Notebook: Warming up for gallop to the bookies

IT'S 1.30pm and the man with the two suits is talking to himself.

"Mmm," he says, "Mmmm-mm. Five to one. Right. Less-see. Wensdy. Mm. Tree- tirty-five. Ah right. Mmm." He peers over half-moon spectacles at the runners in Yorkshire this afternoon. "Christian Ted," he enunciates, "Trojan Risk. Rum Baba ...". He could be listing the titles of future crime novels by Elmore Leonard. But he's not. He is assessing the odds in the 4.35 Studley Royal Handicap in Ripon.

He is an unusual racing man. His jacket is the top half of a blue worsted suit, his trousers the bottom half of a black linen one, with turn-ups. He wears white socks and immaculate moccasins, and sports a Havanan seducer's moustache. He peers at the pinned-up newspapers again, makes notes on a blank betting slip, chats to himself more urgently ("Ya gotta ... Yagotta ... Yagotta mek ya mooove ...") and rarely sits still. He will behave like this all afternoon.

We're in a Ladbrokes betting shop in Herne Hill, south London, waiting for the racing to start. There are 18 of us, 10 Jamaicans, a few Irishmen, and a few elderly English punters. This is my local bookies, though I'm hardly a regular. I've been in here twice in the past three years, once to stick a pony on the 1997 Grand National (with awesome clairvoyance, I plumped for Go Ballistic, the 7/1 favourite; it did not finish), and once last January, to stick a tenner on Carol Ann Duffy to win the poet laureate job (a race still unfinished after three months).

Today, however, several million racetrack tyros like me will turn into gamblers. Middle-class finance directors in King's Lynn and Leatherhead, blissfully ignorant of tick-tack men and form books, will put pounds 100 on Suny Bay (which came second in '97 and '98) hoping to collect pounds 1,400, less tax, by tea-time.

Stern Derbyshire headmistresses and purse-lipped Newport traffic wardens will risk pounds 5 on Fiddling the Facts, Nicky Henderson's much-fancied 10- 1 mare. Tearful sentimentalists will back Nahthen Lad, hoping to see Jenny Pitman, the retiring Queen of Aintree, in the winners' enclosure for the last time.

But what about the gamblers who do it all the time? What is it like to spend your life in this hinterland of dodgy luck and flawed systems?

From Coker in the Billy Bunter stories to the late Jeffrey Bernard, racing men have always been a byword for rackety living.

The former sport of kings turned long ago into the beguilement of scoundrels. Damon Runyon's crap-shooters and Broadway tipsters spent their lives mentally converting life into "a possible twelve-to-seven"; they knew the value of nothing, and the starting-price of everything.

I grew up understanding that bookmakers were weasel-faced criminals in flat caps, or florid Edwardian mashers in yellow Tattersall checks, who licked their thumbs while counting off betting slips. Fly or flamboyant, they were a lot of bad eggs.

And their premises were nasty. When off-course betting shops were licensed in 1961, absurd stipulations were made: their windows must be darkened or obscured so that nobody could see in, no publicity "enticements" were allowed, people were supposed just to place their bets and leave. But this place is trim and modern, colour co-ordinated in red, blue and grey.

Through the windows, modern passers-by can scrutinise a scene as inoffensive as a creche. Four metal desks with chrome double-pews give the seated gamblers the look of a rowdy class in a remedial school. There are dispensers of hot coffee and cold Lilt. But all the attention in the room is focused on the thirteen television monitors. (Thirteen televisions? Are they asking for trouble?)

2pm. An Irish guy on crutches is fumigating the shop single-handed. Blue smoke curls through the bars of sunlight. A Tom Waits song starts up in my head. I put a tenner on King's Boy, as recommended by Hyperion in The Independent. That familiar Peter-O'Sullevan-style drone of controlled excitement has some of us on our feet. King's Boy pips Cezanne at the post. I go "Yessss" and bunch my fists like Boris Becker. The other punters regard me with disdain. (Expressions of victory are in poor taste, apparently.) I collect my winnings. Ten quid at 9/4- on, that's a profit of, let's see, pounds 3.14 ...

