went to York for its final flat race meeting of the season the weekend before last. The weather held, despite some dark clouds and an unfriendly breeze, and we even saw some burnished Autumnal sun. We arrived early in the city and browsed. York was packed. It was a Saturday; there were shoppers, there were tourists, there were race-goers, there was an opera singer in the Coppergate, there was a man and his dog selling roast chestnuts at the bottom of Swinegate. Wed headed into the Old Starre Inn before the race to find it taken over by Scots. Glasses of Stella lining the bar. One up, one down, one in your hand. Nervous fingers desperate for nicotine. Elsewhere Northumbrian accents were arguing over the potential favourites, shouldering each other aside to look at a copy of the form guide. Punters were flooding in from across the North of England. The American, French and German tourists were swamped by race-goers. Shoppers out to get the latest Dan Brown or their groceries in Marks and Spencer were inconvenienced. Wed eaten in the Stonegate Yard Bar & Brasserie. The heated courtyard slowly filled up with men in suits that were obviously having a rare outing, shoes over polished, ties fastened awkwardly, women in fragile hats and bright dresses as if they were dolled up and ready for Yorkshires wedding of the year. There was a carnival feeling. High Feast. Everyone felt to be on holiday.
Historically gambling has been a male domain. Either because of the male exclusivity of gentlemens clubs habituated by men in evening dress with more money than sense, or because Working Class betting shops were run down, utilitarian shacks occupied by chain smoking men, only pausing between bets to cough up nicotine rich flem onto the saw dust floor and encourage their nag grimly. These were the days when a lone woman entering a pub was either frowned on or assumed to be of incredibly easy virtue. But society has changed. Betting shops are homogenized and sit next to Greggs and Tesco Express on the sterile High Street. The National Lottery showed us all that gambling can change your life. And the internet has put Bingo into every home with a computer. Betting is fun.
Like all hobbies/interests/obsessions gambling creates a community. It generates debate. Give a man a topic in his head, a throb of pleasure in his heart, and he will be glad to share it with the first person that he meets. There is a changing but infinitely repeated season, there are the different meetings to anticipate the Derby, Royal Ascot, the Oaks, the St Leger. All as traditional and as vital to our national identity as fish and chips and pessimism. They are points of reference to peg your life to in the same way as the football or rugby or cricket seasons. They give shape and apparent purpose to the shapeless and the sadly purposeless. But gambling holds some people more than others. Any happening where the end result is uncertain is capable of being pitched as a bet. In the wagers book at Whites Club, formerly Whites Chocolate House (in the 18th Century chocolate houses were primarily for gambling while coffee houses were popular for political debate) are some remarkable speculations. Two rain drops running down a window pane. Would the Dowager Duchess of Smelling outlive the Dowager Duchess of Swipe ? The Clermont Club second home to Lord Lucan who earned himself the ironic nickname of Lucky and one of the many West End gambling dens that the murdering peer threw away his family fortune, ran a book on which one of its members would be the first man to commit suicide. Its not known if Lucan put any money on himself (he was quoted as five to one. Debate has rumbled for decades as to whether the circumstances of the bet have been made out or not). Lives have been made or lost on the turn of a card, the outcome of a fight, the speed of a horse, or the number of potatoes in a sack. Regency dandy Beau Brummell, a regular fixture at Whites during the Regency, eventually fled Britain due to debt in 1815. At one time he was £250,000 up at the tables (which would have made him one of the richest men in England) before plunging deeply into the red en route to bankruptcy and exile in France, all in the same night.
