Celebrations cut short at Finnegan's wake

Matt Tench watches a veteran bookie ply his trade at the track
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The Independent Online
It's a quarter to eleven on a dazzling spring day and Ken Mercer is pitching his stall in front of Tattersalls. Ken is from Manchester, and concentrates his bookmaking on the northern courses, but he has not missed a Cheltenham Festival since 1952 and is not about to start now.

"For me it's the biggest thing in racing," he says. "Bigger than Ascot. At Ascot you get the toffs. The scene here is for everybody."

Not that Ken looks very happy. Like those around him, he wears an expression of studied consternation, and if this is the best day of the racing year nobody is letting on. What is he worried about? "Favourite," he replies with venom.

Two and a half hours later Ken is working his territory. At 72, he cuts a wiry figure, not given to the excited gestures that characterise the younger of his breed. The impression of a venerable bird on his perch is confirmed when he calls out "Eee-de-wan-de-veill," a cry that would mystify David Attenborough. On the fifth rendition it becomes just decipherable as "3-1 the field".

Behind him, Ken's four-man team are busy as the money pours in on the first race. Out front Ken is taking a lot of punts on Shadow Leader, but over the phone, where the bets come from the major players on the rails, the big money is mounting on the favourite, Finnegan's Hollow.

"There's fortunes coming in on him," says Peter on the ledger, as he marks down individual bets of pounds 850 and pounds 1,200.

With a course of hungry punters to satisfy, the first race is traditionally one of the biggest in terms of turnover and by the start there is unmistakable concern among Ken's team at the prospect of what would be a Finnegan's wake.

As we watch the race on the big screen Ken provides an intermittent commentary. "It's cruising, the favourite," he mutters grimly. "It's cantering."

"Oh shit," sighs Peter.

Then, three hurdles from home: "Gone. It's on the floor. The favourite's on the floor," Ken cries delightedly.

The joy is short-lived, though. The demise of Finnegan's Hollow allows Shadow Leader to win, the only other horse on which Ken would have lost money. The first race, and several thousand down. Welcome to Cheltenham.

Ken gets off his perch and lights a cigarette. A queue of punters eight deep gathers to collect their winnings. There is no respite either, with the next race featuring Mulligan, the biggest favourite of the day.

This time the gamblers in person and those on the phone agree. Mulligan is a certainty.

As the horses set off the atmosphere is palpably tense. If Mulligan wins they are in trouble. When Mulligan falls Ken is silent, but there is a glint in his eye as he looks quickly around and clenches his fist involuntarily.

When Or Royal wins Ken allows a minute smile to pass across his face before it resumes its normal demeanour of resigned persecution. The banker has gone the way of Barings and suddenly the afternoon feels a little better. Perhaps it won't be such a bad Cheltenham after all.