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Tuesday 9 April 2024

Horse Racing Papers: Remember The Old Sporting Life?

Back in the 1990s my brother and I used to have the Racing Post delivered every day. I’m sure the paperboy must have thought we were a couple of addicts. We must have been 20-years old and our love of horse racing, specifically two-year-old horses racing, was undertaken with professionalism. There wasn’t a horse we could detail its form, a trainer’s name forgotten, an understanding that went beyond our years.

Like a good horse we were precocious.

In those days having access to the Racing Post was cutting edge. It was before computers or smart phones. I remember watching horse racing results on Teletext. I doubt anyone under fifty would even know what it was (it later became redundant with modern technology). The racing publications were the lifeblood for horse racing fans. The daily papers may have detailed horse racing but it didn’t show previous form, the tissue prices were something pulled out of a hat and had no reflection to the starting price and it was like going back to the dark ages. The racing publications changed all that.

The Sporting Life was the first publication of its type. It was the original racing paper and eternally accepted as the best. It had no competition. There may have been The Horse & Hound but that was more about country life and wellington boots. I don’t think it lowered itself to the level of some nag jumping hurdles at Plumpton.

I rarely purchased the Sporting Life. It was a bit before my time. Well, me time of my interest in horse racing. The Racing Post did the job nicely so I wouldn’t purchase its rival unless it had sold out. I remember one occasion going to the races by train. It must have been a day out to Great Yarmouth. I’m not sure if I purchased the Sporting Life or my brother or cousin, Danny. Someone bought it. I was pleased as it was better than the daily papers which I scorned.

However, the killer blow for the Sporting Life wasn’t so much the lack of information but its size. When spread open it seemed to be about a metre wide. Perhaps that is an exaggeration although I don’t think so. It must have been one of the biggest newspaper-style publication in the world. You’d be siting side by side on the train and half of the paper would be on someone else’s lap. You’d say: ‘Can you read that paragraph for me. Or, what is the form of Master Trooper in the last race at Catterick Bridge?’

I think the demise of the Sporting Life was due to its size. If only they had made it smaller like the Racing Post. It was like a big, clumsy dinosaur that couldn’t escape it’s smaller, faster prey. It was only a matter of time before it became extinct. Well, disappeared from the news stands. It remains online, although it isn’t as in depth as the paper (at least I don’t think it is).

The race for victory went to the Racing Post.

When I purchased the Racing Post in those early years it cost £1. I think it is now £2.80. It may be more. These days I try not to buy it using the online app as it’s cheaper and does the job although you need to subscribe to get all the features.

How times have changed.

In the 1990s I felt like a professional gambler going to the races with the paper under my arm.

Now, horse racing punters have a wealth of information at their hands. It is a far cry from the old days.

No wonder the Sporting Life was on borrowed time. It expired.

It was simply too big to handle.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

The Betting 'Elvis Presley' Is Still Alive

I’ve been reading Ron Pollard’s Odds And Sods: My Life in the Betting Business, published in 1991 by Hodder & Stoughton. This biography detailed the career of Pollard in his role as bookmaker’s clerk to William Hill and Ladbrokes odds-maker and PR Director which he did for over 30-years.

Very few people realise that Ladbrokes made a name by tapping into what we would call these days trending topics. If someone asked Ron Pollard for a price on a novel sport, happening, almost anything, he would give the odds. Many of the wagers didn’t return a profit but they were worth their weight in gold as far as publicity was concerned. In fact, it set Ladbrokes apart from the likes of William Hill who stuck with a more traditional approach to betting dogs and horses..

Pollard was the man to go to for quotes. Every Sunday he would wait at home for his phone to ring and talk to all and sundry and give his opinion and betting odds. As he said: ‘Punters loved to bet on anything and everything.’

However, there were one or two regrettable instances where he wished he hadn’t been so quick to offer odds. Perhaps more traditional press knew where to draw the line while others clearly had no limits when it come to poor taste.

