Racing: Bleating bookies must take it on the chin

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It's a sad day when such a magnificent animal as Best Mate has to share even a small segment of the spotlight with a bunch of blubbing bookmakers but, as the clamour of a splendid Cheltenham Festival slowly fades away, we are reminded to what extent this annual celebration of the noblest and bravest of beasts has been invaded by human beings. And not the finest selection of human beings at that.

It's a sad day when such a magnificent animal as Best Mate has to share even a small segment of the spotlight with a bunch of blubbing bookmakers but, as the clamour of a splendid Cheltenham Festival slowly fades away, we are reminded to what extent this annual celebration of the noblest and bravest of beasts has been invaded by human beings. And not the finest selection of human beings at that.

Indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking that Cheltenham is run purely for the benefit of the bookmaking fraternity, and that the persistent echoes of their plaintive wailing represent some seismic shift in the balance of power between them and their clients.

Headlines like "Bookies Blitzed" ran on top of stories in which our friends competed with each other to offer the most lurid description of what they had endured: "bloodbath", "nightmare", "cataclysmic"' and, my particular favourite, "complete and utter carnage", which came courtesy of Coral.

It was their worst day since Frankie Dettori rode all seven winners at Ascot in 1996. On closer examination, a few days of famine after seven years of feast hardly rates as a curse of biblical proportions.

The bleatings create an entirely false picture to the uninitiated, which, of course, is part of an act that requires a large dose of perspective.

Not that bookmakers would not have paid out hurtful amounts to winning punters – and there were massive sums of money being wagered – but much of it would have been from the pockets of all the losing punters, among whose massed ranks I took my customary place. The difference between our beating and theirs is that theirs is such a rare experience. I have a bookmaker friend whose pitch is 100 yards or so down from the grandstand among the less well-heeled, and his fingers scraped the bottom of his satchel far too often for his liking.

But he was a lot more philosophical. "It was a gruelling time, but I've had a pitch at Cheltenham for 11 years and that's the first time I've ever lost. That goes for most bookmakers, so we have to take it on the chin. We can't have it our own way all the time," he said. What made the pain of the losses more acute is that the event is usually a massive milking operation for the bookies. After a quiet winter, their Cheltenham profits usually set them up for the spring and summer.

According to my friend, there was far more money than usual floating around the Festival; the Irish brought sackloads. The situation wasn't helped by the presence of high-profile layers who neglect the old art of balancing a book in their urgency to take on the big punters.

They edge up the prices to attract business, and it distorts the market. "Best Mate should have been 11-10, not 13-8," my friend claimed.

In addition to the extra-large wads being wagered, what brought about the calamity was that a record number of 10 favourites won their races. This is not supposed to happen. There were 20 races, and the fact that only half were won by the horse most expected to win is regarded as a freak. That neatly sums up the normal level of unpredictability upon which the bookies rely.

Even allowing for the number of fancied horses who obliged, it was certainly possible for a punter to back the other 10 favourites and lose a fortune. If such a man exists and he complained he would be laughed at. The bookies, however, expect sympathy.

Betting is always going to be a fascinating part of a racing event of this magnitude. It would not be the same without it, but those who join in so enthusiastically are aware of the risks – at least, they are on one side of the equation.

As the son of a one-time bookies' runner who operated in the days before the war, when running was an essential part of the job with the police about, I have no aversion to the betting industry. But extraordinary liberties do get taken, particularly by the large off-course firms. So heed not their moans. The money taken triumphantly by punters last week will soon begin trickling back, and as for the illusion of vulnerability the bookies have created, we won't fall for that, will we?

Farewell, Jimmy

The loss of Jimmy Neville has robbed racing of one of its endearing characters. Jimmy died suddenly on Tuesday at the untimely age of 56 while he was watching the Champion Hurdle on TV with some of his staff at his stables in Gwent.

He was a horseracing enthusiast who graduated from being an owner – his hurdler Olympian won the Imperial and Coral Cups in 1993 – to a trainer who did not have all the luck to which he was entitled. I met him six or seven years ago when a horse I half-owned was put in his care. My fellow owner and I decided that Turn To Stone, a bay gelding who was showing unfulfilled promise in Ireland, would benefit from a change of scenery. Jimmy did his best but the horse, despite showing tremendous form galloping up a hill near the M4, was a flop on the track. His best effort was a fourth at Folkestone.

He had a habit of running well and jumping like a stag for a mile and then fading. Various theories were put forward for this, but jockey Kieron Kelly provided the most convincing reason.

Kelly, whom I was delighted to see ride his first Cheltenham Festival winner on Wednesday, was a lad at Turn To Stone's original stable and more recently rode him in a hurdle at Kilbeggan, where once more the horse packed in it when well placed in the field.

When they returned to the paddock, Kelly jumped from the saddle and offered the impassioned verdict: "He's a thief". We decided not to persevere and gave him away to someone in Donegal, where he has started a new life as a showjumper and last week won the latest in a series of big events. When my pal gave me this news on Friday he offered the commiseration: "We just chose the wrong sport".

"Pity there's no money in show-jumping," I grumbled. "No," he said, "but you get plenty of rosettes."

Meddle fatigue

Surfacing slowly with the aid of BBC Breakfast on Friday, I vaguely heard the female sports presenter say that Colin Jackson was determined to meddle in the World Indoor Athletics Championships at Birmingham this weekend.

Why would he want to interfere instead of concentrating on his hurdling, I wondered dreamingly. Then Roger Black confirmed: "I'm certain he'll meddle."

This sounds a good story, I thought. I was wide awake before I realised they were indulging in that appalling habit, no doubt imported from America, of using a noun as a verb. Among other sports, this also happens in Formula One coverage. Apparently, all the drivers are busting a gut to podium.

My appeal to sportscasters is that if they have nothing else to impress us with, by all means fall back on a bit of jargon – but please don't medal with the language.

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