Heading out of the city centre we moved up to the Knavesmire. When it came to gambling, we were going to be scientific about it. We had the Racing Post, we had the form guides, wed watched Channel 4s The Morning Line. We wanted to know what the going was. Good? Good to firm? Soft? Someone thought it had rained overnight in North Yorkshire. Bloody hell, this news was met with some frantic turning of pages and some reassessment. The ground would make all the difference to our selections. We wanted to know which side of the track the stalls would be set. Puzzlemaster likes the stand side, someone said. How did they know that? Theyd heard John McCririck say so. John McCririck who looks like Uncle Bulgaria and who when asked the time has to control his hands so that he doesnt tick tack his response. Ten to one. Five to three. A quarter past two. Obviously you can study form or you can select a horse by the often more successful system of guessing. A horse with a particular name will create a favourite regardless of the actual quality of the horse. Take Harrison George, for instance. My Sweet Lord, that afternoon people couldnt throw their money away quick enough on this nag. And the colours worn by Some Sunny Day a subtle shade of lilac, with pink highlights on the hat had the girls dashing up to place their bets and narrowing its odd exponentially.
Passing into the course we asked the old man who checked and ripped apart the tickets if he had any tips. Aye, keep your money in your pockets. You could tell that hed said it a thousand times before. He said it with a grim smile. The smile of a man whos done twenty years in gamblers anonymous and once staked his wife on a game of gin rummy. You could tell that he meant it.
Getting another drink under the belt, we immediately took a chance with the Tote Six. Two selections from the first six races. If anyone one of the two are placed throughout your selections then you win. Its makes gamble appealing to people who play the lottery. The selections are made on the same kind of card. It makes losing your money easier and less enigmatic. You dont have to worry about working out odds and all that hassle, you can throw your money away with just a few marks with a stubby pen. I didnt realize it at the time, but we were prepared for gambling by the Richmond Tests at junior school.
The race course has all the trappings of the modern feast. This is Bartholemew Fair with big screens and Robbie bastard Williams piped through the tannoy. Where in ye olden days were the slee gadgers, tempting the gullible with games of chance involving cups and a hidden ball, today we have a white Lamborghini parked up that could be ours just for the cost of a £20 lottery ticket. Where once the mage gerderers had sold cleverly butchered cat dressed as chicken, now we have the burger man selling industrial meat between cheap and impossibly white teacakes at a fiver a go. There is pop corn sugar in the air. There is processed food a plenty. Chips in cones with lashings of salt and vinegar. Hot dogs, kebabs, paninis. There is pomp and there is spectacle. The horses are magnificent. The stands are monuments to enjoyment. There is a sense of being at the centre of a moment. The races are a good day out, providing you dont take the experience too seriously. Provided youre prepared to pay for the adrenaline rush. Provided youre prepared to be at least mildly disappointed. What remains after the beer and the chips and the carnival sensation is that the main interest is in gambling. The sense of life changing possibilities is palpable. You can feel that some people are desperate to win. These are the men who are in the ill-fitting suits with thin faces or big bellies. They were the men to watch. No £2.50 each way for these fellas. Theyre betting big to win big, on outsiders at ten or even twenty to one. Theyre going to change their lives. Theyre going to turn things round. Bills will get paid, the mortgage will be met, outstanding debts to men with cauliflower ears and broken noses will be lifted from their shoulders. Amongst the lasses dolled to the nines in the dresses from Asos and the lads beered up by noon, these blokes are in deadly earnest about the afternoon. Gambling at this level doesnt make sense any more than do most drugs to people who have never tried them. The mysteries of heroin or crack cocaine are as enigmatic as an each way accumulator on Housewifes Choice in the two-forty-five at Wetherby. Gamblers select their predilection. Cards. The horses. Greyhounds. Cannabis, Crystal-meth, amphetamine. But gambling is legal and so it must be harmless, surely? Yes? Like those other legalized vices of alcohol and nicotine. Gambling is equally addictive, especially to those predisposed to addictions.
