Three weeks ago, Freddie Williams had a hip replacement operation. On Tuesday, he was at his usual place in the front row of the betting ring at Cheltenham. "You'd get off your death bed to be here," he said. He could not know that, before the end of the Festival, he would be menaced by the possibility of making that journey in reverse.
Over the past few years, Williams has become celebrated as the most fearless bookmaker in the land. On Thursday night, that reputation finally exposed him not just to fear, but to downright terror.
It had been a bad day: Williams had lost £925,000 in just two bets to the Irish high roller J P McManus. The 63-year-old Scotsman was driving his daughter, Julie, and her boyfriend from the racecourse to their hotel in the Cotswold village of Bibury. Suddenly, just after dark on a country road, a silver Vauxhall Cavalier drove past and forced him to stop his Jaguar. A Land Rover also pulled up.
It is thought that three masked robbers emerged and set about the car windows with crowbars. In the process, the boot sprang open and cash believed to total around £70,000 was stolen. The robbers fled, and their vehicles were later found burnt out nearby. Though Williams and his passengers suffered only minor cuts, a police spokesman described them as "very traumatised".
That sense of shock permeated the betting ring yesterday. Williams was understood to have retreated to his home in Cumnock, Ayrshire, vowing never to return to the races. There was a rumour that another layer had lost a substantial sum of money from his lodgings while out to supper. With their vulnerability suddenly advertised, bookmakers were reluctant to talk in detail about security or the sums at stake.
"There's no point in broadcasting to all and sundry what we do and how much is involved, particularly after what has happened," Jack Bevan said. "We're all in shock about Freddie."
Less restrained was the most familiar voice in the ring. Also one of the loudest, it belongs to Barry Dennis, a regular contributor to Channel 4's racing coverage. "My security comes in the form of members of my own family, my three sons, aged 40, 29 and 28," he said. "I have three six-footers, three big lumpy lads with me. At the end of the day, we divide the cash up among us and we all travel in the same car. Then I put it in the night safe at my hotel.
"A lot of our business is credit, but people do expect cash for cash and we've got to have a sizeable float at a meeting like this. There are 40,000 punters here. If six favourites win, I can't start saying: 'Sorry boys, I can't pay you'. You couldn't walk out of here owing a punter a button, it would be embarrassing and anyway they'd lynch you. Equally, if we have a good day, like two days ago, we're going to have a lot of cash. I'm not going to go into detail, but we're talking six figures.
"Where there is cash, there are always crooks. Whoever attacked Freddie Williams will have ready-eyed him. Andy Reynolds was attacked after this meeting last year. Over the years I've known it happen maybe a dozen times. It is a problem, but I'm not sure there's a solution. To be honest, the racecourse itself wouldn't be interested in helping us. Perhaps the Australian system could be adopted - there, they have a security truck that arrives at the end of the day with security boxes and the bookmakers put their cash in them, take the key, and it's brought back the next day.
"We're all thoroughly shocked about what has happened to Freddie. It was despicable and I'm not surprised he has gone back to Scotland."
This episode is a savage intrusion in an environment where huge sums of money can change hands on the basis that your word is your bond. The bets Williams lays McManus, for instance, are understood to be on credit. Overall, bets totalling £50m are struck on the course during the Festival, but these high stakes tend to nourish a genuine camaraderie - and none had distilled it better than Williams himself.
"It's a lot of hard work but it's a lot of enjoyment, too," he once said. "Where else in the world would you rather be? If heaven is like this, I'd be happy to be there. If I go skint at Cheltenham, you'll never hear me complain. The crowds are fantastic, and there's very little bother."
As happy standing a fiver each-way at Shawfield greyhounds as six figures to McManus, Williams had restored a vintage flavour to Tattersalls ring. During 25 years on the waiting list, Williams had moved up from pitch No 122 at Cheltenham to No 42. His main business remained water bottling. Then, in the late 1990s, the rules changed to allow a free market and he bought pitch No 2 for £90,000.
He promptly became the eye of the Festival storm. He reckoned that the average bet at Cheltenham is about £15, but he accommodates four big hitters who regularly stake £100,000. His wagers with McManus have rapidly become the stuff of legend, and it was his acute misfortune that he should have laid two such outrageous bets on the Irishman's two winners on Thursday.
To lay Reveillez at 6-1 was not so much cold-blooded as reckless, as the horse had originally been quoted at 7-2. The horse cantered home and Williams lost £600,000. Then McManus had £5,000 each-way on one of his three runners in the last. It was 50-1, and his success set Williams back another £325,000.
"I don't get highs when I win a lot," he said once. "You can't be jumping up and down and, because I don't get highs, I don't get lows, either. When you lose a lot, you have got to take it as part of the business."
But that philosophy could not be extended to his brutal experience on Thursday evening. For every bookmaker at Cheltenham, it felt like a collective loss of innocence.Reuse content