Clerk's pencil makes way for the computer

Cheltenham bookmakers adapted remarkably well to their new technology yesterday

It was the challenge they had waited for all winter, though some had questioned whether they would be up to the task. At 1.45 yesterday afternoon, their moment of truth finally arrived. A few dozen laptop computers took a deep breath, girded their disc drives, and prepared to do battle with 16 horses and 10,000 punters.

It was the challenge they had waited for all winter, though some had questioned whether they would be up to the task. At 1.45 yesterday afternoon, their moment of truth finally arrived. A few dozen laptop computers took a deep breath, girded their disc drives, and prepared to do battle with 16 horses and 10,000 punters.

The arrival of the 21st century has been a particular shock in the betting ring, because until recently it was happily living in the 19th. Joints made from old crates, clerks writing bets into ledgers and colourful cardboard tickets all became a thing of the past on 1 January 2000.

Computers are now obligatory in the ring, but many bookies had wondered whether even the latest, hi-speed laptops would cope with the unstinting betting appetite of the Festival crowds, or whether they might instead do a passable impression of the tape recorder in Mission Impossible.

Yet the most obvious problem in the betting ring half an hour before the Supreme Novices' Hurdle was a thoroughly old-fashioned one of language and understanding. An Irish punter wanted a £30 bet with an English bookmaker. "Torty pounds, number one," he said. "Forty pounds, number one," replied the bookie as he handed him his ticket. "No, torty," said the punter. This went on for some time.

The new technology was coping well with the early trickle of punters, although Joe Connolly, over from Dublin, was a little uncertain about the electronic board he had bought to display his prices. It was certainly brave to unveil it at the Festival, but as he tried to change the price of a horse, and managed only to blank the entire screen, you could almost see his hands twitching for a piece of chalk and a scrap of rag. How did his clerk think the computers would hold up? He smiled, opened his arms wide, and looked towards the heavens. At precisely that moment, a black cloud appeared over the top of the grandstand. Computers, as anyone who has spilled a cup of tea into a keyboard will tell you, do not like moisture. It was not a promising omen.

Some bookies, though, had thought ahead. Wendy Perry, from the west country, was using an army-issue laptop, designed to work on a battlefield - which is what the betting ring was about to become.

Perry has quickly learned to love her laptop. "A good clerk with a pencil", she said, "will always beat this system when it comes to getting the bets in, but they won't be able to get the figures up as well. He may have an idea of how they stand, but the bookie is still betting almost blind."

Computers, on the other hand, tell the bookies second-by-second exactly how much they stand to win or lose. It could become a new pastime for punters - standing behind the joint and watching the numbers ebb and flow on the screen. Five minutes before the off yesterday, as bets flew out of the printer every three or four seconds, Luke McMahon's list told a stark story. There was a total of almost £12,000 in his book, and a black figure against every name - except one. The sum against Youlneverwalkalone, the favourite, was written in red - £10,000. If it won, McMahon would be paying out ten grand more than he had taken.

Then his phone rang. Someone back in Ireland wanted 4,000 punts on the favourite. The red figure soared even higher. McMahon decided to lay some of it off, but even so, when the tapes went up and the whole ring roared, Youlneverwalkalone stood to lose him £7,000.

The ring was relatively silent as Sausalito Bay passed the post in front, and none of the bookmakers had the poor taste to actually cheer the 14-1 chance home. For McMahon, he was a winner to the tune of £7,500.

So did his clerk like the new system? "Brilliant," she gasped, as if she had been holding her breath for the last four minutes. "Fantastic." Whether she meant the computer, or the result, was not clear, but overall the result of the first race was beyond doubt. It was a crushing victory for the layers - and their electronic friends.

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