Racing: Once in Royal David's betting shop...

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The Independent Online
Honest Claus peered through the two-way mirror between his plush, leathered office and the bustling interior of the betting shop and allowed a wave of smugness to wash over his white-bearded face.

His idea of playing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" two minutes before the off had certainly got the punters moving towards the counter.

Head office had ordered all their shops to observe this seasonal summons throughout the holiday period to keep the cash flowing smoothly. Deep, crisp and even, you might say. It was a wise move because you have to remember that many of the punters were not experienced at betting discipline, particularly the women and children.

Claus could hardly believe that this was Christmas Day. Not too many years ago, the same premises would have been as cold, dark and silent as a tomb while those who now crowded his garishly lit premises would have been cocooned in their tinselled homes, stuffed with food and their eyes fastened to the shining light in the corner of the lounge.

But the gambling craze that had engulfed the country changed the nation's yuletide appetite to such an extent that betting was regarded as the key to happiness. Traditionalists were outraged but the public flocked to the betting shops by the family-load at Christmas time. How much more fun it was than watching boring TV, trying to win money on all the novelty bets. Claus noticed with particular pleasure the queue at the window bearing the notice Toddlers' Xmas Treble (min bet 3p).

At that moment, the lights dimmed, the noise diminished and all eyes fixed on the giant screen. This is what a British Christmas is all about, the Queen's Speech. Her Majesty came into view and the room gasped in admiration as her new tiara spun out blinding light from a hundred diamonds. It had been a brilliant idea to raffle Britannia.

There was a hush and that familiar, comforting voice rang out clearly: "My Husband and I fancy Butterfly in the 2.30 at Haydock Park..." she began in that confident way of hers.

It was the National Lottery, plus its insidious little companions the scratch cards, that started it all. Slowly at first; gently tickling the nation's fancy and scattering the seeds of a new mass interest in the lures of chance. Then, gradually picking up speed like a juggernaut, the Lottery transformed itself from being a novelty capable of bringing a rare frisson to family gatherings into an integral part of everyday life; a beacon of expectation that bestowed benefits to the lowliest. No matter how deep your despair, the next draw could bring salvation.

However, any hope that this national fixation could be confined to the whirling balls in the Camelot computer soon expired. As early as 1997, surveys revealed that the public interest in gambling generally had shown a considerable increase since the Lottery began.

Meanwhile, the new betting culture spread into every walk of life. General elections, Eurovision Song Contests, even the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury were the subject of a betting list. You could bet on anything and everything - even which song would be No 1 at Christmas. Children too young to read, write or tell the time knew instinctively that the Teletubbies were a good thing at 6-1.

It was inevitable that this compulsion to gamble would invade every nook and cranny of our lives. Once the betting shop minimum age limit was abolished on the grounds of equality, the bookies finally turned their attention to 25 December.

For some time, BSkyB had been scheduling top football and rugby matches on Christmas morning - just like the old days - and there was little trouble in persuading Parliament to allow a handful of select and highly valuable National Hunt meetings to be staged. It was a fitting way to celebrate because, after all, Jesus was born in a stable.

The betting shops, of course, demanded the right to open. All opposition was swept aside; including the argument that everyday was Christmas Day for the bookies. The first to suffer, of course, were the regular punters who had quite cherished the day's rest from temptation. More than one staggered out after the first day, complaining: "It used to be only the turkey that got stuffed on Christmas Day."

There was another plus for Christmas Day racing. It brought a welcome boost to the nation's interest in a sport that had taken a fearful blow when Sheikh Mohammed withdrew his multi-million-pound string of horses from British stables in a protest against low prize money here compared to other countries.

Some British patriots, with the tacit approval of the Jockey Club, attempted to retaliate by hitting the Sheikh where it hurts - in the camels. Just as he had infiltrated the heartland of our racing industry we would take British trained camels to attack their much-loved sport.

A herd of camels was imported and spread around our stables to be trained in a way only we can. It was all going so well until tragedy struck in one horrid mix-up. The only excuse is that confusion is forgiveable during the darker days of winter but the game was given away when a camel won a novice hurdle at Ludlow.

Even as he remembered the events that had brought us to these happiest of Christmases, Claus's reverie was interrupted by the intercom. "Boss, there's a geezer here who wants a funny bet."

When Claus reached the Special Bets Counter he was greeted by the sight of a bearded man, in old threadbare clothes who was accompanied by a very pregnant wife.

"Excuse me," said the man, politely, "what odds are you giving on the second coming?"

"Second coming of what?" snapped Claus, impatiently.

"Second coming of Jesus, of course," replied the man.

Claus sighed and reached for his Dopey Bets File. "Let me see. Elvis is alive, Tories to win an election, Manchester City to win the Premiership, Loch Ness monster... sorry, I've got nothing on that. I'll have to ring head office.

"Give him what you like," said the head-office man. "If Jesus comes back we'll probably be the first people he zaps, so we won't have to pay out anyway."

Claus put the phone down. "You can have a million to one on that, sir," he said.

"I'll have pounds 1,000 please," said the man, laying a pile of greasy notes on the counter.

"By the way," he said. "We've travelled a long way and me and the missus can't find anywhere to stay. Any chance of bedding down on your floor overnight?"

"Don't be daft," said Claus, "this is valuable property. If you're struggling there's a decent bus shelter across the road which will do at a pinch."

Later, as he was locking up with record takings in his bag, Claus was hailed by a passer-by. "What's that big star above your shop?"

"I dunno. Must be our latest publicity gimmick," he said and as he turned to go, he noticed three blokes in the adjoining shop doorway. It was probably the light but he could have sworn they were wearing crowns.

"Sorry, lads, action's over for the day," he said heartily as he pulled his fur collar around his neck and walked off.

"Wanna bet?" one of them whispered after him.

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