Thursday 13 September 2018

Early days

Watching and going racing during the summer reminded me of how I first got into the game, at least from a working point of view.

It was 1992 or 1993. There had been a recession on for three or four years, not that I was old enough to understand such things. All that I knew was that I was one of ‘Major’s millions’.

Unemployment had gone over 3m and I was one of them for a short period of time after I left school at 18 with what would be described these days as poor grades. They were very poor grades back then.

I had been in and out of work doing various crappy factory and warehouse stuff, all equally mind-numbing. There were people working these jobs full-time which I couldn’t get my head around, so naive was I.

On a rare trip to the Job Centre one day there was a card on one of the boards saying that a bookmaker was looking to hire a clerk for the upcoming summer. It had my name all over it.

I contacted said bookmaker and he conducted an interview as we were sat in the front seats of his red Mondeo, while parked outside my local pub. The seats were garishly covered in leopard print. My parents are gonna kill me, I thought.

I didn’t understand what he was telling me as he placed a gigantic folder of lined paper in front of me, something about ‘field money’ and the ‘over round’. I nodded vigorously as if such terms were second nature.

It didn’t take long to secure my position on the bag. He traded under the name of Mike Leicester although his name I think was Peasgood and there was some relation to the Julie of the same name who featured in one of the soaps like Coronation Street.

It turned out that quite a few chaps had made good dough in the building industry over the last few years and had turned their hands to bookmaking. Mick was one. There were others, Colin Fountain and Pat Cash, who were actually brothers and didn’t get on. Gus O’Neill was another who is still going today (I think).

Bookie-ing was quite a big thing in Leicester back then. There was camaraderie. Sort of. In those days you only moved up the numbers if someone died or jacked it in. So you started out in the Silver Ring and slowly, very slowly worked your way up. Buying pitches would be some years in the future.

So you had to do your one-in-threes. This meant if you got your name onto a list to stand at a track, you had to rock up at least once in every three meetings to maintain your pitch there. So we traipsed around here and there throughout the year often just to maintain a pitch, taking £20-£50 a race.

And while it was just about okay making a three-hour plus trip to Salisbury in mid-summer, making the likes of Ludlow and Towcester on freezing January afternoons wasn’t when you would do well to field a score a race.

The reason you would maintain such pitches might be for one or two days a year when you wold have a chance to make decent money, usually one of the spring Saturdays at Uttoxeter or Easter meetings at Towcester or Warwick.

But I was loving it. I was using my brain again and going racing 3-4 times a week which got me out the warehouse. And there was some good crack.

The third member of the team was the radio man who at the start was a hulking figure called Arthur, who looked like a tramp and smelled like one too.

Because he was so big he used to sweat quite badly. So as well as the smell, the dampness would seep into Mike’s leopard print car seats. So Mike would get the spray out before we picked Arthur up, and a blanket was placed over the front passenger seat to absorb any moisture.

I had to sit in the back. They were long trips on sunny days. Mick liked Arthur, because Mick wasn’t that bright and Arthur was good at numbers. But I was better at numbers, and I don’t think Arthur liked that.

Arthur had one story. It was how he made loads of money backing St Paddy to win the Derby in 1960. He fancied it all through the winter and kept backing it. Piggott rode it to victory. Arthur bought a Jaguar. He promptly crashed it and almost killed himself. He sported a massive scar down the front of his head. He was potless. I don’t think he’d backed a winner since.

But it didn’t stop him from knowing everything. I used to try and take the piss and Mike sort of got it but was quick to defend big Arthur. Mick’s stories were better. He was covered in tattoos, back when that amount of ink wasn’t popular. He’d lived. I hadn’t. I listened.

I don’t know how much of it was true. He was a good raconteur, he’d make a story out of nothing. A ladies man, or at least had been.

He was a very tight bookmaker, which probably came from being a penny pincher. If we laid a £10ew bet on a long shot he’d have it all back. There was never a chance that we’d ever make more than a few quid.

The only times there was a bonus on the cards was Kempton on Boxing Day or at Royal Ascot. On both occasions business was so good it was impossible for the clerk to keep up. Mick’s brain used to fry on such big days so I’d go up on the stool and take the hundreds of small each-way bets off the ladies.

But they were fun times. I can’t remember what happened to Arthur but at some stage there was a change of personnel, with me switching to the radios and Mick the clerk taking over pen duties.

Mick the clerk could charm the birds down from the trees. He was a decent bloke and a good clerk, better than I was. But he had a problem with the booze. And for a guy still in his 30s was very old-fashioned, set in his ways.

We only had one stopover and that was at Chester for the May meeting and sometimes there were some good Friday/Saturday cards that warranted a cheap B&B for the night.

I lived for those trips. I loved Chester, not just the track but the social life as well. Compared to Leicester it seemed quite exotic, with that blend of Scouse and North Wales accents. We all enjoyed mixing with the girls and we made some good memories.

There was talk of me being a rep for the firm if Mike didn’t fancy it one day, or if there were two possible meetings to attend and we’d take one each. Nothing came of it though.

I’d started punting in disciplined three-figure sums, and by about the third summer I was getting itchy feet about clerking for £25 a day. I couldn’t reckon the two together.

I guess that’s what everyone who works in the racing game goes through. Am I a winning punter yes/no? Do I keep punting or stop yes/no?

By 1995 I was punting pretty much full time but primarily relying on phone lines and other avenues for ‘info’, and still doing a a couple of days a week on the bag.

I was also in the shape of my life as most days when I wasn’t working meant bolting to and from the local Mark Jarvis between races, not wanting to sit amid the smoke all day. 

I guess I was always a punter rather than a layer. While I loved those days on the joint I never held any dream to one day shout the odds under the ‘Normbet’ banner. I always wanted to find the winner.

Still do.  

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