And on the seventh day . . .

ALMANACK
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE sliding doors opened and closed with a swish. The man walked down the steps and sat at one of the desks, which were arranged in a chevron pattern. Other men sat at the desks beside him, all of them intent on the giant screen ahead, and the colourful, flickering, constantly updated information charts on the smaller screens to either side. The man spoke. We expected him to say: "Warp speed, Mr Sulu." But he said: "Bleedin' 'ell. Ain't they off yet?"

Not the Starship Enterprise, then. In fact, we were visiting Ladbrokes' hi-tech betting shop in Victoria, central London, where today punters can congregate for the first time to place bets on the Sabbath. Most of Britain's other bookies are open today as well, but we thought that with a spirit of innovation abroad we'd better see what the future holds for the nation's gamblers.

Steve Butler, the area manager, was the man in charge. He comes from Essex, and is a West Ham fan, and looks a bit like Julian Dicks in a suit. He was very friendly, though, and enormously proud of his shop. "It's state of the art," he said, showing us crisps and cold drinks and a microwave snack selection. "Not like the one before. That was just a state."

Steve had a team of four on duty when we visited, operating socking great tills with lots of different coloured buttons inscribed "Dogs", "Horses", "Settle", "Tax paid" and so on. Rosie and Richard and Jessica's fingers flew so fast over the keys that it was practically impossible to follow the sequence of actions. Once they had taken a betting slip and pushed the button that prints the time on it, they passed the slip through a microfilm camera as an extra security precaution. Then it was taken along the line to Karen, who was on "settling", sorting winning slips from losers, and working out how much the winners should get back.

It was high time we had a bet. But what kind? We were not exactly new to the betting game, having been responsible for the demise of more Yankees than Sitting Bull, but we had an entire afternoon to get through: things might get expensive. So we constructed a Placepot to take care of business at Salisbury racecourse, and a multiple bet covering 12 dog races at Crayford. That left our hands free for individual punts on the afternoon's fixtures at Hamilton, Wolverhampton and Sunderland.

Back behind the counter, things were warming up as the first races of the day drew near. Almost all of the punters were male, but one or two respectable-looking ladies popped in for a genteel flutter. The men were all sorts: portly business types sporting cigars; lean, baseball-capped slackers; Dayglo-jacketed tube and railway workers; and a gaggle of opinionated old men, without whom no betting shop would be complete.

Betting shop staff identify their customers in much the same way as waiting staff in restaurants. As a waiter will refer to an individual by their order ("Double gin and tonic no lemon is back again"), so the Ladbrokes people call their regulars by their catchphrases: "On the Nod" and so on. The most voluble of the old men is called Come On My Cocker: "He's great," Steve said. "He holds his own stewards' enquiries."

There was much to discuss: a favourite had ditched his jockey and bolted at Hamilton; the trap attendant at Crayford was wearing natty red shorts; and the weather at Wolverhampton was "balmy", a description which baffled the commentator. Either he'd never come across the word before, or never in the context of Wolverhampton. He certainly couldn't pronounce it.

Our chances of renouncing journalism for good and retiring to Bel Air expired along with our Placepot in the second race at Salisbury, and fiscal disaster loomed as animals cursed with Almanack's coppers succumbed to defeats left, right and centre. Our almost-forgotten Crayford combination bet saved the day: between them, Bush Treasure, Young Buster, Ten Forty Four and Fort Schyler contributed £35 to our echoing coffers. Phew.

Towards five o'clock, things began to slow down: the final races of the day were coming up. The old men bickered amicably away, arguing about the afternoon's little controversies: photo finishes, non-triers, jockeys' tactics. Rosie and Jessica discussed the eyeball-swallowing scene in Night of the Living Dead. "Urgh," said Steve. "And I was just going to have an American-Style Rib in a Bun." We hope there will be no such talk today: wouldn't want people put off their Sunday lunches.

"BRIAN MOORE to retire," said the headlines, and we cannot have been alone in thinking: "Heavens! Late-night coverage of not-very-good football matches on ITV will never be the same again." But the microphone man remains at his post; and remains, incidentally, a fan of his rugby- playing namesake. "I've admired his pugnacious competitiveness very much indeed," he told us, "and I wish I had some of it myself."

Comments