Racing: Victor Chandler: last of the real bookmakers

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The Independent Online
The man who sponsors today's big race at Ascot wil also be shouting the odds as the runners go to post. Victor Chandler is not just a bookie, he is one of the few fearless bookies that remain. The only thing that worries him is the future of his profession.

Victor Chandler is looking very well - for a relic. There is the trademark sharp suit, a monogrammed shirt, and more than a hint of unseasonal tan on a face which betrays barely half of its 46 years. In fact, there is no doubt about it. Victor Chandler is looking very well, full stop.

But a relic he still is, in one sense at least. Fifty years ago, the betting rings of British racecourses were seething with fearless bookmakers - Chandler's father and grandfather among them - for whom a serious bet was a challenge, not a threat. They were punters, too. On the wall of Chandler's office near Regent's Park is a large portrait of Sterope, who won the Cambridgeshire in 1948. It was commissioned by his father, "Old" Victor, who was one of the few people at Newmarket who backed him. Sterope started at 40-1, and injected almost pounds 50,000 (the equivalent of a cool pounds 1m these days) into the family coffers.

These days, bookies like that are a breed on the edge of extinction. Some may say that one man with a big satchel is no different from the next, but you need only glance at the race which Chandler sponsors at Ascot today to see what sets him apart. Remember the Ladbroke Hurdle a week ago? Two dozen handicappers on the tightest of tracks. Chandler, on the other hand, promotes a select handicap chase, which regularly attracts the finest two-milers in training, horses like Waterloo Boy, Viking Flagship and Desert Orchid.

"I love the jumping, so I wanted a chase," he says, "and when this came up, it was perfect. The nice thing is that we can entertain about 120 clients, and a lot of my clients have become friends over the years. There are people like Brian Stewart Brown, who won our race last year [with Ask Tom], he's a good friend and a client for a long time. He bashes me up a bit more often than I'd like, but you've got to take a long-term view. It's very hard to consider closing down someone who's a true sportsman, who looks after small trainers as well and isn't frightened to have a go. That's the sort of people we need in the game."

In all, Chandler has more than 5,000 clients on his books, and sends out about 1,200 bills after a normal fortnight's trading. But a brave bookie needs a braver punters to keep him in business, and the right sort of customer is ever more difficult to find.

"The late 1980s were very very good for us," he says, "but society has changed a great deal. The work ethic in the City has changed a lot, so you don't get stockbrokers taking Wednesday afternoon off to go racing any more. Midweek, the big players just aren't there. One Friday at Newbury a few weeks ago, we took pounds 30 on one race, and nothing like that had happened before. I was shocked."

As a result, the two big Festival meetings, Royal Ascot and Cheltenham, grow ever more important. "We rely on those meetings to make the business pay these days. At Cheltenham, there are individual players who will have pounds 40,000 or pounds 50,000 on, and we regularly lay horses to lose a quarter of a million in a single bet. It might sound blase to say that, but the figures depend on your circumstances at the time, and the racing is so competitive that people don't fall on one horse like they do at Sandown on a Saturday. You might lay six or seven horses to lose huge amounts in the same race, and five or six others as well."

Even so, there is no guaranteed profit when the tapes go up. Chandler laid a bet of pounds 20,000 at 9-2 about Vagador just before the start of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in 1988, not to mention dozens of others in what was a headlong gamble. Almost 10 years on, just a mention of the name brings a slight glaze to his eyes. "Terrible," he mutters. "We fell into a trap there." It still hurts.

There was also the famous case of the man who lost a fortune and then got it all back. "He was at Royal Ascot the whole week. I had him right behind the eight-ball, he was really firing at me. It was the best week we'd ever had, and all through it I was going home and telling my wife how clever we'd been. Then he went on to the evening meeting on the Friday and he was losing even more. In the last race, he backed the winner, got the forecast up, and the Tricast as well. It came to just under pounds 1m, and it was everything he'd lost in the whole week. I had to be carried out of the office."

Ultimately, of course, there are more losers than winners, as the huge BMW with a VC number plate in the garage beneath his office testifies. Yet still there are not enough of them to fill the tank entirely, and these days, Chandler is a regular punter too. He employs a private handicapper, a time expert and someone else who keeps his ear to the ground exclusively on Victor's behalf. On an average Saturday at the races, he might make a book on three or four races, and punt on the rest, either by walking into the ring and having a bet, or laying a horse he does not fancy.

Above all, though, he remains the betting ring's most obvious target. The average punter can only dream of staking the sort of sums which Chandler will accept, but if they had that kind of money, he is the man they would all love to take on. It is something to do with the way he stands there in a cashmere coat and Savill Row suit, and dares you to, no matter who you are, or what you know. "If you're on the wrong end of a plot and it costs you a lot of money, you might scream and weep a bit," he says, "but some trainers have got to survive like that. If a trainer hasn't got many horses, they'll have to have a bet occasionally to pay the wages. I take a slightly different attitude to the Jockey Club, but if they're blatant they get pulled in, and if they're clever they don't, and the punters love it. You can look back to people like Ron Smyth, who basically made a living out of punting. People like that are my heroes." Try as you might, it is hard to imagine the head accountant at Ladbrokes taking a similar view.

But the Chandler challenge will not be there forever, and it may be that a punter in 2020 will not understand what a proper, old-time bookmaker is. "I've no children, so I look like being the last," Chandler, a fourth- generation bookie, says. "By now, there should be people coming up to replace the likes of Stephen [Little] and me, but the unfortunate thing is that people with the mentality to be a bookmaker will now find that the Forex market and the trading floors will pay a lot better."

So take him on now, while you still have the chance. If you dare.