Harry stays the course
There's no black and white in an audience with fearless punter Harry Findlay, as Ian McClean discovers
'I'M outta form mate," Harry Findlay explains on the phone, before reluctantly agreeing to an interview in that lilting cockney made so familiar since horses like Denman, Gungadu and Big Fella Thanks began asserting themselves on the racecourse.
Audience granted, he elaborates in person from the leather chair in the work-study of his country pile outside Bath as he relaxes having just emerged from a steamroom. Sure, steamrooms are usually synonymous with jockeys, but looking at a half-baked Harry holding court you wouldn't even risk one of Paul Barber's old hunters with him.
He didn't back Big Fella Thanks at Newbury last Saturday. "I missed the 12s in the morning and then got talked out of backing it in the paddock because they really had Pasco laid out for that race."
He also missed backing the Nicholls bumper winner in the last. As a flamboyant but inveterate gambler who has made a living from gambling on sport ever since an £80 treble (a horse, Edberg to win Wimbledon, and Holland to win Euro 98) netted him £11,111 in 1988, Findlay knows what it's like to lose and, undeterred by current form, he is off to Ffos Las to cheer his novice chaser Bergo.
No matter it's a minor four-runner affair. No matter he's odds-on. Only one thing matters. "Yeah he'll win. I think he's a certainty." And therein lies the Findlay ethos. For the spoils of Harry Findlay's success were crafted from betting seriously skinny odds at sports events on 'certainties' that still represented value for money. The walls of his wood-panelled den are a testament to his passion for sport and while racing predictably features frequently, it is punctuated by Nadal, Federer, Ronaldinho and signed memorabilia from snooker and other sports. It is the tell-tale docile pet greyhound, however, that betrays Harry's first love.
If Harry Findlay didn't exist, then Guy Ritchie would have had to invent him. There is no grey with Harry. His peppered views are black and white, trumpeted effervescently by a multi-coloured, larger-than-life persona that, when at full tilt, gives it to you lock, stock and two smoking barrels. This is one of those times and it's a manifesto on how gambling has changed, how value has dried up and how punters have never had correct market pricing like they have now.
Findlay bemoans how his strategy loophole has been closed. "Six, seven years ago I was going around Monaco and all over Europe watching Federer and Nadal play. Every single game we'd have £150,000 or £200,000 on Federer to win seven grand, or eight grand or nine grand. And Nadal. Nowadays, Federer and Nadal aren't playing as well as they were then -- and they're playing better players -- but they're now the right price. 1.02, 1.01, 1.02, 1.01 every match. They were 1.06, 1.07, 1.08 five or six years ago. I never backed a loser. Now I don't even look at any short-priced tennis match. From getting a massive living out of it and never having a losing grand slam, I don't even look at it now. I did look at Murray in Australia (recently) and thought I might get 1/10 here or 1/5 there, but he was, like, half of that!"
Findlay deplores the misunderstanding of the much-abused term 'value' in gambling, claiming that it is mistakenly substituted for long prices. He instantly magics a direct contradiction.
"Value? Here's value. The best value ever was Steve Davis to beat Jim Rempe at 1/10. Coz I would have bet my eyesight to win half a pence. Jim Rempe was an American pool player -- the best in the world -- and he's playing Steve Davis at snooker. And Davis is ten-on. Leave me out -- if it was today Jim Rempe would have been 400/1 on Betfair."
Findlay is a champion of Betfair (and conducts all his business there nowadays) because the odds are pure and accurate to the moment. "You want to know how many seats the Tories are gonna get in the election, forget your opinion polls. Betfair! That's the true market. The ordinary punter on the street has got to understand that it's a boom time for him."
The flipside of the exchange phenomenon of course is that it is squeezing out the old pros like Harry. "I got most of my money out of the Asia football handicaps. But I gave it up four years ago and bought horses. And although I'm having a tough time, it's the best thing I ever done. None of the other football geniuses are around. They've all been swamped by the computer boys. Six years ago, there'd have been a good few people getting a right living out of the football. They've all gone."