While waiting to see if Northern Starlight turns my next pounds 10 into pounds 70 (as recommended by Nick Fox in Racing Post), I notice the dress code in here. The English are invariably elderly, washed-up, retired, brilliantined and soft-shoed, and mostly wear flat caps and macintoshes. The blacks are younger, and wear leather jackets, Nike baseball caps and dark trainers. There are behaviour codes too. Everyone moves about constantly, as though playing musical chairs. Losers no longer contemptuously tear up their betting slips. The correct form is to screw them into tiny cylinders and flick them on to the carpet.

"And it's Monnaie Forte on the inside now, from Northern Starlight, as they head down towards the second fence..." drones the television, irresistibly. But the favourite, Wise King, comes from nowhere and beats Northern Starlight by two lengths.

"You won't lose a lot," advises Bernard, a retired baker from Kilkenny, "if you bet on the second favourite." Well, thanks a lot. "Third favourite," says Joseph, from Coventry by way of Jamaica, a cleaner at Camberwell College, "an' never go below 6/4 odds. Just ain't worth it".

"We've regulars who come in here every day," said Emma Yearsley, 33, manager of this branch, a no-nonsense lady from Catford with a Dusty Springfield poodle-cut and a "Little Angel" charm necklace.

"Invariably men," she said, "mostly older than younger, more blacks than whites. Some of them put on a bet in the morning and pop back through the afternoon to see how it's gone. Some just sit here all day and watch the screens, as if they've nothing better to do. They see this as a meeting place."

She is looking forward to Grand National day. Last year they took more than pounds 10,000 in this shop, on 1,500-plus bets, an average stake of pounds 6.15. That's London for you. The national average bet is about pounds 2.50. Ladbrokes' 1,900-odd shops across the UK will have pounds 70m of bets flooding through their doors by 3.45 pm.

"There'll be lots of ladies in on Saturday," says Emma. "The place will be crammed. We'll have someone walking the floor, to help out the ones who aren't used to gambling." She herself won't indulge. "I don't like the National. I think it's cruel to the horses. I can't stand seeing them hurt. Whenever I see one fall, I think , `Oh, get up, get up'..."

Two hours later, I've won pounds 8 on Galant Moss, which romped home in the 3.05, but lost pounds 10 on the next two races. And I've met a real operator, a white-haired Australian vet called Michael who pops in here "four or five times a week", and keeps in touch, via a mobile phone, with an associate at the Ascot track. He annotates his Racing Post, and works out abstruse sums in the margin. Even when talking, he doodles abacus shapes on a betting slip. He lays "about five bets a day", each of pounds 100. What's the most he's ever won? "I got pounds 10,000 once, on a five-horse accumulator," he said nonchalantly. "It's ectually quite easy to get from five quid to five thousand if you've got luck with you."

By 5pm, things are getting more vocal. The Jamaicans are shouting antiphonally to each other across the shop. "Gah, blood," calls out one. "Waste o' time." The man with two suits is still saying "Gotta mek ya mooove" to himself.

A dark Cockney skinhead watches his horse take a dive at the penultimate fence. "I don't believe this," he yells, hurls his cigarette to the floor and jumps on it, twice, like Struwwelpeter. He glares at the rest of us and stamps out. We aren't impressed.

The carpet is thick with crushed Benson & Hedges cartons and a snowdrift of pink slips. Outside the late sun glints on buses passing Brockwell Park. Skip'n'Time has won the 5pm Hunters' Chase and I collect my third winnings, a cool pounds 23. Over six races, I've bet pounds 50, lost pounds 20 and gained pounds 24. After four hours of sweat and nicotine, conflicting advice and bad vibes, you end up with pounds 4 profit.

"You were lucky," said Michael from Oz. "In the long run, you make two- thirds of your outlay. Excluding tax."

Bit of a mug's game isn't it, Michael?

"Yup," says Michael, and goes back to his Racing Post.

Ian Jack is away

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