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A Christmas Tale…

As the final embers of the Christmas and New Year celebrations burn away, and thoughts now turn towards Cheltenham (ten weeks, and counting) I thought I’d tell you all about the Christmas period from the view of me as a workman for the books. It’s a busy old time, and it’s fair to say there’s a real mix of crowds as you go from meeting to meeting. Read on….

My Christmas work starts as we finish, with the Southwell twilight meeting on the 22nd my first port of call. Throughout the winter I’m going to be working some meetings for the S&D firm, headed up by the one and only Rob Speechley. The bookmaking side of the business is one of few fingers in pies that Rob has, he also has an electrical business, property, and he likes to think of himself as a semi-pro poker player. He spends as much time in Vegas as I do at Southwell, it seems. A top bloke, and he’s taken me on to provide him with back-to-lays as much as he has to take bets.

As I go in, two buses full of lads pull up, and they pile in. It’s fair to say they’re already quite well refreshed and it’s only 3pm. This is pretty representative of the Christmas crowds I am going to encounter over the next couple of weeks.

The evening progresses, and the books can’t really get a result. Eight races, with the biggest winner a 15-2 chance, means at best the books are making a small profit, maybe enough to cover the expenses. Southwell, for those unaware, is one of the best tracks to bet at, as a punter – it’s a very strong ring, and if you want to back a favourite or second favourite, you ought not be going online, you should be here, betting in person. Often you’ll get bang on the Betfair price (no commissison either, don’t forget) or, in some cases, even bigger. As such, they need results to win, and they aren’t forthcoming.

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There’s the sound of glasses being broken, and the lads are getting a bit raucous. I can’t say I’m sorry when the evening ends.

Boxing Day. I could give you five guesses where I’d end up and I reckon you’d be wrong. Three years ago I was at Fontwell, on my own on the rails, and somehow contrived to lose for the firm I was working for. Suffice to say I’ve never been let out alone again, and I’m working with one of them at….Wolverhampton.

The first question is where to stand. If the weather stays dry, then right down the end – where the course have erected two temporary bars – might not be a bad idea. If it rains, they’ll come under the stands and you want to be in front of them. We gamble on the stands, and it turns out to be the right thing to do.

Next door to us is a book that wants to get the favourites in the book every race, and they go bigger than the Betfair price all the time. That means we lay the middle-prices and the rags, and we end up playing bookmaker in reverse. We end up with the favourites running for us, and with nothing bigger than 5-1 winning all day long, it’s a good day. Especially when you throw in the fact we bet on the King George, and have a skinner. Not one person backs Tornado Flyer – they only wanted Frodon and Chantry House – and we cheer it home.
Next up, Newbury on the 29th. I’m working the rails on my own. The first shock is the warm weather, which has really brought out a family crowd. Loads of fivers and tenners flying about, and you can have a laugh and a joke with them. It’s a great atmosphere, but the books can’t buy a result, with the first two favourites going in. Then, on race 3, there’s a bloke pulling grands out of a satchel, having it all on Gallic Geordie. He reaches me, asks for two grand at 2-1. As I’m on my own, I lay him a grand, which he’s happy with, and has the other grand on next door. He’s not done yet, and continues down the line. It’s an hour after the race before he picks up, but I’ve got his three grand ready. Fair to say he’s paid for the turkey.

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Three more favourites go in and it’s black armbands all round, until Grumpy Charley saves the books from a whitewash. Damage has already been done, but at least there’s something to cheer at the end of the day.

Happy New Year! Do you enjoy getting up at 6.45am on NYD after having had a few drinks the night before? To be fair, I’m very restrained and only had a couple of G&T’s and went to bed well before midnight, so I’m in fair shape for the trek to Cheltenham.

With Boris resisting the temptation to bring in any further measures, Cheltenham are expecting a 30,000+ crowd. It’s going to be busy, so you need to be on top of your game. We get there around 9.30am, having barely passed a car on the road, hump the gear in and get a coffee. Then, from nowhere, and totally against the forecast, it rains, and rains heavily. We all dive for cover.

It lasts about 20-30mins before it passes over, and once it does, it’s a lovely day. I can’t remember a New Year’s Day when I’ve worked in nothing more than a shirt and tie with a coat on. Normally you’re layered up – t-shirt, shirt, jumper, undercoat, topcoat, two pairs of socks, waterproofs, boots – but not today. It’s 15 degrees and you can actually feel the sun when it comes out.

I’m next to Pinno on the rails, which almost guarantees I’ll get myself on the telly, as Matt Chapman loves a little chat with him. Although, as it turns out, there’s no chatting time, we’re still on in the background and I get the usual “get off my telly” texts.

This is a once-a-year crowd. A lot of families, again, and plenty of small money. You know what sort of a day it is when someone asks you for £2.50 e/w the 6-5 favourite in the first. I see my good friend Jill, who owns a couple of horses with Graeme McPherson. We have a natter and then she asks me what’s going to win the first. I fancy Hillcrest, so she has a tenner on. A delighted Jill picks up £45, and I’m definitely in her good books now.

Full Back is well backed to win the next, and is no good to us. Neither is L’Homme Presse, and we need a result. Vienna Court to the rescue, not only to the books, but to my Skybet account as well.

I’ve had one bloke having a bullseye on every race, but he’s had no luck. He asks me to try and change it. I suggest Kansas City Chief will give him a run for his money. Expecting him to have a tenner each-way, it’s a bit of a shock when he has £100ew. Suddenly I feel a bit of pressure! Thankfully, the lovely old lad hits the frame (and I suggest, might have held on had he snagged the rail) and my new-found friend is delighted. So much so he gives me a score. I normally refuse, as I tip enough losers up, but petrol isn’t cheap these days, and I gratefully accept.

There’s one Cheltenham member, a lovely lady in her late fifties, I guess, who always has her £2.50ew or fiver win with us, and she’s some judge, let me tell you. She’s backed Dolphin Square and so confident is she that Stormy Ireland will win, she has a tenner on. I’ve never seen her have a tenner on before. She knew. She always knows. If she has it on at the Festival, I’ll follow her in.

The bumper is no good for us either – when Fergal wins here, we lose – and the firm just about covers the expenses. Christmas is over. All that’s to look forward to now is Southwell nights, for the next couple of months. I suspect the cold weather gear may make a reappearance, and soon….

On to today, and there's only Wetherby to have a go at. The 3.05 is a race where you can make a case for them all, if you’re the forgiving type, but to my eyes the claims of Halcyon Days looks clear, and he would head up the list of potential winners for me. 

He was struggling to get his head in front until tried in a visor last March, a switch that saw an immediate improvement as he won a valuable 0-120 chase at Carlisle, one that was classier than this, too. He disappointed on his reappearance when the headgear was changed again to cheekpieces, but with the visor back on ran a cracker at Hexham last time, trading long odds-on and only worn down after the last by Treshnish, the pair clear. 

He acts very well on soft/heavy ground, looks likely to lead (Boagrius the only other that might want to go forward) and a good round of jumping might see this lot off. Rebecca Menzies has been having Christmas presents left, right and centre over the period, with seven winners in the past two weeks, and Halcyon Days can continue the yard’s good run. 

Good luck with all your bets today,


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