With that final soliloquy still lingering in the wood-panelled air, Findlay disappears and returns momentarily as bright as his character in pink shirt and yellow sweater. "Right, we're off to Ffos Las!" Against a blistering sky we pile into the Bentley and meander along Wiltshire's spindly lanes en route to the M4 and a landfill racecourse none of us have ever been to in remote Carmarthen to watch Harry's promising novice.
The two-and-a-half-hour journey is a mix of coursing stories, talk of Denman, the Festival, flirting with Flat racing, finalising the details of the jackpot attempt at Stratford (£175,000 carryover) and answering either of the two mobile phones that sound off with impunity. If two shortens a journey, then travel with Harry should be measured in millimetres.
His love affair with gambling started when he was brought to Clonmel coursing aged just 19. He proudly considers himself a "dogs man" more than anything, and the previous day had been to Limerick to honour one of his heroes, Don Cuddy, at the Greyhound Hall of Fame. His best ever moment in any sport came when his Big Fella Thanks (the dog) won the Irish Coursing Derby in 1999. With solemn certainty, he reflects: "That changed my life. I didn't want for anything after that." To the point that (he continues) "if Denman was 20 lengths clear in the Gold Cup and fell at the last, it wouldn't matter." No hyperbole. He means it.
"If Paul Barber's ambition was to milk a thousand cows and win a Gold Cup, it was never mine. All I ever wanted was a qualifier for Clonmel."
Big Fella Thanks became both house pet and best mate, and had the horse named after him, now favourite for the Grand National. Sadly, aged 13, he died two weeks ago and Harry is still visibly gutted. He rounds off with a throwaway, "I might as well find out what it's like to win a National now!" with the horse he named after his beloved dog.
But before Aintree there is the small matter of this week's Festival. And Denman. What was it like to see him turned over at 1/7 in the Aon?
"To be honest, I was concentrating too much on marks out of ten at every jump because I was working on the premise that he'd win once he'd led and started jumping. My initial impression live was 'Bloody hell, Niche Market's running well' but when I watched the replay afterwards I was a bit disappointed at how close all the others were. Besides that I suppose I was very disappointed with how negative AP (McCoy) was."
If Bergo is a certainty at Ffos Las this afternoon, Findlay is more circumspect about Denman in the Gold Cup. "I think if it gets into a battle we'll win. But what with the fast ground and the Newbury run, you know . . . I think if Kauto beats us, he'll beat us well. I just hope Denman turns up in the mood."
Outside of Denman, his big four for the Festival are Big Buck's, Dunguib, Long Run and Poquelin which he claims is flying at Paul Nicholls'.
Eventually arriving at Ffos Las, Findlay's time is divided between lunch (it's been a long time since breakfast); following the jackpot selections at Stratford and fielding attention from a variety of sources. Local lad and Benson & Hedges Masters snooker champion Matthew Stevens sidles up and shares some green baize reminiscences as well as inquiries about Cheltenham and Bergo this afternoon. "He's a certainty," Harry reassures him for the umpteenth time that day.
Suddenly, an announcement -- there's a withdrawal in Bergo's race. It's now down to three runners and instead of being a 4/6 shot, Bergo has just become a 1/3 shot. Still a certainty, but now half the price.
An Irish couple approach and talk to him about the coursing, observing how he'd missed Clonmel this year for the first time since forever.
Just before entering the parade ring for the novice chase, Findlay sees his five-figure jackpot investment down in the fifth leg at Stratford. Unfazed, he remains the fizz to AP McCoy's still as the jockey gets a leg-up on the gleaming gelding. The outsider exits early, leaving it a two-horse race -- which quickly becomes a virtual solo for Bergo as it's clear he's in a different class to his rival. He saunters home in a canter.
AP is generous with his time and his assessment that this is a different horse to the one he rode last time. "He's been turned inside out," says the champion.
Both men are hoping that come next Friday they are both standing in the winner's enclosure in the same colours having precisely the same conversation in a very different place.