Thursday 23 March 2017

Playing dice with the gods

1: And They're Off

There are two ways to look at betting on the gee gees. One is that the pursuit is fraught with difficulty and that any logical man or woman can see there is no point to it. In the big races at Cheltenham, pitted against your choice is a horde of horses of roughly equal ability. What chance do you have really? Why you?

The other is the one that's been embedded in the Irish psyche by the story of Gay Future, of Barney Curley's coup at Bellewstown with Yellow Jack, of the myriad bookie plundering exploits of JP McManus. Every small town and village has its own smaller version of Curley and McManus, someone whose victories bulk much larger in the local memory than his defeats ever do. When Cheltenham comes around, it's those guys the gambler is trying to emulate, sure that the handy tip he got, his own study of the form, his careful observation of the movement of the money, will enable him to come away with the big bucks. Why you? Why not you? Or why not me?

2: The Betting Virgin

One answer to the above question is that I don't know very much about horse racing. I'm an amateur in these matters, one of the great mass of people who notice the Grand National, Cheltenham and the Classics and few other racing occasions. This places me at a disadvantage against the kind of lads who tell you that they're betting on a horse because he won for them before at Wincanton and came up as part of an accumulator for them at Plumpton.

I don't know how to construct a Yankee, a Patent, a Heinz or any of the other complicated betting instruments which the seasoned punters seem to have learned to construct around the time I was working out the rules of chess and pretending to be Robin Hood in the back garden. And when someone tells me he's bet a monkey on the favourite in the first race, I wonder if I should tell the animal cruelty people. I am, however, aware that such arcane knowledge is part of the Irishman's sporting birthright. Which is why for the past few years during Cheltenham, I, to use the vernacular, 'wade in' and see what all the fuss is about.

3: Day One

I almost got off to a dream start when 9/2 shot Get Me Out Of Here was beaten by a head in the Supreme Novices Hurdle. The fact that I'd bet €25 each-way on the horse meant that I got my money back, and a spanking €3.13 on top of it. Had he won I'd have made a profit of €140.

That such small distances can make so profound a difference is what drives gamblers mad. What is also driving the gamblers of Ireland mad is that odds-on shot Dunguib only finished third in the same race. Dunguib was one of a quartet of horses, the others being Master Minded, Big Buck's and Kauto Star, which were almost universally regarded as unbeatable and this figured in many a crafty accumulator. Those have all gone by the wayside right at the get-go.

As the day wears on I realise that I should have been more grateful for my €3.13 victory. In the second race, I pick Riverside Theatre, part owned by the actor James Nesbitt. In an uncanny example of horse imitating owner, Riverside Theatre gives an irritating performance from which I derive no pleasure at all.

In the third race, Razor Royale pulls up and there is a huge collective wince from the audience in Hacketts Bookmakers as 33/1 shot Chief Dan George wins with a bit to spare. After telling everyone that I am going to back Binocular in the Champion Hurdle, I chicken out at the last minute and pick Celestial Halo. Binocular wins of course.

I am inclined to give the whole thing up as a bad job when Quevega comes good for me, winning the David Nicholson hurdle by four lengths. The fifty I had on at 6/4 prevents the day from being a complete washout. That will come later.

Day One Financial Balance: Down €125.

Day One Mood: Mildly Disappointed.

4: Gambling and

Camaraderie

If there is an Irish equivalent to the American Dream, it is a dream of togetherness, of a society where a common thread of interest unites the richest man with the very poorest in this country. That dream has taken a bit of a battering since it emerged that the banks and the political establishment operated one rule for the very rich, and themselves, and one rule for the rest of us.

Yet our very richest plutocrats have remained keen to show that they retain the common touch. The kind of guys who can buy football clubs and own fleets of thoroughbreds like to show that they haven't got above their station. And, in a strange way, Cheltenham is one occasion when there is a mutual interest between the man on the dole or the minimum wage and the man who owns bits of Marbella and Barbados. Because the former badly needs the latter's horse to do the business. The prize money means a lot less to the rich man than the bet means to the poorer man.

For this reason, the big days at Cheltenham are the embodiment of the Irish Dream, days when those banjaxed by the collapse of the property market and the building trade make common cause with the likes of Michael O'Leary and JP McManus, men who can soar serenely above such petty considerations.

Back when Irish developers functioned as modern-day folk heroes the Irish Dream seemed a harmless thing. Now it's different. But for these four days in March, with that other celebration of communal togetherness thrown in on Paddy's Day, the nation's betting shops seem uniquely democratic places as the businessman and the auctioneer show the same animation over the final couple of furlongs as do the young lads who might be watching next year's Festival in some foreign office.

It almost warms your heart.

5: day two

Day Two. Oh My God. Day Two. As if to top off the generally depressing year it's been for the Irish nation, the Festival provides a real bummer of a day. Unless, that is you're a bookie, in which case the 40/1 winner, the two 14/1 winners and the defeat of the supposedly invincible Master Minded will have been just what the doctor ordered. There is a suggestion of mild shellshock among the betting folk of Skibbereen. Hardly anyone seems to be winning anything, everyone seems to be behind.

