Brian Viner: I would always back myself in the expert timing stakes - but only each-way

Yesterday morning I caught the 11.15 train, bound for London Euston, out of Liverpool's Lime Street station. The train that I boarded had just disgorged dozens, if not hundreds, of horse-racing enthusiasts bound for Aintree.

Yesterday morning I caught the 11.15 train, bound for London Euston, out of Liverpool's Lime Street station. The train that I boarded had just disgorged dozens, if not hundreds, of horse-racing enthusiasts bound for Aintree.

Not for the first time in my life, I felt like someone had handed me the wrong script. For a sports nut, I have always had a troubling tendency to wind up in the right place at the wrong time. I have been to one Barcelona v Real Madrid fixture and it was widely considered to be the most boring in living memory. At Wimbledon last year I watched Roger Federer only once, in the men's singles final, yet it was the only match in which he failed to play like a god.

I am similarly adept at being in the wrong place at the right time. At the 1984 Open Championship at St Andrews, when Seve Ballesteros holed the winning putt on the 18th green, accompanied by his famous clenched salute and million-watt smile, I was sitting in a stand by the 17th green, too far away to see what was going on. Conversely, at the Augusta National two years later, on the final day of the US Masters, I elected to sit for eight bottom-numbing hours by the 18th green, while all the drama unfolded elsewhere.

The very best sports writers are traditionally in the right place at the right time: in the Royal Garden Hotel getting drunk with England's 1966 World Cup-winning footballers; ringside when Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in Zaire; at Sabina Park last year when Steve Harmison took seven for 12. They weren't chugging out of Lime Street yesterday, they were chugging in. Those that weren't in the Deep South for the 69th US Masters, that is.

Still, I made the most of my fleeting visit by visiting a couple of betting shops in the city centre, where the Grand National buzz had already begun. I have an almost genetic affinity with Liverpool bookmakers since my late father was one. The shop, from which he operated his one-man counterblast to the adage that the bookie always wins, was on the corner of Slater Street, and I remember it fondly for a pair of saloon-style swing doors next to the counter. It was the late 1960s and I was about seven, probably a bit too young to be playing cowboys in a betting shop. Most betting-shop cowboys are at least 21.

It is almost three decades since the celestial bookmaker tore up my dad's mortal betting slip, but in Liverpool yesterday I dropped in on an old friend, Jed, who has been working in Merseyside betting shops since the year we both left school. I went to university and he went to William Hill and it's a toss-up as to which of us learnt more.

Jed told me about a common scam known in the business as the "Slow Count".

What happens is this: the punter dashes up to the counter just as the race is about to start and hands in a slip with a scribbled bet that might be £5, or £50, or even £500. He always chooses the most inexperienced cashier, who takes the bet and begins to process it. This is where the "Slow Count" comes in. The punter laboriously counts out his money, by which time the race has started. It's usually a dog race, lasting scarcely a minute. If he can see that his dog is winning, he counts out £500; if it's losing, he stops at £5. The scribble could conceivably be either amount; either way, the cashier is intimidated into accepting it.

When Jed takes on new staff, he tells them they will encounter the "Slow Count" scam at least once in their first few months. But of course the Grand National, being the longest of long races, is immune from such confidence tricks. This afternoon, Jed will cheerfully take bets after the race has begun, but will close the book as soon as the first horse takes off over the first fence.

He will expect his takings to be at least quadruple those of a normal Saturday and is delighted that the royal wedding has pushed back the race by 25 minutes, because that's 25 more minutes to take bets.

As he pointed out, the group of people most delighted about the wedding is the group of people least likely to be watching as Charles and Camilla go under registrar's orders: the nation's bookies. May the saints preserve them, at least until Strong Resolve romps home and they've paid me out.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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