On the 16th August 1977, it was announce that Elvis Presley had passed away, aged 42. The world was shocked but so was Pollard when the Sunday Sport, who had recently appeared on the news-stands had the outlandish headline: ‘Was Elvis was still alive?’

Punters were both intrigued and interested in placing their bets.

Holland said managers from several bookmaker shops asking what odds should be offered. He said 1000/1. Sure it would be forgotten within 24-hours.

Clearly, the odds weren’t wrong because Elvis had definitely left the building and pardon the pun (a quote only the Sunday Sport could have stated) he was a dead cert for bookmakers. As Ron said: ‘I could have offered odds of one million to one.’

‘It was a thoroughly tasteless exercise and an admin nightmare as the transactions had to be updated from one year to the next as the bets were still running.’

The Sunday Sport’s continued their interest in the story. It was impossible to stop the story and the betting was so heavy that the odds were cut to 500/1. The money continued and eventually the odds were cut again to 100/1 (quite surreal considering Elvis wasn’t making a return). Ladbrokes had liabilities of £2.5 million.

Pollard said: ‘I still don’t know what possessed me that Monday morning: thoughtlessness or carelessness. Certainly, it was not very clever of me.’

He considered the Sunday Sport ‘plants’ had been betting merely to obtain more publicity for themselves to give some credence to a ludicrous story but in the process giving Ladbrokes unwanted publicity.

I wonder if any of those punters are still holding onto their betting vouchers?

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Ruth Norman: Betting On Little Green Men

I’m not sure whether Ladbrokes have many bets placed on the existence of alien life on Earth but back in the 1970s the bets kept pouring in with over £300,000 wagered in a decade.

This was down the Unarius Group from Califiornia.

The spiritualist group was run by Ruth Norman who contacted Ron Pollard asking if he Ladbrokes would take bets on the arrival of alien life on Earth.

He said: ‘500/1’.

This would be for aliens crashing or landing, dead or alive, within a year of the bet being placed.

At the same time each and every year a cheque for £30,000 would arrive.

The Unarius Group was set up by Ernest Norman in 1954, based in El Cajon a city in San Diego County, California. The Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science are dedicated to helping the evolution of the human race to be free from ‘mental frustrations to enjoy a peaceful life and achieve physic liberation.’

Their membership in unknown.

Mrs Ruth Norman continued the group following the passing of her husband in 1971.

The group proclaimed they had spoken to people from 52 planets. They believed they had found a peaceful solution to world problems and the advancement of medical advancement.

Ron Pollard said: ‘Mrs Norman never struck me as being nuts. We never met but we often spoke on the telephone and had many chats via radio hook-up. I thought she was a very nice lady…’

Norman said she was the reincarnation of Mona Lisa and she was in contact with eminent people who had passed including Winston Churchill, President Kennedy & Calvin Coolidge to name a few. In fact, they recorded the conversations and transcribed them into books which were sold.

The bets continued which saw liabilities of millions of pounds that alien life would be found on Earth.

A few years went past and the bets dwindled.

However, Pollard said to Mrs Norman that if their bet won he would have an alien present the cheque to her for £15 million pounds.

She accepted his promise.

Pollard continued: ‘I asked her when she come to Britain I would meet her at Heathrow and arrange for her to stay at one of our hotels.’

She replied: ‘Don’t be silly! When I arrive I shall be coming in on one of their spacecraft.’

Considering William Hill offered 1000/1 that someone wouldn’t set foot on the moon before 1970 the Uranius still may have their day.

Ruth Norman passed away in 1993, aged 92.

The Unarius Group is still in existence to this day.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Betting Big Odds On

The shorter the price, the better chance of winning.

Statistically that is correct but what about value?

Phil Bull, the founder of Timeform, said that an odds-on shot could be value. He made his betting pay as a professional gambler in the late 1930s. By all accounts Bull was one of the most influential gamblers we have ever seen in the United Kingdom.

I think every gambler has bet odds on. It seems a good idea at the time. That’s betting odds against, meaning your stake is bigger than your potential win. Obviously you get your stake back. For example, you bet 4/6f. Let’s set the scene. You wander up to Honest John Turf Accountant at Great Yarmouth who loves to shout: ‘Money without work!’

