Stan Hey: The end of the big freeze? You can bet on it!

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It was raining heavily down my way yesterday morning and I did a little jig around the garden to celebrate. This wasn't a pagan genuflection to the gods for a change of season, more an outpouring of relief that millions of punters such as myself might now find something to bet on over the coming week.

It was raining heavily down my way yesterday morning and I did a little jig around the garden to celebrate. This wasn't a pagan genuflection to the gods for a change of season, more an outpouring of relief that millions of punters such as myself might now find something to bet on over the coming week.

For those who have merely been cold and miserable during the three and a half weeks since the Big Freeze began on 28 December, I can tell you that your suffering has been as nothing to those who like a bet. With most of the horse racing fixtures of the last month decimated by the frost, life has seemed bleak and without point to those poor souls whose daily sacrament is a "10p Heinz" (57 bets) in the local bookies. Among the low points of our exquisite torment was the complete cancellation of Cheltenham's two New Year meetings. Much of the big Christmas meeting at Leopardstown near Dublin was also lost, a misfortune in Irish life equivalent to a meteorite strike on the Guinness brewery.

Even fixtures on the so-called "all-weather tracks" at Lingfield and Wolverhampton have had to be cancelled as the surfaces were frozen into lumps of moon rock proportions.

These three all-weather circuits - Southwell in Nottinghamshire is the other - were created after the last big freeze just over a decade ago. In those dire, dark days, bookies had to resort to televising Belgian trotting races in the shops in order to encourage the punters to bet.

Since only a few punters - exiled Belgians presumably - took up the offer, the bookies championed the development of all-weather tracks, for the only person more miserable than a punter with nothing to bet on, is a bookie with nothing on which he can lay odds.

"Haven't taken a shilling!" is the customary wail from the bookmaker when these deprived circumstances prevail. Most of them, and most of us daily punters, like "straight-no-chaser" bets on horses that we can see running, either on television or by going to the racecourse.

But there is also a new, soulless, "wha's up?" generation who are quite happy to embrace or offer novelty bets on events they may not even be able to see. These market players - for that is what they are rather than proper bookies or punters - can invite you to bet on the total of the shirt numbers of players who score touchdowns in an American football game.

You can also bet on the number of corners or yellow cards in an English football match. IG Index, home of the Tory donor Stuart Wheeler, will probably offer you odds on the general election being frozen off in May. But who in their right mind could break away from the righteous core of drama in a sporting event and start counting obscure statistics?

No, we hair-shirted purists have foresworn the NFL playoffs and the Australian Open tennis - the Tote offered a hilariously optimistic 14-1 on Tim Henman to win the tournament - and have ignored the siren calls to bet on darts, rugby, golf or even Sven-Goran Eriksson's career prospects in 2001.

But this week at last it looks as though our terrible abstinence can be put aside and the feasting can begin again. My Tote Credits account, currently showing a feeble deficit of just £44.95, can now be plunged into its more familiar level of deep water. For that is another weird consequence of the freeze, punters with considerably smaller losses than usual - I've managed, for instance, only three miserable bets so far this year.

Our normal role, the one with which we are happiest, is to act as a form of plankton swimming into the great maw of the betting industry. Our function is to lose so that others can win big. We march under a banner that reads "We Hope We Break Even Today Because We Need The Money". And, god willing, the process of humiliation will start anew this week.

stanhey@aol.com

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