I land one bet out of seven, an each-way on Kalahari King which comes third in the Champion Chase. Another €3.13 as it turns out. But I could have rescued something from the wreckage if I had taken a bit of kindly advice from Ger, owner of the bar across the street from the bookies, and a decent man who knows a great deal about horses, and also that I know very little about them. Peddlers Cross, he tells me, is well worth backing in the Neptune Novices Hurdle. In a show of ignorant courage, I disregard this advice and plump instead for a beast called Many Rivers To Cross. Peddlers Cross romps home for Donald McCain. Many Rivers To Cross finishes in a different time zone.

"We can't remember when a Festival started so badly for punters. It has been another stellar day for bookies," says David Hood of William Hill. "It's been a bloodbath for punters," says George Primarolo of Totesport. Thanks lads. It appears that I have picked a particularly inopportune time to take up betting.

Day One and Two Financial Balance: Down €425.

Day Two Mood: Country and Western Ballad Borderline Suicidal.

6: Gambling and money

The English writer Al Alvarez discovered something interesting about the world's leading poker players, who he profiled in his great book, The Biggest Game In Town: they cared very little about money as a thing in itself. "Money means nothing," Chip Reese told him, "money is just the yardstick by which you measure your success." "If they wanted you to hold on to money, they'd have made it with handles on," said Jack Straus.

Rudyard Kipling might not have approved of the Las Vegas milieu in which these men made their living. Or perhaps he would. One of the tests of manhood in If is the ability to "make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss." The greatest novelist who ever lived, Fyodor Dostoevsky, brought himself to financial ruin and the brink of suicide through his love of gambling, once writing, "even as I approach the gambling hall, as soon as I hear, two rooms away, the jingle of money poured out on the table, I almost go into convulsions."

Perhaps the enduring fascination which gambling exerts over our culture has a lot to do with its attitude towards money. Money rules us, rules our lives. Many of us spend our days working at jobs we don't like because we need the money. At times money seems less a means of exchange than a deity before which everyone must at some stage prostrate themselves. Those are the rules. To throw money over a bookies counter is to show disrespect for money, to suggest it's not that important after all, that it's not so sacred it can't be wagered on something as ephemeral as a horse race. In that second of exchange we are, for once, letting money know who's boss. It is a momentary declaration of freedom.

7: Day three

Seriously tempted by now to chicken out, I am told by the man who gives me a lift into town to keep at it. "Wouldn't it be a great ending; there you are with the hose attached to the exhaust, the poison lined up and everything and right at the end you come good." I'm inclined to think it will be one more day of torture but, given that I'll have to take day four off to write the column, I persuade myself to press on.

And it's not quite as bad this time. First up is a fourth place for China Rock in the Jewson Novices Chase which nets me a profit of around €30. Two more unsuccessful outings follow before I decide that, dammit, all the big guns surely can't lose and throw a hundred on Big Buck's to win the World Hurdle at 5/6. He obliges and I come out just over €90 to the good. In the second last race of the day, Sunny Hill Boy looks like he's going to give me a second winner in a row before he's beaten a length and a half by longshot Great Endeavour. Still, that was another each-way bet so I didn't lose there either.

8: the denouement

After the Peddlers Cross debacle, I hardly deserved another tip from Ger but all the same he suggests that if someone was having just one bet on day three, Ballabriggs in the Kim Muir, trained like Peddlers Cross by Donald McCain and ridden by the amateur Richard Harding, would be the one to go for.

What the hell, this will be my last race of the Festival, €100 each-way. Ballabriggs jumps like a dream all the way round and always seems to be travelling better than his main rivals. Three out he moves into a convincing lead and I rush into the bookies, a man whose time has come. All he has to do is jump the last it seems and he does, eight lengths clear.

And then, poor old Ballabriggs starts to falter, like Crisp with Red Rum on his tail or a marathon runner hitting the wall. The money I had imagined was mine appears to be slipping away as my horse does everything but go into reverse. Faasel is closing with every stride. I can't watch. When I turn back to look at the screen the post has arrived just in time and Ballabriggs has won by half a length. The clerk hands me out €652.50. In the immortal words of Roberto Benigni, I want to make love to all the women in the world.

Final Financial Balance: Up €170.

Day Three Mood: Like Meg Ryan in the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally.

9: Gambling and life

I don't think I'll ever be a gambler. The mood of desolation which enveloped me on day two when I realised I might as well have burned my money is something I wouldn't like to repeat. But when Ballabriggs came in, I realised just why the game holds the attractions it does, and why some people come back again and again to try their luck.

Perhaps it has less to do with money than with life. We don't win many gambles in life. The big one, that with death, is one we all lose in the end. But ever since he stood up on his two legs, man has tried to defy fate, to play dice with the gods and give himself the illusion of control. Gambling is, in the end, a way to put one over on life. It maybe doesn't have that much to do with money at all.

I went across to the Horse and Hound, bought a round of drink for Ger's customers and went home. I was ahead. I'd been lucky. It was time to quit.

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