SIMON NOTT: Cat Racing to Vincennes
When I first got into this wonderful game it was, as it largely still is today, the colour and colourful characters that lured me in and kept my affection. I’d become a passionate reader of all things racing as soon as I discovered horse racing but still found the weekly Raceform Handicap Book a little daunting. I was highly delighted when the Sporting Life Weekender hit the shelves, when was that, 1983? I’m not sure, but it was a little less ‘boffin’ than the aforementioned weekly. The highlight though, was that it had a page with two columnists that I loved and turned to first every week. Alistair Down and Jeffery Bernard shared a page talking of gambling and drinking which I adored! That’s the sort of stuff I liked, not 1000 words on draw bias or handicapping. That probably goes some way to explain why I left the majority of my wages with William Hill and the rest in pubs in my formative years.
One of the stories Jeffery Bernard told, since immortalised in the play championing his life, was the tale of cat racing when all the horseracing was off due to inclement weather. I do remember we had a particularly hard winter and racing was off for what seemed like forever. I still went to the betting shop, there was little to do there though and the itch for a bet was getting stronger. I was a bit weird, even though I did my cobblers week in week out I was still convinced that I was a pro-punter, but just in waiting. I bought a camel looking coat from my Nan’s club book to try and look like Michael Dickinson except, although it was the same colour, it wasn’t anything like Michael Dickinson’s coat, whose was no doubt a proper Crombie or better.
In the inside pocket of my coat I stored a diary I used to record my bets in. In addition to the ‘look’ I always changed any notes I had into pound notes, these were my tank and clipped with a paper clip into my diary. That sounds a bit bulky doesn’t it, expect it wasn’t, the pages used to get ripped out on a regular basis when they showed a loss. That was for psychological reasons you understand, not trying to kid myself, or anyone else. Of course, the wad of one pound notes diminished as fast as the pages.
Deluded as I was that I might actually win I still wanted a bet, despite racing being off, after all you are only as clever as your last winner. We didn’t dabble in cat racing but we were lucky back then, even though all-weather racing was still half a decade away. Extel delivered manna for the action hungry punters in the shape of audio horse racing coverage from Cagnes-Sur-Mer and trotting from Vincennes. The former is where I learnt about the practise of coupling horses of the same owner for betting purposes. I had a brainwave, go through the card and combine the most coupled horses in Yankees, that way you were getting what would have been a huge perm for the price of one 10p bet, £1.21 with the tax.
Yes of course that didn’t quite pan out, all that resulted in was a pocket full of small change and yet more shrinkage on the pound note wad. The worst thing was yet to come. I’d like to stress that I wasn’t the only one in the betting shop. The same punters would come in, described in detail in a forthcoming blog, and bet regardless the same as me on a daily basis. One of them was a burly bricklayer that used to lump on the short ones and shout ‘Wallop!’ when one obliged. He’d have a bigger bet each beer consumed in the White Horse pub next door and more often than not leave kicking a stool over on the way out after doing in ten pints and his wages by the concluding bumper.
One ‘Vincennes only’ afternoon he burst in, already refreshed, had a few bets, and won. He opened his shoulders after some more habitual Dutch Courage and had all his winnings plus some on a trotter at Vincennes and sat back to listen to the commentary. His selection (no doubt the favourite) was out in front and seemingly going well on its way to victory when the announcement came that the beast had been disqualified for running.’
‘Disqualified for running!’ Our man was incandescent with rage, he’d been robbed by the manager, William Hill and above all those bar steward French. No amount of calm words from Neil the manager would appease him. Everyone else sat a safe distance as the brickie tried to reason that as running was allowed in UK horse racing he should still be paid as he had his bet in England, each slurred sentence was delivered with spray of spittle and Trophy Bitter.
Poor Neil eventually calmed him down but with the absence of cats, all-weather racing couldn’t come quick enough!
Simon Nott is author of Skint Mob!: Tales from the Betting Ring