You say: ‘£600 to win £400’.

When it wins, you walk away with £1,000.

A Cockney Geezer shouts: ‘A bag of sand!’

I remember years ago when my brother and I first started to bet. We specialised in the niche of two-year-old horse racing and compared to most of the population we were exceptional. There is no replacement for hard work and we put in the hours to know the form book inside out, had insight to the best unraced horses in training and were a couple of anoraks if you had ever met a pair.

We went for a day’s racing at Great Yarmouth.

Always a lucky track.

It was back in 1989. We were just nineteen years old. I say we, because my brother and I are twins.

It was 19th July.

The first race on the card: 2:15 Yarmouth – EBF Cotman Madan Fillies Stakes over 7f. Going: Firm.

We had our eyes on the two-year-old race.

That was the day we’d dip our toe into backing odds on.

Henry Cecil (pre knighthood) trained a filly in the old maroon and white silks of Sheik Mohammed, called Wajna. Not only was she priced 1/2f but it was her debut. Never mind, we had Steve Cauthen in the saddle.

We’d heard he had a stopwatch inside his brain.

‘It bloody needed to be decent at 1/2f.’

Tony went up to some random bookie and bet £100 to win £50. We felt very confident before placing the bet but as soon after we questioned whether it was a good idea at all. In fact, if we could have sidled up to the bookie and asked politely for our money back we would have done!

It was too late.

At that time, £100 was a lot of money to us. Thinking all these years on, I can safely say I would never have placed that bet now. Was it value at those prohibitive odds? You can make your own mind up.

I know what you are saying: ‘It depends on whether the horse won or lost.’

Too right.

We had seven horses in opposition. Half of the field were priced at odds of 25/1 or bigger. The second favourite priced 9/2 was another debutante called Varnish, trained by Lord Huntingdon, in the ownership of The Queen. Ben Hanbury had the third favourite named Lady Wishing Well (the name itself made me think I was tempting fate) priced 7/1. While Sir Michael Stoute had the last of the half fancied horses priced 10/1.

It was minutes before the off.

I felt slightly ill. Thoughts kept flickering through my mind from our horse winning impressively to getting stuck in the stalls. Back in the day, TV adverts promoted Hamlet cigars, where someone in a moment of peril or impending disaster would find comforted enjoying a pleasant smoke. I had visions of either Steve Cauthen or Wajna emerging from the starting stalls in a cloud of smoke.

Cigar smoke.

‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet. The mild cigar...’

Before we knew it, the race had started in earnest and Wajna was leading. Every moment a horse you backed is leading is pure pleasure. The sun is shining, the seagulls are calling your name, and the ice cream man is even offering an extra flake in your 99. Visions of Sir Winston Churchill with his victory v.

Honest John is shouting: ‘Money without work!’

However, that winning feeling was threatened at the two-furlong pole as Varnish, under an inspired ride from Tony Ives, threw down a challenge. I’m not sure if my brother looked at me first or me him but we both had a panicked look and pale complexion. This was in the days before the big screens and without binoculars 400m looked a long way in the distance. I’m not sure who the commentator was that day but I suspects they had bet on Varnish as they gave the impression it was very close.

Coming into the final furlong we could see Wajna held a length advantage but ridden quite vigorously by Cauthen. We were shouting like a couple of girls. The crowd was screaming. And I’m pretty sure I saw Henry Cecil shout in triumph as Wajna crossed the line to win by a length.

To be honest, I was just pleased the race was over.

If the race had been one mile six furlongs I think one of us would have been calling for the St John’s Ambulance or a dose of Ketamine (horse tranquilliser, or, at least, a couple of mild cigars).

Tony went to the bookmaker and collected £150.

We looked at each other and said: ‘Never again.’

Talk about ‘buying money’.

As it turned out Wajna (just like Phil Bull would have said...) was a value bet!

Thank the Lord that day went to plan.