We passed into the betting enclosure, passed the security guards with their Americanized uniforms. A hand raised to anyone with a glass. Because you cant drink in the area provided for on course betting. Instead theres a hypocritical fence that separates the licensed areas from the betting posts. The ticktack men are gone. The chalk boards have been replaced by LED. But the old names are still there. The Percy Edwards and the Douglas Thompsons. Names that conjure up spivs and flash harrys stuffing white fivers into the linings on their demob suits. We were in with the rabble at the County Stand. Betting shops and a relatively high entrance fee have thinned out some of the more colourful characters that must have been attracted to the course on race day. Before the advent of Ladbrooks and 888.com. The race gang toughs of Graham Greene and Margery Allingham have turned their hand to other more lucrative ways of villainy. Peaky Doyle, Natty Johnson and Pinkie Brown are now peddling heroin and organizing the import of large quantities of cocaine and cannabis resin. But there is still a mix of people who fitted neatly into stereotypical groups. I immediately bumped into men with pale faces that were very very very pissed. One little man puking in the sinks in the Gents until I thought he was going to bring his intestines up. There were girls out for the day from the office, in full tilt, staggering from the enclosure in impossibly high heels, a boozy wobble on, searching for another Bucks Fizz and a gristly Gimsters. Then there were men wearing clothes that went out of fashion sixty years ago. British warm and West Country check. Cavalry twill and felt waistcoats. Trilby hats bought from exclusive Gents outfitters in Harrogate where a record of the familys hat sizes have been kept since 1710. The men with the tell tale badge looped through the buttonhole, like cattle on their way to market. They are part of the county set who probably own the rights to shoot grouse and peasants on Ilkley Moor and had their social engagements published in The Dalesman and are married to women that not only know about horse flesh but look like it. Dodging between the legs of all these were trainee jockeys who have to be seen to be believed. They are miniscule. I saw two ignoring their calorie restrictions and drinking pints of John Smiths Smooth. They looked like cynical, world-weary eight year olds.
The first race came. Expectations were high. We clutched our slips. We had our Tote Six tickets poised. A furlong out and I had the winnings in my pocket. I could feel those crisp tenners in my hand. Then things started to waver. They couldn’t take the trail It all began to go wrong. Another horse moved up through the field on the outside. My horse, my nag, my dobbin that would have been better off pulling a rag and bone cart, my horse started to fall back no matter how many times the little jockey bouncing about on his back slapped him on his big arse with the crop. The spectators collected at the rails. The shouts became more desperate. More hopeful. More angry. We saw the horses cross the line and then all eyes went up to the big screen. Well ?
Our heads went down. Our shoulders lost shape. Nowhere. Not even placed. We lost hope. The promise that had been with us in the pub in York over the cheeseburgers, the Caesar salads and the pints of Guinness had faltered. At the same time the weather turned, the sun dipped out of sight and a cold wind blew in from the Vale of York.
Thats the trouble. The whole spectacle is created by the stake. What you can lose, but more importantly what you can win. The horses start out of sight. You follow them on the screen. You right off your horse, playing down expectations. Mines boxed in, already trailing, running backwards. The stakes are relative to what you can afford to lose. Its the Widows mite placed on an outsider at Doncaster in the three-forty-five. And the win lies. The win is deceitful. The win creates an impression on the mind. The win wipes out all the defeats. Losses are seen as minor set back. Mere hurdles to be suffered. Once anyone is started upon that road, it is like a man in a sledge flying down a snow mountain more and more swiftly. In a plus and minus account most gamblers will struggle to break even over time. But runs of luck will hide a multitude of sins. The win will change your attitude. And then the sensation of winning becomes more important than the money. The money becomes a token for success. For the triumph. There is a sense of snatching victory from the very jaws of defeat. Of winning fate and feeling life is on your side.
We headed away from the course as dusk was coming on, passed the spent betting slips, grim faces and the broken plastic pint and champagne glasses. Public executions used to be held to coincide with the race meetings. It says something for the fearless optimism of the gambler that highwayman Dick Turpin, AKA John Palmer placed a five shilling bet on the afternoon that he was brought to the Knavesmire to be hung for horse theft. Swift Nick to win at 25/1. He was still willing the ride on as he jumped from the ladder and into the unknown. Swift Nick was unplaced.